I'm just back from DC, or more properly the area around DC. In normal holiday times, Hubby and I could meet our daughter when her work day at the Justice Department ended and then enjoy downtown Washington's Christmas attractions – the lights on Pennsylvania Avenue, tea at the Willard Hotel, or the holiday flower arrangements at the National Botanical Garden. But Hubby is gone and the times aren't normal, so I didn't set foot in the district this year. I did check the web to see Melania's White House decor, and it wasn't as disastrous as last year's devil-red trees. I'm grateful, though, that she won't get another chance.
Going to Washington always has a sense of going home for me. I made my first trip in 1954, with my mother and siblings to spend Christmas with my older sister (the one who died recently). Dad stayed home to tend the chickens and cows, and we traveled by Greyhound. It was before interstates or emission controls, and the foul-smelling bus swinging around Appalachian roads made us kids nauseous.
We soon recovered, and our brother-in-law took us all over DC. I never shall forget the thrill of seeing the National Christmas Tree. It could be that my childish imagination over-ranked it, but it also could be that this tradition has deteriorated since the Eisenhower administration. The last time I saw it was during the Obama administration, and, unfortunately, it looked as if it were made of lime-green cardboard.
My first solo trip was in 1955, when I was not-quite twelve. My sister had lived there for four years by then. She was recruited in 1951 by the Navy Department because of her secretarial abilities. The Navy and other agencies had learned during World War II that young women, especially young women from the Midwest, were far better at office procedures than the average male clerk. Sis signed up while still in high school and had to wait to turn 18 to actually go. She was the first of our very large Minnesota family to fly away.
She worked for top admirals and kept atomic secrets, but the Navy did not employ married women back then. She lost the job when she wed in 1953 – a marriage that lasted until her 2020 death. She would care for six children alone during many of those years, as her husband was an Army pilot who was gone much of the time. He didn't yet have that status, though, when their first child was born, and she continued to work non-federal jobs in DC. By the summer of 1955, she decided that it would be cheaper to buy a plane ticket for me than to pay for child care, and I flew to Washington.
THE NEXT GENERATION
DC was a much, much smaller place then, and National Airport did not seem much bigger than Davis Island's Peter O. Knight Airport is now. That still was the case in 1966, when Hubby and I wed and settled in there. He was assigned to Arlington Hall, the headquarters of the Army Security Agency. It was a semi-secret place that connected to the Pentagon via Fort Myers, and we lived just off of Arlington Boulevard (US Highway 50), which still is one of the area's main arteries.
I worked in DC at the Foggy Bottom offices of US News and World Report magazine. They had a big parking lot, and I drove; I dropped Hubby at Arlington Hall and took the Memorial Bridge over the Potomac. He got off at 4:00, and I worked until 6:00, so he walked home, while I came home via the new I-66 and the Roosevelt Bridge. By then Sis' husband was a captain, and they lived on post at Fort Meade, Maryland, less than an hour away. It was one of the few periods of her life when she was not employed outside the home – but she had the care of their six little children, as well as her somewhat difficult mother-in-law.
Both families moved on, and for a couple of decades, we had no one in Washington. By the 1990s, though, Sis' oldest son (the one I babysat) was assigned to Fort Belvoir, where his dad had been forty years earlier. My nephew now is retired and a well-paid consultant in the defense industry; his children grew up in suburban Virginia, and he has three young grandchildren in the area. The family lived in Alabama, Alaska, and Colorado during his Army career, but they now are thoroughly Virginian.
Sis' youngest child moved to suburban Maryland as a bride, and she has had a long career with NASA contracts. Her children also grew up there, and she now has three daughters and four grandchildren nearby. Our daughter joined these cousins in 1998, when she entered George Washington Law School – and so you can see why I feel that DC is a second home. Including Hubby's lobbying for the National Education Association and mine as a trustee for Hillsborough Community College and a board member of the National Women's History Museum, we have spent a great deal of time in DC, and I have happy memories.
I won't be moving, though, as the capital area is too cold in winter and because its traffic is even worse than ours. Anyone who thinks that Washington bureaucrats prioritize their own interests over that of the rest of the nation never has attempted to get from Place A to Place B in Metro DC. Even with a modern train system, appreciable bus use, and car-pooling, getting anywhere is a nightmare. And before you say that this simply shows too many bureaucrats, let me remind you of the demographics of my family: although none are currently in the military, all are in military-related businesses or law enforcement.
And that these people, mostly Democrats, are better citizens than we have in Florida can be seen on the roads. Drivers use their turn signals; they don't speed or change lanes carelessly; and mostly, they don't litter. OK, I saw some litter in Maryland, which has a Republican governor, but virtually none in Virginia, which has become a thoroughly Democratic state. I know this isn't a scientific survey, but I think it is notable. I wish someone would undertake a statistically valid study of the correlation of voting patterns and literal trash.
SOME CIVIL WAR HISTORY
Daughter and her husband live in Manassas, Virginia. Both work remotely these days, but ordinarily he drives to the nearby George Mason University campus, while her commute to downtown DC, involving both Amtrack and the Metro, takes more than an hour. They like living in Manassas, though, because they are in its historic district. The town, you may remember, was the site of the first major battle of the Civil War, in July 1861. The Rebels quickly won, chasing the Yankees – and the politicians who came to watch -- back to Washington. For a while, it seemed as if this easy victory would mean that the Union would give up on the seceding states, but Lincoln, who had been inaugurated just four months earlier, did not accept defeatism.
A second Manassas battle followed the next summer, as the Union continued to try to capture its vital railroad. Yet despite heavy casualties, it also was a victory for the South. Robert E. Lee, whose Arlington plantation was nearby, beat a Union force twice the size of his own. He soon moved on to other battles and ultimately to defeat, but the Confederacy continued to control the Manassas railroad -- on the route that my daughter now takes to work. The Union called these battles "Bull Run," for the small river that runs through the area. We intended to do the Bull Run drive-thru Christmas lights again this year, but it didn't happen. I was just too cozy sitting by the wood-burning fireplace, cuddling a cat, and admiring the fresh-smelling tree.
None of my family had yet immigrated to America by the Civil War, but several of us are fascinated by it. My nephew (the one I babysat) built a home that backed up to the preserved site of the Battle of Fredericksburg. That town is about forty miles southwest of Manassas, and its big battle also was a victory for the South – but at terrible cost for both sides. Fought near Christmas 1862, the Union alone suffered more than 12,000 casualties. One of the accounts I read for a potential book on Civil War women was Aunt Becky's Army Life, which was published in 1867, just two years after the war ended. She treated wounded Union soldiers in a Fredericksburg church and reported horrific deaths: gunfire set the woods on fire, and many men burned alive. Louisa May Alcott also nursed in this battle, and it is the basis of her first book, Hospital Sketches (1863).
AND A COUPLE OF NICE END NOTES
Although my family was not yet in America, my brother-in-law's was, and he may be related to the Union general who lost this battle. That was Ambrose Burnside, and the modern family's name is Byrnside. My brother-in-law is the retired Army pilot I spoke of earlier, and he turned 88 in November. Despite plane crashes and a chemical spill, he is in amazing health. He's doesn't use a cane or even wear glasses and still tools around in his BMW convertible.
He lives in Columbus, Georgia (Fort Benning) and until his wife's illness, volunteered for the Red Cross. So, a wonderful ending story: He saw on TV where the COVID vaccine was being given to first responders and later reported to us, "I just got in the line, and they gave it to me." Apparently they saw him as still a Red Cross first responder! And he would be, if need be.
One more nice observation: airplanes and airports are incredibly clean. I know that the Boeing 737s that Southwest uses are old, but everything from walls to tray tables gleamed as if the planes were just out of the factory. Airports at both ends also glistened, and I have to wonder if some of the laid-off airline workers now are toiling as cleaners for airports. Guys with spray bottles seemed to be everywhere, and passengers were endlessly reminded that masks were required at all times. I felt much safer than I do at neighborhood stores.