Sitting here at my computer, on my first day as a purely private citizen for the first time in more than 50 years, I’m moved to think about the city that I have adopted as home. Originally a native of Texas, the Lone Star State, a place I left in 1962 without regret, and to which I’ve never returned, although it remains in my heart and memory, I decided to remain in the Washington, DC area (actually, just outside DC in Montgomery County, Maryland) because it too has established a firm place in my psyche.
Having represented my country abroad for most of the past half century, I’ve never had much chance to really get to know my own country. Oh, I’ve made a number of road trips, and have driving from coast to coast five or six times; but, I’ve never really ‘experienced’ my native land. I had a year of traveling around the country with colleagues during my attendance at the State Department’s unwisely cancelled Senior Seminar from 2001 to 2002, just before going to Cambodia, and that gave me a taste for the rich diversity that this country represents; but, only a taste.
For the past month, since returning from my last posting to Zimbabwe, I have been spending time really getting to know the Washington area. I am impressed. This place has everything; expanses of parkland and forest, rivers and streams, diverse wildlife and flora, culture, and representatives of every nation, religion, language, and culture on earth. Gourmands would salivate at the cuisine offered in the region’s restaurants. The art galleries and museums rival those of any other city on the planet. Riding the Metro is like being at a UN meeting; you see everyone, and hear a dozen different languages being spoken. As a writer, I find it a rich source of inspiration and ideas for future projects.
But, what impresses me most, I think, is that Washington, DC is a monumental city. I don’t mean that in an epic sense, but literally. In and around the DC area there is a monument, statue, or plaque to just about everything or everyone you can imagine. The skyline is dominated by the Washington Monument, a soaring phallic-shaped obelisk that sits in the geographic center of Washington’s famous National Mall, between the Capitol Building and the Lincoln Memorial, facing the White House, and surrounded by memorials to those who have fought in the nation’s wars, some of our other notable presidents, and such historic figures as the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Round any corner in DC, and you’re likely to find a statue of a figure on horseback or a famous scientist, such as Albert Einstein. On a gently sloping hill, overlooking the Potomac River and the Mall, is Arlington National Cemetery, the final resting place of many American heroes, from John F. Kennedy to three Vietnam War-era Special Forces soldiers with whom I served in 1969, who were interred with full military honors on August 30, 2012, after being missing for over 40 years.
It strikes me that there’s perhaps no better place to start getting to know the United States (and I don’t say America here, because we’re just one part of America; can’t forget Canada, Mexico, and all the countries to the south, which are part of North and South America). Here, just by walking around the Mall and adjacent areas, you get over a college semester’s worth of the country’s history; its wars, its troubles, and its efforts to overcome them. You can stand on the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gaze at the reflection of the Washington Monument in the recently renovated Reflecting Pool; walk along the black slash in the peaceful green hillside that is the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Wall; or look over at the just visible memorial to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who ‘had a dream’ on those steps under the solemn gaze of Abraham Lincoln, the man who held the Union together against incredible odds, and saw the country through some of its darkest days.
It’s only a starting point; I have some ambitious ‘retirement’ travel plans, with trips to Kansas in December and Arizona and New Mexico next April; but what a starting point it is. Washington’s Monuments will draw me back again and again; and, every time, I know I’ll find some new treasure I missed before.