Archive for May, 2016

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The National Memorial Day Concert

Over the past week or so it has become clear to me that Memorial Day is one of the best holidays to schedule a visit to our nation’s capitol. There are so many activities that take place, all scheduled within a short period of time leading up to the holiday, that it is worth planning ahead so that you can be here next year.  And during this past weekend I was able to attend an event that was a highlight for me – The National Memorial Day Concert.

Actually, this year I attended the dress rehearsal for the concert. And it turned out to be a good decision. The concert itself takes place on the Sunday before Memorial Day, and the dress rehearsal takes place on Saturday.  Both are held on the West Lawn, on the grounds of the U.S. Capitol Building (MAP).  The dress rehearsal includes everything the actual concert does, except this year it didn’t include the rain.  It was a dry, mild evening for the rehearsal on Saturday. But on Sunday, rain brought on by a tropical depression making its way up the East Coast, fell throughout most of the concert.

So I took my youngest daughter, and we got to the rehearsal concert early.  In fact,  we arrived just as they were opening the security gates. So we got great lawn seats, right behind the cordoned-off security area in the front.  We had a great view of this year’s performers, including the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of top pops conductor Jack Everly, who were at times accompanied by The U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, The U.S. Army Chorus, The Soldiers’ Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band, The U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, and The U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants. We also enjoyed performances by acclaimed classical singer Renée Fleming, actress and singer Katharine McPhee, American Idol winner Trent Harmon, and Broadway star Alfie Boe. But the highlights of the concert for me were The Beach Boys, who I hadn’t seen in person since their controversial 1980 concert for the 4th of July on the National Mall, singing several of their iconic songs, and country music star Trace Adkins, who performed his hit song entitled Arlington.

The concert was a lot of fun. Both my daughter and I really enjoyed it. But the highlight for my daughter came after the performances ended. At this point it is important to know that she is a huge fan of Gary Sinise who, for the 11th year in a row, co-hosted the event along with Joe Montegna.  In fact, despite his widespread popularity, she may actually be Gary Sinise’s biggest fan. So after the performances ended, and most of the crowd had left, the hosts and performers stayed and taped some additional footage so that if the next night’s concert had to be cancelled due to the approaching storm, an edited version of the rehearsal would be able to air in the time slot scheduled for of the live broadcast of the concert.  And it was during this time that the highlight of my daughter’s evening occurred.

Since most of the security detail left along with the crowd at the end of the rehearsal, we saw an opportunity and snuck through the security barriers into the cordoned off area where Gary Sinise was filming his retakes so she can see him close up.  Then, just as everything was ending and the performers were beginning to leave, she was able to catch up with him as he was exiting the stage, and actually meet him.  And standing there in her Bubba Gump Shrimp Company hat, like one that he wore in the movie Forrest Gump, and her Lieutenant Dan t-shirt, she also got him to autograph her hat as they briefly talked.

She said her heart was beating so hard that it almost burst out of her chest when she met him.  And she’s been absolutely giddy about the whole experience ever since.  She even ran out the next day and bought a display case for the autographed hat.  Afterward she told me that meeting her favorite actor and getting his autograph had been a big item on her bucket list. So she has now crossed that off her list. And I got to cross an item off my list too, which was to help someone else accomplish something on their bucket list.  And despite how good the performances were, that beats a concert any day.

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Note:  My one complaint about the National Memorial Day Concert and the preceding rehearsal is that despite warnings about traffic and inadequate parking for the event, they make no accommodations for people arriving on bicycles.

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Honor Flight Veterans

On this Pre-Memorial Day weekend bike ride, as I was riding through the plaza in front of the The Lincoln Memorial (MAP), I noticed a number of people who were all wearing matching yellow T-shirts gathered on the steps of the memorial.  It turns out they were all U.S. military veterans, and they were brought to D.C. by the Honor Flight Network.

The Honor Flight Network is a coalition of non-profit organizations dedicated to transporting as many military veterans as possible to D.C., at no cost to the veterans, to visit and reflect at the national memorials to the respective wars in which they fought.   Top priority is given to bringing veterans of World War II to The National World War II Memorial, as well as any veteran with a terminal illness.  The veterans are generally escorted by volunteer guardians, who assist them on their flights and while they are here in D.C.

Some of the veterans I saw today were World War II veterans, many of them in wheelchairs, like the ones I saw a couple of years ago at an impromptu parade.  Others served during the Korean and Vietnam wars.  The veterans had just been dropped off by buses, and were conducting a brief prayer service on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial before visiting The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and The Korean War Veterans Memorial, and then moving on to the World War II Memorial.

Although the upcoming Memorial Day holiday is for remembering the military members who died while serving in our country’s armed forces, witnessing this inspiring and moving event involving surviving veterans was a good beginning to the holiday weekend.

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Swords to Plowshares Memorial Bell Tower

As I was riding past The Lincoln Memorial on this lunchtime bike ride, I noticed a tall three-sided tower in a grassy area on the other side of where some tour busses were stopped on the street that encircles the Memorial (MAP). The tower appeared to be made up of shiny sheet metal bricks, and next to it were an Army-surplus tent and several signs with information. So naturally I rode over to get a better look and find out more about it.

It turned out to be a memorial known as the Swords to Plowshares Memorial Bell Tower, and is sponsored by a group named Veterans For Peace.  The organization was founded as a non-profit organization in the state of Maine in 1985, and was initially made up of U.S. military veterans of World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Gulf War and other conflicts, as well as peacetime veterans and even non-veterans.  It has more recently expanded, with active chapters and members in communities throughout the United States, Puerto Rico, and Vietnam, as well as a very active offshoot in the United Kingdom.

The Swords to Plowshares tower is a touring memorial dedicated to all of the victims and veterans of war on all sides of all conflicts.  The 24-foot-tall tower was modeled after the 115-foot-tall World War I-era bell tower on the campus of North Carolina State University.  One of the cleverest aspects to the design of the touring tower is that it’s covered with over a thousand inscribed memorial “plaques,” which upon close inspection I discovered were made from recycled cans that had been cut and turned inside-out. The plaques are loosely attached to the structure, which causes them to move whenever there is the slightest breeze, resulting in a shimmering effect which, in part, is what initially caught my attention.

I was told that wherever the tower appears, visitors add personal inscriptions to the plaques. They then ring the large old bell, which originally came from the Church of Reconciliation in Chapel Hill, but is now located in the center of the structure.  And share their stories about the many ways people suffer on all sides of a war.

The arrival of the installation in D.C. coincides with the Memorial Day weekend, as well as with the Veterans For Peace “Lobby Days,” during which the organization lobbies members of Congress on a variety of issues of concern to the organization. These issues include the Obama administration’s priorities in the national budget, the continuing effects of Agent Orange used during the Vietnam War, and the increase in hate speech in society, particularly during the current presidential election season. The tower’s presence also is timed to coincide with the arrival of the annual “Sam’s Ride For Peace,” led by 91-year-old World War II combat veteran Sam Winstead. The Marine Corps veteran and avid bicyclist rode the inaugural 350-mile Ride for Peace, from Raleigh, N.C. to D.C., in the spring of 2012, so that he could “ask our leaders to stop wars.”

The Swords to Plowshares Memorial Bell Tower will only be on display here in D.C. through May 31st, so you’ll want to make it part of your agenda for the Memorial Day weekend if you want to see it while it’s still here. But if you can’t see it in person, you can follow it here on Facebook.

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Flags In

On today’s lunchtime bike ride I rode to Arlington National Cemetery, (MAP) where I was fortunate enough to observe the annual tradition known as “Flags In.”  The tradition, which is carried out by the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment whose nickname is “The Old Guard,” provides a moment to pause and honor our fallen heroes, and marks the beginning of Memorial Day weekend activities at the same cemetery that hosted the first national Memorial Day commemoration on May 30, 1868.

The tradition began in 1948, when The Old Guard, which has the distinction of being the oldest active unit in the United States Army dating back to 1784, was first designated as the Army’s official ceremonial unit.  Every available soldier in the regiment participates in the tradition, which consists of placing small American flags in front of each headstone, and at the bottom of each niche row, throughout the 624 acres of rolling hills in the cemetery.  Lasting approximately four hours, approximately a thousand soldiers place almost a half a million flags.  Flags are placed in front of more than 228,000 headstones, and at the bottom of about 7,000 niche rows in the cemetery’s Columbarium Courts and the Niche Wall.  Also during Flags In, Army Chaplains place flags in front of the memorials and headstones located on Chaplain’s Hill, and Tomb Sentinels place flags at the gravesites of the unknown interred at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  The Old Guard also places approximately 14,000 flags at the National cemetery located at the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home in northwest D.C.  All of the flags are then removed after Memorial Day, before the cemeteries open to the public.

So on this holiday weekend as you are having a cookout or heading out to a sale at a department store or mall, don’t forget to take some time to think about the real reason for this holiday – to remember and honor the people who died while serving in our country’s armed forces. Whether they were famous and known to you, or will forever remain anonymous except to their families and comrades at arms, each one deserves to be remembered and honored, not only on Memorial Day but every day.

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President Lincoln’s Cottage

On this lunchtime bike ride I visited what’s now known as President Lincoln’s “cottage”, which is a national monument located on the grounds of the “Old Soldiers’ Home,” known today as the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home.  Located in northwest D.C. near the Petworth and Park View neighborhoods (MAP), the Gothic Revival-style residence, a style considered particularly appropriate at that time for country cottages, has a very interesting history.

Originally known as the “Corn Rigs” cottage, it was built in 1842 by wealthy D.C. banker George Washington Riggs, at his 250-acre summer retreat.  The word “cottage”, however, is somewhat of a misnomer inasmuch as it is actually a 34-room country home.  Almost a decade later, Riggs offered to sell his property to the Federal government, which was looking for a place to create a home for retired and disabled Army veterans.  An army committee purchased the estate in 1851 and utilized the house to create the Old Soldiers’ Home later the same year.  Six years later, in 1857, the retired soldier residents moved into a newly-built large stone Gothic building near the cottage. 

With the cottage now vacant, the Old Soldiers’ Home invited President James Buchanan to make his summer residence there.  Accepting the offer, President Buchanan spent a few weeks out of at least two summers at the cottage during the remainder of his presidency.

Presumably on the recommendation of President Buchanan, the next president, Abraham Lincoln, first visited the Old Soldiers’ Home just three days after his first inauguration.  Later, President Lincoln and his family would escape to the cottage between June and November in 1862, 1863, and 1864.   The family would almost certainly have returned in 1865 if President Lincoln had not been assassinated in April of that year.  In all, President Lincoln and his family spent over a quarter of his Presidency there. Each summer the White House staff transported some 19 cartloads of the Lincoln family’s belongings to the cottage. Unfortunately, there is no record of exactly what they brought.

With the Civil War officially commencing just a month after he was inaugurated, Lincoln could not escape the Civil War and his burden of leadership, even at the cottage. Every morning the President rode by horseback to the White House to carry out official business, returning to the cottage every evening.  Today, the drive down Georgia Avenue takes just a few minutes, but in the 1860s the commute through what was then a mostly wilderness area was a little slower and more dangerous.  The cavalry units that were to eventually accompanied him on his commute, as well as the encampments, hospitals, and cemeteries he passed on his was to work served, as constant reminders of the war.

It was while staying at the cottage, in fact, that President Lincoln came his closest to the war.  On July 12, 1864, when Confederate General Jubal Early attacked Fort Stevens, the President brashly went to observe the nearby battle, even though his family had been evacuated to the White House for the four days of the battle.  It was during this time that President Lincoln became the only president ever to come under hostile fire while in office.  During the second day of the battle, as he stood on atop the parapet of the fort to witness the battle, the President came under direct fire of Confederate sharpshooters.  Perhaps saving his life, a young officer named Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., who would eventually go on to serve as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, shouted to the President, “Get down, you damn fool!”

Other interesting events for which President Lincoln’s cottage served as the backdrop include the fact that the President was staying at the cottage when he wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in September of 1862.  And in August of 1864, a sniper attempted to assassinate the President as he traveled back to the cottage alone late at night.  The lone rifle shot missed Lincoln’s head by inches, but during the attempt the President lost the hat he was wearing.  The following day, two soldiers went looking for the hat.  They discovered it on the path, with a bullet hole through the side.  Also, in the summer of 1864, John Wilkes Booth, who would later in April of 1865 successfully assassinate President Lincoln, formulated his original plot, which was to kidnap the President during his commute from the cottage to the White House.

President Lincoln reportedly made his last visit to the cottage on April 13, 1865, the day before his assassination.  But he was not the last president to take advantage of the healthy breezes at the cottage.  Rutherford B. Hayes spent the summers of 1877 to 1880 there.  And Chester A. Arthur stayed at the cottage during renovations at the White House in the winter of 1882, and spent summers there as well.

In more recent years, the cottage has been recognized for its historical significance. The Secretary of the Interior designated the U.S. Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Home, which includes the pre-Civil War cottage, as a National Historic Landmark in November of 1973.  President Bill Clinton declared the cottage and 2.3 surrounding acres a National Monument in July of 2000.  To this day it holds the distinction of being the only national monument in the country that operates with no Federal funding.  The following year, the National Trust for Historic Preservation began a thorough restoration of the cottage, restoring it to the period of Lincoln’s occupancy according to standards established by the National Park Service. The restoration was completed in 2007.  President Lincoln’s Cottage was then opened to the public for the first time in history on President’s Day in 2008. It remains open today, and is managed through a cooperative agreement between the Armed Forces Retirement Home and the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

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Click on this photo to take a virtual tour of the inside of The Lincoln Cottage.

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The Original Washington Monument

The original Washington monument is not the large obelisk which towers over the National Mall.  That monument was dedicated in 1885. Neither is it the even earlier monument depicting George Washington on horseback. That statue was dedicated in 1860. Both the iconic obelisk and the equestrian statue were created after our nation’s original monument to its first President. The original Washington Monument was commissioned for the centennial of President George Washington’s birth, and was dedicated in 1841, almost two decades earlier than either of those monuments.

In 1832 Congress commissioned American sculptor Horatio Greenough to create a monument to George Washington for the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol Building. Known as “Enthroned Washington,” the statue is modeled after Phidias’ Statue of Olympian Zeus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.  It depicts a seated and sandal-wearing figure draped in a toga and naked from the waist up.  With his right upraised index finger he is pointing toward heaven.  And with his left hand he is cradling a sheathed sword, hilt forward, symbolizing the turning over of power to the people of the newly-formed country at the conclusion of the Revolutionary War.

However, within the first few weeks after it was installed in the Capitol rotunda, complaints from the public began to flood in.  The complaints centered on President Washington’s semi-nude, nipple-baring state, which many believed to be inappropriate and undignified, especially for an American president.  As a result, the statue quickly became the “butt” of many jokes.  Following their constituent’s lead, many Congressmen also began to voice objections to the statue.  In fact, enough legislators found it to be so risqué and controversial that Congress voted the following year to move it out of the U.S. Capitol Building.  It was initially moved outside, to the east lawn of the Capitol grounds.  The statue eventually became part of the Smithsonian Institution’s collection and, in 1908, was moved to the “Smithsonian Castle.”  It remained there until 1962 when it crossed the National Mall to the new Museum of History and Technology, which is now the National Museum of American History (MAP).  It was there that I was able to visit it during this lunchtime bike ride.  And even though I had to leave the bike outside, it was worth going inside to view it.

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Left – African American school children facing the Horatio Greenough statue of George Washington at the U.S. Capitol.  (Library of Congress Control Number 91482755.  Contributor: Frances Benjamin Johnston. Circa 1899.)
Right – Crowd at the inauguration of Rutherford B. Hayes, on the east front grounds of the U.S. Capitol, surrounding Horatio Greenough’s statue of George Washington (Library of Congress Control Number 91482755.  Contributor: Brady’s National Photographic Portrait Galleries. Circa 1877.)

Note:  Historic photos obtained from the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

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National Bike to Work Day 2016

Today was the 60th annual National Bike to Work Day. Originally begun in 1956 by The League of American Bicyclists, the day is part of National Bike Month, which is recognized annually during the month of May. Over the past sixty years, Bike to Work Day has grown into a widespread event with countless bike riders taking to the streets nationwide in an effort to get commuters to try bicycling to work as a healthy and safe alternative to driving a car.

Bike to Work Day in the metropolitan D.C. area has been held annually for the past decade and a half.  It was originally started in 2001 by The Washington Area Bicyclist Association (WABA), of which I am a member.  That first year consisted of a small group of only a few hundred, but has since grown significantly.  There were a record 17,500+ officially registered participants in 2015.  And hopefully this year, a new record will be set.

This year WABA, along with Commuter Connections, a regional network of transportation organizations coordinated by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, as well as a number of local bike shops and organizations, again sponsored pit stops along many of the commuter routes in the area.  So I took a few hours of vacation time and spent the morning riding to some of this year’s 83 area pit stops that were set up in D.C., Maryland and Virginia.  And I did a breakfast crawl at the pit stops set up at Freedom Plaza, Franklin Square and at the National Geographic Society, where they were handing out muffins and baked goods, Kind breakfast bars, fresh fruit, and all kinds of other items.  They also had valet bike parking, and bike mechanics on site to help with problems and make adjustments for those who needed it.  I also picked up a lot of free swag, because they were giving away free items like T-shirts, water bottles, sunglasses, tire repair kits, bike lights and bells, area maps, etc.  I also was given coupons for a free bus ride for both my bike and I, which will come in useful if my bike breaks down on one of my rides.  I’m also entered for a chance to win a new bike and other prizes in various drawings.

Bike to Work Day is a clean, fun and healthy way to get to work. But even if you’re unable to commute via bicycle, use can use the day as a spark to getting out there and riding a bike more.  Or maybe riding again if it has been a while since you were on a bike.  Whether it’s for recreation, exercise, running errands, or for any other reason, riding a bike not only has its benefits for both the rider and the environment, but it’s also just plain fun.  As a former resident of D.C. named John F. Kennedy was once quoted as saying, “Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.”

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Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain

On this lunchtime bike ride, I visited a fountain just down the street from my office. It is located on Pennsylvania Avenue, at its intersection with Constitution Avenue and 6th Street (MAP), and is known as The Andrew W. Mellon Memorial Fountain. The fountain serves as a tribute to Andrew Mellon, who in addition to being known as a famous Pittsburgh industrialist and financier, also served as Secretary of the Treasury, ambassador to Great Britain, and was the founder of the National Gallery of Art, which the fountain is located just north of.

The round, tiered fountain is comprised of a series of three small-to-large nested bronze basins which empty water into its pebble-lined granite pool. The outer, and largest, bronze basin is engraved with the twelve signs of the zodiac, each sitting in its correct astrological position for the sun’s rays. And the top basin houses a spouting jet that shoots a stream of water up to twenty feet in the air, before falling back down and cascading through the tiers and into fountain’s base. Surrounding the fountain is a seven-foot wide granite walkway, and a semi-circular granite bench with an inscription that reads, “1855.Andrew W. Mellon.1937; Financier Industrialist Statesman; Secretary of the Treasury 1921-1932 Ambassador to Great Britain 1932-1933; Founder of the National Gallery Of Art 1937; This Fountain Is A Tribute From His Friends.”

The fountain was dedicated during a ceremony on May 9, 1952, which was presided over by President Harry S. Truman. And in 1993, when the fountain was surveyed by the Smithsonian Institution’s Save Outdoor Sculpture! Program, it was still described as “well maintained.” However, over the past quarter century the fountain had fallen into a state of disrepair. In fact, beginning in 2008 the fountain was no longer operational. So on September 25th of last year, the National Park Service transferred custody of the fountain and the surrounding triangular park to the National Gallery of Art, so that it could be restored.

The restoration and renovation of the fountain and site was divided into two phases. The first phase of the project included conservation of the three-tiered bronze fountain, revival of the original landscaping plan, and replacement of sophisticated mechanical waterworks that power the fountain spout and cascades. That phase was completed earlier this year, and was unveiled on March 17, 2016. Phase two of the project includes rehabilitation of the plaza and memorial bench around the fountain, and is scheduled to be completed in the summer of next year.

Given the newly restored condition of the fountain itself, and the ambitious schedule for the remainder of the project, at least according to D.C. standards, I think it’s a shame that ownership of many other fountains in the city cannot immediately be transferred to the National Gallery of Art.

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Bloodstained Men Protest

On this lunchtime bike ride, as I was riding through Lafayette Square and past the plaza in front of the north portico of the White House (MAP), I noticed an unusual looking protest.  From a distance it caught my eye because the men protesting were dressed in all-white outfits with what appeared to be red stains on their crotches.  I also noticed that the demonstration was not only getting a lot of attention, but was also prompting double-takes or shudders from some of the tourists and other passersby.  So naturally I rode over to take a closer look and try to find out more.

It turned out that the protest was by a group called Bloodstained Men and Their Friends, which is traveling around the country to protest against infant male circumcision in the United States.  And they have more than 60 anti-circumcision protests scheduled throughout this year.  That includes this protest at the White House.

Two of the main Abrahamic faiths, Judaism and Islam, require that males be circumcised, while Christians and nonbelievers are mixed on the topic.  Others believe that circumcision has health advantages for men completely separate from religious belief.  Both the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have found that the health benefits of newborn male circumcision outweigh the risks, and that the benefits justify access to this procedure for families who choose it.

However, the organizers of the protest consider the procedure of infant male circumcision to be a violation of human rights, and want this country to follow the advice of the European medical community, which has condemned American doctors for infant circumcision.  They also contend that in the United States, the legality of the practice is a violation of the 14th Amendment.

Despite being practiced in many African and Middle Eastern countries as a cultural custom, the Federal government passed a law in 1996 against Female Genital Mutilation.  In fact, just this week the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which considers it an international human rights issue, announced on its web site that it is encouraging people to come forward and report cases so that it can proactively investigate this illegal practice.  Bloodstained Men contend inasmuch as the 14th Amendment says that the law has to be applied equally, infant boys should be entitled to the same respect of their bodies that girls are.

However, the Bloodstained Men philosophy is not strictly anti-circumcision.  Although they do not advocate the process for anyone, the group believes the decision on whether to be circumcised should be left to the individual once he is an adult.  They also believe that protesting isn’t their main mission.  Rather, protesting is a means by which they seek to start a dialogue about the subject in hopes of educating people.  By this measure, I think their protest was a success.

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As the week designated for recognizing and honoring our nations law enforcement officers is coming to an end, I thought I’d share these photos of some of the many different law enforcement vehicles I have happened upon on the streets of D.C.  I don’t know how many of them may still be in official use.  Or whether they are for just ceremonies and special occasions.  But I found them all interesting, and yet another reason to visit the city on Peace Officers Memorial Day (which this year is tomorrow), and throughout National Police Week.

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