My November 2016 trip
Introduction Day 1: Amazing Graces Day 2: My First Thanksgiving Meal Day 3: Air & Space And American History Museums Day 4: Harpers Ferry And Antietam Day 5: Capitol, Library Of Congress And Supreme Court Day 6: My Second Thanksgiving Meal Day 7: Newseum Day 8: Museum Of Natural History Day 9: Ten Washington Monuments Conclusion
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."
First Amendment to the US Constitution (1791)
For some time, it had been on my bucket list that I should enjoy a Thanksgiving dinner in the USA. I'd seen this event in so many American television shows and movies and it looked such a lot of fun, so I persuaded my good American friends Mike and Laura Grace to invite me over for the festive event. Little did I know at the time that my visit would come less than two weeks after Donald Trump would be elected the next president of the country and leader of the free world in the most surprising and astonishing electoral upset of modern times. This was my ninth visit to the United States over a period of 46 years.
Thanksgiving is celebrated mainly in Canada and the United States but also in a small number of other countries including Granada, Liberia and St Lucia. In Canada, since 1957 it is held on the second Monday of October, while in the USA since 1942 it takes place on fourth Thursday of November (go figure!). In the United States, the festival is said to date back to 1621 when the Pilgrims gave thanks for a good harvest. Originally a religious event, Thanksgiving has long been a secular occasion which is at least as popular as Christmas.
There are all sorts of traditions associated with the event. Some cities hold Thanksgiving parades. Football (the American version) plays a major role. Since Ronald Reagan was President, the country's leader pardons a turkey which is allowed to live rather than be eaten - unlike over 50 million other birds nationwide. Millions and millions of Americans travel back to the family home to celebrate the event with lots of traditional food. In short, the day is one for family, feasting and football.
DAY 1: AMAZING GRACES
On Saturday, I flew to the United States in a British Airways Airbus A380. The aircraft was absolutely packed and I had to content myself with a window seat instead of my usual preferred aisle seat, but the two passengers to my side were fascinating. One was an American cyber security expert who voted for Donald Trump in Virginia; the other was an Anglo-American parliamentary assistant to a UK Government Minister who voted for Hillary Clinton in Ohio. So my debates about American (and British) politics began before we even took off just after noon.
When not engaged in discussion with them, I started to read a book entitled "Happiness By Design, written by Paul Dolan, Professor of Behavioural Science at the London School of Economics. After a flight of 8 hours 10 minutes, we landed at Dulles International Airport in Washington DC at - since there is a five hour time difference from the UK - 3.15 pm. The arrangements at Dulles - especially around the availability of our luggage - was chaotic, so it took me an hour and a half to clear all the formalities.
My hosts for my stay in the USA were my American friends Mike Grace, a retired official with the Communications Workers of America (the sister union to the Communication Workers Union with which I used to work) and his wife Laura, a retired high school teacher. I was met at the airport by Mike and driven the one and a half hour journey north of DC to their home in the small community of Brinklow, near the town in Olney in Montgomery county in the state of Maryland. In the car, we listened to a radio interview with Senator Bernie Sanders who failed to win the Democratic nomination for the presidential race and argued the need for a transformation of the Democratic Party.
My base for this trip to the USA was the beautiful home of the Graces. Mike bought three acres of woodland with tulip poplar trees and had the house built in 1979 and then in 2004 they had the place extended. It now occupies over 4,000 square feet with everything from a fantastic high porch for dinner to a television room with a hugh drop down screen and seven speakers. Once they had three children here, but now it is just them in a place with five bedrooms, three full bathrooms, and a fourth toilet. So I had a suite to myself.
The beautiful home of the amazing Graces
DAY 2: MY FIRST THANKSGIVING MEAL
Although Thanksgiving was not until Thursday, the Graces have a tradition of holding an extra and early Thanksgiving dinner the previous Sunday attended by Laura's sisters. She has four sisters and this year three came along with one husband and one ex husband, so eight of us sat down for dinner. The meal began with each person being asked for what he or she was feeling thankful. The traditional turkey in this case was an exceptionally tasty 21 lb (9.5 kilo) bird. Accompanying the turkey was something called corn pudding plus green beans and mashed potatoes. Dessert was a choice of pumpkin pie, pecan pie and apple pie with vanilla ice cream. For me, it was my first taste of corn pudding and pumpkin pie. By the end of the meal, I was truly stuffed.
The delicious Thanksgiving turkey cooked by Mike
After the dinner, the women stayed in the dining room and chatted, while the men retired to the sitting room and screamed at the 60" television screen. The cause of the shouting was a live broadcast of a football match between the Washington Redskins and the Green Bay Packers. As a young man, Mike won a football scholarship to college and his injuries included a badly broken arm, so he had lots of advice for the players on the screen. I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I don't even know why it's called football - the ball is hardly kicked. Oh, the Redskins won - much to the pleasure of my male companions.
DAY 3: AIR & SPACE AND AMERICAN HISTORY MUSEUMS
Today (Monday), Mike and Laura had things to do, so I headed off to downtown Washington DC on my own to visit a couple of favourite museums. Laura drove me the 20 minute ride to Glenmont metro station, which is at the end of the red line, and an hour later I was at my first destination: the National Air & Space Museum [click here]. This is my favourite museum in all the world because of my strong interest in aviation and the magnificent collection of famous aircraft. I must have been there around a dozen times but never tire of revisiting it.
Once again, I marvelled at the historic aircraft hanging from the ceiling in the entrance hall, my favourites being the Ryan monoplane the "Spirit of St Louis", in which Charles Lindbergh made the record-breaking solo flight across the Atlantic in 192,7 and the Bell X-1A "Glamorous Glennis", in which Chuck Yeager became the first person to break the sound barrier in 1947. In a section of its own is the Wright brothers' "Flyer" in which the first ever heavier than air flight was made in 1903. As always, I checked out the sections on the First World War and the Second World War and touched the piece of moon rock from the Apollo 17 mission. For the first time, since I am interested in civilian as well as. military aviation, I studied a presentation on the Next Generation Transportation System involving radically different aircraft, airports and navigation.
On my first visit to the museum in 1980, I saw my first IMAX film and was blown away. So, on each visit, I like to see an IMAX production and this time I caught a 3D movie called "A Beautiful Planet" with stunning film from the International Space Station.
The "Spirit of St Louis" The Bell X-1A
In the afternoon, I went to the National Museum of American History [click here]. Here I revisited two favourite sections: one political and one military. "The American Presidency" looks at every aspect of the role of the various occupants of the White House. GIven the very recent election of the outsider Donald Trump, I found this quote from Lyndon Johnson particularly apposite: "The presidency has made every man who occupied it, no matter how small, bigger than he was; and no matter how big, not big enough for its demands". The section entitled "Price Of Freedom: America At War" is a reminder that the United States was born in conflict (the War of Independence) and, one way and another, has almost always been at war somewhere in the globe.
The top hat worn by Abraham Lincoln
on the evening of his assassination
When planning this trip to the USA, I had hoped to visit the newly-opened National Museum of African-American History and Culture but essentially all the visitor slots are pre-allocated for months. However, I was able to see an introductory section to the new museum in the American History Museum and to see the distinctive design of the new museum next door to the American History Museum.
The National Museum of African-American
History and Culture
When I returned to Brinklow, I had been out - in chilly but bright weather - almost nine hours and had a wonderful time.
DAY 4: HARPERS FERRY AND ANTIETAM
Everyone knows that the American Civil War was a key period of US history that arguably still has resonances today and many Americans - including Mike - are fascinated by the personalities and engagements that made up that titanic struggle. Most non-Americans though would struggle to identify more than one of the civil war battles and that one would probably be Gettysburg. The last time I stayed with Mike & Laura we spent a fascinating and informative day visiting the site of the battle of Gettysburg. Yet most Americans are as familiar with the battle of Antietam as they are with Gettysburg and today (Tuesday) Mike & Laura took me to the site of this famous battle.
First though, on the way to Antietam, we stopped for a couple of hours at a place called Harpers Ferry [click here] in West Virginia which is located at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers and the junction of the states of Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. The location is important in Civil War terms in two respects. First, on 16 October 1859, the fervent abolitionist John Brown launched an attack on the government armoury in the town. It failed miserably, he was hanged (remember the song "John Brown's body"), and the event was subsequently seen as a key turning point in the build up to the war. Second, in the war itself, the strategically-located town was bitterly fought over by Union and Confederate troops and changed hands no less than eight times.
John Brown's body
We had lunch at Harpers Ferry at a place called "Potomac Grille". I decided to be American and to eat something new, so I had Reuben sandwich which is hot corned beef served on rye bread with Russian dressing, sauerkraut and Swiss cheese accompanied by pickle and crisps. It was good but too huge for me to finish.
From Harpers Ferry, we drove the short distance to the site of the battle of Antietam [click here].
Antietam (named after a local creek) - otherwise known as the Battle of Sharpsburg - took place around the town of that name in Maryland between 16-18 September 1862. It was a conflict between the Union Army of the Potomac of 87,000, led by General George McClellan, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia of 45,000, led by General Robert E Lee. It is best known as being the bloodiest day in American military history with almost 23,000 men killed, wounded, missing or captured. The Union side suffered some 12,400 casualties, while the Confederates took around 10,300 casualties.
Despite being outnumbered two to one, Lee committed his entire force to the battle, while McClelland sent in only three-quarters of his force. While President Abraham Lincoln claimed victory and followed this up with the Emancipation Proclamation which changed the course of the war, military historians see the conflict as essentially a draw - but a brutally bloody one. During our time at the site, we viewed an explanatory film at the Visitors Center and drove around the battlefield where we saw the locations of the three conflicts that inflicted the most casualties: the Cornfield, Bloody Lane and Burnside Bridge.
Almost 13,000 casualties in this morning encounter
Before leaving the area, in the town of Sharpsburg we found an amazing ice cream parlour with the wonderful name "Nutters". I ordered a brownie sundae with butter pecan ice cream and found that it came with whipped cream, chocolate sauce and nuts and it was HUGE. Even I could not finish it. The American portions are just too much.
DAY 5: CAPITOL, LIBRARY OF CONGRESS AND SUPREME COURT
I have long been fascinated by the American political system (if you Google those three words, my website guide will be referenced in the first page of results) and intrigued by American politics (which is why a visit to the USA within a couple of weeks of Donald Trump's election as president was so interesting). Long ago, I visited the White House (the executive arm of government) for the official tour and today (Wednesday) I visited or revisited the other two arms of government - the legislature and the judiciary - with Mike and Laura.
On the metro journey into town, the train stopped because a train ahead had broken down and our driver announced constantly that we would be moving "momentarily". What on earth does that word mean?
Downtown first stop was the Capitol [click here] which looked magnificent, gleaming white in the autumn sunshine. The official tour is around an hour, beginning with a film ("Out Of Many, One") and then looking at just three locations in this working building: the Crypt, the Rotunda, and the National Statutory Hall. Since 2008, there has been a new underground Visitors Center and this includes an Exhibition Hall which is almost a mini museum. There are slide shows explaining the roles of the House of Representatives and the Senate and there are a significant number of information panels and cases of artefacts.
A chilly Roger at ... ... the Capitol building
Views of the Capitol from .. ... the Library of Congress
After three hours in the Capitol, next stop was the Library of Congress [click here] which can be reached by an underground tunnel from the Congress itself. Opened in 1897, this is said to be the world's largest repository of knowledge with more than 162 million items in more than 470 languages. Highlights here are the imposing Reading Room and the 6,500 books making up the Jefferson Library but, if you have time, there are other informative displays.
The Reading Room of
the Library of Congress
Our third and final visit on the Hill was next door at the Supreme Court [click here]. This was opened in 1935 when the Chief Justice was the former President William Howard Taft. We were able to view the Court Room where the nine Justices (only eight at the time) conduct their public deliberations. Again there is a very helpful film and again there is an interesting set of exhibits.
The majestic Supreme Court
It was quite late in the afternoon when we had lunch but it was a rather special meal because we used a gift card given to Mike to visit an upmarket steak house restaurant called "Mortons" [click here] located close to Farragut North metro station. I had roasted tomato brisque, followed by prime sirloin chopped steak with caramelised onion, cheddar cheese and mashed potatoes, finishing with a dessert of double chocolate mouse. Another great day in DC.
Back in Brinklow for the evening, we watched a mediocre comedy/drama movie from 2003: "Hollywood Homicide" [click here] starring Harrison Ford and Josh Harnett.
DAY 6: MY SECOND THANKSGIVING MEAL
Following the family version of Thanksgiving on Sunday, the real Thanksgiving Day was today (Thursday). Around the nation, almost 49 million Americans travelled by road, rail and air to join their families. Mike and Laura were keen that I should have the full, immersive Thanksgiving experience so, like 50 million viewers all around the country, we watched on television the 90th Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in the Manhattan district of New York City. Starting at 9 am, the event runs for some three hours with floats, parades, musicians, dancers and HUGE floating balloons of every kind of animal and character plus a host of performers from Broadway shows recreating key musical sequences.
In the afternoon, Mike and Laura drove me to downtown Washington DC for my second Thanksgiving meal. The venue was the swanky Omni Shoreham Hotel [click here] where the Beatles took a whole wing in 1964 and scenes were shot for the films "The Pelican Brief", "The President's Analyst" and "No Way Out".
We were joined by our dear friends Morty and Florence Bahr. Morty was President of the Communications Workers of America - the sister union to the Communication Workers Union (with which I worked for 24 years) - from 1985-2005 I first met him in 1990 so our friendship now goes back 26 years. He and Florence are a fantastic couple who have been married for an amazing 71 years and, now in their 90s, they have two children, four grandchildren and eight great grandchildren. Morty regaled me with story after story from his brilliant career with a cast of characters including President Bill Clinton.
Roger's hosts: Mike & Laura Grace Roger with Morty & Florence Bahr
The meal was a buffet with a wonderful breadth of options for each course. I had clam chowder soup, a full salad, turkey with ALL the trimmings, and a collection of mini desserts plus champagne and coffee. We took our time and had three hours of food and conversation. Mind you, this sort of experience does not come cheap: $79 plus tax per head.
Back in Brinklow, this evening's movie was a quirky offering from the Coen brothers: "Hail, Caesar!" [click here].
DAY 7: NEWSEUM
Friday saw a return to downtown Washington DC to visit another museum. The Newseum [click here] is a private location that charges visitors unlike the Smithsonian museums which are free, but it is an absolutely fascinating place that anyone with an interest in current affairs simply must visit. It opened at its present location on Pennsylvania Avenue in 2008 and I went there in 2012, but Mike and Laura had never got around to going there, so today the three of us spent most of the day there.
One outside wall carries a carved inscription of the First Amendment: just 45 words that guarantee five freedoms including freedom of the press. It is recommended that visits start in the basement where there is a very short orientation video, a 4D film about investigative journalism, a gallery about the Berlin Wall, and on our visit a temporary exhibition about the FBI's efforts to combat terrorism and cybercrime. It is suggested that then visitors go to the top floor and work downwards.
Level 6 has an open terrace with a good view of the Capitol plus a display of the front pages of newspapers from each of the 50 states that day and a gallery on news coverage of the Vietnam War. Level 5 recounts the history of news gathering over five centuries and features more than 300 historic front pages from (mostly American) newspapers. This level has five theatres showing short films and I caught works on the origin of the First Amendment, coverage of the civil rights movement, and mistaken and false reporting.
Level 4 includes a moving commemoration of the horror of 9/11 with a timeline of the attacks on the Twin Towers, newspaper front pages on the event from around the world, and the twisted remains of the antenna that stood at the top of the North Tower. Level 3 has a large map of the world colour-coded to show the extent of media freedom in each country, a wall of photographs of reporters, photographers and broadcasters who have died in the line of duty, and a gallery covering the impact of radio, television, and the Internet.
Destruction of the World Trade Center The antenna from the North Tower
A news station's helicopter The world map of media freedom
Level 2 covers something as light-hearted as First Dogs and something as serious as media ethics plus a (temporary) photographic display of refugees who have found safety in the USA. Level 1 has the most comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs ever assembled.
Newseum is a simply wonderful place that underlines so powerfully the need for a free media and the difficulty of reporting accurately and fairly. At any time, a visit would be relevant but, two weeks after the election of Donald Trump who has attacked so harshly so much of the media, it seemed especially vital to be reminded of what is at stake around maintenance of the freedoms enshrined in the First Amendment. In 2012, I spent five hours at the museum; four years later, I was there for another five hours; and I would happily go back for more.
DAY 8: MUSEUM OF NATURAL HISTORY
On the penultimate day of my trip (Saturday), I went into Washington DC on my own.
I started with lunch with a very close and longstanding friend, Larry Cohen, at a Mexican restaurant called "Oyamel" [click here] and an ice cream parlour called "Pitango". I have known Larry for almost 30 years but not seen him since my last trip to DC four years ago. He stepped down as President of the Communications Workers of America last year after serving from 2005-2015, but in retirement has been working flat out on a variety of political campaigns. He was a key member of Bernie Sanders' effort to secure the Democratic nomination for the presidential race and he now chairs the governing board of Our Revolution which is the successor organisation to the Sanders campaign. Larry and I were together for almost three hours and had an intense political discussion.
Roger with Larry Cohen
Afterwards I stayed downtown and took in another Smithsonian museum: the National Museum of Natural History [click here]. In my many visits to Washington, I have never previously visited this particular museum and I was impressive at how extensive and informative it is. The museum houses the 45.52 carat Hope Diamond which is said to be possibly the most viewed artefact in any museum in the world. Other galleries that I viewed included the National Gem Collection, the Last American Dinosaurs and the Mammals Hall. I watched short films on the nature of evolution and the origins of humans. All fascinating stuff.
The Hope Diamond
Back at Brinklow once more, Mike and Laura put on the third film of my stay and the best one: a 2010 work called "Conviction" [click here] starring Hilary Swank.
DAY 9: TEN WASHINGTON MONUMENTS
The last day of my trip was a Sunday and Mike treated me to a cooked breakfast before he drove me to Glenmont metro station for my journey to downtown Washington to spend another day on my own before catching my flight home. First, I made my way to the Capital Hilton Hotel where I left my luggage for the day. I was then free to embark on a self-organised walking tour of the major monuments in the centre of the city. The weather was chilly but bright and, in three and a half hours, I covered all the 10 monuments on my list.
Roger at the White House
1) The White House - OK, I know this is not a monument as such but it is certainly an iconic building. The north side was closed off as workers constructed stands for the inauguration of Donald Trump in January. On the south side, there was the traditional view of the 'back' of the building. A long time ago, I went on an official tour of the White House.
2) The Washington Monument - This imposing structure rises 555 feet (165 metres) and can be seen from many parts of downtown. Completed in 1884, it is now opened again after repairs necessitated by the earthquake of 2011. On two previous visits to DC, I have ridden to the top of the monument.
3) The World War II Memorial - This is located at the east end of the Reflecting Pool and it is a huge structure commemorating the service of some 16M members of the armed forces. It was inaugurated in 2004 and it was the first time that I have seen it.
4) The Vietnam Memorials -There is the black tapered wall with the names of 58,267 dead (1982), the Three Servicemen Statue (1984), and the Women's Memorial (1993) and this was very much a repeat viewing for me.
5) The Lincoln Memorial - This is located at the west end of the Reflecting Pool and, as well as the huge seated statute of Lincoln, there are side walls with the full text of the Gettysburg Address and an extract from his Second Inaugural Address. Completed in 1922, I have made several visits here.
6) The Korean War Veterans Memorial - This commemorates the 54,246 Americans who were killed in this conflict and consists mainly of a series of white figures with capes. It was opened in 1995 and I have seen it a couple of times before.
7) The Martin Luther King Jr Memorial - At the centre of this structure is a huge statue of Dr King with folded arms and then, to either side, there are stone walls with quotes from his speeches and writings. This is the first time that I have seen this memorial which only opened in 2011.
8) The Franklin D Roosevelt Memorial - This is the most spacious of all the memorials I viewed with an area for each of FDR's four terms as president plus lots of quotes. It opened in 1997 and I visited it on my last visit to Washington in 2014.
9) The George Mason Memorial - Mason is sometimes called "the forgotten Founding Father". He was instrumental in framing the Constitution and creating the Bill of Rights. The memorial is the most intimate of those I viewed, being a slightly larger-than-life seated and smiling bronze figure. Although it was erected in 2002, I had not seen it before.
10) The Thomas Jefferson Memorial - Located on the Tidal Basin, the bronze statue of the Founding Father is accompanied by a couple of quotes and set inside a large cupola. This is one of my favourite DC monuments: grand without being grandiose.
The Vietnam memorial wall The three soldiers Vietnam statue
Views of the Washington Monument ... ... from the Lincoln Memorial
Martin Luther King Jr Franklin D Roosevelt
The Thomas Jefferson Memorial
One daytime observation was around the White House armed men in black uniforms (and sometimes masks) with prominent Secret Service labels. One nighttime observation was ventilation grills emitting warm air with homeless individuals sitting or lying on them.
My flight home was on a British Airways Boeing 777-300. I had an interesting experience before boarding. At check in, I asked for an aisle seat but the woman member of staff could only give me a middle seat in a row of three. Then, as I was actually about to board the aircraft, my name was announced on the loudspeaker system and, when I came forward, the same member of staff appeared and gave me an aisle seat by the exit! This might have had something to do with the fact that, when we talked earlier, I learned that she was from Lebanon and I spoke a bit of Arabic to her.
My ninth visit to the USA was special, both in enabling me to attend two Thanksgiving meals and in coming just after the astonishing election of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the country. As well as eating lots of food and seeing some longstanding friends, I was an active tourist, visiting three government buildings, four museums, and nine monuments in Washington DC plus the Civil War battle sites at Harpers Ferry and Antietam.
My overriding memory of the trip though will be the sense of dread shared by all the people with whom I talked politics about the impending presidency of The Donald. While I was in the States, every evening we watched CNN news with Lester Holt and we saw a succession of possible political appointees visiting Trump golf course and heard of some of the early appointments. All this confirmed that the next four - maybe eight - years are going to be profoundly different and intrinsically risky for both the United States and the world.
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