September 24, 2017

My Big Idea Brought Back from Washington, D.C.

Library of Congress

Strange the way ideas strike. I like to say that my best ideas strike me in the middle of the night. But I got this one in broad daylight–walking out of our magnificent Library of Congress in Washington last week. It struck me like a bolt of lightning.

Boom! And there it has been at the top of my mind. The idea has been percolating and percolating. I feel I must tell you about it. Yes, must.

Milady Annabelle and I were there on vacation. I own a time-share. What that means is that I own a deed to a fancy apartment in a resort hotel in Myrtle Beach, SC. I own that apartment one week a year. Yes, an actual deed. But I’ve never even seen the place. I can choose the week—so long as I get the jump on the 51 other owners who can claim it one week a year.

Like so many other time-share owners, I swap it. There are numberless other resorts and hotels in the system. It’s easy through a central set-up. I do it with a call or two to an 800 number, or even online. So we can go here and go there. But you must remember: just one week a year.

I must tell you in honesty that a time-share is a lousy financial investment. I wouldn’t buy into it again. But every time we use it, I feel good about it. So it was in Washington last week. A good time!

Actually we were staying in a brand-new city (?) a 30-minute drive from downtown. It’s called Harbor National. Seems to be only 10 years old or so and is still developing. Plunk on the Potomac in Maryland just south of D.C. A total resort community. Very nice hotels along a waterfront strip with all the usual restaurants and galleries and clubs and salons and souvenir shops and apparel boutiques and so on.

A 30-minute commute sounds difficult for me, living retired in small Deep River in this tranquil corner. But it’s considered an easy commute in Washington. We did it every day. It was complicated by construction work, thoughtless drivers, and the tension of driving encircled by cars “cruising” at 75 miles an hour and even higher. Wow!

This visit of ours confirms a long belief. Washington is one of the most attractive tourist cities in the world. I’ve traveled a bit so I feel I can say this. It is so rich wonderful, memorable possibilities.

It’s our national capital, of course, and how impressive it is. So many look-see buildings, from our Congress and Supreme Court and White House right on down to the endless line-up of federal agencies in white marble. So many statues. So many monuments. Parks. Squares. Malls. Circles. Shopping centers. A gamut of restaurants beyond number. So many embassies. So many universities and colleges. So many fabulous museums. Our extraordinary Smithsonian!

When I was a kid, it was customary for high school seniors to go to Washington for a few days as part of graduation. What a good idea. Is it still the custom? I’m not sure. I hope so. Sad to say, the private school that I went to didn’t do that.

But I did get to Washington as a kid. It was a wonderful week. It happened after my sophomore year at Assumption College in Worcester. My classmate and buddy John Tormey and I thumbed there and back! Notice my exclamation point. Today thumbing is a no, no. In fact, illegal in many places. Forbidden on our Interstates—they didn’t exist back then. We were 19. I don’t remember if it was his idea or mine. I suspect mine.

We thumbed for the best reason of all. We had just a few bucks. We made it there in a day—a long day. How lucky we got: one guy carried us for a couple of hundred miles—an entomologist. He had to explain he was a bug scientist. What impressed us is that besides his fascination with insects was that he drove at a steady, relentless 50 miles an hour. Hour after hour. Like a machine.

We rented a room at the YMCA. No hostels back then. Plain but okay. Every day we’d be up and out early. We’d hoof and ride the trolleys and buses. We knew little about the city. We were total strangers. It wasn’t easy finding our way around and getting to places. We saw a lot but too little. We weren’t savvy.

Another memory: On a newsstand I spotted a nudist magazine. “Sunshine & Health” I think it was called. I didn’t know such a magazine existed. Didn’t know some men and women liked to go nude at the beach, in the sun. That was long before Playboy. Lots of photos, but very tame by today’s standards.

Late one night at the Y John caught me with it in my hands. Talk about embarrassment. He has brought it up a couple of times. Just can’t resist. But I remember he grabbed it for himself the minute he could. (In time he was the best man at my wedding, and I at his.)

Just the standing and waiting by the highway and hoping to nab a ride was a worthwhile experience. So was learning how to start and hold a conversation with complete strangers. I look back on it all as a fine and grand adventure. We grew up a lot. I learned more than I ever did in any course.

I’ve been to Washington a few times over the years, and always tried to squeeze in as much sightseeing as possible. True for Annabelle also. Yet it’s surprising how little all that has amounted to.

This time we were so lucky in one way. One gorgeous Indian Summer day after another. Could not have been better.  Our first day was daunting. As every school kid learns, Washington was built as a city planned on paper by the French architect and civil engineer Pierre L’Enfant (what a strange name his: it translates to Peter the Child!)

That was an extraordinary event in the history of great cities. Most grow hap-hazardly.

(As I write this, I think of course of our Ivoryton next door to Deep River here. It, too, was planned on paper, every aspect of it—where the factory would be, where the executives would live, where the workers, where the churches would be, where the grocery store, where the library and social club, and so on.)

He would be astounded to see the result today. In a sense the city is a monster. It is so huge. It has so many buildings. And that’s all because we have so many federal agencies and institutions and services and everything else. And so many related private groups of all kinds, each with its headquarters.

The traffic paralysis! Because all of us insist on driving our own car. Which is wonderful. But also terrible. We found the downtown traffic horrendous. This despite the marvelous Metro and remarkable bus system. The parking inadequate.  You have to circle around and search and search for a spot.  There are parking garages, but there are long queues of cars getting in and coming out, especially at rush hours. And expensive!

A blessing was my handicap-parking permit. “What a sad day,” I said to myself when I got my permit from the Connecticut DMV. “It has come to this!” But how much I have gotten to appreciate that permit in these declining years. It was a godsend in Washington.

Our priority was the museums, and particularly the fabulous museums of the Smithsonian Institution, federally supported, as we know. They line both sides of a mall, one great museum after another. All four-star museums for sure. And all free, I believe, even in these days of strained budgets.

Despite our grand intentions, we got to visit only two. One was the History Museum. The other was the Natural History Museum. We went to each on two days. And we spent hours in each.  The exhibits were amazing. So interesting. So well done. So educational. So much fun.

Annabelle and I have similar interests and different ones. That’s natural, isn’t it? So we split up in these grand buildings now and then. I’d go off to one exhibit and she to another. This was to make the most of our time.  Yet both of us got to see only a small part of each museum’s offerings. Imagine that.

When we got tired, we drove around. So much to see. We found our way to this neighborhood and that one. Cruised by the great monuments, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, and others.  Experienced Dupont Circle and upscale neighborhoods. We drove bumper to bumper through charming Georgetown. We poked into the sprawling black neighborhood that starts just to one side of Congress.

A must for us there was Howard University.  I believe it is our country’s premier black university, meaning the best-known one planned and built and promoted for blacks. I’ve heard and read about it many times. Who hasn’t? A much larger campus than I expected, with bigger buildings, too, most red brick. And lots of activity. Many students (more than 10,000). And a “Harvard Square” of restaurants and bookshops nearby. I was impressed.

On our drives we spotted the Supreme Court and the Library, of course. On one day we made an attempt at visiting both. No parking spots. We did research and found there was a BIG parking garage within striking distance. It’s on one side of Union Station. And we found there a Circulator bus that could carry us close to both institutions. The Court and the Library are located practically side by side.

It was a long wait getting into the garage at 8:30 a.m. And the only spot we found was on the top floor, which I believe is the top floor. Then a long walk out and through Union Station. But what a fortuitous sight that was. What a big and magnificent building. Worth a visit even if you have no need to catch a train. Recommended!

Then a long walk to the right stop for the Circulator. The Circulator is well named. It circulates through the city. Quite new. Fine buses. Inexpensive. The $1 ride is just 50 cents for a senior. (The garage cost us $22.)

Our first stop was the Library of Congress. We got off nearby. But the Library is three big buildings! We entered the closest one, the Madison, named for James Madison, our fourth president.

Surprise. We had to go through airport-like security to get in. Putting all our possessions into our tray. Everything except having to take off our shoes. We were spared that.

Surprise No. 2. I found the Madison to be just a very large but disappointingly plain everyday working library. A research library mostly—aides doing research for representatives and senators and other officials; men and women writing books.

Our time was limited. What I hoped to see was the Periodicals Room. “I’ll bet they’ll have every American newspaper and magazine in there,” I said to Annabelle. “And from other countries, too.”

We got to the Periodicals Room down a long hallway, then down another. But we weren’t allowed in. We needed a library card! That was Surprise No. 3. And only the highest officials can check out books from the Library of Congress—Surprise No. 4.

The other “secondary” library is the John Adams, named for our sixth president. We never made it to that.

Our priority was the main library, the first of the three, the Thomas Jefferson, honoring the drafter of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and other important documents, and our third president. In fact, it’s his personal library at his home Monticello that became the nucleus of the Library of Congress.

We got in, again after a security search. All Americans are welcomed in. The red carpet is out. Again, the security check.  Finally into that grand and monumental and magnificent building! Huge halls. Great columns. Marble aplenty. Paintings and statues and plaques. And so many visitors.

The Jefferson was designed to make a statement and it succeeds: that the Library of Congress is our national library, the repository of all our copyrighted works, the treasure house of our learning, the fount of our thinking, the finest library of the greatest democracy in the world.

We got started by joining one of the frequent tours, but hearing the leader was too difficult and quickly we set off on our own. Again the exhibits were spectacular.

There is a splendid replica of Jefferson’s library with thousands of his original books. Some were lost but there’s a huge effort to find replacements. I walked from one bookcase to another, scanning the titles.

Amazing the breadth and variety—he was interested in absolutely everything. He had books in many languages. Many in Latin (which I studied long ago). And so very many in French. This interested me. French was my first language, learned on the laps of my parents. I studied it many years, and I speak and write it.

Then the exhibits! Especially “The Founding of Our Nation.” The original documents, mind you. How impressive. I was surprised by the feelings of marvel and appreciation and  pride and gratitude that welled up in me.

We did our best to get a look at everything, but again, much too much. On to the Supreme Court down the street.

And it’s in walking out that I felt that flash of inspiration. My big idea! I’ll tell you about it in a minute. First, about the Supreme Court.

It, too, is a grand building, but on a much smaller scale. It is only 75 years old in its present building. It is so important to us because here, as we know, are pronounced the momentous decisions that at times preserve and protect our society and our lives but at other changes bring changes, some big. The Supreme Court’s decisions shape our nation.

We were directed into the great courtroom itself. At the front on the podium were the chairs for our nine justices, lined up behind the long table. We took seats. A young woman came forward, smiled, and gave us a talk about the court. She did it from memory, timed to an exact 30 minutes, but with enthusiasm and freshness. Very good. I enjoyed her.

We found our way to the cafeteria downstairs. On the way we passed corridors that were gated off. I peered down each one. Was this where Chief Justice Roberts’ office was? Justice Antonin Scalia’s? Ruth Ginsburg’s? No idea.

Nothing elaborate about this cafeteria. It was clear this is where the staff ate, too, not only the tourists. It was now close to the 4 p.m. closing time but we hadn’t had lunch and we made up for it. The food was good and the prices fair—those at the Smithsonian had been shockingly high, at least to my pocketbook. I suspected that the justices did not eat here. My bet was that they were served in their offices. And could order coq au vin or saumon aux champignons if that’s what they wanted.

Finally out we went, happy with our visits. And tired. Another Circulator back to the Union Station garage. Another long line of cars rolling out. Back to our National Harbor Hotel. Again a frustrating ride. So much traffic.

We checked out the next morning and made the long trip home to Deep River by dark.

I found our few days so interesting, so educational, so stimulating, and so important. Annabelle felt the same way. Our time in the capital made us appreciate all the more the grandeur and achievement and success of our country. That’s why that idea sprang to my mind.

I said to myself,  “Every young person should come here and experience this. They should do it as part of their college education. Not when they’re old like us. Such a visit would set them up for life.”

But how to do that?

We should develop a national program. We have thousands of them, it seems. Why not one more?

For the moment let’s call it Summer in Washington. Intended for college students, perhaps in the summer after their junior year. Not just a few days. That wouldn’t be enough. I thought, “Six weeks!”

It would be designed to cram in as much information as possible. About our history. Our democratic and federal form of government. Our guiding principles. The incredible range of our government activities and the ever-expanding role of government in our lives. The changing make-up of our country in numerous ways. Our increasing stature in world affairs. Would be designed to make clear and emphasize our national values. And our duties and responsibilities—and rights and entitlements—as Americans.

And it would have to be fun! That would be an absolute essential.

My son Mark’s summer experience in Europe in 2009 influenced me, I’m sure. He’s a professor at the University of Georgia. He took 24 students to four cities in Europe on a three-week educational tour: Frankfurt, Vienna, Bratislava, and Prague.

Each morning he gave his students a lecture on what they were going to see—a bank, a cathedral, a factory, a museum, whatever. But the emphasis was on business—all the students were business majors, as I recall it.  Then in came a guest lecturer from that city to further explain. Then off they went to look, understand, and appreciate. They also had plenty of fun. A great success.

“Summer in Washington” would be a significant summer. One that would affect the students in good ways for the rest of their lives.

They would room and board at area colleges in universities—just as in the way the wonderful Elderhostel Program started some 40 years ago. They have idle rooms and cafeteria space in the summer.

There would be a broad curriculum of lectures and tours. Every day they would visit a list of important places. The Congress, of course. The Library of Congress. The Pentagon. The National Post Office. The FBI. The Department of the Interior. The Peace Corps! On and on.

Also the Smithsonian museums and other important sites. The Washington Monument. The Lincoln Memorial. The new Martin Luther King Memorial. Arlington National Cemetery.  Ford’s Theatre, where Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.

Every morning a lecture would precede the tour. The goal would be to explain, explain, explain.  From Monday to Friday, they would listen to a good lecture about what they would soon visit. They would do that visiting in the afternoon. And on the way there and back they would visit important monuments and sites. There are so many of them.

On weekends they would explore the city. Check out various neighborhoods. Drive by the embassies. And so on. Sightsee as much as possible. Rest and relax. But the overall emphasis should be on having fun.  Enjoying the whole thing. Being tourists in the finest meaning of the word. Education is easy when it’s coated with fun.

One week would not do. Much too short.  I thought six weeks would be right. Then I thought that it should be five weeks—five because that way two groups could be scheduled back to back more easily in the summer out-of-school time. With two sessions, more students could come.

It would be expensive. But it would be so worthwhile as a primal educational experience that it would justify the expense. So many students borrow their way through college nowadays. Well, they could borrow a bit more.

And there could be government assistance. After all, this would make all the students better citizens, better Americans, better voters—this at a time when the percentage of active voters year after year is less and less.

And there could be merit scholarships and fellowships.

It would be designed to have a big impact. A mind-opening, life-broadening impact.

It should be developed and publicized as a “must” for every boy and girl who wants a fine education—a liberal education in the finest meaning of the word. Even if what they’re majoring in is scientific or technical.

What I see is not a program of a few hundred students. I’m thinking of thousands every summer. A big program that would have a national dimension, bringing in students from every state and from our big cities and little towns. Not just rich kids. For every promising kid!

Well, it’s a good idea, you will say, but just an idea.

But we are surrounded with great things that were once just ideas.

It’s true of every aspect of our government, of course—our Congress, our Supreme Court, our very United States of America. Our Smithsonian Museum. Just an idea. Just a vision.

Think of our great break-through decisions and programs. The right to vote for every adult American, regardless of income, ownership of property or not. Free public education for all. Our Land-Grant universities. Women’s Suffrage. Social Security. The GI Bill. Medicare. Our Flight to the Moon. Again the Peace Corps—50 years old this year!  On and on. So many. Just an idea. Just a vision.

Every one of our great businesses—Ford, General Electric, Boeing, NBC, Microsoft, Pfizer, Google, The New York Times, Coca-Cola, Walmart, McDonald’s, Amazon.com. On and on. They were just an idea. Just a vision.

Even our tiny businesses. These newspapers without trees, Valleynewsnow.com and lymeline.com and oldsaybrooknow.com. The corner grocery store. Joe’s Barber Shop. The Whistle Stop Restaurant. Just an idea. Just a vision.

So many of our good works. Our many hospitals and  private universities and research centers. The Red Cross. A.A. Goodwill. Seeing Eye Dog. AARP. Mystic Seaport. The Connecticut River Museum. Keyboard Park. On and on and on. Just an idea. Just a vision.

True all over the world.

All started with just an idea. A vague vision.

Will my idea take off? I wish I knew. It’s a raw idea. It needs refining. It needs PR. It needs lobbying. It needs money. It needs enormous leadership. But this is the kick-off. We’ll see.

I welcome your comments, your suggestions, and your criticisms. Send them to me: johnguylaplante@yahoo.com.

“Summer in Washington!” Don’t you wish you could be 20 years old and going to that for five weeks? Wouldn’t you be delighted to have your daughter go? Your grandson?

If you like my idea, you can do your bit right now: email it to all your friends. Ask them to do the same.

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