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Lincoln Memorial  This is one of the most easily recognizable monuments in Washington, DC. It graces the back of our $5 bill and sits directly across the Reflecting Pool from the Washington Monument. Everybody knows what it looks like.

Lincoln Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

From the outside, especially from the bottom of the steps, this is another imposing marble edifice. I like that the names of the states carved into the frieze above the colonnade. I first saw these names on the back of a $5 bill when I was in grade school. Kinda cool to see that they're also present in the real thing.

Inside the memorial has a very different feel. There's the famous sculpture of Lincoln sitting on that big chair, of course, with his various writings carved into the walls around him. But even though that statue is so dang big, it doesn't feel cold or distancing. Lincoln looks like he's just a person. Viewed from ground level the statue's hands and feet are enormous compared to the head; I don't know if the sculptor did that deliberately, or if it's just an artifact of perspective because we're looking up at it.

Lincoln Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I'm strongly drawn to the hands of this sculpture. Neither of them indicates a relaxed posture; the fingers of the right hand are gripping the armrest of the chair, and the left hand is closed in a fist. I don't know what those hands are intended to convey, but to me they suggest tension.

Lincoln Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Lincoln's Gettysburg Address
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Isn't that slightly raised right index finger interesting? I wonder if that was an actual mannerism of Lincoln's, or just an artistic decision made by the sculptor.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address is, of course, among those writings inscribed on the wall of the memorial. For some reason I'd assumed that the bit we all know was the beginning of a much longer speech. But no, the entire thing is contained in this single panel. Simple and eloquent. Why the heck do politicians talk so dang much today? And why do they so often seem to say so little?

 

Vietnam Veterans Memorial  I knew what the Vietnam Memorial was going to look like, having seen plenty of pictures and followed from afar the design and construction of it. And everyone I knew who had seen it raved at how touching it is. The one thing that pictures and words cannot convey is what it feels like to walk by the wall. Getting to the wall from the Lincoln Memorial you walk past a monument to the U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam.

Vietnam soldiers
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

It's slightly larger than life-size and the details are amazing. From the expressions on their faces these men are exhausted and yet resolved. I wish we'd had more time so I could take pictures of this piece from different angles.

The Vietnam Wall is shaped like a long, meandering trapezoid. Like the FDR Memorial, this is one that you don't just approach and leave; the path takes you along the entire length of the Wall. The panels on each end taper up towards the panels in the middle. This is visually pleasing, but the effect results from the fact that each panel bears the names of the soldiers who died in a given year of the war, and so the overall shape of the wall is a long, tapered trapezoid. I didn't have the right equipment to get all or even any significant portion of the Wall in a photograph, so I didn't even try.

A tiny portion of the Vietnam Wall
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

You might not expect a simple list of names to be so moving. I certainly didn't. And while this listing might seem like a way of making the names anonymous, it had the opposite effect. I don't have a relative whose name is on the Wall so none of the names here meant anything to me personally. But when you are confronted with the sheer magnitude of the mortality and the (mostly) young people who were lost to their families, it's very sobering.

Note that there are no ranks among the names. Each name on the wall represents a person who served and died, and military ranks don't matter to the dead. Nobody gets special treatment in this memorial.

Visitors leave gifts and notes for a loved ones whose name is on the Wall
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Slightly off the beaten path and therefore not heavily visited is the Vietnam Women's Monument. There are only eight women's names on the Wall, but there were ~11,000 women who served in Vietnam, mostly as nurses. The Vietnam Women's Monument recognizes the skills of these women as they tend to a wounded soldier.

Vietnam Women's Monument
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Vietnam Women's Monument
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The blue cards on the base of the monument are thank-you notes written by schoolchildren in Kansas. They said things like "Thank you for serving your country" and "I wish I had your courage." Smart kids.

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Monday 26 March 2018 -- Memorials

Southwest District of Columbia
© Google Maps

On Monday we ventured south of the Mall to the Tidewater area, where an extension of the Potomac river floods into a basin and forms a tidal pond. This area is where the famous cherry trees of Washington, DC, are concentrated, and we hoped to catch some of the bloom. Alas, it had snowed about a week earlier, there were still patches of snow on the ground, and that day it was cold and windy. The cherry trees were thinking about blooming but hadn't gotten around to making any real effort yet. It was sunny, though, and nice weather for walking around, since we were bundled up.

About a week too early!
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Jefferson Memorial  Our first stop was the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. We skipped the Washington Monument because it didn't look very interesting and I didn't want to wait in the line to go up to the top, from where the view must be spectacular. I did, however, take the obligatory photo of the monument itself.

Washington Monument
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The Jefferson Memorial occupies a beautiful spot along the tidewater shore. It must be truly beautiful when the cherry trees are blooming.

Jefferson Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
Inscription from interior of the Jefferson Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Inside the rotunda the walls are inscribed with some of Jefferson's writings. The walls are curved and tall, making them difficult to photograph. Another difficulty I had with this memorial was reconciling Jefferson's words about freedom with the knowledge that he was a slaveholder. While I do think it's unfair to judge historical personages by the moral standards of today, I can't really wrap my brain around that particular cognitive dissonance. This one particular inscription, though, I thoroughly agree with. It seems pretty clear to me that Jefferson never intended the U.S. Constitution to be a static document that could not be amended as required. Rather the opposite, in fact.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial  My favorite memorial of the day was the one for FDR. I liked it because it didn't have present me with any of the minor squicks that I got at the Jefferson memorial. Not only that, but unlike the other presidential memorials this one isn't a single giant edifice that people walk up to and then away from. The FDR memorial consists of life-sized sculptures mounted at eye level, so passersby can interact with them as they wander along the path. Several of FDR's quotes are inscribed along walls interspersed with fountains. All this gives us a memorial that we can experience at a human level and gives us a feel for who FDR was as a person, not just a president.

FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong
FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I liked how Eleanor Roosevelt was memorialized, too.

Sculpture of Eleanor Roosevelt at the FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

My favorite part of the FDR Memorial was at the far end. Walking along the path you first encounter a series of columns that appear to be covered in bronze plates. The columns and the frieze behind them commemorated FDR's federal public works projects, a response to the Great Depression.

Bronze frieze and die rolls at the FDR Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

The really cool thing about this part of the memorial is that the columns are actually the die rolls used to make the panels on the frieze wall. I didn't see any signage explaining what was going on, so the visitors have to figure it out for themselves. This was another of the things that made this particular memorial feel personal.

Here's one part of one die roll:

26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

and here is the panel cast from it:

26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Isn't that cool?

Martin Luther King Memorial The MLK Memorial consists of a single large sculpture of the man in front of a wall inscribed with bits of his writings and speeches. The sculpture itself is very imposing and grand, very different from the more personal and humble feeling I took from the FDR Memorial.

Sculpture of Martin Luther King, with the Washington Monument in the background
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

From the front of the sculpture he really seems to be looking down on us. He was a preacher, and this expression makes me feel like I'm about to hear a sermon. I don't enjoy being preached to, so this is not a comfortable feeling for me.

MLK Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

Like the Jefferson Memorial, this one left me feeling cold. It imparts a feeling for who MLK was as a preacher and leader, but nothing about who he was as a person. Most of the inscriptions on the wall were ones that we're all familiar with. The one that struck me most strongly was this one:

MLK Memorial
26 March 2018
© Allison J. Gong

I like this particular quote because I think we often forget how easy it is to be a good person when things are going well, and how bloody difficult it is when things aren't going well. It may not be fair to judge people by how they behave in times of adversity, but it is fair to say that we are generally not at our best in those situations. And yet, there is something to be said about how having to endure hardship often shows us our true selves. It can be a difficult thing to face up to. For me, the power of MLK's message comes from his exhortations to us to be better people, and a society, than we have been. We may have come a long way, baby, but we still have a long way to go.

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