We had a little more than a week to plan, which is far less time than I usually require for an adventure, but the moment we learned that my grandmother would be taking an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., our minds began to ponder the possibilities.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let me back up.
Some words about Honor Flights: My husband and I grew up in Illinois, 800 miles from our current Pennsylvania address. From there, Washington, D.C. is a place for multi-day visits or as part of a larger East Coast vacation swing. From here, it is a day trip. Veterans in Illinois are not always able to visit the memorials and monuments erected in their honor in the nation’s capital because of the distance, thus was born the Honor Flight. I don’t know the history or how many states have them, but the premise is this: the organization receives donations and several times a year fills a plane full of veterans for a whirlwind long day of visiting Washington, D.C. Volunteer guardians who pay their own way on the trip accompany each veteran.
It occurred to me as I talked about it with local friends that it might not be a familiar thing around here because of the close proximity to D.C. I’m not sure how veterans from these nearby states visit the memorials. Bus trips? Family vacations?
Anyway, this is what got us started down the path of adventure. My grandmother, who served in the Navy during the Korean War, was scheduled to be on an Honor Flight from Illinois on Nov. 1, a Wednesday. If there is any day of the week for us to do some spontaneous travel, it’s Wednesday. No work for my husband. We started putting a plan in motion. I called my mom to get details. I filled out a travel form for the kids to miss school. I e-mailed the organizing agency to find out how we could meet up with the group. Everything fell into place.
I asked some online friends for tips for D.C. and got caught up in the enthusiasm of being part of this grand surprise. Miraculously, we all kept it a secret. Even my grandmother’s guardian was in on the surprise. I vacillated between giddy excitement and anxious worry. What could wrong? What if everything went exactly right?
The day arrived. We woke up early to make sandwiches and pack backpacks and get on the road so we would be early enough to enjoy some of the sights but late enough to miss the rush hour traffic around Baltimore. We had trick-or-treated the night before so we were already working with less sleep than normal plus heightened emotions. Our son dragged his feet a little and we were half-an-hour later to get going than planned.
But we were on our way, and because we had not told many people, I teased our trip on Instagram.
During the two-hour drive to the train station, I wrote. November 1 is also the start of National Novel Writing Month and I have every intention of fully participating again this year. I knew I wouldn’t meet my word count goal but I’m believing that writing some words is better than writing no words. So, while Phil listened to NPR and the kids ate all the candy and snacks they had brought for the day, I wrote 711 words on a new fiction project.
The drive was mostly uneventful and the train station was easy to navigate thanks to advance help from friends. Within minutes of parking the van, we had our trip cards purchased and were sitting on a train heading into the nation’s capital.
Our son spent the 30-minute ride recording all the license plates we had seen thus far while our daughter plugged her ears for most of the journey. We were near the back of the train and it was noisy as we traveled the underground portions.
Soon enough, we were in the heart of the city, walking toward our lunch destination. I played a fun game I like to call “let’s take a picture of the most iconic symbol of the city every chance we get.” I played this game in college during a visit to Paris. I took 107 pictures (give or take) of the Eiffel Tower and completely annoyed the friends I was traveling with by pointing it out every time I could see the Eiffel Tower.
I took fewer pictures of the Washington Monument than I did of the Eiffel Tower, but I had some flashbacks to those days. Our time in D.C. was limited and we could not see everything, so I felt a little like Clark Griswold, only instead of Big Ben and Parliament it was “Look kids, the Capitol and the Washington Monument!”
We were also trying to keep the costs down for this adventure. We had packed sandwiches but decided because of the way our schedule for the day was arranged, they might make a better dinner option. We had more time to explore for lunch. A friend had tipped us off to an inexpensive and interesting option: the cafeteria at the U.S. Department of Agriculture building. It is open to the public, and we soon learned, accessible after a bag search, presentation of ID, and walk through a metal detector.
This was a highlight of the day. Tons of options. Affordable pricing. And a pleasant atmosphere for eating. I would do this again and recommend it to anyone visiting D.C. After we had filled our bellies, we walked toward the National Mall. It was time for another teaser photo.
Fitting four people and a large monument into one frame is harder than it sounds. I’m thankful my husband has long arms and a better eye of positioning people than I do. We walked toward the Capitol building and found a sculpture garden along the way. Here, I was again taken back to Paris in my head while viewing several Rodin sculptures. I recalled my visit to the Rodin Museum where I viewed The Thinker in person but was more impressed by The Kiss. It’s been years since we’ve visited an art museum, so seeing these sculptures was a treat.
We took a turn toward Pennsylvania Avenue and walked past all the federal buildings, including the FBI. We saw the Canadian embassy and the First Amendment engraved on the side of the Newseum. On our way to The White House we popped in at the visitor center, mostly to use the bathrooms, and to get the kids’ National Park passports stamped. (I could talk at length about how much we’ve enjoyed this program, too.) Then it was a quick spin past The White House as our son loudly lamented, “I hope we don’t see Donald Trump.” I assured him it was unlikely.
In front of The White House we fought our way through the tourist crowds for a glimpse and continued on our way. The time was ticking away. We needed to be near the war memorials no later than 4 o’clock. I had it in mind to be there early so we could scope out a place to watch for the buses. Phil had discovered another interesting off-the-beaten path possibility so we headed to the Department of the Interior. He had read an article that said you could visit a room that had brochures from every national park in the system.
My anxiety was growing, so I made him go in the building first. Our son went with him and a few minutes later, the boy came out and told us to come in. Another security screening and we were pointed to the library. Turns out, the brochure room doesn’t exist (they’re all online) but inside the library was an enthusiastic librarian who was happy to see us. She gave us a tour of the Department of the Interior library, including the room where all the laws ever written in the United States are stored.
I need to let that sink in for a minute because I did not appreciate this at the time. I wanted to get on our way, but the woman was nice enough to show us around and give the kids Halloween candy that I couldn’t be rude. I’m still not exactly sure how this particular library is used, but it is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience.
We hightailed it out of the Department of the Interior without seeing the museum, which is apparently worth seeing (we’ll have to do it next time) and continued our walk back toward the Mall. We rounded the corner of the National Academy of Science building while my husband tried to give us clever clues about why we were there. (Clarification: his clues were clever and he was doing a great job of leading us, but I was super-anxious at this point.)
“They discuss theories here … like relativity …”
I had forgotten that we had been advised to see the Albert Einstein statue, which was impressive. We waited patiently (okay, I was not patient) while three adult tourists climbed all over Einstein to get pictures and to touch his nose for luck. Our son, meanwhile, was trying to figure out a way to sit on Einstein’s head, I kid you not. When it was finally their turn for a picture, he threw a fit because we wouldn’t let him sit on Einstein’s shoulder unassisted.
(I could see it clearly: Woman misses reunion with grandmother to take son to emergency room.) Not today, child.
I took what felt like eleventy-billion pictures while the kids climbed on the statue just to ensure we got something usable. I was practically jumping out of my own skin because I had no idea where the war memorials were in relation to our current location and we were behind the schedule I had set for us.
My husband, God bless him, calmly said to me, “I know you can’t see them, but they are right over there. We are literally minutes from the memorials.”
My body relaxed a little when the Lincoln Memorial came into view, but by then, I was on high alert. We scanned the area to try to figure out where buses would unload, and in completely uncharacteristic fashion, I went straight to the information kiosk and asked.
“Hi. We’re meeting my grandmother who is on an Honor Flight. Where do buses drop off?”
I may have been slightly more polite than that, but I needed information quickly. The ranger pointed us across the way where we saw buses lined up. I set a course for there, practically ignoring the view of the Washington Monument and the reflecting pool. I must have looked like the worst tourist ever.
Near the Korea memorial, we sat on benches as I scanned the itinerary I’d been given for the Honor Flight. I worried that we’d miss them somehow, but when a Park Policeman on a motorcycle pulled into the loop followed by 3 charter buses and another police car, we had a feeling we’d come to the right place.
To be continued ….