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Jim Colyer's first trip to D.C.

Washington is indeed the federal city. It is the place where all the states meet, the place where all periods in the American experience are sewn together. Its meaning and continuity are conveyed to the tourist. My first day in the city was August 16, 1977, the date of Elvis Presley's death. I had a motel room in Springfield, Virginia. I spent a full five days there and then took a plane back to Louisville.

My first stop was the Capitol, the center of the country's legislative process. Presidents are inaugurated on the steps of the Capitol Building. 24 men have lain in state on the little white circle in the middle of the rotunda. The public has 24 hours in which to pass by and pay its last respect. I touched the white circle with my foot. Paintings in the rotunda glorify George Washington.

The front of the Capitol faces away from the Mall. The house wing is on the left. The Senate wing is on the right. I viewed both chambers from the visitors' gallery above. The House chamber contains seats. There are 435 representatives. This is about one for every 500,000 people. Representatives are elected by Congressional districts within the states. Population is the factor. One reason they have less power than Senators is that they represent less people. Senators are elected by the states themselves. Each state is allowed two. The Senate chamber has 100 mahogony desks. The Vice President presides over the Senate.

When a Congressman gets an idea, he presents it in the form of a bill. He is said to be the author. The President may later sign the bill into law or veto it. If he vetos it, it requires 2/3 of Congress to pass.

Standing on the back of the Capitol, one can look down the Mall to the Washington Monument. The Congressmen have their offices adjacent to their appropriate wings. Directly across the street are the Supreme Court Building and the Library of Congress.

Cases are tried by the Supreme Court from the first Monday in October through the last of June. The public is free to watch. The 9 justices take their places in the seats at the front at the front of the courtroom. Supreme Court decisions are important ones. About 5000 cases are submitted to the court each year. It chooses the ones that seem fit. The court deals only with cases of national importance or Constitutional relevance. Justices are appointed by the President.

Next to the Court Building is the Library of Congress. Out front is the statue of Neptune with Nymphs on horses. In the lobby is displayed the Gutenburg Bible. It is their most valuable item. It is printed in Latin. About 200 were printed. Only three complete ones and some fragments are extant. The other two are in London and Paris. The guide noted that Gutenburg did not invent printing. but printing by movable type.

We were taken to the upper gallery to look down on the reading room. The card catalong was only partially visible. Later, I went down to examine it. It occupies what might be called 3 rooms. There are about 72 million things in the library, of which 18 million are books. Congressmen get to take the books out. The public must use them in the library.

The Folger Shakespeare Library sits next to the LC Annex. It exhibits Shakespeariana. One must be at the dissertation level before he or she can use the collection. There is an Elizabethan theater where plays are sometimes staged. Outside the building sits a statue of Puck. His hands are held high. The inscription reads, "Lord, what fools these mortals be!"

I think the Lincoln Memorial is larger than the Parthenon in Nashville. The statue of Lincoln is enormous. Lincoln and Washington are almost portrayed as gods in all representations. Inside the Memorial, the Gettysburg Address is on one of the walls. The significance of this speech is that it provided for a reconciliation after the Civil War.

From the Lincoln Memorial, one may walk beside the Reflecting Pool toward the Washington Monument. The Reflecting Pool seems more like a lake than a pool. Distances and descriptions are deceptive. The things which the pool reflects are these two monuments, one at each end.

The utility of the Washington Monument is apparent. One may rise 555 feet above ground and observe the entire city through small glass windows on each side. The Capitol, the Pentagon and the White House resemble scale models. The height is only fully realized when people are seen crawling directly below like ants. This obelisk is the highest thing in the city, and the law prevents anything from being built higher. It can be seen nearly everywhere and is much bigger than it appears. A circle of American flags surrounds it.

Pennsylvania Avenue is remarkably like any other street in any large city. The White House almost appears incongruous. Our line formed, and we entered by the east wing. We were conducted through several rooms: the blue room, red room and the State dining room. The tour went quickly, and we exited through the front door. I pondered that there are many similarities between presidents and kings. I sensed that the middle class stream flowing through the palace was in some ways an invasion.

The National Archives is where we go to see the Constitution, Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. These 3 items are shown along with other famous historical documents. There is a letter confirming the Louisiana Purchase signed by Napoleon himself. There are also the Monroe Doctrine and the Treaty of Versailles. These documents give us a material sense of history. We feel that the people of the past were striving on the same plane we are. Their documents were ones of expediency. They were real, containing their own relevance and their own inconsistencies.

The Constitution displayed here is the foundation of the existing government. Its principles are those which no laws or court decisions can contradict. Most Americans allude to it, however, as a cliche, having little more than a vague feeling for its guarantees.

The Declaration of Independence reposes in a glass case above the Constitution. Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration, and it was primarily this which gave him status with Washington and Lincoln.

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing is a section of the Treasury Department. This is where they print the paper money. Workers handle sheets of one dollar bills resembling newspapers. 32 bills are printed on each sheet. I saw a stack of these sheets about 4 feet high. It contained $640,000. The workers are nonchalant about their work. To them, the bills are only notes. It made me reflect on the value of money. Money is a symbol. People must labor if it is to have any significance, else there will be nothing to buy.

I walked from the Bureau to the Jefferson Memorial. The Memorial is a rounded structure with a dome. It is open on 4 sides. Jefferson's brown statue stands erect. The Declaration of Independence is on the walls. I thought the atmosphere here to be more relaxed, more classical than that of the Lincoln Memorial.

The Smithsonian Institute is a complex of national museums and art galleries. The Castle, the original sandstone building, is now used for offices only. The entire system comprises more than a dozen units.

1 Museum of Natural History - This is where the dinosaurs are. Bones of many kinds have been reassembled. There is a complete skeleton of a triceratops. These animals roamed the western United States as did the later buffalo. Seeing their remains makes them seem more probable, less fantastic. Also on exhibition is the skeleton of a wooly mammoth destroyed about 20,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. His tusks are curved and enormous. I felt the teeth of a mastadon.

Restorations of all animals are available. A model of a blue whale hangs from the ceiling and is as long as two semis. Cultural and anthropological exhibits are plentiful. The Egyptian mummies are badly decayed but still exude the aura of mystery to that culture. Winged bulls from Mesopotamia are displayed in the same room. They are carved into a square-shaped slab of stone. These bulls and the statue from Easter Island demonstrate the variety and range of artistic expression.

The collection of gems is impressive. Gems are minerals. I touched a meteorite.

2 Air and Space Museum - There are a lot of planes and space modules hanging from the ceiling. The Wright Flyer, the first plane at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina in 1903, is there. So is Lindbergh's Spirit of St. Louis. I filed by to touch the lunar rock which was a flat, triangular piece about an inch wide and mounted in a case. Moon rocks are igneous rocks.

3 Museum of History and Technology - Machines and science! The layout of early astronomical instruments is interesting enough. I saw an apparatus used in ancient Alexandria for determining the equinoxes. Tycho Brahe's instrument for measuring declination is there.

One scientific experiment is intriguing. This is the pendulum used to show the rotation of the earth. It is known as Foucault's (fu-co) pendulum and hangs through two floors. The Museum of History and Technology is the one containing the gowns of the first ladies.

4 National Gallery of Art - There are 93 galleries here, and I traversed them all. The collections are arranged by nationality and chronology . The Florentine Renaissance precedes the Venetian. Dutch paintings are followed by the work of the French, British and Americans. There was a thrill in recognizing the originals whose prints I had become familiar with through books. I recognized the juniper tree in the background of Leonardo's "Ginevra de' Benci." Some others I noted were David's "Napoleon in His Study," Renoir's "Girl with a Watering Can" and Whistler's "White Girl."

5 National Portrait Gallery - The Hall of Presidents is notable. Nixon's portrait is done by Norman Rockwell. Literary figures are represented. My overall impression is that anyone can be portracized, anyone can be historicized and anyone can be literacized.

Everyone knows there are 3 branches of government: executive, legislative and judicial. We generally think of the executive in terms of the President, but it is the executive departments which function as the truly active components of government. They put into effect the Acts of Congress. The departmental heads are appointed by the President and are answerable to him. The Department buildings contain only offices. They are not tourist oriented. I walked through the HEW building and the building housing the Department of Labor. HEW is now called Health and Human Services but it still contains the Social Security Administration. Those numbers they give us are account numbers.

Each Department is involved in programs stemming from its own philosophy, and the Department of Agriculture is no exception. It contends that everything springs from the land. Thus, it is busy developing rural affairs and farming.

The Department of Defense is housed in the Pentagon. Military command originates here. The joint chiefs of staff are subordinate to the Secretary of Defense who answers to the President. The Pentagon consists of a series of corridors, or rings within rings. It is a world unto itself. There are all kinds of commercial shops. My tour was conducted by a female marine.

The FBI is in the Justice Department, and I was able to take the tour in the J. Edgar Hoover Building. It consisted largely in viewing laboratories geared to the detection of criminals.

I climbed the steps of the Treasury Department, but the entrance was closed. I paused on the steps long enough to look at a statue of Alexander Hamilton, the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton is on the $10 bill.

I found the Veterans Administration a rather dry place. Surely, the push continually for more benefits.

I took the tour through Arlington National Cemetary. The tomb of the unknown soldier and the Kennedy graves are what everyone sees. I arrived at Arlington from the Pentagon via the subway. I returned to the Mall the same way. The city of Arlington is in Virginia.

I reached the Botanical Gardens by cab. I had imagined endless rows of gigantic, colorful flowers. Instead, I only found out how little I knew about plants in general.

My 5th day in Washington, I spent looking at more art. In the Cocoran Gallery, I came across the portrait of Washington which appears on the $1 bill. The portrait was done by Gilbert Stuart. I took out a bill and conspicuously compared the two. Before the day ended, I returned to the National Gallery. I ended up listening to a lecture about how the Impressionists tried to show the variation of light upon objects. Monet's Cathedrals provided the examples.

Jim Colyer
Originally written
August, 1977
Contact: jim@jimcolyer.com

Posted by Jim Colyer 15:04

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