Drive-Thru Empire: Part 1

Last week my youngest son and I decided to take a trip to visit family in the midlands of Virginia. The intention was to convince my Aunt and Uncle to move up north to live with us, an idea we had been considering for some time now. We’d decided to make the trip an educational opportunity for our son, but it was, for me, a way to see that the decision I’d made ten years earlier to step away from the rat race had been the right one for our family.

I’d kept close tabs on the direction of our country over those passing years, but from a safe distance. There was a time when I’d lived on the roads of U.S, traveling the highways and the back roads of each state in order to make my living. I’d built a career on my ability to adjust to each region, to either speed up or slow down my delivery depending on whether I was performing in a remote location or a major urban center. I knew my way around not only the country, but the people as well.

I was aware that a decade, particularly the one we’d just come through, had wrought some changes not only on the landscape of America, but the population that inhabited it. We arranged it so that we would visit our old hometown and family in Princeton, New Jersey for the first leg of the trip and arrive in Washington D.C. on the day of the midterm elections. We had additional plans to visit some historical sites that had a family connection in order to better understand our own place in the fabric of the American experience.

The midpoint in our journey was my Uncle’s ranch some fifty miles south of Monticello, not far from the site of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865 and a return route up the spine of the Appalachian Mountain range so we could see for ourselves just how the geology and geography united the people and the regions of our country long before there were systems of mass communications. We kept up a constant dialogue during the drive and his perspective was every bit as enlightening as anything I contributed. As a bonding experience there are few things as powerful as a road trip on a limited budget, with little more than a couple of bags of fresh apples and a loose script as to when and where we had to be. The following is a series of observations that I noted during the past seven days and reflections on our experience afterward.

The drive south from New Hampshire took us down along the Connecticut River valley. We skipped over to the Vermont side west of Keene and turned south towards Massachusetts. The first two and a half hours of the journey were comfortable and the landscape was familiar; the last of the oaks still wore their autumn color the hills were old and rounded softly from the endless passing of glaciers and ceaseless epochs of forestation between them.

The river flowed swollen and heavy from the weeks of rain we’d had during the month of October and until we reached the outskirts of Springfield there was very little by way of traffic. We decided to take Route 90 east towards Albany rather than continue south through the congested cities of Hartford and Waterbury and in no time it seemed we’d crossed the Hudson River onto the New York State Thruway. My son was able to connect the cell phone I’d brought along to the car stereo and we alternated the songs we chose to listen to. He introduced me to a series of piano pieces he enjoyed and I would tell him the names of songs I liked and thought he might appreciate.

The trip was fairly routine until we made our final approach to the NYC metro area just south of Poughkeepsie where the traffic began and the average driving speed increased to 80 mph. We made our exit into New Jersey and as if a switch had been thrown we began to notice evidence of neglect on a scale that is hard to fathom. There were dead deer in various stages of decay and bloat on both sides of the highway, not one or two, but hundreds in a fifty mile stretch. Some had been tagged with day-glo spray paint and others has simply rotted to the surface of the road, bones bleached by the weather. There were pieces of tire treads and abandoned cars, drifts of trash that had either been tossed out or blown off of the seemingly endless torrent of vehicles that clogged the four lanes headed south.

The cliffsides of that stretch of North Jersey, from Wanaque to Whippany were covered with graffiti, huge overpainted tags on every surface, from bridge abutments to overpasses, and overlooking it all was the endless billboards promoting electrolysis, Toyota, KFC, Powerball!, beer and casinos. I remember there being a lot of outdoor advertising in my home state, but not to the degree we saw that afternoon. As the Sun began to set I focused much more intently on the constant shuffle of cars and trucks, each with their own strategy for moving in and out of lanes, the rapid accelerations and cutting in without the use of turn signals that seemed to be the accepted mode of commuters.

We tried to keep pace as much as possible but after six hours of driving the sudden rise not only in congestion, but in average speed was challenging. I could also see that the faces of the drivers were as intent and focused as a professional poker player, everyone in a rush to get to wherever it was they were headed. By the time we made our exit onto the secondary highway- route 206- the traffic had come to a crawl. There was at that point, just inside the Sommerville town line, a sprawl of development I had somehow missed in my previous visits over the years.

Every open space I remembered was paved and built upon, corporate headquarters rising from the former farm fields, strip mall after strip mall, each one featuring a nail salon, a cigar shop, a liquor store and a place to purchase lottery tickets. There diners and restaurants, fast food joints- sometime two of the same franchise only a mile or two apart- and Starbucks shops, more in a fifteen mile stretch than I had seen in the entire state of New Hampshire. On a hunch I switched to FM radio and searched for a station I recognized.

With the seek button the dial would stop at every station powerful enough to get a strong signal and the variety of foreign languages and music we heard was jarring. Indian and Spanish for the most part, but a few I’d never heard before, Vietnamese, and Farsi, punctuated by brief snatches of vulgar rap that surprised me. I know what words I heard in those small samples and I wondered if the former rules for what was acceptable to the FCC stood, or if like the dead deer everyone pretended not to notice. There was even more litter here, drifts of it piled against the median dividers and I wondered how anyone could possibly get at it with the non-stop flow of traffic.

I assumed that once we got as far south as Hillsborough that the traffic would thin, but it never did and all along the way were construction projects and mile after mile of half empty plazas, malls and signage offering space for rent. Of all the advertisements we’d seen on the trip at that point, none was as ubiquitous as Vacancy.

Just north of Princeton I regarded all the old haunts where I’d looked for Indian artifacts over the course of my childhood and how none of them remained, everything developed into housing and shopping outlets, tract homes and condo complexes jammed so tight up against one another there was barely enough room to fit in a road and all of them pressed up against the edge of the highway, brightly lit, burning energy as if their entire purpose was to use every last drop.

We got into town right around dinnertime and after saying our hellos and giving a quick recap of our trip to my father and sister we headed out to our favorite pizzeria, Conte’s. Fortunately some things never change. I’ve been eating their pizza as long as I can remember and the decor and look of the place hasn’t altered a bit in the past half century. The same family has been running it for the past 80 years, it looks like an old VFW hall with a bar that runs the length of the room, and a menu that is only one page long.

The only change I noticed was an over the top promotion of gluten free whatever you want, but considering the clientele in Princeton, maybe that was a concession that had to be made. The pizza was just as good as I remembered and after we got back to my father’s we settled in for a well deserved sleep before we began the next leg of our journey. The next morning my father and I walked down to the local bakery and bought some pastries for breakfast.

He is completely inured to the presence of people who speak no English and I watched with a mix of curiosity and sadness as he went through a pantomime routine with the women behind the counter as if it were perfectly normal to have to point at each item rather than simply ask for them by name. I told him about our plans to visit the site where Uncle Sid had fallen in the opening action at the battle of Chancellorsville, to see if we could get a better understanding of the place where he lost his life in the spring of 1863.

A drawing of him had traveled with me since I was thirteen years old, housed at different times in various family members homes for safe keeping, but always returning to me in the end. I hope to pass it along to my son, whichever one shows the greater interest in remembering his story and his connection to us. My father passed along some printed pages he’d researched, muster records from his unit, the 21st NJ Volunteer Infantry, after action reports from the National Archives, and the record of his death. We loaded our bag and said our goodbyes and headed out of town into a steady rain and made our way south once again.

I paid much closer attention to the alterations in the landscape as we drove down 295 towards the Washington D.C. I’d driven the route countless thousands of times over the course of my life and it seemed that every mile marker held some memory of the past for me. The exit for the hospital where my mother was diagnosed with her cancer and the next one after that where her body was sent after she died a week later and where we held the service for her before saying goodbye forever.

I remembered the parking area where the big bend of the Delaware swept into view south of Trenton and how often I’d pulled into it to watch the river where Assunpink Creek joined it before driving home in the evenings from work. There were the exits for the back way to our camp in the Pine Barrens, the exit for the Columbus Mart where you could get the best produce from NJ every Summer and the exit for Cherry Hill where I’d run my last business for the last ten years before we bought the farm and exits to where old girlfriends lived when I was a teenager.

Back in the 1970’s both sides of the road were lined with forests and farm fields and most of New Jersey south of Mercer County was rural in character, but now it was another endless view of warehouses, strip malls, corporate mid-rises and housing developments that spread out so far you couldn’t see the end of them. By the time we’d gotten to the exit for the Atlantic City Expressway there were massive highway projects going in, multi-billion dollar affairs that were littered with the largest array of heavy equipment I’d ever seen in one location, mountains of disturbed soil, soaring bridges and exit ramps, concrete trucks stacked up in rows like dominoes all along the roads leading in and leading out.

The sleepy towns of Belmawr and Haddonfield were no buried in a coil of construction projects that dwarfed anything I’d seen on our trip thus far. We listened to music for a while without saying much, the rain fell steadily and the traffic thinned out but a fog had settled in as well and by the time we’d reached the approach to the DelMem Bridge the only thing you could see were the rising cables as they sloped off, upwards into the mist and disappeared from view.

I told my son that if we’d had good weather it was one of the most beautiful suspension bridges in the country with a view all the way back up the river to Philadelphia, but in the pearly light of morning, hundreds of feet above the surface of the river below it was transcendent. We could imagine that we were the only people up here but for the truck or bus that slipped past us in the lanes to our right and left.

We made our way further south, through Delaware and then into Maryland crossing the Susquehanna river and I told my son to look back at the bluffs at Port Deposit. There was a fantastic estate that sat back several hundred yards and in my memory there had always been an American flag flying on a poll set at the edge of the cliffs, but you couldn’t see it through the rain if it was still there, the pole itself only a dim shaft of white against the trees behind it.

On the far side was Havre de Grace and I pointed out a restaurant that has been a weekend comedy club back in the 80’s and I told him about driving all this way for $50 dollars a set back in the early days of my comedy career. he pressed me for more stories so I told him about all the clubs in this part of the country I’d worked, the one-nighters booked by an old friend named Chip Franklin who’d gone on to a career in radio, the really funny but almost unbookable comics I’d worked with back then who made the career seem so interesting to me at the time; Blaine Capatch and John Matta and a dozen or more anecdotes that I knew he’d enjoy.

We laughed a lot and then he introduced me to some music he’d been listening to lately and before long we were coming into Baltimore, it’s skyline massively altered since I’d last seen it, the mountains of sand and salt and whatever other chemicals they stockpile right up next to the highway along the edge of the big terminals where ships were packed in like sardines. I pointed out the Domino sugar plant and the Aquarium and then we went through the Ft McHenry tunnel and got very silent, the thought of all that water above our heads while we drove through the tiled tube beneath the Chesapeake.

Our goal was D.C. and I decided to take the New York Avenue entrance so he could get a good look at the city’s North East neighborhood before entering the formal environment of the Capitol Plaza. It was as it has always been every time I drove in; clusters of working aged men standing around the doors to the liquor store or the deli, scattered piles of litter in every place the wind had blown it, old men drinking from paper bags against the walls of buildings that looked as if they hadn’t been painted in thirty years. Cheap hotels, check cashing joints, fast food outlets, nail salons and wig stores.

I have always been fascinated by the phenomenon of people who neither work, nor in their free time take the opportunity to maintain their immediate surroundings, although the two things are probably more closely related than I imagine. The looks on their faces are always a mix of boredom and resignation, but if you happen to catch their eye there is something else too, a simmering anger they don’t even try to conceal as they watch the ceaseless stream of brand new cars driving by on their way to do something.

My son noticed the graffiti and the fact that no one was doing anything. He asked if they had the day off for the election and I told him that it was always like this every time I had ever driven through. Gentrification had yet to hit this neighborhood. We caught glimpses of the Capitol on our left and as we made our way through town we could see other buildings along the Mall. We had no trouble finding free parking right in front of the Capitol which was closed for the day and in a light rain we made our way around the front to look up the sweep of stairs and admire the majesty of it’s construction.

Washington D.C. offers a scale that seems godlike in it’s scale and grandeur. The sweep of the lawns and broad expanses between the museums and monuments allude to a vision of some greater purpose than human use. The few people that were out and about looked like so many birds or squirrels that dotted the last of the green grass between the Capitol and the Washington Monument. We took our time and wandered along, admiring the masonry and the details of the craftsmanship in the facades and frontages.

Everywhere it seemed was the evidence of some long gone master who had taken great pains and spent long hours perfecting the multitude of details; oak leaves carved in marble, Greek motifs etched in granite, handcrafted bricks that were laid with precision in ornamental arrangements that were not only solid but pleasing to the eye. If you can walk through this space without being humbled I would be surprised and that is part of its purpose- to impress and to inspire not only those who come to share in the purpose of this city, but those who might challenge it as well It appears like a combination of both a temple complex as well as a fortress.

The basic design is a rectangular sward of grass enclosed on both sides by majestic edifices both of governmental department headquarters like the Department of Agriculture and public museums like the Smithsonian. It runs a full two miles in length from the steps of the Capitol to the base of the Lincoln Memorial with two parallel footpaths on either side that trace it’s entire length. The trees are all well established specimens, most averaging 200 years of growth or better. My assumption was that on Election Day most of the political class would be absent, back in their home districts drumming up votes or making appearances at their polls to encourage everyone else to cast their ballot.

The rain helped to suppress the touristy crowd although it was far from empty. There were constant circling buses- one local electric bus offered rides around the Mall for $1, probably the best value in the entire city we saw that day. The Asian tourists, predominantly Japanese, were in their tight knots, each with full sized cameras and moving like schools of fish, everyone dressed in black. That was the color of the day as far as I could tell with very few people past the age of ten wearing bright clothes. There were the occasional joggers, almost exclusively White women in their 20’s and 30’s, each with their hair pulled back in a pony tail and wearing black yoga pants and earbuds as if their were a mandatory dress code.

Every once in a while a White male in his early forties would run by at a clip that indicated a military or law enforcement bearing and their were almost to a man dressed in old school gray sweats, although it was clear that they were no off the rack gym clothes, but a designer type made to look like the kind of athletic wear men wore 30 years ago. We passed several protesters that had set up camp on a more or less permanent basis, like the Falun Gong crowd that made their endless appeals through a battered bullhorn in what sounded like Cantonese perched just outside the Air and Space Museum.

We took a moment to try and find a restroom- the only thing the park designers forgot to account for in their plans- and upon entering discovered an airport like screening center manned by four uniformed Black women, each one larger than the other. I asked if my belt knife would be a problem and received a grunt from the point screener who never looked at me, nor got up from her seat. The small knot of visitors behind us pushed us forward to the conveyor belt with it’s plastic trays and I put my possessions in the dish, including the knife and made my way through the x-ray device.

Of course they weren’t going to allow anyone into the building with anything resembling a weapon and at the other end of the screening I was told what I knew would be the case. She did offer that I was free to “go outside and hide it” but I declined. I asked if my son could please use the restroom since he wasn’t carrying anything, but the response was another bored denial. That was our first and only attempt to enter a public building in D.C. and we decided to keep the rest of visit confined to wandering between the outdoor memorials.

We passed a semi-permanent circus type tent that had a sign out front indicating it was a place of worship, a sort of Christian church filled with folding chairs and a small stage inside where a single woman played an acoustic guitar while another lone woman sat morosely in front of her, head bowed in sleep. There were various Asians who clearly spoke no English offering small bead bracelets for sale to everyone who wandered past and on each side of the Mall there were construction projects going on in front of every other building. As we made our way to the base of the Washington Monument we could see that it was fenced in and under some kind of construction as well with large signs offering a grand re-opening at “An Indeterminate Time”, the first truthful words I had encountered in D.C.

I made the mistake of walking into the gift shop in front of the monument to get a more specific idea of when their project was due to be completed and the man in dreadlocks gave me a withering look, having no doubt been asked the same question a thousand times and answered as glibly as he could “Undetermined, like it say on the sign”. Thankfully there was a restroom on the back side of the building and we both made use of it, stepping over the sleeping Australian Aborigine and his belongings camped out on the floor.

I wondered about that, what had prompted an Aborigine to immigrate to the US just to become homeless in D.C. but I tried not to dwell on it. We crossed over into the next section and decided to walk through the completed WWII Memorial. I had heard about it being built, the difficulty they’d had with placement, and the argument that the Iwo Jima Memorial wasn’t adequate to honor the magnitude of that period and having never seen it before went into it without a lot of baggage. I let the memorial speak for itself.

From 500 feet above it could be confused for a football stadium in Alabama.

The first impression was immediate and visceral- This was a design by committee. I could feel it instantly, that it wanted to be all things to all people, honoring the fallen while at the same time desperate not to offend the ones they’d had to kill in order to win the war. It had to bow before the contributions not only of the soldiers who died, but their little sisters and their spinster aunts whose sacrifices were just as important as the men who were cut to pieces on the beaches of Normandy.

There were fountains and pools, pillars and friezes, granite wreaths and fluttering flags aplenty, vanishing pools and Romanesque plinths, marble and bronze, soaring eagles and triumphal arches. There was not a single architectural detail that had been omitted and in making all those choices it gave the appearance of a gypsy’s cart filled with butter churns and extra wagon wheels, old rocking chairs and tin pots hanging from the gunwales.

To call it atrocious would be to elevate the discourse. It stunk. The very first panel I laid eyes on was from the eminently quotable and stand out figure of the Second World War, Oveta Culp Hobby, who reminds the visitors that “Women who stepped up were measured as citizens of the Nation, not as women…” and it went downhill from there. Standing inside of the monument itself was a weird blend of Soviet style design elements-

And a salute to Mexico City-

What better way to show your respect to the ultimate sacrifice of more than a half million men than by washing your feet in their reflecting pool?

I wish that I could say that I am simply a cynical man and leave it at that. I missed the point of the ‘Kilroy Wuz Here” nod to defacing public property with juvenile scrawls-

But the truth is that the entire experience was, rather than uplifting, depressing. It’s final cost, although impossible to determine due to bureaucratic obfuscation, was somewhere in the neighborhood of a quarter of a billion dollars and from watching the people wander around it’s trite oval the payoff was less than meh. As we walked off towards the Viet Nam memorial I felt a deep sorrow, not only for the loss to our own family- Uncle Irvin, the only son of my Paternal Grandmother’s line, blown to pieces at the Kasserine Pass in April of 1943, his remains forever lost to his home soil- but also for the dismal specter of all those lost lives fighting for ideals and values that are today routinely mocked and ridiculed and then purposefully harnessed to progressive ideals that had nothing to do with their purpose for fighting.

As we walked long squirrels came out boldly to beg for peanuts we did not possess, interrupted only by the Falun Gongers and hawking beads and speaking in a foreign tongue. I tried to prepare my son for the experience of the Viet Nam Memorial, telling him about the competition and how a young woman of Chinese descent had won at the age of 21 and how controversial that decision was at the time.

I also explained to him that in my opinion there wasn’t a more fitting and moving memorial anywhere on Earth as the one we were about to experience. As we approached I became aware of the chains and posts that lined the boulevard, black upright posts every ten or twelve feet with a black chain swag between them I noticed how at least 25% of them had been disconnected and were laying on the ground and the ones that had been repaired were held together not by links, but by zip ties.

Upon closer inspection you could see that the posts which at first appeared to be wrought iron were simply galvanized pipe like the kind used on chain link fences around construction sites and dog kennels that has been spray painted black and that all of them were shedding flakes of paint like crepe myrtle limbs. What had been intended as a suggestion to stay off the lawns in a more unified society with common understanding had instead been turned into a sad reminder that “no borders, no walls” applies to fences and trail markings as well. If people want to stand on the chains until they break, then that’s what they were there for and if the government is going to maintain them, plastic zip strips are going to have to do.

The approach to the monument from the east takes you past two more recent additions, the first one being a salute to the eight women who died in Viet Nam, lest we forget. That one had a pretty impressive crowd surrounding it and it was festooned with roses and other various and sundry offerings to those three bronze humans of unclaimed gender although appearing like a trio of female type organisms.

Moms with strollers snapped selfies next to it, young girls in track suits stood next to it while staring into their I-phones, and squirrels, sensing a soft touch from the not-male crowd, circled furiously looking for handouts. It reminded me of my old neighbor, Seward Johnson, whose painfully awkward but hyper-realistic bronzes cluttered the public spaces of a dozen American cities because he’s rich enough and vain enough to insist on it.

The figures are frozen in uncomfortable positions for eternity, either staring nonchalantly past the face of the dying man with all the emotion of a woman jacked on Ambien, or eyes cast upward either searching for the Medevac or trying to read the McMenu while one hand plays air piano and the other suffers from an advanced case of carpal tunnel syndrome. It was the very definition of a gimme memorial. Yes, yes, you served to, can’t leave you out, hope this odd little scene will quiet you down until the next set of demands arrives by registered mail.

And so we proceeded down into the real Memorial, the one that takes you breath away not at the start, but all the way through. From the first hlf curb of black granite with it’s single name etched almost imperceptibly upon it’s surface the grade falls away as the names rise up, from your feet, to you face and then above your head when you realize that you, like all of these names before you, have descended into the earth, a grave, for eternity. And then it happens; you slowly begin to see your own reflection in it’s surface and you realize that this could easily have been you, that this will one day be you and that all of these names represented real people who had lives, who had loved ones, family and friends and dreams and aspirations but that all of it was sacrificed and for what?

As you make the path past it’s pivotal crease and begin to ascend again you can see it if you look, in the facades of all those overblown bureaucratic temples to the most imposing and overbearing Empire known to history, the politicians and the corporate bosses, the functionaries and their mandarin class who jog around the city listening to NPR on their high tech gadgetry. That’s who was responsible for this colossal waste of strength, valor, and selflessness.

Each step you take out of the ground is a reminder of what sits on top of this tomb to an unimaginable loss of human life and the attendant wreckage that is always left behind for the little people to clean up and deal with- The City of Hubris. As we emerged back onto the surrounding walkway we made our way back towards the reflecting pool and the Lincoln Monument. We were very quiet for the first few minutes and then my son finally spoke. “I saw my name on there. I saw it a lot.” I’d seen it to, and my own name as well, both first and last although never together.

It’s hard to imagine that you’r eyes could pick them out from all the tens of thousands of them running together one after another, but it is a phenomenon I had noticed on previous visits and maybe that was part of her intent as well. We walked up to a small kiosk that explained the memorial and there was a man inside that was there to answer any questions people might have, although we didn’t ask him anything. We did read the small placard that was mounted in the window, though.

It said that so many things have been left behind at the wall that an entire building had been set up to house those artifacts and that the volume was so great that most of it would have to be discarded and to let anyone know that whatever was left behind was considered abandoned property to be disposed of by the government according to- and here I wish I’d copied the words down- “Section 104 Paragraph 6, subsection 101:32, etc, etc.”- an almost perfect coda to the experience we’d just had.

Here was a government in possession of a monument so impressive, so moving, and powerful that people are compelled to leave precious keepsakes long it’s length in tribute to those it honors and it’s only response is to warn them that their stuff is going to be thrown away, like all those lives, not in kind words, but legalese. Stunning.

The rain began to stop and to the west, behind the Lincoln Memorial, you could see little scraps of blue sky and the bright light of the Sun as it began to set. Here the crowds were at their peak for the day although nowhere near what I recalled from previous visits. There were knots of foreign military in their dress uniforms- Hondurans and some from a Middle Eastern State I couldn’t identify.

There were the big crowds of the Japanese, again tightly knit together and all of them snapping pictures of everything and one large school group in neon yellow track suits, many of them extremely overweight and all of them staring into their palms at their hand held devices despite the view. We stood at the base of the stairs and looked up at the proscenium and felt very small in that space, more so than at any other time on our walk so far. The building itself is a Greek temple built on an Modernist scale, it is the Parthenon on steroids.

The beauty of it’s design and the harmony of it’s dimensions gives it even more power than is size and structure. The columns are spaced perfectly, it’s height the precise compliment to it’s width and it’s material, white marble, the epitome of beauty and purity. And there, up on each corner, like a portentous omen of something wicked, twin arrangements of surveillance gear, black and mechanical, pointed and unsettling. If there had been vultures sitting all along the eaves it would not have been as ominous and unsettling.

They broke the beautiful lines of the roof were broken by these twin gargoyles of the Derp State glaring down at the milling crowds, challenging them to do something, say something that they didn’t approve of and just like that as we watched twin helicopter gunships swooped across the skyline searching for targets? Escorting the elite class in their own private helicopters behind them? Who knew, but it felt like we’d just caught the closing minutes of a North Korean military parade.

I climbed the stairs behind my son to watch his reaction to the imposing sculpture of The Great Tyrant, Lincoln. Mass murderer of his own people, Ceasar of the Federal Government. My son was awed, as one ought to be in the presence of that visage, staring off at the Empire he helped create. I checked his hands on my wife’s suggestion- she thought he was using sign language, (he wasn’t)- but all I could see were the two fasces that made up the arms of his seat.

How entirely appropriate and what a conundrum that must pose for the fans of Lincoln who almost to a xer are Antifa. I looked up and noticed that a large number of the paraffin stained marble ceiling tiles had fallen out but in our booming economy it is apparently much more cost effective to simply replace them in their bronze frame with plywood.

It would have been depressing if it weren’t matched by the huge mud dauber nests that adhered to much of the top ten feet of so of the inner walls as well as the impressive cobwebs clogged with soot that waved about freely from the corners of the ceiling. Apparently the Department of Parks doe not own a ladder of some scaffold to keep the shrine to Illinois’ version of Kali. I had a quick thought while we were still inside and asked that my son read the Gettysburg Address panel out loud, which he did. I was waiting for the closing passage that reads-

“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us – that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

He finished reading and we walked back out towards the stairs and just stood there together. The Sun had broken out completely as it set, casting a golden light on the distant Washington Monument in the distance, glowing against the receding cloudbank to the east and I took a photo of my son standing in the opening of the monument, his arms spread wide, smiling at me. I could see on his face the look of awe and pleasure.

It had been a wonderful experience to share together with more to come, but we were hungry now and our legs felt the day’s hike so we descended the flight of well worn stone side by side. I remember looking back over my shoulder at the video cameras and listening devices bolted onto the facade of the Memorial thinking that as sad as it was to contemplate, that those dead in Gettysburg- and in all the other places we had fought since then- had in fact died in vain, that our Nation had a stillbirth of freedom and that the government of the people, by the people and for the people had indeed perished from the Earth.

And so we made our way to dinner, both of our minds reeling with the images we had seen and trying to put some sense to that experience.

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