»  The Straggler, No. 31

May 9th, 2005

  Fountains and Stuff


I have an uneasy relationship with Washington, D.C. The monumental parts are wonderful, as good as anything on earth in that line. Not only are the monuments splendid in themselves, but they are very well laid out, all in a space that is nicely encompassed by a day's leisurely strolling, and with, as an 18th-century observer would have said, many noble prospects to please the eye. If you care about history and culture, there are always fascinating events to attend in the capital — exhibitions, lectures, debates. The city's museums are in decline, soft brown spots of P.C. corruption spreading over them, but still worth a visit with the kids if you know what to avoid.

Towards the rest, I mainly nurse doubts and suspicions. The city government is of course a disgrace, and has been for decades. Since this is our capital, that ought to be a national disgrace, though it mostly goes unmentioned, for reasons not terribly hard to figure out. Then there are those endless plush suburbs we drive through to get to the monuments — what an innumerable host of people are living so very well on government work! And when you get to the downtown area, with all the huge grand office buildings boasting Department of This and Department of That — what on earth are those myriads of worker-bees inside them busy at? Nothing much, is my suspicion. From time to time, at home in New York, I meet one or another of my journalist colleagues stationed in the capital and intimate with its inner workings. What, I ask him or her, is my government doing about such and such a thing? More often than not the response is a knowing smile, a shake of the head, and an assertion to the effect that nobody in Washington actually does anything about anything. They just play at status games and fight turf wars.

But then, of course, there are the cherry blossoms. So here we are on the second weekend in April, Mr. and Mrs. Straggler with kids visiting Our Nation's Capital (as I am careful to keep saying, for the kids' benefit), strolling around the Tidal Basin under the trees, looking across the water to the Jefferson Memorial, a warm and cloudless sky up above. This is the real purpose of Washington, D.C., one feels, the true reason the place is here: to give citizens an occasion for a weekend vacation, improving for the kids' minds and restful for our own eyes.

Several thousand other people are here with us, enjoying the blossoms and the springtime air. That's perfectly okay. My normal aversion to crowds is inoperative this beautiful day, by the water, under the blossoms. I find myself smiling at people. The junior Stragglers, on the other hand, are having difficulty seeing the point. Can they have ice creams? Ride a pedal boat? Touch the moon rock (i.e., at the Air and Space Museum)? It's just blossoms. What's the big deal? We have them back home. At what age, I wonder, do the small pleasures of a pretty scene, spiced with a dash of history and national pride, make themselves known?

I am curious to see the newer memorials, the ones for WWII and FDR. We head over to the first. It has been very nicely done, and is more impressive in the actuality than in the rather off-putting images — Stonehenge remodeled by Stalin — I have seen on TV. My son, who has a WWII computer game, displays an excellent knowledge of the battles, but is depressingly clueless about the names attached to the engraved quotations. Mrs. Straggler wants to be photographed sitting next to where CHINA is carved on a lower wall — fair enough, since, on A. J. P. Taylor's reckoning, it was China that suffered the first war deaths. I explain the word "bas-relief." My daughter is chattering to a friend via Mom's cell phone. "There's like fountains and stuff …"

Heading back to the Tidal Basin, we spot a colonnaded Doric temple off at one side in a grove of trees, and take a detour to investigate. The temple turns out to be the city memorial to those who served in World War I. It looks neglected — an orphan monument for an orphan war. "Your dad's war," comments my son; and yes, there on the stone at one side are carved the very words that appear on Dad's Victory Medal: THE GREAT WAR FOR CIVILIZATION. Nearly a hundred years now. I think of Dad and his medals, his trench stories, the knotty white shrapnel scars on his leg.

The kids like the FDR memorial much better. There is more to see, things hidden around corners to draw them onward, waterfalls, bronze statues. We all like the big caped statue in the third section, with the dog alongside, though I am annoyed at not being able to remember the dog's name. (Fala — I have just looked it up.) And what was that controversy about whether the president's cigarette holder should be shown? It isn't, though the position of the fingers suggests a last-minute removal. Curse our damn pettifogging Puritans — let the man have a smoke, for heaven's sake. Nellie turns off the cellphone for long enough to have a photograph taken with Mrs. Roosevelt, her namesake.

Lunch from my backpack at the Jefferson Memorial. We walk around the interior, reading all the carved quotations. The kids listen obediently, but are historied out. Danny has been peering across the water, scrutinizing the waiting line for the pedal boats. He thinks it is much shorter than before. "Can we please? Can we please?" Of course we can. We hike back round to the dock, pausing for ice cream on the way.

Half an hour later, lying back in the pedal boat under the bright sky, cherry blossoms all around me, listening contentedly to the kids' bickering — "You're supposed to be pedaling, but you're just pretending" — I let my fancy drift off into the future, to wonder when the next wars will come, whether such ringing words will be said again, from whence new Jeffersons and Roosevelts will come up to inspire us, what parts my children and their children will play. "A perfect day," murmurs my wife. Yes, yes, no more dark thoughts. A perfect day in Our Nation's Capital.