By Lynn Fitzpatrick
Not long after we gathered on deck to watch the underside of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge pass over us and the Statue of Liberty welcome us with her lit torch, were we snapping photos to mark the end of our Atlantic crossing.We took turns posing along the rail.Lower Manhattan was the backdrop.
“Do you recognize that building in the middle, the dark one?” I asked.
It took awhile for the Brits to hone in on the large building to the east of the World Financial Center buildings.
“That’s the building that is the replacement for the World Trade Center,” I commented.
The foreigners reflected for a moment and readjusted their stance so that their bodies would not block out the building in the next sequence of photos.
“I just didn’t think about the World Trade Center and 9/11.It seems like such a long time ago.”
“It will be ten years this week,” I responded.“See the cranes at the top.It is still under construction.”
Later in the week, I found myself in Washington, D.C.The torrential downpour had relented and I went for a run in the drizzle.Signs drew me to the Kennedy Center.I slipped inside to see if I could get a performance schedule for the week.One question led to another and before I realized it, I was asking if tickets were available for the evening’s special performance marking the 10th year anniversary of 9/11, which had been hurriedly relocated from the National Cathedral to the Kennedy Center.An earthquake, falling scaffolding on the outside, plaster cascading into a net suspended across the transept and the toppling over of a crane on Wednesday and bad weather had colluded giving me the opportunity to see what turned out to be a somber variety show in which the phrase “ordinary people” was used more times that it should have been.The only part of the evening worth remember was the most touching finale in which I have ever participated.While “America the Beautiful” was belted out by the US Military Band, the Color guard from every one of the armed services paraded into the auditorium.The crowd rose to its feet, the lights came up and the TV cameras gathered footage for posterity.
Leaving the Kennedy Center I chuckled at the irony of the Watergate Hotel being adjacent to the Kennedy Center.
Friday was chaotic in Washington, D.C.Traffic jams were complicated by more rain and bomb scares.The neighborhood in which I was staying was cordoned off throughout rush hour.According to one of the traffic guards who was from an out of town force, there was a suspicious package on one of the bridges that was being investigated.
Eventually, the sun came out and I decided that I should visit the National Cathedral.There wasn’t a chance in hell of getting close to the National Cathedral.Yellow tape, security guards, inspectors with hard hats, chain link fence and thick groves of trees prevented me from taking a photo of the catawampus crane equal to the one that was on the front pages of the morning’s papers.
Saturday was a day spent enjoying the neighborhood.Sunday, 9/11/11 was my first grand tour of our nation’s capital.People of all faiths listened to homilies of forgiveness and awareness and said their prayers for those lost ten years earlier; those lost during the “war on terrorism” and those still pawns of the ongoing wars and geopolitical struggles.Following mass, I descended into the depths of the Washington, D.C. subway system, popping up not far from the Museum of Natural History.It’s incredible displays about this blue planet kept me busy for a couple of hours.Over 70% of the earth’s surface is covered with water and much of our exploration has been confined to the upper level of the oceans.
When it was time to come up for air, I joined throngs of patriots with creative ideas and programs for helping to improve the condition of life, especially education, in D.C. on Freedom Plaza.Then it was time for a grand tour of The Mall, the cultural heart of our nation’s capital.
The Willard Hotel was abuzz with well dressed and well fed people comfortable with the activities of the landmark where the word “lobbyist” was coined.As it turned out, those who want to seek the favors of President Ulysses S. Grant, following the Civil War, would smoke an after dinner cigar in the Willard’s lobby.A few strides beyond the Willard was the White House.Again, I noted the irony of the Treasury Building and Bank of America being neighbors to the Willard and the White House.Yellow tape surrounded both of the buildings.
The White House was clearly off limits on 9/11.I have visited foreign capitals – Buenos Aires, Santiago, Budapest, Kampala and many others where evidence of explosive battles remains on the bullet pocked facades surrounding the Capitol.Never had I dreamed of seeing gunmen stationed on the roof of the White House.I was distracted by the thudding sound of a helicopter’s blades slicing through the somber silence.The US National Parks helicopter buzzed The Ellipse at an elevation well below that of the beacon atop the Washington Monument in the distance. How could this happen in the USA?I snapped a photo of both sets of gunmen and sent them to a good friend.The pit-in-the-stomach feeling, however, did not translate over the airwaves.
My Pangaea continued.All flags, but one were at half-mast that day. That of the Daughters of the American Revolution was the exception.How could such a patriotic organization miss the memo?My stomach curdled.I approached the uniformed officer closest to the DAR’s front door.“As an American citizen, I am appalled that the DAR’s flag is not at half mast today.Are they aware that the flag is not right?”
“I don’t know, Mam.No one is there today,” he replied.“It’s been bothering me too.”
“Would you mind if I lowered the flag to the appropriate position?”I asked.
I could tell he was uncomfortable.“I wouldn’t tell on you, but you would have to check with him,” he said as he nodded toward the motorcycle cop in the shade of the trees along the perimeter of The Ellipse.
I crossed the street to ask the motorcycle cop the same question.
“I’ve been thinking about that too,” he said.
“He said that he would look the other way while I lowered the flag, but he said that I should ask you too.Would you mind if I lowered it to half mast?”
“I really can’t tell you what to do, but the flag is on private property and you can’t trespass onto private property.”
“Does that mean I can’t right a wrong?”I asked.
“I didn’t say that, I just said that you would be trespassing on private property.”
I didn’t get a good feeling.Making a statement could get me in a lot of trouble.On the other hand, I would only be doing what was right.
I returned to the first police officer and told him what the other said.“You could e-mail them.”
“That wouldn’t do any good.They won’t get the e-mail until tomorrow.By then it would be too late,” I replied.“I’ll call them.”
I dialed information and was connected to the voicemail for the DAR.I left them a message and vowed to whomever picked up the message that I would write about the incident.
I continued along 17th Street to the intersection of 17th and Constitution where two other officers were directing traffic.
“Mam, we’re responsible for patrolling this intersection.We’re not going to look that way.You do what you want.We’re not going to see anything.”
I walked back toward the motorcycle cop that had thrown water on my quick fix solution.He was no longer on his bike.“Get out of the road,” he flagged me.“Get out of the road.”
The street had been closed to traffic.What had prompted him to change so suddenly?Should I go to the east side of the street or the west side?I had just about had my nerve up to tell him that I was going to take care of the DAR’s flag and that I would appreciate it if he did not cause an incident.I was just doing what any patriotic citizen would do.
“Get out of the road,” he said.His gloves were waving and the whites of his eyes extended beyond the rims of his sunglasses.“Get out of the road.”
I turned to see what was making him panic.
A motorcade of black vehicles and motorcycles was closing in on me.
I jumped to the side of the road as the sirens and deep throated motorbikes passed.As if the noise was not jarring enough, the sight of rifles and gunmen poking out of the windows in the motorcade was frightening.Was I in the middle of a set for a bad science fiction movie?
I stopped in my tracks and watched the last of the gyrating lights pull out of sight as the caravan rumbled toward 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.Was the President or the Vice President in the motorcade?Was it all a third rate charade and just another of this government’s nonsensical expenses?Boys with big toys.Instill more fear abroad and at home?Will they stop at no end?
Today was not the day to try to do the DAR a favor.
I acknowledged the two officers and continued past the cordoned off FED toward the Lincoln Memorial.En route, I took refuge from the sun among the park’s trees and the Vietnam War Memorial.All those lives lost for naught.All those veterans whose lives have been ruined.All those veterans who have committed suicide.What was our government thinking?
Tourists scampered up and down the marble stairs like ants cleaning up after a picnic.I stood at Abe’s feet and had other visitors take my photo.Centered in the distance on The Mall was the dome of the US Capitol.For nearly a century, the view from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol had been one of the most impressive in the world.
“How long has the reflecting pool been torn up?”I asked one of the nearby security guards.
“Oh, It’s been at least a year.They say it will take another year before it is finished.”
“How could that be?I would think that there must be contractors who would want to do it just for the shear pride and notoriety of working on just a patriotic and visible project.It’s an embarrassment to the country that the Reflecting Pool is poorly maintained in the first place.”
He nodded in agreement and we continued to discuss the state of the District of Columbia.“I’ve stood at intersections for 15 minutes and seen no less than three cars break ball joints.The potholes are that bad,” he continued.
I took a photo.Reflecting pool in the foreground, Capitol in the background, helicopter swooping toward us.When I was finished, I returned to Lincoln’s second inaugural address.A large percentage of people who climb the steps of the Lincoln Memorial don’t take the time to read the words that one of our most astute and thoughtful presidents wrote and said.Lincoln’s words are as insightful and telling now as they were when he uttered them.
Inspired, I went into the souvenir shop and purchased a book of the great man’s speeches before I took sanctuary in the exhibit to liberty and civil rights in the base of the monument.Far more visit the public restrooms than the inspiring exhibit.
During the course of the day, I had met athletes who were taking in the sights following the 9/11 triathlon that had been truncated to a duathlon because the previous week’s storm water runoff had so polluted the Potomac that it was unsafe to swim in.One had suggested that the Arlington National Cemetery was a sight to behold, especially when approaching from the Arlington Memorial Bridge.
I can walk to the ends of the earth, so why not make a sojourn to the Arlington National Cemetery, especially on 9/11.Over 330,000 service members are interred among the cemetery’s 624 acres of rolling hills.The tombstones fan out from one fantastical monument to another.
There I was alone with JFK, a flame burning continuously, one rose on his tombstone.His words, like Lincoln’s resounded stronger and louder than many of the other inscriptions carved into the monuments and parapets of our nation’s capital.
A lone sentry guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.Very few had wandered all the way over to Arlington that day.Many of them were foreign.Despite that, the few of us who were there were made somber by the unceasing ceremony.Shocking still was the sign at the far end of the platform indicating how the unidentified soldiers from WWI, WWII, Vietnam and Korea were selected.I could only think that they would run out of space on the sign before they could explain how they would identify the soldiers from the wars in which were are currently engaged.
The sun was setting and the full moon was glowing in the pink sky as I crossed the bridge and returned to The Mall.The pesky noise of the helicopter intruded my thoughts once again.I marched toward the newly dedicated memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr.
Wow!More inspiring words.Just as Lincoln and Kennedy had lived a life of meaning, so too did MLK stay true to his cause.The freshly cut white marble was quite a contrast to the darkening sky toward The Mall and the glowing pinks and purple set off by the Tidal Basin and the Jefferson Memorial in the distance.There was more activity at this memorial than at any other.It’s about time that he was memorialized in Washington, D.C. along with our nation’s other giants.
My last hope before I left The Mall was to take a photo of the white light flooded obelisk of the Washington Monument with the helicopter in the foreground.I walked toward the monument and positioned myself so that I could capture its full height and the ring of flags at half-mast.I waited.I moved counterclockwise around the monument, always ready with my camera.The helicopter did not come.Darkness had fallen.The helicopter and its incandescent strobe light were not needed to penetrate the veil of terror that had cloaked The Mall throughout the day.
As I walked along Constitution Avenue toward the Capitol and Union Station, I noticed one police car after another closing up shop.I thought about one of the greatest legacies left to our nation in 1851.No, it wasn’t the tradition of the America’s Cup.That too is tarnished by its present regime of greed.The legacy that will always stand the test of time and ought to be funded in perpetuity for the benefit of future generations is the Smithsonian.Had it not been for a maritime expedition that returned to the US with so many samples in need of a home, the philanthropy of James Smithson and the foresight of Congress over 150 years ago, we may not have such a wealth of knowledge and history preserved for inquiring minds.Let’s hope that institutions such as the Smithsonian remain safe in this era in which National Public Radio, Public Television and other institutions which promote stimulating journalism enduring funding threats while the vast majority of our population is polluted by so-called reality T.V. shows, processed food and misinformation.
There were still a few more hours remaining in 9/11/11, but somehow the powers that be had decided that the threat of terrorism ended at sunset.
Photo - Washington Monument and Reflecting Pool turned on their sides - Analogies for the USA during this depression. Maybe it is time for the private sector to step forward and turn things around.