Art vs. history in Washington DC

by Brian Clarey

We found Abner Doubleday in his final resting place, on the west side of Arlington National Cemetery beneath a grand marble obelisk amid more humble tombstones and slabs.

Though he is often given props for it, Doubleday never actually invented the game of baseball, but he did patent the San Francisco cable car and earned his berth at Arlington after commanding Union troops at Fort Sumter, where he is credited with firing the first shot against the Confederacy in defense of the citadel, and at Gettysburg, where men under his command thinned out the Confederate brigades considerably before retreating to Cemetery Hill.

None of this matters a whit to our fourth-grade charges from Greensboro’s Lincoln Academy, here in our nation’s capital on a three-day jaunt to flesh out lessons in science, social studies and group behavior. They weren’t impressed with bandleader Glen Miller’s tombstone, placed beneath a small tree by a path, or the eternal flame guarding JFK’s grave. And they were only cursorily interested in the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and then only because of speculation about the person enshrined within.

They showed much more enthusiasm in the Art of Video Games exhibit, a few blocks off the National Mall at the American Art Museum, tracing the form back to its 8-bit roots. We saw old gaming systems — every one of which I spent far too may hours playing — saw stills of onscreen art and video interviews with industry pioneers. My youngest son stood enthralled by a billboard-size installation called “The Megatron Matrix” that flashed digital images on a couple hundred TV screens, a testament to TMI, though he seemed to have no trouble digesting it all.

I was more interested in the portrait gallery, where they whisked me away from a masterpiece of Tom Wolfe, one of my early influences, so we could learn that Atari’s Pitfall was the very first video game that featured a running man as the protagonist.

I was a little older on my own first trip to Washington DC — it was the summer before 8th grade when my parents piled us in my father’s new Cadillac and headed down Interstate 95. All I remember is eating freezedried ice cream from the Air and Space Museum and that my younger sister peeled off from the White House tour — much more extensive in those halcyon days — to use the bathroom near the Oval Office. I also remember hitting a very old restaurant outside the city and getting my first taste of peanut-butter soup.

Our tour of the Capitol Building was cut short due to a service for Holocaust survivors held under the dome — hard to begrudge those guys a little quality time in one of the most beautiful structures in the city. And we did not tour the White House, though we did stop by to snap pictures one night before retiring to our hotel in Alexandria.

Still, we did our best to jam these kids full of memories: the American flag that inspired “The Star-Spangled Banner,” Dorothy’s ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz, a genuine Apple II E personal computer, original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the US Constitution and Kermit the Frog, the Hope Diamond, a reconstruction of the largest snake ever to slither the Earth called the Titanoboa, a replication of the Australopithecus Lucy, the first vehicle to cruise the surface of the moon.

The museums of the Smithsonian are amazing, and like I do every time I’m in DC I yearned for a month or so of free time to plumb their collections of artifacts. The kids balked at a chance to visit the Newseum, the newspaper repository where I could spend at least a week, and the Museum of Crime and Punishment, which just sounds cool. And I could have done with more time at the National Art Gallery, where I hurried past Van Goghs, Toulouse-Lautrecs, Monets, Cezannes and dozens of other important works at the behest of bored 9-year-olds more interested in the Union Station Food Court than the transition from impressionism to post-impressionism and Picasso’s Blue Period.

But something interesting happened in Monument Park, where work on the Reflecting Pool continues at a crawl though it does little to distract from the power of the symbols enshrined nearby.

The Vietnam War Memorial, with its long crescendo of the names of the dead, did little to keep the kids interested. But the memorial to the Korean War stopped them in their tracks.

The piece depicts 19 soldiers on patrol, from all of the armed forces, slogging through ground cover of juniper. Even the kids could read the faces of the soldiers: despair, fatigue, concern. Even the kids could see the emptiness in the eyes of these men in combat gear, could understand the tragedy of war.

This was hours after we hit Arlington and made a successful search for Abner Doubleday’s grave, discussed the significance of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. But the memorial to the Korean War — a piece of art, mind you — taught them more about armed conflict than thousands of actual graves and headstones.