Read the first part of this story here.
The buses were ahead of the printed schedule I held in my hand, but thankfully, we had made it in time. But I still wasn’t sure we had found the right group. Maybe there was more than one Honor Flight per day in D.C.
We crossed the street so we could see the buses unload. I was looking for yellow jackets on the veterans and green shirts, I thought, on the guardians. These guardians were wearing blue, which cast some doubt on my plan. But then I saw it–Lee County Honor Flight–on the back of a jacket. Lee County is our home county, so then I knew. Some people sitting at nearby picnic tables began to clap as the veterans got off the bus and one asked if they were from Florida.
“Dixon, Illinois,” the guardian replied. There was no doubt now. I began searching the crowd for Grandma. She was the only woman veteran on the trip but there were three buses. I made eye contact with a man standing near us and blurted out, “My grandmother is on this flight. We’re from Dixon, too.” He asked if I knew which bus and I didn’t, so I just kept watching.
“There she is, in the middle,” Phil said to me. We didn’t want to push and she still didn’t know we were there. The line of veterans was moving toward us so we waited. I kept her in my sight.
And then she saw us. Did a double-take. I waved.
“You’re here,” I remember her saying.
“Hi, Grandma,” I said, tears welling in my eyes as we hugged. She hugged the kids and Phil and we stood there, awed and speechless that this wild plan had worked to perfection. Her guardian came over and broke the silence.
“Do you know how hard it was to keep this a secret?” She had known for three days and didn’t say a word. We walked away from the crowd a bit and Grandma’s guardian, Diane, took our picture with the Washington Monument in the background. The whole group gathered for a picture in front of the Lincoln Memorial.
“I want to see the Korean memorial,” Grandma said. We checked with her guardian and we were free to wander around these three memorials as we wished. We promised to have her back in time for the next bus trip. The kids told Grandma about their day, how school was going, and what they had seen so far. We circled the memorial to the war in Korea. My grandmother served as a nurse in the Navy. She never went overseas but her pride at serving is not diminished.
“It’s called the forgotten war,” she told the kids as we stood nearby.
“Do you want a picture with it?” I asked.
“I didn’t bring my camera,” she said with a hint of frustration.
“I have my phone.”
So, I snapped a photo of her with the children.
(This reminds me that I need to send her a copy so she can have it for herself.)
The fall colors caught my attention at every turn, and I made sure to take a picture of the Washington Monument with the reflecting pool. I was being a really poor tourist but for a really good reason.
We joined the bulk of the group at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and here we were confronted with a reality that is too easy to forget. Grown men pressed paper to the wall and rubbed a pencil over it, capturing the names of fallen friends to take home with them. Maybe to their families. Some of the guardians went to great lengths to get the requested name, and we overheard veterans say things like “I went to school with him since kindergarten.” There was not a lot of chatter.
It was a sobering moment both for me and my husband. Phil is a veteran and the impact of these images is his story to tell, not mine, but as with most things, when faced with the actual real-life people in a group or a cause, my soul bends toward compassion. I do not advocate for war. I’m uncomfortable with military worship. But I would defend with my dying breath these men and women who saw and experienced things most of the rest of us cannot understand.
It felt like holy ground there in our nation’s capital with men who had served in an unpopular war without a clear victory. The applause they received from strangers–it moved me to chills. I didn’t want to intrude on their feelings, so I tried not to look too closely.
We walked the length of the Vietnam memorial twice, especially after we learned that the names were listed in order of their deaths. So, when we got to the end and saw the name of the last casualty of the war, we were curious about the first casualty. I’m already wondering what their stories are.
We stopped at the information kiosk for passport stamps, then asked about the one for the Lincoln Memorial. Our son has a keen interest in presidents and Lincoln is one of his favorites. So, we climbed the steps to the top and squeezed into the bookstore at the top for more stamps. After our son was finished, he went back out with Phil, while we girls finished up. The boys had disappeared by the time we left the store, and we walked to the bottom to find the bathrooms.
Phil sent me a text that our son was reading, and I replied that we were trying to figure out what to do about the bathrooms. The ladies’ room was temporarily closed which caused a bit of panic but reopened a few minutes later. We waited at the bottom of the steps for the boys. I had been carrying a backpack all day and my back was starting to rebel. Phil and our son joined us and I handed off my backpack to my husband who wore both–one on the front, one on the back. They took off for the bathroom and when we all joined back together, we decided to walk back toward the buses. Since the group was ahead of schedule, it seemed like people were re-gathering a little bit early.
Phil said our son had read every word of The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. He’s soon 8 and like I said before, interested in presidents. Our kids are the best kinds of nerds and I’m not even sorry.
We said our goodbyes to Grandma. Our plan was to meet the buses on the other side of the reflecting pool for the World War II Memorial visit but we weren’t exactly sure about the plan, so we gave hugs just in case. We walked along the pool as the sun began to set. Our thought was to maybe try to find the Washington Monument kiosk for more stamps but just as we were about to cross the road, we heard the park police again signaling our group’s approach.
We watched as they stopped traffic and passed in the opposing lanes.
It’s quite the royal treatment. A spectacle of the best kind. They pulled up behind where we were standing so we changed course and met them at the second drop-off location. Phil stopped at the kiosk to search for Grandpa’s name and met us after Grandma exited the bus. We all went to the screen and found his name again. (He had the opportunity to take an Honor Flight years ago. It was bittersweet for all of us to be there after his death last year.)
When we caught up with the group, they were being applauded by some visiting school groups. Several of the veterans stopped to shake their hands and when we entered the memorial itself, another school group lined either side and shook every single hand of every single veteran and said, “Thank you for your service.”
I don’t know if this is something all teachers in Virginia and Maryland and the District encourage or if this is something that just happens in D.C. when veterans are present, but it was such a sweet gesture. Grandma said they had been serenaded by school children when they landed at the airport, too. I found video of that later and agreed that it was moving.
Several veterans paused in front of the Illinois pillar for a picture. We circled the whole memorial reading all the inscriptions and seeing the fountains.
We found the block for Okinawa, where Grandpa spent his World War II service.
There wasn’t much left for us to do and by this time, my back was starting to lock up a little. I fought through the pain until we got Grandma back to the bus. We hugged and said our goodbyes. We even got hugs from her guardian. We watched Grandma get on the bus, then picked a bench to sit and eat our sandwiches. I popped some ibuprofen and sat up straight, ate a little bit of dinner and steeled myself for the walk back to the train station. A mile or so.
It was dark but the city was still active with walkers and runners and cars. Never did I feel unsafe or like we shouldn’t be out walking around. We passed by some of the places we had visited and when we finally made it to the train station, I breathed a sigh of relief. Our daughter had carried the second backpack all the way from the World War II memorial to our station. Such a trooper.
We boarded the next train out to Maryland and fought yawns as we traveled. I was thankful for empty seats near the front of the train which was not nearly as noisy as the trip in to the city. Our son updated his license plate list while I allowed myself a few minutes on social media.
Soon enough we were back to the van with 30 cents each left on our trip cards, saved for another time. We reloaded the van, paid to exit and were on our way. We stopped not far onto I-95 so Phil could buy some sodas for the drive home and the rest of us could use a typically frightening gas station bathroom. Back in the car, the GPS routed us through some residential areas until we were back on the main road. The kids conked out quickly and we listened to Game 7 of the World Series.
A text from my mom came through:
Just talked to Grandma before she got on the plane. You guys really made her day.
It was a great time for us, too, and when we finally pulled into our driveway, we all climbed into our beds without much fuss.
I had trouble walking the next day but my mobility improved as the days passed. (Plus I had already scheduled a chiropractor appointment and a massage, so yay for preplanning!)
It was not how we had planned to introduce our kids to D.C. but it was the best first memory of the capital that we could have hoped for.
Now, our memories of D.C. will always include the hours we spent with Grandma on a Wednesday in November.