Friday, April 20, 2012

Back to Washington after 40 years

Driving into Washington, D.C., earlier this week (I was actually the passenger/navigator on this trip), I felt the combination of dread and excitement that had struck me 40 years ago when I lived in the Virginia suburbs and commuted into the city. The impossible rush of traffic, like being jammed into an overstuffed elevator while hurtling along at 70 mph, piqued my anxiety. At the same time, the glimpse of the marble- and granite-clad monuments, memorials and buildings calmed me with a sense of awe and admiration.

On those first few days that I went to work at 400 Seventh St. SW in the summer of 1972, I rode the Metrobus. It seemed like the safer, more sensible, less stressful thing to do. The mish-mash of streets and highways, of cloverleafs and off-ramps, were too complex for me to tackle alone. After a couple of weeks, I joined a car pool and learned the route over to the George Washington Parkway along the Potomac and into the city.

Forty years later, I returned to Washington for job-related training, found the hotel, walked to the training site and managed one side trip, as dusk turned to darkness, down to the National Mall. A couple of colleagues and I walked along the Vietnam War Memorial, the stark black marble darker yet in the evening. The wall brought tears to my eyes when I first saw it, on a family trip 23 years ago. It is just as moving now, but the grief is not so immediate, and the tears were absent. We moved on, avoiding recently erected fences and barricades, to the Korean War Memorial and a memorial to wartime nurses. I stood before the Lincoln Memorial, remembering the scene, captured in a photo I shot, of my eldest child, holding her young mother's hand, ascending the steps toward Lincoln's statue. New construction and topographical changes have altered the view we had that day when we had bicycled into the District to go to museums and memorials, and the beauty of the mall had been lost to fences and construction equipment.

This week's trip gave me the first glimpse of the World War II Memorial, a gaudy barricade set in the middle of the mall. A few critics, including me, had opposed the location, size and design of the memorial. It was a hazardous position to take, to be accused of being against the achievements of the Greatest Generation and the most historic event of the 20th century. But seeing the memorial did not alter my opinion that it was the wrong design in the wrong place. The memorial breaches the continuity of the mall, creating a barricade, and its design is reminiscent of Soviet architecture — grandiose and overdone without any real theme or sense of honor. We critics were outvoted, and the World War II Memorial is there forever, detracting from the natural beauty of the mall itself.

Just as it was when we lived in the area, Washington is an exciting place to visit, and a very scary place to drive. Someday, I'd like to take a few days to visit the places I had known as a young husband and father (an officer and a gentleman) and to visit the places we never got around to in the three years we lived there.

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