While other kids traveled to Washington, DC in middle school and high school or on family vacations—visiting the Air & Space Museum, touring the White House, marveling at the monuments to president-upon-president—I never did. In fact, I did not set foot in our nation’s capital until I was 30, when I spent my one day in the city traipsing around the Mall in gale-force winds, desperately trying to make my way to the FDR Memorial. A snippet of the city: It was beautiful, historical, with some edginess. I liked it. I wanted to go back.
Well, I went back. Last weekend, A. and I flew out to present at a conference in Arlington. We decided to turn our too-brief work trip into an extended girls’ weekend in DC, playing the tourists neither of us had gotten to be before. We had all sorts of things we wanted to see and do: Tour the White House and the Capitol. Check out someSmithsonians. Head out to the historical sites of Virginia. Pay homage to the men of the Mall. Get funky in Adams-Morgan. Let Russ Feingold know how much we love him. Give the rest of our spineless elected officials a piece of our mind. Maybe eat some crab cakes.
Somewhere over Ohio, A. asked what turned out to be a profound question: “So, do people in Arlington and DC have Southern accents?”
Sure of myself, I said no. It’s not the South. Maybe a little softness to the vowels and Rs like our resident Virginian, KP, but not a Southern accent. No, the DC area was definitely not the South. I’m not exactly sure how I could be such an expert after spending only 36 hours in the Beltway the year before, but I just knew.
Well, apparently I knew wrong.
There sure were Southern accents (and gentility) flying around us all weekend. Like our tour guide at the Capitol, who proudly led us into the Capitol Rotunda to point out in her thick southern drawl the treasures of our national government and this “temple of liberty.” As she went through the architectural details and marvels of this “monument to freedom,” she stopped at the cupola: [drawling slowly] “Now, that cupola weighs nine million pounds.” A. and I both chuckled…nine million pounds?! Holy s*it. But clearly, our laughter was offensive. Mary Jo stopped talking, gave us a stern teacher look (which she also gave all the international visitors every time they whispered in Italian or Greek or Chinese), and demanded, “What? What. Is. So. Funny.” I giggled again: “It’s just that number. It’s, it’s…kind of absurd [giggle].” She harrumphed: “Well, that’s how much it weighs.” And she turned her back on us and continued talking.
That’s when I knew: Whatever this place was—South, North, East, Chesapeakean—it was definitely different. Our Midwestern irreverence, our brash giggles and flat As were most definitely not welcome here.
Like when we went to Mt. Vernon, plantation home of George and Martha Washington. A. and I were traipsing all over the property, deep in troubled discussion about the representation of George as a yeoman farmer and benevolent slave master, and marveling at how militaristic Americans must seem to foreign tourists whose only destination is DC, when we got to the Washington family cemetery. A. smirked and looked at me, “Look—more phalluses.” Yup—the obelisk, was here, too (just like the one we’d pranced around under the full moon on the Mall two nights ago), adorning each family member’s plot. As we walked up the small hill, a representative of the Mt. Vernon Lady’s Association (the people who run Mt. Vernon) was giving details on family lineage and the process of placing flags on the Washingtons’ tombs. As her khaki-skirted, blue-blazered, silk-scarfed self disappeared back under her parasol in the shade, A. and I crept forward to the couple’s mausoleum. There were two graves: George’s was clearly marked, but the other one…
“Can I help you ladies?”
“Yeah,” A. says. “This one is clearly George…is that Martha on the left?”
Long pause. “Why, yes. The General is on the right, and Lady Washington is on the left.” Long stare, a lot like Mary Jo’s at the Capitol. Then she dug her heel in, spun around, and retreated back to her parasol near some more respectful tourists.
Our Midwestern, irreverent selves were clearly out of line thinking we could be on a first-name basis with the Prez. Nope: In Virginia, he is The General, thank you very much, and his wife is Lady Washington, or Mrs. Washington, but never Martha. Who did we think we were? Her disapproving stare and smart tone seemed to say.
Sheesh…where were we? Wasn’t the whole point of our nation that we absolutely didn’t have kings and gods as rulers…but regular, old, fallible men? At least, that’s the story we tell back where we come from. Here, not so much.
By the time we flew out Sunday morning, we felt like bulls in the china shop that is Washington, DC, denigrating every supposedly sacred space (particularly those devoted to our president-kings) with our Wisconsin irreverence, our skeptical historical eye, and our Yankee leanings.
Back at the Capitol Rotunda, Mary Jo tried to impress us with the paintings and statues showing “proud moments” and “real heroes” of American history. Who was there? DeSoto being “joyfully greeted” by the Aztecs. Columbus politely “making the acquaintance” of the natives. Pocahontas “choosing Christ” at her baptism. And Jefferson Davis, ironically standing next to Dr. King. A. and I had already been schooled for our snickering over the billion-pound cupola, so we saved our comments for after the tour, when a tumble of historical perspective came flying from us as we darted around the Capitol, talking over one another while hunting for something silly in the Capitol gift shop. There was nothing silly—not even Constitution shot glasses. An American gift shop without cheesy shot glasses? Where were we?
We ended our weekend with an early morning trip to Arlington National Cemetery. Its entrance signs declare it a “sacred place” on “hallowed ground,” and it is: You can feel it in the air. We spent an hour or so quietly, respectfully walking around its winding roads, stopping to read the headstones of soldiers we’ll never know, paying respects to presidents, overwhelmed by the thousands and thousands who have sacrificed themselves and their families for our safety and for the lives of generations they will never know. On the way out, as we headed for our last Metro ride, A. stopped to give a salute and little twirl/kick (you know, like the kind you’d do while singing, “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B”), and kind of sang out, “Thanks, boys, for letting us visit!” If you know A.—she can’t can’t dance, as Fresh would say. This was her ultimate show of appreciation—an original A. dance, one that the boys themselves would have surely loved. But to that family in their Sunday best, running to catch the changing of the guard at theTomb of the Unknowns…well, it was clear from the scowl directed at us that A.’s personal solute to Arlington’s men was not appreciated.
Washington, DC, might not be Southern…but we are definitely Yankees.
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While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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