Archive for March, 2016

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National Medal of Honor Day

Today is National Medal of Honor Day. Designated by the United States Congress in 1990, it is observed annually on March 25th, and is dedicated to all recipients of this country’s highest military honor. The Medal of Honor, occasionally referred to as the Congressional Medal of Honor, is awarded for personal acts of valor above and beyond the call of duty, and is awarded to U.S. military personnel only. Awarded by the President in the name of the U.S. Congress, there are three versions of the medal, one for the Army, one for the Navy, and one for the Air Force.  Members of the Marine Corps and Coast Guard receive the Navy version.

In recognition of today’s designation, I rode to Arlington National Cemetery on this lunchtime bike ride to visit the gravesite of not only one of the most famous recipients of the Medal of Honor, but also one of the most decorated combat soldiers in American history – U.S. Army First Lieutenant Audie Murphy.

Audie Leon Murphy was born was born on June 20, 1925, the seventh of twelve children born to Emmett Berry Murphy and his wife Josie Bell Killian, a sharecropper family in Kingston, Texas. After his father deserted the family when Murphy was in the fifth grade, he dropped out of school and got a job picking cotton for a dollar a day to help support the family. He also hunted small game to help feed them, which caused him to become very proficient with a rifle. When Murphy was 16 years old, his mother passed away, and he was forced to watch as his brothers and sisters were doled out to an orphanage or to relatives.

Murphy had always wanted to be in the military, and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, he tried to enlist. However, the military turned him down for being underage. Eventually his sister provided an affidavit falsifying when he was born. He applied to the Marine Corps, but was told that at 5’-5” tall he was too short, and underweight as well, weighing in at only 110 pounds.  He was just too small.   However, Murphy was finally accepted by the Army at the end of June in 1942.

Murphy was awarded the Medal of Honor for single-handedly holding off an entire company of German soldiers for an hour at the Colmar Pocket in France in January 1945. He then led a successful counterattack while wounded and out of ammunition. He was only 19 years old at the time. By the time the war came to an end, Murphy had gone on to become America’s most-decorated soldier, earning an unparalleled 28 medals. In fact, he received every military combat award for valor available from the U.S. Army, as well as medals for heroism from both France and Belgium. Murphy had been wounded three times during the war, yet, in May 1945, when victory was declared in Europe, he had still not reached his 21st birthday.

Murphy returned to a hero’s welcome in the United States, with parades, banquets, and speeches. He was then persuaded by actor James Cagney to embark on an acting career. Murphy arrived in Hollywood with, by his own account, no talent.  Nevertheless, he went on to make more than 40 films. He also published a novel of his wartime memoirs, entitled To Hell and Back, and went on to portray himself in the 1955 movie version of the book.  Honored in civilian life like he was in the military, Murphy has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

After eventually retiring from acting, he began a career in private business. But the venture was unsuccessful, and in 1968 he was forced into bankruptcy. A few years later, Murphy died in a private plane crash near Roanoke, Virginia on May 28, 1971, at the age of 46.

Audie Murphy was buried with full military honors in Section 46 of Arlington National Cemetery, just across Memorial Drive west of the Memorial Amphitheater. A flagstone walkway has been constructed to accommodate the large number of people who stop to pay their respects to this hero. At the end of a row of graves, his tomb is marked by a simple, white, government-issue tombstone, which lists only a few of his many military decorations.  Also, the headstones of Medal of Honor recipients buried at Arlington National are normally decorated in gold leaf.  But at Murphy’s request, his stone remain plain and inconspicuous, like that of an ordinary soldier.  The stone is considered by some to be the same as he was considered by the Marine Corps, too small.

Arlington National Cemetery is also the final resting place of 407 other Medal of Honor recipients, which includes the Medals of Honor awarded to the World War I Unknown, World War II Unknown, Korean War Unknown and Vietnam War Unknown buried at The Tomb of the Unknowns. The Vietnam War unknown was disinterred in 1998 and identified as Air Force Lt. Michael Blassie, but the medal remains at Arlington National. The last Medal of Honor recipient to be buried at Arlington National was Army Lieutenant Colonel Don C. Faith, who died during the Korean War. His remains were not recovered until 2012, and he was interred at the cemetery April 17, 2013.

So on this National Medal of Honor Day, take a moment to think about the 3,497 military members who have received the award.  And if you run into any of the 78 recipients of the award who are currently alive, be sure to thank them.

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Today was the day that the National Park Service predicted would when the cherry blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin would reach their peak.  So I took my lunch break as soon as I got to work today so that I could ride down to the Tidal Basin to see the cherry blossoms in the light of the sun at sunrise.  When I got there I mixed in with the thousands of photographers and tourists who were lining the water’s edge, and took these photos.  I really enjoyed watching how the light changed as the sun rose in the sky.  This morning’s colorful sunrise was at 7:04 a.m., and as full of yellow and pink and violet.  But by 8:00 a.m. the light was completely different, and had changed bright light and clear, blue skies.  It’s difficult to believe the difference in the lighting for these photos took place in a matter of only an hour or so.  I like how the photos turned out today.  And I can only imagine how much better they would have been if I’d had a real camera instead of using just my cell phone.

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

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General John A. Rawlins Statue

On this lunchtime bike ride I visited Rawlins Park, which is located between 18th Street, 19th Street, E Street and New York Avenue (MAP), in northwest D.C.’s Foggy Bottom neighborhood.  Located on the eastern end of the park is a statue of General John A Rawlins, and it is the a focal point of the park named after him.  The monument and park are owned and maintained by the National Park Service.  The statue was installed in 1874, and was relocated in 1880, and then again 1886, before eventually being located in Rawlins Park.  The bronze statue, which rests on a granite base, is part of a group entitled “The Civil War Monuments in Washington, D.C.” which are spread out through much of the central and northwest areas of the city.  They are listed as a group on the National Register of Historic Places.

John Aaron Rawlins was born on January 13, 1831, in Gelena, Illinois.  When his father left the family and departed for California for the great gold rush in 1849, the teenaged Rawlins became the head of the family.  Despite receiving little formal education,  he became a lawyer and was admitted to the Illinois State Bar a few years later in 1854.  He began practicing law, and  became involved in state politics.  This led t0 becoming the city attorney in the city of Galena beginning in 1857.

Rawlins was a Douglas Democrat, and was a successful politician with a passion for military life by the time the Civil War broke out on April 12, 1861, when troops attacked Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina.  Two days later, President Abraham Lincoln called for volunteers, and a mass meeting was held in Galena to encourage recruitment. Recognized as a military professional for his prior service, an unassuming ex-captain of the Army, who also clerked for Rawlins’ brother in his leather store, was asked to lead the ensuing effort.  That man was named Ulysses S. Grant.  Grant would soon

Rawlins became Grant’s aide-de-camp and his principal staff officer throughout the Civil War.  Rawlins also became Grant’s most trusted advisor and , according to Grant, nearly indispensable.  But perhaps Rawlins’ greatest contribution was being instrumental in keeping Grant, who was known to be a heavy drinker, from excessive imbibing throughout the war.  Within eight years Grant would become President of the United States, and appoint Rawlins his Secretary of War.

However, Rawlins’ health declined after taking office.  and he would serve as Secretary of War for only five months.  Rawlins was diagnosed with tuberculosis, a disease that claimed the life of his first wife, Emily Smith, nearly eight years earlier.  He died in D.C. at the age of 38 on September 6, 1869.  He was survived by his second wife, Mary Hurlburt, and two of his three children.  He was originally buried in a friend’s vault in Congressional Cemetery, but was subsequently moved to Arlington National Cemetery.

Note: If you stop by Rawlins Park soon, you will have the added benefit of seeing the statue of General John A. Rawlins flanked by a grove of some of the most beautiful magnolia trees in our nation’s capital.

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

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Stoney’s Bar and Grill

This year the arrival of spring did not bring along with it the arrival of spring-like weather. In fact, on the first day of spring I was treated to sleet and snow flurries, and the weather has remained unseasonably cold for the past few days. So I decided thumb my nose at the weather’s refusal to adhere to a schedule, and have my favorite cold weather comfort food for lunch before the warmer weather is eventually ushered in.

When I think of comfort food, I think of a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. What has become my lifelong fondness for the comfort combo began as a child with Velveeta cheese on two slices of Wonder Bread and a can of Campbell’s Tomato Soup. As a grown-up my tastes have progressed, but a good grilled cheese sandwich with tomato soup can still make me feel as warm and secure as a little boy enjoying lunch in my Mom’s kitchen after playing in the snow.

Nowadays when I want to go out for a good grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup, I think of Stoney’s Bar and Grill, a tin-ceilinged dive bar located at 1433 P Street (MAP), in northwest D.C.’s Logan Circle neighborhood. Famous for their version, Stoney’s is consistently voted one of the city’s best places for grilled cheese in The Washington Post’s annual reader’s poll, and on consumer –driven apps such as Yelp and Foursquare. I attribute its popularity to owner Tony Harris preference for bulk American cheese over thinner, pre-sliced varieties.

So I braved today’s unseasonably cold weather and made Stoney’s the destination of my lunchtime bike ride. I walked into the dark, no frills joint, and was happy to be able to get a seat in the front window, which is usually one of my favorite spots to sit in a restaurant. Sitting in a restaurant’s front window often allows me to enjoy the show passing by on the sidewalk out front as I enjoy my meal. I was greeted right away by both the bartender and one of the waitresses, which instantly made me feel at home. I then ordered what I came for, a grilled cheese sandwich. Well, I actually splurged and ordered the Super Grilled Cheese. The Super is a delicious combination of their regular sandwich, consisting of thick-cut American cheese on farmhouse white bread, but with fresh tomato, red onion and bacon added. Combined with thick-cut fries and a cup of their Roasted Tomato Basil Soup, it was good enough to hope the winter weather lasts a little longer.

Unfortunately, the photo of my lunch came out dark and fails to show how appetizing the sandwich actually was.  I guess to correct that I’ll just have to go back to Stoney’s and order it again soon.  For the sake of this blog that is something I am willing to do.

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

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The Peaking of the Cherry Blossoms

The blooming of the Yoshino cherry tree blossoms surrounding the Tidal Basin is anticipated by many people in much the same way that small children anticipate the arrival of Santa at Christmastime. The beautiful blooms of the cherry blossom are looked forward to all winter because they are one of the surest and most celebrated signs of spring. But the peak blooming period varies from year to year. In fact, it can vary by over a month. Unseasonably warm or cool temperatures have resulted in peak bloom as early as March 15.  That occurred in 1990.  And they have peaked as late as April 18, as happened in 1958, according to the National Park Service.

Now, I’m fortunate in that I live in the D.C. area and can see them whenever they arrive. But if you live outside of the area and want to see this springtime spectacular, how do you know when the best time to plan to travel here is? Well, much like the weather, you have to rely on predictions for when the peak of the blooming process will occur.

The point at which the cherry blossoms are at their peak is the date on which 70 percent of the area’s Yoshino cherry blossoms are open. But leading up to this, there are several developmental stages that precede full bloom which the trees go through to reach that point. Many amateur cherry blossom watchers eagerly monitor these stages to try and predict when the peak will be. However, responsibility for the official prediction falls to the National Park Service’s Chief Horticulturalist for the National Capital Region, Robert DeFeo. Each year in early March, Mr. DeFeo announces when peak bloom is most likely to occur around the Tidal Basin. He reads nature’s clues at each stage of the process, meticulously follows the weather forecasts, and then ventures out on a limb with an educated guess.

A brief walk through the stages of the process may be helpful in understanding what Mr. DeFeo and others consider in making their predictions. The first sign of their imminent arrival are when green buds emerge on the trees’ branches. This occurs even before the leaves begin to appear on the trees. In the second stage, florets begin to appear, and then extend themselves from the buds. This occurs anywhere between 12 and 17 days before peak bloom. The third stage in the process is referred to as peduncle elongation. But this is not as complexly scientific as the name makes it sound. Peduncle elongation simply means that the small stalk connecting each bloom to the tree’s branch grows. When this occurs, the blooms are almost certain to blossom in at least five days, but not more than ten days. The next-to-last stage in the blooming process is when the blossoms begin to get puffy, signaling that there are just four to six days to peak bloom. And then, finally, the peak bloom stage arrives.

However, demonstrating how inexact and subject to change the predictions are for when D.C.’s cherry blossoms will reach their peak, this year’s original prediction, issued on March 2nd and predicting the peak to occur between March 31st and April 3rd, had to be revised. Cooler temperatures than what had been previously forecast resulted in the prediction being revised less than a week after it was originally made. The revised forecast is now for this year’s peak bloom to occur between last Thursday (March 18th), and this Wednesday (March 23rd). That meant today should have been right in the middle of the cherry blossoms peak bloom time.

So on today’s lunchtime bike ride I decided to ride to the Tidal Basin to enjoy the spring spectacle. But I ended up feeling like someone who took an umbrella with me because I listened to a weatherman’s prediction for thunderstorms, but then I didn’t see a drop of rain. The cherry blossoms around the Tidal Basin are nowhere near their peak. They are making steady process. But they seem to be taking their time.

The National Park Service has narrowed its most recent prediction, estimating the peak to occur this Wednesday or Thursday.  But from what I observed today, I’d estimate that the majority of the blooms are in the peduncle elongation stage, with peak bloom still potentially ten days away.  With warmer weather arriving soon, and then rain predicted for this weekend, I guess this year we will have to just wait and see what happens.

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Stages of Development
1 – Green Buds   2 – Florets Visible   3 – Peduncle Elongation
4 – Puffy White   5 – Peak Bloom

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

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On my lunchtime bike ride today I happened upon a number of signs containing poetry. When I looked into it, I found out that they were from a recent contest called the 2016 Golden Haiku Contest. The theme of the short poems pertain to Spring.  And even though today was warm and Spring-like, it doesn’t arrive officially until next week.

I took a photo of a dozen of them, but there are 125 different haiku posted around the the Golden Triangle area of the city, which is the heart of D.C.’s business district, stretching from the front yard of the White House to Dupont Circle. If you are nearby and want to see them for yourself, you can find a map of them here.  But if you’re too far away to see them in person, you can read them here, on the Golden Triangle website.

I found it interesting that as I took a photo of each new one I found, the people walking by were oblivious to them. There is so much to see and enjoy in D.C. Unfortunately, many people in the city are too preoccupied to slow down for a moment and enjoy what is all around them.

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Temperatures warm enough to shed winter jackets, the Washington Nationals playing in Space Coast Stadium in Viera, Florida, and setting the clocks ahead like we did this past weekend are all signs that springtime in our nation’s capital is on the horizon.  Another sure sign of spring’s imminent arrival is when the dark spindly trees lining The Tidal Basin begin sprouting their green buds, hinting of the florets that will soon become the world-famous pale pink or white cherry blossoms that annually attract so many visitors to the city during the first weeks of spring.

I look forward to the coming days when I will be fortunate enough to be able to watch the blooming process unfold.  It is expected that the blooms will peak this year between this Friday (March 18th) and next Wednesday (March 23rd), which because of recent unseasonably warm weather is earlier than initially thought.  So although the National Cherry Blossom Festival doesn’t begin until a week from today (March 20th) and runs through April 18th, this coming weekend will be the ideal time to experience this year’s phenomenon.

So whether you for opt for an outing to the Tidal Basin and National Mall area, the tree-lined streets of East Potomac Park and Hains Point, or the diversity and variety of species of cherry trees at the National Arboretum, don’t put it off for very long.  Because the visual splendor of these delicate cherry blooms is given to us, unfortunately, for only a brief time, leading many to say that they are symbolic and serve to remind us of the beauty and brevity of life itself.

(Note: Click here or on the above photo to enlarge it and see the photo in such detail that you’ll be able to see both antennae of a small bug peaking over the branch above the buds.)

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The Lindens

I’ve found that if you remain alert when riding a bike around D.C., you’re almost always guaranteed to happen upon something interesting and out of the ordinary. And on today’s lunchtime bike ride, I chose to ride around with no particular destination in mind hoping to find something new.  I wasn’t disappointed. I was riding around the historic Kalorama Heights neighborhood in northwest D.C. when I happened upon an “Art On Call” installation. Art On Call is a city-wide effort, lead by an organization named Cultural Tourism DC, to restore the city’s abandoned roadside police and fire call boxes and turn them into neighborhood artistic icons. (Note: I plan on writing a future blog post on this subject.)

The Art on Call piece I discovered on this ride was about a house known as The Lindens.  Located nearby at 2401 Kalorama Road (MAP), the house is also known as the King Hooper House.  But it is more than just a house. The elegant Georgian-style house is also the answer to a riddle.  So if anyone ever tells you that there is a house in our nation’s capitol that is the oldest house in the city, even though some houses have been in city longer. And then asks you what house it is, you will know the answer is The Lindens. And after reading this post, you’ll know why.

The house known as The Lindens was built in 1754, more than two decades before America declared its independence, making it the oldest house currently in D.C.  However, it has not always been here.  It was originally built in Danvers, Massachusetts by Robert Hooper, an English Loyalist and wealthy shipping and business tycoon.  It was Hooper, whose nickname was King, who hired an architect named Peter Harrison to build him a summer home for property he owned in Danvers.  It got its name, The Lindens, as a reference to the linden trees that lined the property’s original driveway.  It remained in Massachusetts for nearly 200 years, and had many illustrious owners over those years, including Henry Adams, descendant of President John Adams.  As the American Revolution drew near in 1774, the house even temporarily  sheltered General Thomas Gage, the Massachusetts colony’s last British governor.

However, it become run down over the years and by the time the Great Depression hit the house was in a sad state of affairs. Then in 1933, it was rescued by Israel Sack, founder of the Sack Gallery based in Boston, and Leon David, a Boston real estate and antiques dealer.  At that time Sack used the house for storage and as a showroom. He also brought in a team of architects from the Historic American Buildings Survey in D.C. to make a set of measured drawings and photographs of the house. Those drawings and photographs would soon come in handy.

In 1934, George Maurice Morris, a lawyer who eventually became president of the American Bar Association, and his wife, Miriam, a fertilizer heiress, bought the house for $10,000.  They then had it moved to its present location on Kalorama Road.  Under the supervision of Walter Mayo Macomber, the architect of reconstructed Colonial Williamsburg, the house was painstakingly taken apart and transported on six railroad cars to its new home.  Using the drawings and photographs, it was reassembled beginning in 1935, and took 34 months to complete.  The house was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1969.  So even though there are numerous homes in the city that predate The Lindens tenure at its current location, the house itself is, nonetheless, the oldest house in D.C.

And if this house sounds interesting to you and you think you might want to own it, you’re in luck.  It is currently for sale.  The 262-year old, 8,820 square-foot house boasts six bedroom suites, and seven full and two half baths on five separate levels. It also includes banquet and embassy-sized principal rooms, a reception hall, a library, a spa with sauna, a billiard room, a tavern room, and eleven fireplaces. The Colonial-style home has all of this, as well as a patio and three-car garage, all on a majestic half-acre, landscaped and fully fenced-in yard.  The Lindens was featured in Architectural Digest in January of 2014.  The house most recently sold for $7.165 million in February of 2007 to retired hedge fund manager Kenneth Brody, but is now on the market again and could be yours for a mere 8.75 million dollars.  I looked over my budget and worked out the math, and found out that I’d have to sell some of my bikes to be able to afford it.  So I decided to pass.

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

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On today’s bike ride I stopped by to see the United States Constitution at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration Building. I chose to do so because it was on this day in 1789 that an American government under the Constitution initially began when the first session of Congress was held in New York City.

It was three years earlier, in 1786, that shortcomings in the Articles of Confederation became apparent, such as the lack of central authority over foreign and domestic commerce and the inability of Congress to levy taxes. This led Congress to endorse a plan to draft a new governing document.  In September of the following year, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, the new U.S. Constitution was approved by 38 of 41 delegates to the convention, creating a Federal government with an intricate system of checks and balances.

However, the new document would not become binding until it was ratified by nine of the 13 existing states. So it was sent to the state legislatures for ratification.  Five states – Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Georgia, and Connecticut – quickly ratified it. However, other states opposed the document for its failure to reserve powers not delegated by the Constitution to the states and its lack of constitutional protection for such basic political rights as freedom of speech, religion and the press, and the right to bear arms.

The following February, a compromise was reached in which the other states agreed to ratify the document with the assurance that amendments would immediately be adopted. The Constitution was thus narrowly ratified by Massachusetts, Maryland, South Carolina, and New Hampshire, giving it the number needed for adoption, and government under the U.S. Constitution was scheduled to begin on March 4, 1789.

However,  for that first session of congress, of the 22 senators and 59 representatives called to represent the 11 states who had ratified the Constitution, only nine senators and 13 representatives showed up.   So I guess the today’s work ethic in Congress is really nothing new.

(Note:  They wouldn’t let me bring my bike into the National Archives to take a photo next to the Constitution.  In fact, they don’t allow any photography at all, which is why the photo I quickly took when no one was looking is not very good.)

Although most of my posts in this blog are about my weekday, lunchtime bike rides around the city, with an occasional weekend or holiday excursion to local and regional parks in the greater metropolitan area, for this post I ventured out to an evening event on a weekday.

Last night I stood, along with the local community, to pay my respects and honor Prince William County Police Officer Ashley Guindon.  Officer Guindon was killed in the line of duty, and two other officers – Jesse Hempen and David McKeown, were shot and wounded when they responded to a domestic violence call this past Saturday.  It was her first day on the job, having been sworn in just the day before.  So last night, as dozens upon dozens of police motorcycles and cruisers with red-and-blue flashing lights lit up the darkness, we “lined the route” as Officer Guindon’s body was taken to the Hylton Memorial Chapel, located at 14640 Potomac Mills Road in Woodbridge (MAP).  A viewing will take place at the chapel beginning at 10:00am today, and it is open to the public.  The public is also invited to the funeral service beginning at noon, but it should be known that priority will be given to law enforcement and government officials if space becomes an issue.

Police are warning people not to donate to GoFundMe pages that purport to be raising money for Guindon’s family.  It has been determined that at least one fraudulent page was set up in the Officer Guindon’s name.  The Prince William County Police Association has created an official memorial fund, with all donations going directly to Officer Guindon’s family.  Anyone who wishes to donate can leave their donation at any county police station or mail it directly to the police association at: Prince William County Police Association, Officer Guindon Memorial Fund, P. O. Box 1845, Manassas, VA 20108.