Because it’s the seat of the United States of America, Washington, D.C. boasts some of the finest museums and monuments in the nation. I got one of the richest history lessons of my life in the relatively short time I spent in the city. There was also the awareness of being in the presence of incredibly powerful individuals: The White House, the Pentagon, embassies from most of the world’s nations, and Capitol Hill were all within a short distance of each other. I found it all quite dizzying. The funny thing is Washington, D.C. didn’t have that big city feeling I experienced in other places; in fact, it felt rather small and provincial. Maybe it was because there weren’t any big office towers.
The Lincoln Memorial was the first on my “to see” list. No other American President has been memorialized in this fashion. At the time of my visit I didn’t know much about “Honest Abe,” which was the nickname Lincoln got when he worked as a store clerk in New Salem, Illinois. As the story went, he walked three miles to a customer’s home to return money he collected by mistake. A massive sculpture of Lincoln faces east and his steady gaze is locked on the long reflecting pool. As I gazed at the statue, I wondered how U.S. history might have changed if Lincoln had stayed home on April 14th, 1865. The “what-ifs” abound to this day.
I moved on to another monument close by, one that’s much darker in color and represents a deep scar on the American psyche, which hasn’t fully healed. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial is made of shiny, black granite and is ten feet high at the centermost point. The mood changed – it wasn’t excitement but something more akin to mournful, grave, and humorless. The Vietnam Memorial is inscribed with soldiers’ names – more than 50,000 of them, and locating a specific one can be daunting because they’re engraved by date of casualty and not in alphabetical order. Again, I didn’t know much about the Vietnam War but I learned a lot more about it that day. For Canadians, the Vietnam War doesn’t stir up any discussions or memories. Americans, however, remain sharply divided.