Archive for November, 2014

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing

On this day in 1956, two years after successfully pushing to have the phrase “under God” inserted into the pledge of allegiance, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a law declaring “In God We Trust” to be the nation’s official motto. The law also mandated that the phrase be printed on all U.S. paper currency. The phrase had already been placed on U.S. coinage starting in 1867, when the “Union” side during the Civil War started the practice.

In recognition of the anniversary of our official adaptation of this motto, on this ride I went by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.  Paper currency is printed by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, which is a component of the Treasury Department.  The Bureau of Engraving and Printing is located at 300 14th Street (MAP) in southwest D.C.  Coins, however, are produced separately by the United States Mint.  So I also rode by the headquarters for the U.S. Mint, which is located at 801 9th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.  Although the headquarters for the Mint is in D.C., production facilities are no longer located here. The production facilities are located in Philadelphia and Denver. Production of proof coin sets and commemorative coins also take place in San Francisco and West Point, New York.

Although some historical accounts claim Eisenhower was raised a Jehovah’s Witness, most presidential scholars now believe his family was Mennonite. Either way, Eisenhower abandoned his family’s religion before entering the Army, and took the unusual step of being baptized relatively late in his adult life as a Presbyterian. The baptism took place in 1953, barely a year into his first term as President. He is the only president to be baptized while in office.

Although Eisenhower embraced religion, biographers insist he never intended to force his beliefs on anyone. In fact, the chapel-like structure near where he and his wife Mamie are buried on the grounds of his presidential library is called the “Place of Meditation” and is intentionally inter-denominational. At a Flag Day speech in 1954, he elaborated on his feelings about the place of religion in public life when he discussed why he had wanted to include “under God” in the pledge of allegiance: “In this way we are reaffirming the transcendence of religious faith in America’s heritage and future; in this way we shall constantly strengthen those spiritual weapons which forever will be our country’s most powerful resource in peace and war.”

The first paper money with the phrase “In God We Trust” was not printed until 1957. Since then, religious and secular groups have argued over the appropriateness and constitutionality of an official national motto that mentions “God.” “In God We Trust” also became the official motto of the state of Florida in July of 2006, where the same arguments take place on the state level. The debates will continue, and may someday result in a change to the motto and our national currency.  However, more important than what constitutes our national motto or a state motto is what constitutes your personal motto.

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Veterans Memorial Regional Park

Veterans Memorial Regional Park

Today is Veterans Day, a Federal holiday observed annually on November 11th which is intended to honor all men and women who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces. It is one of ten official Federal holidays. Since I was given the day off from work, I took advantage of the opportunity and ventured away from the city to explore one of the regional or state parks in the D.C. metro area. So for a Veterans Day ride, I selected Veterans Memorial Regional Park, located at 14300 Veterans Drive in Woodbridge, in nearby Prince William County, Virginia (MAP).

The park is home to several sports leagues including swimming, soccer, football, baseball, softball, Little League baseball, basketball, and volleyball. The community center hosts open gym days for both basketball and indoor seasonal, as well as dance classes sports classes, playschool, summer and mini-camps. The park also boasts a large skate park which features a 6,300-sq. ft. concrete course, a vertical ramp half-pipe, and a 60-ft long kidney bowl for a challenging ride. The multifaceted park also includes a 50-meter outdoor pool, as well as concessions, outdoor grills, picnic tables, volleyball, basketball courts, tennis courts, horseshoe pits, pavilion rentals, and restrooms throughout the park.

But my favorite aspect of the park is the fact that the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail runs through it, with a trail entrance just off the main road that runs through the park. Available to hikers and bike riders, the trail head is marked by the green square on a post. The trail runs through some of the natural areas of the park, which is situated adjacent to the beautiful Marumsco Creek, Featherstone National Wildlife Refuge, and Occoquan Bay National Water Reserve.

Having a paid day off from work is always nice, but going for a long, leisurely bike ride in Veterans Memorial Regional Park made it even better.

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Ford's Theatre

Ford’s Theatre

This bike ride took me to Ford’s Theatre, a building with a rich history, located at 511 10th Street (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Downtown Neighborhood. The site was originally a house of worship, constructed in 1833 as the second meeting house of the First Baptist Church of Washington. In 1861, after the congregation moved, John T. Ford bought the former church and renovated it into a theatre. It was destroyed by fire in 1862, but was rebuilt the following year. The new Ford’s Theatre opened in August of 1863, hosting various plays and stages performances. But its initial run as a theatre would not last long.

More than any of the plays or performances hosted there, the theatre is perhaps best known as the site where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in April of 1865. Just five days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Court House signaling the end of the Civil War, President Lincoln and his wife, Mary Todd, attended a performance of a play entitled “Our American Cousin” at the theatre. During the performance, actor and Confederate sympathizer John Wilkes Booth stepped into the Presidential Box and shot Lincoln. Booth then jumped onto the stage, and cried out “Sic semper tyrannis” before escaping through the back of the theatre. The mortally wounded President was taken across the street to The Petersen House, where he died the following day.

Strangely enough, on November 9, 1863 (151 years ago last night), two years before the assassination, Lincoln had been seated in the very same seat at Ford’s Theatre, where he watched Booth perform in the popular play, “The Marble Heart.” An avid theatre-goer, Lincoln was known to have attended at least a dozen performances at the theatre. At this performance, Lincoln was impressed with the young actor’s energy and passed along a message backstage asking if he could meet the actor. Booth, an outspoken supporter of the South, declined the request.

Then on the night on which he would be assassinated, President Lincoln told William Crook, his bodyguard, about a dream. “Crook, do you know I believe there are men who want to take my life? And I have no doubt they will do it. I know no one could do it and escape alive. But if it is to be done, it is impossible to prevent it.” Crook beseeched him not to go to Ford’s theater that night, but Lincoln demurred saying he had promised his wife they would go. Perhaps he knew he would be killed that night for when they departed for the theatre, Lincoln said “goodbye” to Crook instead of “goodnight.” He would be dead the following day.

Following the assassination, the U.S. Government appropriated the theatre, with Congress paying Ford $100,000 in compensation. And less than three years after opening as a theatre, an order was issued forever prohibiting its use as a place of public amusement.

After that, the building was used as an office building, and served as a facility for the War Department. Then in 1893, part of the building collapsed, resulting in the deaths of 22 clerks and injuring another 68. The building was repaired, but was used as a government warehouse after that.

Decades later, and more than 100 years after President Lincoln’s death, it was again renovated, and then re-opened as a theatre in 1968. During the 2000’s it was renovated yet again, opening on February 12, 2009, in commemoration of the bicentennial of President Abraham Lincoln’s birth.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, today Ford’s Theatre is administered by the National Park Service as one of two buildings which comprise the Ford’s Theatre National Historic Site, the other being the Petersen House. It remains a working theatre, producing plays, musicals and other works that entertain while often examining political and social issues related to Lincoln’s legacy. And in addition to being an active theatre, it also houses world-class museum, and a learning center named the Center for Education and Leadership.

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The United States Botanic Garden

The United States Botanic Garden

The United States Botanic Garden is a living plant museum that informs visitors about the importance, and often irreplaceable value, of plants to the well-being of humans and to the earth’s fragile ecosystems. During the late 18th Century it was the dream of a number of key political figures, including George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to have a national botanic garden at the seat of government. In 1820, President James Monroe set aside 5 acres for a “national greenhouse,” and the U.S. Botanic Garden was established by an act of Congress later that year, making it the oldest continually operating botanic garden in this country. The garden “was formally placed under the jurisdiction of the Joint Committee on the Library of Congress in 1856 and has been administered through the Office of the Architect of the Capitol since 1934. It is located near the U.S. Capitol Building at 1st Street & Maryland Avenue (MAP) in southwest D.C.

The Botanic Garden grows and displays a variety of plants. The staff keeps computerized records on important botanical collections used for exhibition, study and exchange with other institutions. The Garden’s noteworthy collections include economic plants, orchids, begonias, carnivorous plants, cacti and succulents, bromeliads, epiphytes, palms, and cycads and ferns set in a Dinosaur Garden. However, of all the different plants and exhibits, my favorite remains the recent blooming of a rare titan arum (Amorphophallus titanum).

Public viewing of titan arum plant in bloom has occurred only a limited number of times in the United States, and this unique plant coming into flower is as spectacular as it is rare. The time between flowerings is unpredictable, which can span from a few years to a few decades. And when the special event happens, the bloom lasts only 24 to 48 hours, before it quickly collapses. Some people travel around the world hoping to see a titan arum at the moment it flowers. For botanists and the public, being “in the right place at the right time” to see one of these magnificent plants in bloom can be an once-in-a-lifetime treat. There have been only 150 recorded instances of blooming since records began.

The particular plant that was on display at the Botanic Garden is approximately eight years old, and is the largest specimen of the fourteen plants in the Botanic Garden’s possession. The plant on display was the size of a penny the last time there had been a blooming specimen at the Botanic Garden. But by the time it was on display, it was approximately 250 pounds, almost nine feet tall, and was experiencing its first ever bloom.

Part of the magic of the titan arum comes from its great size – it is the largest known unbranched flower in the world. In its natural environment it can grow to a height of 12 feet, and when blooming has been known to grow an inch per hour. However, it is more widely known for its odoriferous qualities. It is commonly referred to as the corpse flower because its fetid odor is often compared to the stench of decomposing flesh. The botanist charged with the care of this particular plant has stated that it gives off a scent “like a very dead elephant.” Its putrid smell is most potent during peak bloom at night into the early morning. The flower also generates heat, which allows the stench to travel further. This combination of heat and smell efficiently attracts pollinators, such as dung and carrion beetles, from across long distances.

Even if a titan arum is not in bloom, I highly recommend visiting the United States Botanic Garden. And as an added bonus, when you visit the Botanic Garden at any other time, it does not smell like decomposing flesh.

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The Offices of the United Nations

The Offices of the United Nations

In recognition of the United Nations designation of today as “International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict,” I stopped by some of that organization’s offices in D.C. on this bike ride. Although the organization’s headquarters is located New York City, there are also offices in D.C. and throughout the world, including the United Nations Foundation at 1750 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP) in northwest D.C.; the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Office, at 1775 K Street (MAP) in northwest D.C., and; the United Nations Offices in D.C. at 2175 K Street (MAP), also in northwest D.C. 

The United Nations is an intergovernmental organization established in 1945 to promote international cooperation. It replaced the ineffective League of Nations, an organization that had previously been created following World War II to prevent another such conflict. The United Nations originally had 51 member states, but there are now 193.

Though mankind has always counted its war casualties in terms of dead and wounded soldiers and civilians, destroyed cities and livelihoods, the environment has often remained an unpublicized casualty of war as well. There are numerous instances in which water wells have been polluted, crops torched, forests cut down, soils poisoned, oil fields set on fire, and animals killed to gain a military advantage. And new technologies that are used for war, such as chemical and nuclear weapons, means that the destruction and damage of the environment is more serious and the long-term consequences in terms of impairing ecosystems and natural resources can be worse, with the potential to last long after the period of conflict.

The United Nations has found that over the last 60 years, at least 40 percent of all conflicts have been linked to the exploitation of natural resources, whether high-value resources such as timber, diamonds, gold and oil, or scarce resources such as fertile land and water. Conflicts involving natural resources have also been found to be twice as likely to relapse.

By designating November 6th of each year as International Day for Preventing the Exploitation of the Environment in War and Armed Conflict, it is intended to educate people about the damaging effects of war and armed conflict on the environment. On this day, many people around the world, including government officials, scientists, journalists, educators, and business people, observe the day by spending time discussing how the effects of war are damaging to the natural environment, and how everyone can work together to find ways to limit environmental destruction caused by armed conflict and war, because a durable peace is less likely if the natural resources that sustain livelihoods and ecosystems are destroyed.

Preventing war by saving the environment is a concept that would be difficult for anyone to oppose.

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Mount Zion Cemetery

Mount Zion Cemetery

Today’s bike ride took me to one of D.C.’s many historic cemeteries, Mount Zion Cemetery, which is located between 26th Street and Mill Road (MAP) in northwest D.C.’s Georgetown neighborhood. The cemetery is actually comprised of two separate but adjacent cemeteries, the old Methodist Burying Ground and the Female Union Band Society Graveyard. The two cemeteries equally share three acres of land, and there is no fence or other visible demarcation separating the two cemeteries. Because of this, they eventually became grouped together, and today are jointly know as Mount Zion Cemetery. As a single unit, the cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975.

The property originated in 1808 as The Methodist Cemetery, also commonly referred to as the old Methodist Burying Ground, and was initially leased and then sold to Mount Zion United Methodist Church. Then in 1842, a cooperative benevolent society of free black women, named the Female Union Band Society, purchased the western half of the lot to establish a secular burying ground for African Americans. Although Mt. Zion Cemetery has been a burial ground for all races since its inception, it served an almost exclusively African American population after 1849. It served as a cemetery for both slaves and freedmen, as opposed to the ritzy whites-only Oak Hill Cemetery next door. In fact, several white graves were disinterred from Mt. Zion and moved to Oak Hill between 1849 and 1892. Mt. Zion Cemetery is the oldest predominantly black burial ground in D.C.

The last burial there was in 1950, and by the middle of the 20th century, Mt. Zion Cemetery was virtually abandoned and fell into disrepair. And it has continued to be neglected since then. The old wooden grave markers disappeared, and trustees removed most of the remaining stone grave markers, which have been recorded and stored pending eventual restoration of this historic site. The few grave markers that remain at the site are in disarray, and many are grouped in a pile near the front of the cemetery. In fact, it can be difficult to even identify the site as a cemetery in its current state, and it is even more difficult to understand its historic significance. But restoration is underway. It is being done by Dumbarton Church, as the current owner, and the Society for the Preservation of Historic Georgetown.

Despite its current condition, one of the highlights and perhaps the most historically relevant parts of the cemetery remains intact. At the back of the cemetery there is a red brick underground vault. In addition to serving as a burial vault, it was also used as a hideout for slaves escaping north toward Philadelphia to freedom on the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses used by 19th-century slaves of African descent to escape to free states and Canada with the aid of abolitionists and allies who were sympathetic to their cause. One of those allies was Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which used the vault because churches and their property were less likely to be searched by slave hunters.

Hopefully, the restoration of Mt. Zion Cemetery and its history will be successful, because in addition to being the final resting place for hundreds of souls, it is also a physical reminder of African American life and the evolving free black culture in D.C., from the earliest days of the city to the present.

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The Federal Election Commission Headquarters

The Federal Election Commission Headquarters

Election Day in the United States is the day set by law for general elections, and occurs on the day after the first Monday in November. (Note that the “day after the first Monday” does not equal the “first Tuesday” in a month when the first day of the month is a Tuesday.) The earliest possible date is November 2nd and the latest possible date is November 8th.   On this bike ride, in recognition of today being Election Day, I stopped by the headquarters for the Federal Election Commission. It is located at 999 E Street (MAP), across from FBI Headquarters and next door to the Hard Rock Café in northwest D.C.

Historically, when an election day for a Presidential election falls on today’s date, November 4th, it was generally very good for Republicans throughout the 20th century. The streak began when Election Day fell on November 4th back in 1924, and Calvin Coolidge was elected to the country’s top office. Coolidge was already in the office of President, having to complete the term of Warren G. Harding, who died while in office. This time, and on this day, he was voted into office by the people of the U.S., and served another four years. History repeated itself in 1952 when Dwight D. Eisenhower was running against Democrat Adlai Stevenson. Once again, Election Day was on November 4, and “Ike” won. It was the first Republican presidential victory in 24 years. Eisenhower became the 34th U.S. President. When Election Day fell on November 4th again in1980, it was a good year for Republicans all around. Most of those Republicans running for seats in the U.S. Senate were victors, winning a majority of the seats. And in a landslide, Ronald Reagan won the race for President against the Democrat incumbent, Jimmy Carter.

Before 1924, it was a different story: Democrat Grover Cleveland made it to the top in 1884; and Democrat James Buchanan was elected President of the U.S. on November 4, 1856. Unfortunately, the Republican victory streak did not continue into this century either. It ended five years ago today, on November 4, 2008, in the first presidential election held on November 4 in the 21st century. In that election, Democrat Barack Obama was elected President. The next November 4 Presidential election will be in 2036.

However, there is not a presidential election this year. The general elections being held today are considered “mid-term elections.” These elections include all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 of the 100 seats in the U.S. Senate; along with the governorships of 36 of the 50 states and three U.S. territories, 46 state legislatures (except Louisiana, Mississippi, New Jersey and Virginia), four territorial legislatures, and numerous state and local races.

Voter turnout in national elections varies in countries throughout the world. In Belgium, which has compulsory voting, and Malta, which does not, participation reaches 95 percent. Voter turnout in this country averages only 48 percent. And voter turnout in this country decreases for midterm elections. Only 39.9 percent of eligible voters cast a ballot during the last mid-term elections, and estimates indicate voter turnout could be even lower this time around. So if the predictions are correct, more than 6 out of 10 eligible voters will not participate in today’s elections. That makes each vote even more important. So make sure you vote early. And as is the tradition if you’re in Chicago, vote often.

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Leslie William “Les” Coffelt Memorial Ride

Leslie William “Les” Coffelt Memorial Ride

This past weekend marked the 64th anniversary of first Secret Service Officer killed in the line of duty.  On November 1, 1950, Leslie William “Les” Coffelt, was killed while protecting President Harry Truman from an assassination attempt.  So, on this bike ride I rode to two of the locations connected to Officer Coffelt. The first was The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, located at E and 5th Streets in northwest D.C. (MAP). I also rode by Blair House, which is the President’s guest house located near The White House at 1651 Pennsylvania Avenue (MAP), and where a commemorative plaque honors Coffelt’s sacrifice.

Back in the autumn of 1950, President Truman and his family were living in the nearby Blair House on Pennsylvania Avenue while the White House was being renovated.  On the afternoon of November 1, Truman and his wife were upstairs when they heard a commotion and gunshots coming from the front steps of the house.  A pair of would-be assassins named Griselio Torresola and Oscar Collazo, nationalists who supported independence for Puerto Rico from the United States, werer attacking officers at the Blair House in an attempt to assassinate President Truman. They never made it past the entry steps, however, due to the quick reaction of police officers and guards.

Torresola approached from the west side while Collazo engaged Secret Service Officers and White House policemen from the east. Torresola approached the guard booth at the west corner of the Blair House and fired at Coffelt from close range. His three shots struck Coffelt in the chest and abdomen, mortally wounding him. A fourth shot passed through the policeman’s tunic.

Torresola shot two other policemen before running out of ammunition, then moved to the left of the Blair House steps to reload. Coffelt went out of his booth and fired at Torresola from 31 feet away, hitting him behind the ear and killing him instantly. Coffelt limped back to the booth and blacked out. He died of his wounds four hours later in a hospital.

Collazo later revealed to police just how poorly planned the assassination attempt actually was. The assailants were unsure if Truman would even be in the house when they launched their attack at 2 o’clock in the afternoon. Torresola and Collazo were political activists and members of the extremist Puerto Rican Nationalist Party, a group fighting for full independence from the U.S. The “Independistas,” as they were commonly called, targeted President Truman despite his support of greater Puerto Rican autonomy.

President Truman escaped unscathed, and apparently unfazed by the attempt on his life, he kept his scheduled appointments for the remainder of the day. “A President has to expect these things,” he remarked dryly.

Officer Coffelt is still the only Secret Service member to be killed while defending the President. Collazo was sentenced to death, but in an act of forgiveness on July 24, 1952, Truman commuted the sentence to life imprisonment. Disgracefully, President Jimmy Carter later commuted Officer Cofflet’s killer’s sentence to time served, and granted the man release. Collazo returned to Puerto Rico, where he died 15 years later.

The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial honors the more than 19,000 U.S. law enforcement officers who have died in the line of duty throughout this country’s history. The memorial features a reflecting pool which is surrounded by walkways on a 3-acre park. Along the walkways are walls that are inscribed with names of all U.S. law enforcement officers — federal, state, and local — who have died in the line of duty.  This includes Officer Coffelt.

Officer Coffelt’s name is inscribed on Panel 23-W of the Memorial. Ironically, the next two names engraved on the same panel immediately after Officer Coffelt’s are A.M. Blair (who was a detective with the Greenville, S.C., police department, killed in 1919 while raiding a dice game) and John House (a patrol officer in St. Joseph, Mo., who was accidentally shot by a fellow officer during a domestic disturbance call in 1922). So as it turned out, the two names following Officer Coffelt’s are Blair and House – Blair House – the location where Officer Cofflet was killed.

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[Click on the thumbnails above to view the full size photos]