I’ve recently spent a week in our nation’s capital, Washington D.C., touring the important sites and institutions that run the country. In terms of educational vacation destinations, Washington D.C. is ideal because most of its signature attractions are free of charge. While I visited America’s capital city, I also learned a lot of interesting and obscure facts about our country:
*The nation’s premier museum institution, the Smithsonian, is an oddity in itself. The founding benefactor, James Smithson, was a British chemist and mineralogist who never once set foot in the United States. In his will, Smithson wrote a stipulation that if his only nephew should die childless, Smithson’s entire fortune should be gifted to the United States government as “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.” Smithson’s nephew died a boy in 1835 and the fledgling United States government shipped Smithson’s fortune in gold coins from overseas to begin the Smithsonian Institution.
*Looking for a unique gift this Christmas? The largest book in the Library of Congress is Bhutan: A Visual Odyssey Across the Last Himalayan Kingdom, written by Michael Hawley. It is a 5 foot by 7 foot photographic exposition of the country. (Library of Congress)
*The 1980’s saw a tremendous explosion in the diversity of Poinsettia colors. Horticulturalists used radiation to induce genetic mutations and cause colors other than the standard red and white to be produced. (National Botanical Garden)
*As president Abraham Lincoln said, “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.” Lincoln was true to his adage by being the only US president to ever hold a patent. Lincoln’s invention, patent number 6469, was an inflatable apparatus under the hull of ferry boats that was intended to buoy boats over shallow channels. Unfortunately, Lincoln did not quite invent the future as his creation proved impractical and was never manufactured. (Smithsonian Museum of American History)
*Though typically thought of as an instrument of white Appalachia, the banjo owes its origins to African Americans. African slaves who were brought to America in the 1700’s fashioned a stringed banjo-like instrument out of a hollow gourd similar to an instrument in their homelands. Their instrument later evolved into the banjo form we recognize today as it became popular in white minstrel shows and in American folk music. (Smithsonian National African American History Museum)
*When the Senate Wing of the United States Capitol was completed in 1859, Senate vacated its old chamber. Filling the vacancy for seven years afterwards was a pop-up farmers market complete with livestock in the old senate chamber. Back in the late 1800’s, building security was not as tight as it is now, but some still consider the capitol to be full of swine. (United States Capitol)
*The hot air balloon’s early history is tied intimately with military use. Hot air balloons were used for spying efforts in the French Revolution and by the Union in the American Civil war. (Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum)
*Could you have an antique form of American currency lying in your wallet? For the greater part of the 20th century, the United States government produced three types of bills which circulated as legal tender paper money. The currencies—Federal Reserve Notes (current), United States Notes (until 1996), and Silver Certificates (until 1968)—were of visually similar design but had different legal implications. Today, all bills produced are Federal Reserve Notes, but that doesn’t mean the older types don’t show up now and then. As I now know, the odd blue-tinted dollar I kept in my wallet during high school was actually a silver certificate, which would has been redeemable for one dollar worth of silver…until I unintentionally spent it. (United States Bureau of Engraving and Printing)
*Wood is a renewable building material that is gaining interest for large scale building projects. The city of Springfield, Oregon, is planning on building a 4-story, 350-car parking garage completely out of wood. (National Building Museum)
*Though the Washington Monument is made up of 555 feet of stone, the very top of the obelisk is a small capstone of aluminum. When the monument was completed in 1884, aluminum was more costly than silver or gold due to the price of electricity needed to produce it. (Washington Monument)
On my last day in New York City, I made sure to venture to Manhattan’s downtown financial district on a pilgrimage to Ground Zero—the site of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. It’s been over fifteen years now since that fateful September morning, but I can still recall witnessing the events live on television. The attacks of that day shook America and signaled the beginning of a different era. The events that took place in those city blocks in lower Manhattan are likely to be the defining event of my generation’s lifetime. I had to visit.
As I walked south to the 9/11 memorial, I stopped at a small park between Broadway and Greenwich Streets. Here, in this small triangle of land, an office building once stood that was destroyed in the attacks. Having already taken my first glimpses of the immense Freedom Tower and the other hi-rise redevelopments along the way, I stopped in the park to have lunch. The scene I witnessed at the park was something that could have come nearly anywhere out of New York City. People in business casual rushed about, tourists ambled around cameras in hand, stop-and-go traffic rolled by.
My attention was drawn to a group of students eating lunch in the park. The students were young, maybe fourth grade, but around the same age I was when the attacks happened. These students sat energetically on the benches, chatting and frolicking as they ate the way you’d expect any group of elementary students to do. The gravity which I felt at visiting the memorial was not shared by these students. Theirs was a normal day—better yet, a field trip day to be excited about.
When I was an 11 year-old fifth grader in 2001, I could sense the seriousness of the situation that was unfolding. I was old enough to know that a national tragedy was in progress. I could know enough that this day more so than others would shape the character of the future.
Yet do the grade-schoolers in the triangular park know what that day had changed? Their entire lives have occurred after that day. Have they grown up knowing that there was ever anything different?
Then I thought about what September 11 had changed for me. I was a child then. I did not know the world as I know it now. But I can tell that our culture has shifted to place a much higher value on security than freedom. Visiting the 9/11 Museum, I expected nothing less than a full security screening—symbolic of how our standard cultural expectations of what’s acceptable have changed. But I don’t expect such intense security measures to get into the visitor center of the Charlestown Naval Yard in Boston. Fifteen years later and our culture still clings to quixotic measures of security. As a culture, we’ve taken a default of viewing people as a threat. On that September day, a part of our liberty died that has never recovered.
As I continued to eat my lunch in the park, I kept thinking of those students. The normalcy of their interactions struck me. Their daily life didn’t seem much to be directly affected by the attacks. Elsewhere, the resilient people of New York have recovered and continue hurriedly about their business. Ground Zero, once devastated, has been rebuilt with gleaming towers beaming into the sky. Large promotional posters gawk about the experience of going up to the observatory at the top of the Freedom Tower. The cultural and economic powerhouse that is New York City lets no opportunity for commerce go to waste due to an air of sentimentality. The hum of city life honors the living while the nearby memorial pays tribute to the dead.