Instead of This Day in History, today’s post will take a different historical journey to the past.
I’m very old, almost history myself. I’m old enough to write about two different trips to Washington, DC fifty-five years apart.
I just recently returned from a trip to our nation’s capitol. I had been there before, as a young sailor on liberty. I was stationed on the East Coast, going to school to become a radioman, and I had the weekend off. Traveling alone I hopped on a bus to DC. Lost, uncertain how to proceed, I wandered into a USO. I sat on a couch and thumbed through a LIFE Magazine. Oddly enough there was a pictorial article on a town where I had lived in Minnesota. Glenwood was a hotspot for ice-fishing and there were photos of ice houses scattered across Lake Minnewaska. Fighting off a brief surge of homesickness, I set the magazine aside.
“Hey buddy.” A soldier sitting across the table from me said, “Want to go on one of these tours?” I looked at the pamphlet he shoved to me. It would take us to various memorials, the Smithsonian Institute, Arlington National Cemetery, and ended with a tour of the White House.
He seemed friendly enough so I agreed. Don was his name and he had an outgoing personality. “Cold,” he said, as we stepped outside. He was from somewhere down South, I forget where. It was a gray, drizzly day in January, and being from Minnesota I thought it pretty mild.
At some point during the day, I don’t know when, a photographer, unsolicited, took my picture as I walked alongside the White House. Being very naïve at the time, I imagine I paid too much for it but I’m happy I have it now.
We did the tour, seeing the memorials dedicated to Presidents Lincoln and Jefferson, and we took an elevator up the Washington Monument. Because we basically were still kids, I had barely turned eighteen, we raced down the steps of the monument. At the castle-like Smithsonian museum I saw the Spirit of St. Louis and Alan Shepard’s space capsule. We were at Arlington National Cemetery for the changing of the guard, and it made me uncomfortable. Because we were in uniform instructions were given to Don and I on standing at attention and when to salute. Forced to become part of the pageantry, I felt conspicuous and on display myself.
The last stop was the White House. There was no security, we were simply led in through a side door. I don’t know if the President and Jackie were even in the house at the time. Understandably their living quarters were not part of the tour. About all I remember is peeking into various rooms, looking at ornate furniture, and listening to the guide talk about how Jackie was redecorating the place. That is until Don leaned over and whispered “Hey.” I looked at him. “I just saw Danny Thomas and Rosemary Clooney down that hallway. I bet they’re visiting the President.”
Maybe a lot of people now don’t know who he was but at the time Danny Thomas was one of the biggest stars on television. And Rosemary Clooney was a famous singer. She was also an aunt to current actor George Clooney. I can’t say I was overly excited by Don’s sighting of them. Just a couple of big-time celebrities who lived in a far different world than mine. In fact I was tired of the tour, wanting to go off and do something else. “Let’s wait outside, maybe we’ll get a chance for an autograph.” Don suggested. I said nothing but my internal reaction was somewhere along the lines of “big deal.”
The tour ended and Don and I stood on the sidewalk at the side the White House. A big, black limousine was parked on the street and Don was convinced it was waiting for Thomas and Clooney. He was right. We waited only a few minutes before they came out and headed for the limousine. “Excuse me, can we get your autographs?” Don boldly walked toward them. I reluctantly followed, expecting a rebuff. They stopped and Danny Thomas turned toward us. Rosemary Clooney gave an off center smile in our direction and without making eye contact climbed into the back of the limousine.
I expected the same from him but what happened next totally surprised me. Danny Thomas stood on the sidewalk, in the cold, and talked to us. Not the perfunctory “Where are you boys from and thank you for serving blah blah blah crap.” He actually engaged us, for ten minutes, maybe even longer. He apologized for Miss Clooney, saying she wasn’t feeling well. He asked if we enjoyed the tour, inquired about our duty and where we were stationed, and his interest seemed genuine. That’s the impression I was left with, that he was a genuinely nice man. He gave Don his autograph, and then looked at me. I’ve never collected an autograph in my life, it seemed like a strange pursuit to me. So I just shrugged, and gave him a little, apologetic smile. He looked at me, then a big grin crossed his face, and he clapped me on the shoulder. I took it that he understood.
Fifty-five years later I was in DC again. The world has changed immensely since then. The spot where Don and I stood and talked to Danny Thomas is no longer accessible to the public. Barriers and security personnel keep citizens from meandering that close to the executive mansion. And there’s no signing up for a tour and getting into the White House on the same day. It is necessary to sign up months in advance in order to get security clearance. The Smithsonian has expanded greatly with eleven museums in proximity to the mall. Tourists now flock to DC whereas in 1962 it was not a cottage industry. There are more memorials now with more probably coming. To me the most significant addition has been the Vietnam Memorial.
I hadn’t planned it that way but I was in DC for the Cherry Blossom Festival. Me, a couple of hundred thousand other tourists, but the cherry blossoms were a no-show. So there were crowds of people, too many people, when I visited the Vietnam Memorial. Nevertheless I found it a sacred place. I read names as I moved at a slow pace along the black granite wall. Anger and sadness engulfed me. It helped to pick out a name and then say it out loud. It felt like a bridge to the spirit of someone, someone I didn’t even know, who had died in that unfortunate war. A name, a person, who for a moment wasn’t forgotten.
But there were too many people there. Kids running and screaming, tourists having their pictures taken in front of the wall, it wasn’t right, it wasn’t the solemn experience I had been seeking. I gained no peace or understanding. Maybe someday I’ll go back, go there at night when it’s quiet. I never did know Don’s last name. My last thought upon leaving was I hoped it wasn’t carved somewhere onto that wall.
Here are two photos, one from each visit, with the White House visible in the background of each shot. I was obviously pretty much a squared-away “boot” in the first photo and would become much “saltier” later.
The next day, Sunday, I went to the Capitol. My father said I should introduce myself to the Representative from our district and he’d show me around. Except the only time I could get liberty was the weekend and of course nobody was at the Capitol on a weekend. I rattled the locked door anyway and tried to peer inside. I can’t imagine getting away with that act in today’s world either.
I walked back down the nearly deserted steps of the Capitol. Halfway down there was a family, the father taking a picture of his wife and two kids. I don’t know what mischievous impulse seized me but just as he snapped the photo I jumped into the frame next to his family. He initially frowned but his wife and kids began laughing. They insisted he take a couple of more pictures with me included. So somewhere in Indiana there might still exist a family photo album with me in it.