Friday, October 14, 2011

Of a week spent in history

Since I haven’t written an update post for a little while, and because of all the things we’ve done this week and limited internet, I basically am writing about all the interesting things we’ve done this week.  I could write about all the un-interesting things that we did on Monday and Wednesday, but they are simply too boring to write about.  So here’s the big post, with a bit of detail and insight…

On Tuesday in the late morning we drove to Washington D.C.  The first stop was Arlington Cemetery, which is an enormous graveyard on a hill where thousands of members of the U.S. military (some with their spouses) and other important people are laid to rest.  There is a special part dedicated to the women who served in different branches or as nurses.  The presidential Kennedy family is buried there, and many war heroes dating back to the Civil War are there too.  A few prominent sports stars have their final resting place in Arlington, and of course, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is there. 

After walking amidst the huge cemetery, we came to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  We got there just in time to see the Sentinel replacement, which was really neat.  Everyone watching was very silent and respectful, with the exception of one man whose cell phone went off.  He was quite embarrassed, and quickly silenced it. 

As I looked upon the tomb and the wreath of flowers before it, and the guard who was solemnly pacing in front, I remembered coming here just about ten years ago with dad, mom, Delaney and my paternal grandparents.  I was five years old; about 3 1/2 feet tall and not happy with the un-view I was getting at the memorial.  So, while our family was standing far off to the side of the tomb, I wandered over to the front.  It was an effort, there were lots of people and I remember squeezing my way through many pairs of legs to get to the very front, where I think I sat on the ground and watched the Sentinel pace back and forth.  Dad or mom soon found me and they were pretty relieved, although I didn't think it was a big deal.  I just wanted a better view...

I thought that the Sentinel change was really, really cool.  Every single movement they made was precise, with a commander giving orders.  The commander and two Sentinels did this amazing switch and not a mistake was made.  The Sentinels and commanders are very mysterious looking, which is the idea because they are supposed to look rather 'unknown' themselves.  Aside from their military suits and hat, they have very short, tight haircuts and wear dark sunglasses.  Their faces are positively expressionless, and they never turn their head or say a word, unless instructed to.  They carry guns and wear moistened white gloves to get a better grip on the weapon.  I read on dad's iPhone about them, mostly just FAQ's.  Here's what I learned:

How does the Sentinel rotation work?
They work 24-hour shifts (in which they rotate on and off)..  Time off is not really takes about 8 hours to prep his/her uniform.  They also take physical training, Tomb Guard training and get haircuts before the next workday.

What is the routine of the Sentinel on duty?
The Sentinel takes 21 steps down the mat, stops on the 21st step and faces the Tomb for 21 seconds.  Then he turns to face back down the mat, changes his weapon to the outside shoulder, counts 21 seconds and then takes 21 steps down to the other end of the mat.  This is repeated until he is relieved at the Sentinel change. 

How often are the Sentinels changed?
During the period of April 1 to Sept. 30, the Sentinels are changed every thirty minutes.  In the winter (Oct. 1 to March 31) they are changed every hour.  During the hours when the cemetery is closed, the Sentinels are changed every two hours.  The Tomb is guarded, and has been guarded, every minute of every day and night since 1937.

What about their shoes?  Are they especially made?
The Sentinels shoes are standard military dress shoes.  They are built up so that the sole and heel are equal in height.  This allows the Sentinel to stand straight with his back perpendicular to the ground.  A side affect of this is that the Sentinel can 'roll' on the side of the build up as he walks down the mat.  If he does this correctly, he will move in a fluid fashion and his hat and bayonet will not 'bob' up and down with each step.  This gives him a more formal, smooth look to his walk, rather than a 'marching' appearance.

How do Sentinels get to and from the Tomb without being seen?
Most wear civilian clothes, although the haircuts usually give them away.

How many Sentinels have been female?
There have been three female Sentinels.

The most interesting part about Arlington was the large home at the top of the hill, which overlooks the entire cemetery and Washington D.C. below.  It was the home of George Washington Parke Custis, the step-grandson of George Washington.  Custis had a daughter, Mary Custis, who married General Robert E. Lee in the Arlington home.  Later, the Lee's moved there and it was home for Robert and Mary, along with their seven children.  Quite an interesting home, two-story with huge 'marble' pillars in front.  But it sure had a breathtaking view and was rich in history.  The home was a self-guided tour but the upstairs was closed due to earthquake damage. 

After Arlington, we visited the Washington monument and walked down the Mall to the Lincoln memorial.  I remember those also from our trip here ten years ago, and for some reason I remember being a little camera-shy--almost every picture we have of us in D.C. I am always holding onto dad's leg and half-smiling.  I'm over that, thankfully, or I would be holding onto his neck now... ;)

It was Thursday when dad decided to take us to D.C. again via the Metro.  We all enjoyed the Metro train much more than the trains and subways in NY…it was cleaner and smoother, and much quieter.

When we arrived in downtown D.C. at 11:00, it was just a short walk to the American History museum, which was a small part of the Smithsonian.  A large building of its own, the American History museum was three stories tall and it took us over four hours to see the whole thing.  But it was very interesting and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. 

Then we walked a couple blocks down to go to the National Archives.  It was there that we got to see the original Bill of Rights, Constitution and signed Declaration of Independence.  They were all under glass in the rotunda of the building, and we had to wait our turn to see it as there were lots of people there.  It was a very dimly lit room, to preserve the fragile papers.  The Bill of Rights and the Constitution were in terrific shape, perfectly readable and the ink was still fairly bold.  Every document was hand-written in a lovely, flowing script that would have been normal print at the time.  The Declaration of Independence was not in such good shape though.  The printing was so faded that barely any words could be deciphered and John Hancock’s signature was barely legible (and we all know that his signature was the largest and boldest).  In ten to twenty years, we probably won’t even be able to see the writing anymore.  That’s pretty sad to think about, so I’m glad I got to see it.

Later, after dinner in a place called The Pavilion, we walked four blocks to the White House.  Unfortunately, two things prohibited us from getting a pleasant, good quality view of the White House.  1) It started to rain and was very humid.  2) The President was hosting a state dinner for the president of South Korea (along with a bunch of Marines that we watched file into the White House), and so the whole block was roped off and we couldn’t even get to the sidewalk that was right in front of the House.  So, we got a sorta-good view of the screened-off main entrance, where apparently the President and First Lady were greeting famous people.  There were also a bunch of South Korean protesters where we were, waving signs and yelling and beating weird beats on drums.  We will hopefully get to come back and get a good view on a day when there is no political excitement, so we can enjoy ourselves…

On our walk back to the Metro, it began to pour rain and lightning and thunder also started.  We had to duck inside an AT&T store when a clap of thunder hit right above us (it seemed) and made us all jump ten feet.  (It was also pouring cats and dogs and blowing onto us).  So we waited out the worst of the storm for a while, then walked to the Metro and took it to our car.  Thus ends our second day in Washington D.C. 

Now I’ll write about today, in which we visited Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington.

When our family came here with Grandpa and Grandma Beyer ten years ago, it was raining and only dad and mom toured the place (Grandpa and Grandma had already been twice, and we girls were too little to appreciate it).  But this time, God gave us a beautiful day with blue sky, white clouds and temperatures in the mid 70’s.  With the fall colors coming out, and the majestic Potomac River in the background of the property, it was a beautiful sight. 

We spent all afternoon touring the mansion, grounds, outbuildings and museum.  It was all very fascinating and almost all of the artifacts in the mansion were the same pieces used by the Washington's!  In fact, the Washington family lived in the mansion up until the 1860's, when Mount Vernon was purchased by the Ladies' Association.  It is about the same as it was in George Washington's day, and even the trees that he planted on the property still stand tall and green around the front lawn. 

We have spent a wonderful week learning more about American history and getting to see so many neat places, and there will most likely be more to come in this next week.  But tomorrow, we are all going to Annapolis, Maryland, where dad is going to spend the day at the Annapolis School of Seamanship (he loves boats).  He will learn about navigation, safety and the course includes three in-class seminars and two on-the-water instructional cruises.  I think we girls will hang out in the city, which should be fun!  More soon!

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