East Coast Road Trip: Monumental Moments

We awoke early and refreshed from our slumber at the Extended Stay Suites in Columbia and headed to the grocery store to buy a quick breakfast before heading down to the Nations Capital. We were the only ones in the store that was a hybrid between a Safeway and a Whole Foods. It was just before 7 AM and we were getting a head start. We grabbed some blackberries, some natural lemonade and some sunscreen for Michele.

On our way to the beltway and the morning rush hour traffic that would take us into the city we were listening to 98 Rock, on Baltimore radio and I heard the funniest commercial ever. It was sound bytes with President Obama and the First Lady trading jabs about the ladies on the Internet. It ended with P-BO saying “hashtag chill Michelle.” It would be our saying for the rest of the trip. It was hilarious!

It took us almost two hours to make it into the city, partly because I took a wrong exit and ended up on 495. If you don’t know anything about driving on the freeways on the east coast it is controlled chaos. There are ten lanes of traffic with lanes merging and exiting everywhere. Many exits are on the left and most are right after you turn off on one exit on the right, less than a quarter of a mile you have to exit again on the left. It is crazy.

We entered the city the back way, up through the Naval Research Center and into the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Michele jumped out on the corner to run into a Starbucks to use the rest room while I found a place to park our go-cart. I joined Michele for the restroom break where she proceeded to let me in on the restroom code for the door! For the average tourist they don’t see anything other than where the tour bus takes them and much of D.C. is not pristine groomed lawns and government buildings. Just a few blocks from the dome is what Mayor Marion Berry back in the 80s knew of D.C. if you get what I am saying…

The National Monument, World War II Monument, and the Lincoln Memorial 

We parked the car close to the National Monument and jumped out with the camera. There were lots and lots of tour groups already out and about with their rainbows of colored t-shirts and visor hats! We walked around the big pencil looking monument and found out that all of the tickets had been distributed for the day.

Right down the hill and across the street is the World War II Monument. I don’t remember it being here in the 1980s when we lived here. It is a sobering experience. It is divided on two sides, one side for the Pacific and the other for the Atlantic with all the states completing a circle around large water fountains. At the back of the monument is a wall of metal/gold stars. Each one represents 1,000 lives lost in the war. Since we were so close to Memorial Day there were lots of flowers and flags. If you don’t shed a tear for our fallen heroes here you are not an American.

We walked along the long reflection pools toward the Lincoln Memorial. Michele commented that she thought it would be deeper and cleaner. It was fun to watch the baby ducks trying to keep up with their mothers.

As we approached the steep steps more and more people gathered. They have two microphones set up at the very spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. made his famous speech and lots of people photographed themselves posing if they were making a historic speech.

As we entered the Lincoln Memorial I was taken aback by just how loud and chaotic it was. There were kids running around like crazy screaming, hundreds of people with selfie sticks and just an otherwise general bad vibe for a monument to one of our founding fathers.

Every time I see Abe sitting in his chair my mind always goes back to that ending scene of the Planet of the Apes where they replaced Abe with an ape-man leader.

I am still amazed at just how big the monument of Lincoln is. On each side of the monument is his inaugural address and the emancipation proclamation on the walls.

The Vietnam Memorial, the White House and lunch in the park

The Vietnam Memorial always held a special place for me. I remember when we lived here it had just opened. While my father was too young to go to Vietnam and my grandparents fought in World War II, this war was the one that my family, my father who was a Marine talked about the most.

The black granite stones etched with all of the fallen heroes in chronological order is a sobering experience. There were several Vietnam veterans there “watching over” the monument and we thanked them for their service. There are always people here with pencils and pieces of papers making rubbings of their family member’s names on the memorial.

We then grabbed a quick lunch of hot dogs, chips and sodas and sat under a tree on the grass. When you are in D.C. you have to buy a hot dog from a food truck. I remember when we used to go here in the city we always used to buy Chipwiches. They are those chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches. I remember when I was about 12 or 13 I gave mine, with a bite or two out of it, to a homeless guy on the Mall.

We headed over to the south lawn of the White House. Just moments before our lunch we saw two of the very recognizable Presidential helicopters fly overhead and I remarked to Michele that P-BO was in one of those and they always fly more than one for security.

Speaking of security. It is crazy! While I remember it being intense when I was a kid, it was never like this. Of course I haven’t been here since well before 9/11. The Secret Service is everywhere. They are on bikes, in blacked-out cars, on foot, in tactical gear. One of them headed straight for us with his dog and I thought Michele was going to get arrested for having the smell of an over-cooked hot dog on her hands but they passed by quickly.

No matter what your political stance is, the White House is an amazing structure. Its yards are magnificent and we quickly found the bee hive and the large garden that Michelle Obama has made famous. While there were people there taking pictures there were not as many as I thought there would be on a Thursday morning in May. Not even the rainbow colored tourist crowd. I guess they were still over by Lincoln.

We jumped in our car and headed toward the Smithsonian.

Washington Monument | Robert Forto Flags at the Washington Monument | Robert Forto The south lawn at the White house Michele at the Washington Monument | Robert Forto Washington Monument | Robert Forto woodbridge senior high school | Robert Forto Robert Fortos childhood home Jefferson memorial | Robert Forto butterfly pavilion Robert Forto butterfly pavilion Robert Forto butterfly pavilion Robert Forto Lincoln | Robert Forto dinosaur fossil | Robert Forto Michele Forto and the silver tree National Archives | Robert Forto Easer sculpture | Robert Forto air and space | Robert Forto lunar lander | Robert Forto Robert Forto at the White House white house bee hive | Robert Forto fallen heroes Vietnam memorial | Robert Forto MLK speech location | Robert Forto Robert and Michele Forto at Lincoln Memorial Reflection pools | Robert Forto Honest Abe | Robert Forto Abraham Lincoln | Robert Forto Michele Forto at the Lincoln Memorial World War 2 Memorial | Robert Forto Wall of stars | Robert Forto World War 2 Monument | Robert Forto World War 2 Monument | Robert Forto Robert Forto at the WW2 Monument Fallen Heroes | Robert Forto Robert Forto at the World War 2 Memorial Washington Monument | Robert Forto White House | Robert Forto

Air and Space, the Mall, the sculpture garden and the National Archives

The Air and Space museum has always been my favorite. We used to go here all the time when I was a kid and I remember buying “astronaut” freeze-dried ice cream sandwiches in the gift shop. All of the Smithsonian museums are free and they are always packed. Of course security is tight and you have to travel through metal detectors and have your bags checked if you have one. We entered and turned to the right and ran smack dab into what Michele says was the largest McDonalds she has ever seen. It was huge, taking up an entire corner of the building with people lined up practically out the door.

We quickly headed over to the lunar lander exhibit, the rockets and the space suits. Both of us remarked at how small these astronauts must have been. Their suits looked kid-sized. They surely weren’t eating McDonalds in the east wing!

We headed upstairs to see the Spirit of Saint Louis and the Wright Brothers exhibit. Little did we know at the time that in just a couple days we would be in the very area of where this historical flight took place. Did you know that the Wright Brothers didn’t really become famous until they moved to France after their flight at Kitty Hawk. To most people at the time, either it wasn’t a big deal yet or news just didn’t travel fast enough to the masses of this life changing endeavor.

After being whisked out of Air and Space in a tide of people through the doors we ended up on the Mall. For people that don’t know, the Mall is a huge park like setting where many events in our history have taken place. From the Million Man March to protests and concerts and gatherings for inaugurations down the way that spill from the Capitol steps and on to the grassy areas.

The Mall is in a state of re-construction with areas fenced off and bulldozers dozing away but there is still an atmosphere of lazy days. There were school kids playing kick ball. Businessmen and women and maybe even a political honcho jogging down the gravel paths on their lunch hour and even a political demonstration or two about human trafficking from North Korea. We grabbed a soda and sat for a while and people watched. It is one of my favorite things to do.

We then headed over to the sculpture garden. What an oasis in the busy always moving city. I had never been here and we could have stayed here for hours. The flowers and plants were beautiful and the sculptures were amazing. Most notable were the typewriter eraser and the huge silver tree.

We then crossed the street and entered the National Archives. This has always been one of my favorite places. We spent time looking at all of the historic papers and entered into what they call the vault. They have letters and displays of just about everything that has happened in our country on display from bills that were passed into law to immigrant journals. One of the best ones was a collection of letters from school children. One young child wrote a letter to President Reagan asking for him to declare his bedroom eligible for disaster aid relief because his mom said it was in such disaray!

We headed upstairs to the rotunda. Here the security is very tight and very dimly lit to protect the important documents. As we stood in line looking at the papers under special glass casings we approached the Declaration of Independence on our left. It is so faded that it is hardly legible. I remarked to Michele that by the time our grandchildren are our age this will just be a blank piece of parchment. In the middle of the room the United States Constitution is flanked by two armed guards. These people possibly have the most important job in our country. They are protecting the very document that makes us a nation.

Even though they told us time and time again not to take any pictures or to take out our cell phones for any reason, Michele almost gets arrested twice in two hours in the Nations Capital. As we were standing in front of the Constitution, Michele’s phone buzzes with a text message. What does she do? She pulls her phone out of her pocket and begins to read the message. I immediately looked over at the guard and she has taken a step forward and her hand is on her pistol! I snapped at Michele “put your phone away!” She quickly does and I assume the guard thought that was good enough because we carried on.

On our right was the Bill of Rights. It was in bad shape but not nearly as bad as the Declaration of Independence. All of these documents are in specially designed cases filled with gases to try to preserve them. The cases are huge and framed in gold and titanium. The guard mentioned, that nearly took down Michele, to another patron that the cases cost $5 million dollars each! They look like they weigh thousands of pounds. I have heard stories that at night these documents are lowered into the bowels of the Archives. I don’t know if that is true.

The Museum of Natural History, the Butterfly Pavilion and our drive out of the city

The natural history museum has always been one of my favorites. It appeared to be everyone else’s too. At the steps were the rainbow colored shirt crowd and those dang selfie sticks! We waited more than 20 minutes to get through the metal detectors and inside to the rotunda with the huge elephant in the middle.

This place is amazing! To the right is an exhibit that takes you all over the world and has specimens of just about every animal on the planet. It is so cool to see how different animals act and interact with each other on display.

We spent a couple hours in this museum looking at all the different exhibits before heading upstairs to the butterfly pavilion. This place was one of the highlights of the entire trip. We paid six dollars a piece, really the only money we had to pay at any of the places in D.C., and waited our turn to go inside this huge greenhouse with beautiful plants and some of the most amazing butterflies flying all around. They land on your shoulder and in your hair. It was so cool to see all the different colors, sizes and shapes. As we were about to leave the workers have you do the buddy system to make sure you aren’t carrying any of these little guys out of the pavilion.

We spent, I guess 8 hours in the city and saw everything we wanted to see. We jumped in the go-cart and headed south. On the way out of the city we caught a glimpse of the Jefferson Memorial. I have always thought it was sort of out of the way of all the others. It is situated on a lake that the famous cherry blossoms line. We took a couple quick pictures at 45 miles per hour and braced ourselves for the gridlock traffic as we headed into Virginia.

I learned how to drive on these crazy highways, bi-ways, freeways and interchanges. Of course it was never as busy as it is now, almost 30 years later but it was still crazy. What I always remember are the huge signs as you enter Virginia that boldly tell you that radar detectors are ILLEGAL. Thanks for letting everyone know. But then there are signs everywhere telling you that speed is checked by aircraft. Tell me this; you are flying down the freeway at 60-80 miles per hour in a clump of 1,000 cars. How could an aircraft pick out one car? Of course our go-cart could only top out at 60 so we were the slowest ones on the freeway. There is more to that story in days to come.

As we drove south I was busy pointing out all the landmarks and haunts I used to frequent as an impressionable sixteen year old newly licensed driver.

Lake Ridge, living the posh life and the high school gridiron

About 30 miles south of D.C. lies Woodbridge, Virginia. We pulled off to the left. Yep, one of the blasted left handed exits and turned right toward Occoquan and Lake Ridge. Occoquan is this little artsy-fartsy village along the river where my mom used to go shopping for antiques. As you proceeded up the hill toward Lake Ridge a flood of memories came back. I remembered my brother, Ryan and I riding our bikes up and down these huge hills to the Safeway to buy sodas and snacks and I even bought a new bike at the local bike shop in the shopping center with cheddar earned from my paper route. The shopping center is still there but it is grown a lot. Now there are coffee shops and fast food restaurants, medical clinics and banks.

As we reached the top of the hill it was my goal to find the house where I grew up from 1984-1989. I found it right on the corner. It looked almost the same, some 25-30 years since I had last seen it. I drove Michele around our little neighborhood pointing out where my friends used to live and the house where I had a crush on a girl at the age of 13. I showed her the houses on my little paper route and how the two ladies on the corner used to fight over who gave me the best tip each month.

I quickly realized that I was truly a little Osh-Kosh kid. What that means is a little kid of privliege. This little community with perfectly manicured lawns and exclusive pool club was way more posh than I remembered it as a teen. When I was growing up I knew we were middle class with our dad a captain in Marines and mom a stay-at-home but I had no idea we lived like this! I guess we did. It all looked the same.

We then headed over the parkway to Woodbridge Senior High School. It looked just the same but smaller. How can that be? It was a huge school with over 4,000 students. I showed Michele the parking lot where I learned how to drive and the driver’s ed tower was still there. I wonder if the teacher still has young impressionable drivers firmly in is clutches as they try their best to navigate a maze of cones and white lines, losing points for everyone you knock over?

We went down to the high school football field were I played many games and remarked that you could still get season tickets for six bucks. The field still looms large in my mind just like with every other red blooded american that ever donned a helmet and shoulder pads.

After heading down the hill we headed into Woodbridge. As of today I never really remembered ever venturing down into this black sheep of a town along U.S. Route 1 after I graduated from Fred M. Lynn Middle School, home of the Hornets, Yeah! I guess we stayed up on our little, nose-in-the-air posh enclave on the hill and never saw a need to mingle with the Woodbridgeites.

I stopped by my middle school and walked around back to the football field. Here is where I really learned how to play ball. I remember like it was yesterday, Coach Henry. Coach was a huge man with an old orange van that he used a picnic bench inside as a seat. I am sure he has passed away but as I walked onto those hallowed grounds, yes a middle school football field, I could still see and hear Coach Henry yelling at us to hit ’em harder!

Fredricksburg, the Capital Ale House, and Richmond

It was not quite 7 pm when we headed south on Route 1 toward Fredericksburg. We commented on the huge houses that were built colonial style with brick and black shutters. We arrived at the civil war town and found a place on Google to grab dinner.

We chose the Capital Ale House, which is clustered in the middle of old town among antique shops and old brick buildings that contain more than 400 years of history. Dinner was excellent. We grubbed on burgers and cheesecake for dessert. We like going to ale houses. They always show some local flair and have a great selection of beers brewed in the area.

We headed down to the state capital of Richmond and arrived just before sunset. Along the 50 mile route or so we told civil war stories and how Richmond was the capital of the South with Jefferson Davis having full reign on his troops and his people, just 90 minutes south of the nations capital in Washington.

We found a nice clean Hampton Inn in Chester, VA. It had been a very long  day. We had seen a lot. We took in a whole lot of history, saw more monuments in six hours than most people do in a two week vacation and I revisited my past.

Your past is a funny thing. You remember it like it was yesterday and in your mind it truly is. It is amazing how quickly the memories flood back after almost thirty years of being in a place. I can not believe it has been that long. This trip for me was to not only show Michele a part of me that I have only told stories about but to also re-connect with who I was. I think Michele will tell you that it was so nice to actually put a place with a story that I have told many times over the years to her and the kids but also to know that their was actually no embellishing. Well, maybe just a little bit…

Tomorrow: Family Ties