Jim Huggins (jkhuggins) wrote,
Jim Huggins

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I just spent the weekend in Washington, DC, reading scholarship applications for the SMART program.  It was an interesting experience, which perhaps I'll comment upon in the future.  (Note: if you're going to apply for a scholarship, and the scholarship requires an essay, it's helpful if you actually read what the essay is supposed to be about.)

But the best part about working in DC is that you get to play in DC during your downtime.  DC is a great town for tourists ... virtually all the cool stuff you want to see is free because it's run by the National Park Service, which is funded by taxes.  (Rats.  I really gotta get some time squared away to do the taxes again.  Sigh.)  So, it's easy to see different stuff every time you visit town ... which is a good thing, because there are just so many things to see.

I had all of Saturday afternoon and evening to play tourist.  I saw a number of the usual memorials ... Washington, Lincoln, Vietnam, Korea, and the new-ish World War II memorial.  It continues to strike me that the folks in charge of monuments have some exceptional writers working for them.  They find a way to say important things in extremely few words.  (My favorite is the Tomb of the Unknowns in Arlington Cemetery ... the inscription reads "Here lies an American soldier, known but to God."  Incredibly simple and moving.)

At the front of the WWII memorial is a large granite stone with a long statement.  I'm sure I could find the words online someplace, but the gist of it was this: lying between the monument to Washington (the 18th century father of the country) and the memorial to Lincoln (the 19th century preserver of the country) lies the memorial to the ordinary 20th century heroes who defended freedom around the world.  It's a moving piece.

It was also particularly moving to be walking up and down the Mall during sunset, dusk, and nightfall.  The Mall is amazingly beautiful as it goes through those transitions from day to dusk to night.

Memorials are about remembering.  And that was an interesting contrast to the two sights I had seen earlier that afternoon:
  • The National Air & Space Museum.  I've always been fascinated by the space program.  In the entranceway of the museum, they have the actual capsules from one of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions.  Looking at those things is utterly amazing.  It looks like John Glenn climbed inside the trunk of my car, with the engine running, before he orbited the earth.  The capsules for Gemini and Apollo aren't that much bigger.  How we could actually achieve those things --- with computers no more powerful than my wristwatch today --- is utterly amazing to me.
  • The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.  I only had two hours here, and could easily have spent another couple of hours if they hadn't closed.  The museum does an incredible job of chronicling the Holocaust ... from the rise of Hitler in post-WWI Germany through the post-war rebuilding efforts across Europe.  Of course, the concentration camp era is a huge part of it.
I visited these places back-to-back, and the contrast was thought-provoking.  Humanity has an unbounded capacity for technical achievement, and an equally unbounded capacity for cruelty.  It serves us well to remember both; to be encouraged by what we have achieved, and to be chastened by what we have achieved.

(There's a quote from Eisenhower in the Holocaust Memorial Museum, taken from when he visited a concentration camp after it had been liberated.  Paraphrasing, he said "I came to see for myself, so that when people start spinning this and explaining it away, I can tell them that I was there.")

Later, as I walked around the Mall, I was struck by the large number of boisterous young people moving about.  It seemed like about forty different high school and middle school groups had taken the weekend to visit Washington.  Part of me was annoyed at the noise and the flippant regard they showed towards these memorials.  (That's the part of me that's turning into an old fart.)

And then it occurred to me ... they aren't respecting the memorials because they have few memories to honor.  Especially if you're talking about middle schoolers, who probably don't have strong memories of 9/11, there aren't the "where were you" events in their history to make them stop and pause.  Each of those events in my life made me pause a little more and reflect on my own humanity and my own place in history.  (For the record, for a middle-aged fart like me, those events are: Reagan's assassination, Challenger, Desert Storm, and 9/11.)
And each them made me a little sadder as a result.

There's a dialog at the end of Born to the Purple, a Season 1 episode of Babylon 5.  A middle-aged Londo Mollari says "My shoes are too tight, and I've forgotten how to dance.  Young people ought to dance."  (The full episode puts the quote into better context.)

So ... the old fart in me is happy to let the young folks dance on the Mall.  There will come a time, all too soon, when they'll stop at the same places and sadly bow their heads, as they think of someone's sacrifice.  In the meantime ... young people should dance.

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