Memories of the Mall

January 20th, 2009

The Mall in Washington, where the inauguration ceremonies are underway, is officially the National Mall and Memorial Parks.  It runs from the Capitol to the Lincoln Memorial, a distance of about two miles.  Right now, they’re guessing that there are two million or more people on the Mall. 

As I watch the Obama inauguration on CNN, I can’t avoid a flood of personal memories of the Mall.  I lived and worked in the Washington, D.C. area at different times for 10 years.  I also spent time in the area on vacations and personal visits with friends and relatives.  I lived in the District, in Southwest at 4th and M Streets, for three years.  At other times, I lived across the Potomac in Virginia or in Maryland.

I’ll never forget the first time I saw downtown Washington and the Mall on a warm summer day in 1963.  For a naive kid from Texas, it was awesome.  That was a different time in Washington, before being in the wrong part of town after dark became deadly.  I often roamed the city with friends, especially at night, going to clubs downtown or in Georgetown, walking around the city center, and strolling the Mall in the darkness and just talking.  One of my frequent roaming companions was my friend Jan Barry, another of the writers on Opinion Forum.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve been on the Mall.  Hundreds, for certain.  I’ve attended rallies, parades, cultural events, and displays; watched firworks (one of my favorite things); visited museums; and walked to relax or ran for exercise.  I suppose it became too familiar at times, but I never lost at least some of the awe I felt the first time I saw it.

I was on the Mall on Saturday and Sunday, November 23 and 24, 1963 in the aftermath of the assassination of President Kennedy.  On Sunday we managed to get to the roof of the Russell Senate Office Building, as it’s now known.  Standing beside a CBS news camera, we watched the procession come up Constitution Avenue, along the north side of the Capitol, and then turn right to the East Front of the building.  The sights and sounds were unforgettable.  Muffled drums and the funeral dirge, the clatter of the hooves of the white horses pulling the caisson (the same one that bore Lincoln’s body), the caisson wheels rattling on the pavement, soldiers marching, and a sailor with the presidential flag following the caisson.  Last in the cortege was a riderless black horse, led by a soldier.  The cavalry boots in the stirrups were turned backward, symbolizing a fallen commander.  Every time I see film from that day, it comes back to me as though it were yesterday.

I even had a connection to the riderless horse, Black Jack.  He lived with the other ceremonial horses at Fort Myer, in Virginia just across the river from Washington.  I saw him there frequently and even patted him on the nose a number of times.  Black Jack had something of a reputation.  As you can see from his prancing and the difficulty the soldier had controlling him in film of the Kennedy funeral, he was high-spirited and a bit unpredictable.  In fact, a young lady I knew very well got too close to him at the stable one day, and he bit her on the neck.  Didn’t break the skin, but she wore a scarf around her neck for a while to hide the bruises.

I was there with a friend on July 4, 1976.  It was the culminating event of the Bicentennial celebrations.  We sat on the grass not far from the Washington Monument and the stage where everything happened, including Johnny Cash.  It was a clear day and very hot.  The authorities in Washington, expecting a big crowd, tried to convince everyone to use public transportation, with special arrangements made for a huge number of city buses.  The Metro subway system barely existed then, with only a couple of miles of one line finished.  Not trusting the bus promises, and being generally contrarian, I drove my car.  I actually found a parking place not far from the Mall.  I thought I had beat the system again.

Then came what has since been called the Meltdown of ’76.  There were a million or so hardy souls melting in the sun that day, with not enough porta-potties.  (If you’ve ever been in a large crowd without enough porta-potties, you know what I’m implying.)  The worst came when it was over, after the fireworks.  The bus arrangements fell apart completely, and thousands of people milled around with no way to go anywhere.  In my car, we quickly found that traffic was so jammed that movement was impossible.  Being a brilliant tactician, I decided to go northwest through the suburbs up near American University and cross Chain Bridge into Virginia.  Big mistake.  It took over four hours to get home–normally about a 20-minute drive.  It got so bad (remember the porta-potty issue) that I briefly stepped out of my car on a traffic-clogged suburban street at about 2:00 am and anointed some homeowner’s shrubbery.  I’ve never told anyone about that before, so please keep it to yourself.

I just watched the President and Michelle walk a couple of blocks on Pennsylvania Avenue.  The crowd along the street went crazy.  They got back in the car near the Old Post Office building.  They were surrounded by the Secret Service, of course.  Despite the cold, the Secret Service men all had their overcoats and suitcoats unbuttoned.  Know why?  So they can get to their weapons quickly.  What a world we live in.

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4 Responses to “Memories of the Mall”

  1. Jan |

    I sure do remember rambling around the Mall with Tom, when we were in the same Army outfit stationed nearby in Virginia. Years later, I lived on the Mall for a week during an antiwar protest encampment by a group of Vietnam veterans in 1971 that drew a lot of news coverage, so I got a sense of how national leaders live in a fishbowl of TV coverage. It’s awesome to see or be amid a million or two million people jammed onto the Mall for a big event, like today’s inauguration. But it’s magical to lie on the grass on a late summer night in some quiet corner of the Mall and feel the history connected with all those monuments and historic events wafting in the air.

  2. doris |

    It is hard to believe that one of Tom’s friends was in an anti war protest!wow,my kind of guy….Tom is more open minded than I dreamed,hmmm.Great story,Tom,Washington is one of a kind.

  3. Samuel "Samurai" Wright |

    In reading this, I find that the world truly is small. While I was not round when Kennedy was shot, my mother was. In fact, she was in the Marines at the time and was privileged enough to participate in the funeral procession. Something that she talks about to this day. She tells me that during the entire march, none of her fellow Women Marines (WAMs or BAMS in you want to get slapped.) had a dry eye. I think America changed that day and has not recovered.

    I have never been to DC, but I know I need to go there. Having been a Marine, myself, I feel drawn to that area, if for no other reason than that of the military history.

    Good post… adding you to my favorites.

  4. Memories of the Mall - [CollegeTimes] |

    […] article was also posted at Opinion Forum.) […]

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