Memorial Day by Bike: The World Comes to Washington

June 6, 2011

Some people think I am crazy to love Washington, but really, it’s a lovely city and there is always something happening here.  In the world of politics, policy, history, international relations, every day is a holiday.

Last week I attended a series of panel discussions on the future of Europe at the Brookings Institution, the mother of all think tanks.  The best of the three was a conversation between American foreign policy expert Robert Kagan and Daniel Cohn-Bendit; yes, the infamous Danny the Red of the Paris uprisings in the annus horribilis of 1968.  Now a member of the European Parliament from the Green Party, Danny looked a respectable sixty-something and spoke volubly in heavily accented French.  Kagan, on the other hand, was clear and succinct.
Cohn-Bendit argued that European political and military integration should happen and would happen, sooner or later.  Kagan skeptically threw fact-darts at the visionary’s balloons.

At the break I spoke briefly with a young woman from Berlin who had just finished a four-month internship with a member of Congress from Los Angeles and was staying a couple of weeks in order to attend events like this.

See?  People come to Washington do this sort of thing for vacation.

I slipped out afterward to continue my quest for the perfect cup of coffee.  I stopped by a place on 20th Street between R and S in the bottom floor of a townhouse that advertises itself on an orange door simply as “Filter.”  Inside the place throbbed with loud music while about a dozen twenty-somethings poured over their laptops, occasionally talking to one another or on cell phones.  The café features coffee dripped through filter paper, but I ordered my usual double espresso.  The barista, with the sides of her head closely cropped, complimented me on my short flattop, my summer look that drives some friends crazy.  A man of my age – pushing sixty – should look more respectable, they say.

Ah, the coffee.  Served in a small two-tone porcelain cup, black on the outside, white on the inside, black saucer, tiny spoon, thick enough to induce philosophical reflection in the most obtuse.  I take it outside to enjoy.  I would call it a medium-dark roast, caramelly, chocolaty, maybe even a nutty flavor in there somewhere.  I wish there were more of it.  I sit on the porch for a couple hours with a book on relatively quiet 20th Street. It feels like about ninety with a hot wind out of the south.  I inhale and it feels like I’m not getting much oxygen.

Memorial Day was even hotter, mid-90s.  I rode my bicycle down to the Lincoln Memorial early in the morning to visit the famous statue and the two speeches that expound the meaning and purpose of America.

Deciding not to brave the crowds at Arlington on such a hot day, I opted for a rather simple ceremony at the Monument to the First Division: a slender eighty-foot column of pink granite surmounted by the gold statue of an angel holding a flag.  A plumed helmet crowns the angel’s head.  It looks to me like Michael the Archangel, but the guidebooks say she is Victory.

I arrived early and rested under the shade of a tree.  Soldiers in dress blues chatted and joked with one another in the shade.  Shortly the color guard showed up and did likewise while I circulated with a few of the veterans gathering by the refreshment table.  For some reason, I clearly remember the news coverage in 1965 of the deployment of the First Division, the Big Red One, to Vietnam.  I asked one of the retired generals if my memory served me well.  “We were the first division to deploy to Vietnam,” he replied.

The ceremony started right on time at 11 with a jaunty tune played on a bugle.  A few people stayed in the shade, but the sight of several dozen frail veterans, their wives and some widows sitting solidly in the sunshine made me decide to join them and in some way honor those who had endured much worse.  The color guard came forward, the chaplain prayed and the speaker stepped to the podium.  Retired General Ken Hunzeker promised to be brief as he mopped his brow with a towel.  Most of his remarks consisted of  stories of three of the Division’s Medal of Honor winners, one of whom fell on a grenade somewhere in Iraq to save his comrades.

The guard retired the colors.  The soldiers in the shade snapped off a twenty-one gun salute.  Three quick bursts:  Blam!  Blam!  Blam! The bugler played taps.

Stillness.  The wonderful stillness that follows something important.  Sun.  Heat.  Not even the suggestion of a breeze.  Finally we arose from our seats and sought the solace of the shade.

This is what I love about Washington.  The world comes here.  The world is here, along with generations past and to come.

For more information:

Image: Filter Coffeehouse

Main image: National Park Service

Richard Hyde

Richard Hyde believes that St. Helena, California is the world’s greatest small town and loves to enjoy good wine and food there while playing bocce ball of a summer evening. Nonetheless, he leaves to spend winters in Washington, DC. He admits that this may be a sign of advanced lunacy, which he treats by inviting friends over to his top-floor apartment overlooking the National Cathedral, where great conversations take place accompanied by bottles of Malbec and mounds of fresh pasta. Despite the brilliant conversation and analysis of the world’s problems, no action is ever taken. Sometime in the spring, like a large migrating bird, he returns to the Napa Valley, where he practices Esalen bodywork at the Calistoga Massage Center and other fine health spas. He also writes a blog, “In Search of a Sense of Place.”

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