Sunday, November 24, 2013

Washington, D.C. - Day 7: The Pentagon, Arlington National Cemetery

It was hard to follow-up on the excitement of our sixth day in D.C., but we had a very enjoyable seventh day.

On Wednesday, November 6th, we had reservations to tour the Pentagon.  We arrived at the Pentagon in time to receive our tour given to us by an Air Force Airman 1st Class (A1C) in full service dress.  While at least half of the tour focused on the attack of September 11, 2001, we did learn a little bit about the Pentagon and its function.

The place is absolutely massive.  There are five concentric pentagons nested inside each other, and then there are five levels up and two levels down on each pentagon.  There are over 17 miles of corridors, and there's enough phone line in the building to circle the earth four-and-a-half times!  And there's 691 water fountains! Like I said, it's massive!

After our tour, we walked a few blocks away to a mall in Pentagon City where we found a food court for lunch.  It just so happened that a Metro station was right there in that mall, so we hopped on and rode a couple of stops away to Arlington Cemetery.

Arlington National Cemetery is our nation's most hallowed cemetery.  Our first destination when we arrived was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers to watch the changing of the guard.  Not only did we watch the changing of the guard, but we also got to watch a wreath-laying ceremony with a live bugler playing Taps.  It was very moving, and it brought a tear to the corner of my eye.

When the ceremonies were over, we walked to the "eternal flame" gravesite of President John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline Kennedy. Following that, we walked to the gravesite of President/Chief Justice Howard Taft.  On our stroll through the cemetery, we saw many other notable gravesites: Thurgood Marshall (first black Justice of the Supreme Court), Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, and Five-Star General Omar Bradley.

Arlington Cemetery is indeed a solemn, peaceful, hallowed place.  It is Steve's wish to be interred in Arlington when he passes, so it was somewhat strange to realize that I was walking through the cemetery where my husband will likely lie some day, providing I survive him.  But honestly, there's nothing more fitting for this honorable man than the honor of being in Arlington National Cemetery.

There are many memorials and interesting areas in Arlington National Cemetery, but we didn't have a chance to see much of it besides what I listed.  Because the cemetery is so expansive, our feet couldn't handle all the walking.  After seeing the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers and the two gravesites of the former presidents, we decided to call it a day.  We hopped back onto the subway and headed home a little early to give us some extra time to rest.

Washington, D.C. - Day 6: The White House


On our sixth day into D.C. we had a reservation for a White House tour.  White House tours had been suspended for the last year or so, but we were able to get a tour reservation on the very first day they were opened back up to the public.

But wait!  I'm getting ahead of myself...

We started our day very early and headed out the door by 6:30 A.M.  We took the Metro into the city, and got there much before we thought we would.  It was just before 9:00 when we got off the subway at the White House.  Our tour wasn't scheduled until 10:30, so we had some time to kill. 

Just a couple of blocks away was the Old Post Office Tower, which is a free panoramic view of the entire D.C. area once you climb up to the tippy-top. So we walked to the Old Post Office Tower, climbed up to the top, saw the entire city from all four vantage points, saw the Congressional Bells that ring only by command of Congress, then climbed back down and walked to the White House a few blocks away.  Along the way, we passed by the National Boy Scout monument. Since we have four Eagle Scouts in our family, we just had to stop for a picture. We thought we still had plenty of time to spare.

Our reservation paperwork said to arrive 15 minutes early (which would have been 10:15 for the 10:30 tour) in order to clear security.  We found where we were supposed to be and still had 20-25 minutes extra.  Plenty of time, right?


That was NOT a 15-minute line!  The lines to tour the White House were clear down the White House lawn, circled around the Sherman Statue, out the gates of the lawn, and down the street!  When we realized we were in the back of the line with people who were there for the 11:00 tour, we got the attention of a park ranger to ask if we could jump ahead in the line so we wouldn't be late for our tour. (Even though it was still early enough, we knew that the line would take longer than the 15 minutes they told us!)  However, the park ranger held his hands up in the air and told us in no uncertain terms that NO ONE would be allowed to jump ahead in the line.  Sigh.

So we finally got to the front of the line after waiting who-knows-how-long, then cleared many levels of security.  As soon as we got cleared, the guards pushed us up ahead of the rest of the crowd.  We entered the corridor inside the White House door...


They shut the doors in front of us and weren't allowed to enter the main hallway.  We weren't allowed to advance!  We were the first ones in the corridor, and eventually the room filled up with other people.  Finally after several more minutes, the guard let us advance into the next hallway where we saw the Library, the China Room, and the Vermeil Room.


Once again, we were detained.  We were crammed into this hallway shoulder-to-shoulder, but the stairwell was blocked by guards.  One guard told us that the tour group ahead of us (which is the group we were SUPPOSED to be with) was taking longer than expected, so we just had to wait.
Finally we were allowed up the stairs and into the East Room.  This is a very large and ornate multi-purpose room filled with chairs for events that take place there.


But once again we were detained.  We were again crammed into the room like sardines, but this time instead of being detained only a few minutes, this time we were there for AN ENTIRE HOUR!  And here's the ultimate irony:  a room full of chairs, and we weren't allowed to sit down.  Sigh.


We were allowed out of the East Room, and we self-paced through the Green Room, the Blue Room, the Red Room, and the State Dining Room.  While I was admiring the State Dining Room, the kids went up ahead and got to meet the "First Dogs" of the White House, Sonny and Bo.

We exited through the Cross Halls and Entrance (worthy of experience themselves!) and out to the front portico of the White House where we were finally allowed to take pictures.


The reason we were detained for so long (our 45-minute tour ended up taking over 2 hours) is because JUST ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE DOOR while we were waiting for an hour in the East Room, President Obama and Mrs. Obama were welcoming tourists in person. 

Yes, that's right.  The tour group that we were SUPPOSED to be with met the POTUS and First Lady while we suffered sardine-like on our feet for over an hour.  Mr. Obama stayed for a half-hour, and Mrs. Obama stayed for an additional half hour: exactly the amount of time we were confined to the East Room.


Oh well.  Such is life.  So close, and yet so far.

I really enjoyed the tour of the White House, at least the part that we saw of it.  The famous Oval Office and West Wing are off-limits to tourists, as well as a few other areas, so we were very limited in what we could see.  Nonetheless, we saw many impressive historical artifacts dating back to the late 1700's and early 1800's, original official portraits of the past presidents, gorgeous interior decorating, and let's not forget about the First Dogs!

Once we were completely finished, we walked out of the secured area of the First Family's residence and out to the street where we took some postcard-perfect pictures of the south lawn of the "People's House".

Then we went to McDonald's for lunch. 

After lunch, we had planned to take in a few of the minor museums to fill time until we got back onto the subway.  Along the way, we passed the beautiful Eisenhower Executive Building, the American Red Cross headquarters, and the Daughters of the American Revolution (D.A.R.) headquarters. 

Then we started to cut across the greenbelt that extended out from the south lawn of the White House, when what did we spy?  Marine One!  That's right!  The President's helicopter flew directly over our heads! (And so close it blew the leaves off the trees, and they swirled around us in a tornado-like whirlwind!)  And then we watched as Marine One landed right on the south lawn straight in front of us!

We hovered around the area for a little while, then President Obama himself came out of the White House and boarded the helicopter.  I didn't personally see it (because I had taken the younger boys to the ranger station to get their White House Junior Ranger badge instead of waiting for the POTUS to board), but the boys said they saw him as he walked to the helicopter.

Then Marine One took off, again right over our heads and a stone's throw away.  As he flew overhead, the younger boys and I waved to the POTUS.  Had the windows not been tinted, I'm sure we could have made out his face considering how close the helicopter was to us.

So that's our exciting tale of our day at the White House!  It was really a privilege to not only tour the inside of the Executive Mansion, but also to be among the first visitors after the tour suspension.  And while we didn't actually get to meet the elusive Chief Executive, we sure have a great story to tell!

(Oh, and I almost forgot to mention that all day long we saw "Occupiers" protesting and marching on Washington. They completely freaked us out, as they were wearing these creepy theater masks and dressed in rags. It was a good teaching opportunity, and that's all I'll say 'bout that!)

As our sons mused when reflecting on our exciting day: "We went to his house, we pet his dogs, we gave him a proper send-off as he left on his helicopter.  We're practically best friends!"

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Washington, D.C. - Day 5: Smithsonian Natural History Museum

Cramming in as much of Washington, D.C., as we possibly can!  This is our fifth foray into the city!
We took a leisurely day trip into D.C. by visiting the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.  We spent several hours exploring the museum's different areas.  While the older boys paired off and explored on their own, Steve and I took the younger two boys through the museum.
We started off in the dinosaur bones area, which really impressed the younger boys!  We saw full skeletons for many different kinds of dinosaurs, including the Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Then we moved into the Deep Ocean area, where we saw a baleen whale hanging from the ceiling, as well as a preserved giant squid!
We also walked through a very large display of stuffed mammals, bringing to "life" what we usually only see in books.
On the second floor of the museum we spent a long time in the geology and gem stone section.  We saw the famous "Hope Diamond" as well as some jewels that were gifts from Napoleon to his wife (although I don't understand why they are in the Smithsonian and not in a French museum!).
Something that caught our eyes while in this section of the museum was a large display in the middle of the aisle showing a large geode of --- Herkimer Diamonds!
Also in the second floor of the museum we saw an "insect zoo" (yuck!), real mummies, and a display about forensic science and how it has helped identify the skeletal remains found in Jamestown, the first American settlement.  (We will be going to visit Jamestown within a month.)
By the end of our hours in the Natural History Museum, the kids were done.  Although Steve and I could have spent many more hours there, we headed back home again to prevent the kids from getting too worn out again. 
Even though there are nearly twenty Smithsonian museums, we will likely be seeing only a couple of them, three if we are lucky.  One down!