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Heritage, heroism dazzlingly displayed in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON, D.C.

It isn't a bad day for an outdoor wedding, considering it is December. The couple and guests wear coats. No hats, no gloves, no umbrellas.

A steady and brisk wind ruffles hair, but not resolve in a grotto in front of the National Museum of the American Indian. People rush by, not even noticing the nuptials as they head into the Smithsonian's newest museum.

The couple hold hands and recite vows they have clearly written. A photographer circles, snapping and then looking at the back of his camera, checking moments in full frame and focus. There are just two guests and an officiant. And me on the other side of a hedge. An interloper watching personal change and societal shift.

Both grooms are crying. There are quivering smiles, and deep stares that shut out the world. I have no idea about the journey of the two men in dark suits draped with wide, colorful cloth.

But I have some idea about these evolving United States.

The quotes etched in stone nearby settle prophetically on this occasion.

"Commit yourself to the noble struggle for equal rights."

"All men are created equal."

"Justice cannot sleep forever."

In just 48 hours in the nation's capital, I'd seen the sweep of American history and then glimpsed its future.

Lessons about Lincoln

Travel is often an expansive experience from which you learn something about yourself and the world, and a visit to Washington, D.C., is especially thought-provoking. It is impossible not to be reflective wandering from monument to memorial, reading the words of the great thinkers that shaped this country. The war memorials wallop you with the reality of sacrifice.

After a rancorous election season, the monuments are reminders that the idea of America is greater than any single political stance or vitriolic TV ad. As the driver of the hop-on-hop-off trolley said while talking about politics of the past, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." That was her way of saying, "Don't get worked up about a divided country. It's not the first time, and it won't be the last."

Remember the Civil War?

I spent a few days in the capital in early December, confining my sightseeing to the downtown core, where I could walk or take a quick cab everywhere. On the west side of the Capitol, the stands were being erected for President Obama's inauguration on Jan. 21. The second term of the nation's first African-American president. Another shift, another reason to consider history and all those quotes.

My mission was to visit the monuments during daylight and evening hours and take in a few of the Smithsonian Institution museums. All are free, and what a gift that is since D.C. accommodations are pricey.

With Lincoln still in the theaters and poised to pick up a slew of awards on its way to the Oscars in February, the 16th president was on my mind, too. I tromp the stairs to the Lincoln Memorial, stare at the grand man made of white Georgia marble and read the Gettysburg Address. Later, I tour Ford's Theatre and the Petersen House across 10th Street NW where he was taken after being shot by John Wilkes Booth and later died. (I saw the bed where Lincoln spent his last living moments, which was too short for his 6-foot-4 frame. You'll notice in the film how crimped 6-foot-2 Daniel Day-Lewis is in that scene.)

I eat a comforting and warm chicken pot pie and drink iced tea from a canning jar at the restaurant Lincoln, where the floor is made of more than 1 million Lincoln pennies enshrined in epoxy of some sort. I could have left a tip of pennies, but instead plunk down a $5 bill. And wouldn't you know it, Lincoln was staring at me.

Moonlit memorials inspire

I arrive at the rambling and historic Union Station for the Monuments by Moonlight excursion with Old Town Trolley Tours. I am early and have plenty of time to wander around the station, built in 1907. There are many restaurants in the dark confines of the majestic main hall, which was damaged in the summer 2011 earthquake. The shake was big enough to dislodge plaster from the ceiling, and netting has been hung to keep pieces from falling on the 200,000 or so travelers who scurry by daily to catch their trains.

It's still commute time when I take a spot on a bench and watch the world walk by in power suits and wool scarves. I figure the moonlight tour won't be a big draw tonight. I didn't need a reservation and, besides, it's cold. At least for a Floridian.

But I am wrong and there are enough of us to fill two trolleys. I wedge into a seat next to a farmer from Illinois who tells me he is flummoxed by the Metro "subway" system but vows to get it down in time for the tour of the White House he's arranged. His young son and wife sit a few rows in front of us. We are from all over the United States, plus Canada, Germany and England.

We spend about 30 minutes at each of three stops — the tour is two hours — and that's enough to get a glimpse of the monuments. I will return on my own during the day so that I can linger.

We drive past Arlington National Cemetery, with just the moon casting light on the rows of grave markers, to the Iwo Jima Memorial, where the iconic photo of soldiers planting the American flag into conquered soil is made tangible and lit dramatically. The Marines memorial, as it's also called, has the best view in the area, on a hill across the Potomac River from D.C. From here you can see the Capitol, National Mall and lighted memorials around the Tidal Basin. At night, it's breathtaking. I wonder about the price of the condos on a hill even higher.

Back on the trolley we go, headed for the Martin Luther King Jr. and Franklin Delano Roosevelt memorials, which are close to each other at the Tidal Basin. I make a quick flip around FDR's impressive memorial, with four separate areas representing his four terms in office, and then head to the granite statue of King.

It's about 7:30 p.m. and a park ranger stands at the ready to answer questions and take photos. She will be there until 10 p.m. Like all of the monuments, the King memorial was designed for maximum impact. The 30-foot relief statue is situated so that from the opening between two towering stones behind it, visitors can see the Lincoln Memorial. It was on the steps there that King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech at the March on Washington in 1963.

King's grand language surrounds me, thanks to quotes etched in the walls, and I am uplifted. I pull my flimsy coat a little tighter and check the time on my phone. Ten more minutes before the trolley pulls away.

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that." But it is dark, and that natural fact seems to add more meaning to King's words.

Our last stop is a broad area with four memorials — Lincoln, WWII, Vietnam and Korea — and only the very fleet of foot will see them all in the time allotted. A woman on the trolley tells me the Korean War Veterans Memorial is most impressive at night, so I walk quickly there.

Indeed, the 19 stainless steel soldiers trudging in full regalia are eerie. They are slightly bigger than lifesized but still a more human scale than other monuments. I feel like I am with them in the battlefield. They look young and almost scared, and everywhere I look, someone is looking back. As a mother, I imagine the apprehension of those waiting at home, back then and now, for soldiers who are barely adults to return from war.

In the cover of night, the messages of creative designers drill into my consciousness. Just as they intended.

Tributes to ultimate sacrifice

I return the next day to the Korean War memorial and the woman on the trolley is right. It doesn't have the same impact, though I can more clearly see the faces of the soldiers. I had not noticed their diversity before. Their steps seem a bit lighter in the day, but that is just the blue sky playing tricks. War is hell around the clock.

I stop for a while at the nearby Lincoln Memorial, marveling at the view across to the Washington Monument, still closed from damage from the 2011 earthquake. Young people romp up the 58 steps, two of which represent Lincoln's two presidential victories and the other 56 his age when he died. The purposeful designs of the memorials come into play again. Every detail has reason and meaning.

And then I walk slowly to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a little shaky because I haven't been before and I am going to hunt for a couple of names. I have two childhood schoolmates whose brothers were killed in Vietnam.

I search the black wall of 58,000-plus names for Jon Rumble and Louis Hazel, with one ear listening to a group of visiting veterans from New Jersey. A local veterans organization leader thanks them for their service and welcomes them to the memorial. The park ranger has seen this scene many times before: the searching, the charcoal name rubbing, the tears.

With the coordinates provided from a guide book, I find them both, and once I spy them, my eyes are locked there. It's like their names are twice as big as the others. They died so young, so long ago. Maya Lin's design begs to be touched, and I run my fingers over the grooved letters of their names and think about their sisters.

Jon and Louis, Martin and Abraham are on my mind the next day when I happen upon the wedding in front of the American Indian museum. What would they think about the two emotional grooms and their legal union? Untimely, violent death froze the foursome in different times, but their circumstances are woven into today's struggles for freedom, justice and equal rights.

I guess that the couple is not thinking about any of these things as they profess their love and commitment. But I've climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and pondered the sacrifice at stone monuments all over this place, and it is all I can think about.

Janet K. Keeler can be reached at jkeeler@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8586.

>>if you go

Visiting Washington, D.C.

Getting there: You'll find many nonstop flights from Tampa to Reagan National, which is less than 10 miles from downtown D.C.'s major sites. If you're willing to brave the cold, you can get round-trip tickets for less than $200 this month unless you are planning to go for President Obama's inauguration on Jan. 21, when you'll pay about $50 more. You can also fly into Dulles for good prices, but it's farther away and you'll spend the savings on ground transportation. Prices are even lower in February.

Where to stay: There are lots of lovely, but pricey, accommodations within walking distance or a short cab ride of the major attractions, including the Smithsonian Institution museums. I stayed at the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown at 14th Street NW at I Street for about $250 a night. The hotel lobby bar is a good place to people watch and have a drink. There is a restaurant on site but Five Guys Burgers and Fries is across the street. Go to www.hiltongardeninn.hilton.com for information.

Where to eat: Duck into the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian for lunch. It's a cafeteria with a vast array of food inspired by the tribes of the Western Hemisphere including the Northern Woodlands, South America, the Northwest Coast, Meso America and the Great Plains. Not sure how authentic the flan was, but I had a good meal at museum prices, which means not super cheap. The restaurant Lincoln (1110 Vermont Ave. NW; (202) 386-9200 or www.lincoln

restaurant-dc.com) is worth a stop at least to look at the floor made of Lincoln pennies. It's seasonal comfort food mostly, though the service and ambience are more high-rise than log cabin. I had a chicken pot pie ($14) that was almost big enough for two. Check out the lighting fixtures made of mismatched jars.

Guided tours: Old Town Trolley Tours operates hop-on-hop-off sightseeing excursions in the day and evening. The Monuments by Moonlight tour is a nightly, narrated two-hour excursion that starts at Union Station. The trolley stops at the Iwo Jima, FDR, Martin Luther King Jr., Lincoln, Vietnam and Korean War memorials. Riders can get off at each to explore. Tickets are $39 for adults. Adult tickets for the daylong tours are also $39. For more information, go to www.trolleytours.com or call (202) 832-9800.

More information: There are a number of good Internet sources that will give you information about the monuments and memorials in the nation's capital, which can be visited both day and night. Several have park rangers stationed there to answer questions until late into the evening. Start with the National Parks Service site, www.nps.gov.

The tourism site www.washington.org has lots of good information including maps and a calendar of events for the year. The annual Cherry Blossom Festival is March 20 to April 14. If you've got good walking shoes and strong resolve, you can hoof the 6 miles or so to all the monuments and memorials, plus the Capitol, Supreme Court and National Mall, following the map at www.everytrail.com (search Washington, D.C., walking tour.)

Janet K. Keeler

Heritage, heroism dazzlingly displayed in Washington, D.C. 01/05/13 [Last modified: Thursday, January 3, 2013 10:30am]

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