Monday, April 21, 2014

Road Trip Memories: Washington DC By C.P. Stringham

Government Girl standing at the podium after meeting
Secretary Kerry at the 100th orientation class graduation ceremony. And, yes, she's wearing a pantsuit. 
Maybe Hillary left it behind.
My friend, Government Girl, was struck by Cupid’s arrow last year. While thrilled for her, a committed relationship with G.I. Joe required her to relocate to the DC area—a five-hour car ride away. She assured us the move may take some time pending her job search, which meant there was plenty of time for more Girls’ Nights. Only that wasn’t the case. Being an intelligent and very capable woman, it didn’t take long for her to receive job offers even in a poor job market. The most appealing offer came from the U.S. Department of State, specifically, their Office of Diplomatic Security Mobile Security Deployments. In essence, her boss is Secretary of State John Kerry. Government Girl has taken to her new life with aplomb and verve—just as our tight-knit circle of friends knew she would. We have all missed her terribly since she left.
Together, with Government Girl’s aunt and cousin, my oldest daughter and I made plans last fall for a double mother/daughter road trip to visit her this spring. Our original weekend was planned to coincide with the annual March Kite Festival in DC, but fell through and we rescheduled. We lucked out with our new date because we arrived in time to see Washington’s famous cherry blossoms at their brilliant peak. To top it off, the weather, which was horrible two weeks earlier (the weekend of the Kite Festival,) was perfect for the Cherry Blossom Festival. We drove to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and met up with Aunt Babs and Poli-Sci Ellie. Aunt Babs, a former resident of Manhattan, drove the entire way from Bethlehem to DC, handling rush hour traffic like it was a simple Sunday drive. The woman is completely unflappable behind the wheel. Meanwhile, I was in the rear seat breathing into a paper bag. Five lanes of bumper to bumper traffic on the Beltway ain’t for the faint-hearted.
Government Girl greeted us with a glass of Merlot.
We arrived at Government Girl’s in time for dinner. Our happy reunion was held over bowls of delicious ratatouille paired with crusty bread and glasses of Merlot—lots of Merlot. As the sun set, we adjourned to the deck and sat around a gas-powered outdoor fireplace. G.I. Joe came home shortly thereafter from coaching his son’s game and introductions were made. It was the first time my daughter and I had met him. I’ll admit, I was more than a little curious about him. The protective side of me needed to know my dear friend had found the right guy for her. He proved himself worthy and then some as the three-day weekend progressed. I mean, how many men would put up with having their home invaded by four extra women? That’s a lot of estrogen under one roof! He turned out to be an excellent host. And the man makes a killah cheesecake with blueberry reduction sauce!! Yum. Can you say keeper?!
On Saturday morning, we drove from Maryland to a nearby Metro station and took the train into DC. Having a retired Marine along is a lot like having your own personal security detail. G.I. Joe made sure his charges were always following along and safe as we made our way from the Metro and out into the crowded city streets. The annual Cherry Blossom Parade and Sakura Matsuri Japanese Street Festival brings an average of 100,000 extra attendees from around the world. This was a first time visit to DC for my oldest and me and we were totally excited about it. She and I can be a tad political at times. I let her stay home from school the day Nancy Pelosi was sworn in as the first female Speaker of the House so she could watch it on C-SPAN. We had so many items on our list of things to see that we had to slim it down. There simply weren’t enough hours in the day to do it all. The crowds kept us away from the actual Tidal Basin, but even without moving closer, there was a sea of pink blossoms as far as the eye could see and plenty of cherry trees planted throughout. I snapped 196 pictures just by walking the National Mall. The architecture is astounding. The museums, offices, and memorials were all within short walking distance. Each Smithsonian building has no admission fee. Where else can you see museum collections for free? Every capable American should take advantage of this and see the treasures they offer on display. It was all truly incredible to experience our Nation’s Capital in such a way and I’m so glad I got to do it with my daughter. I have to admit, as an avid fan of the former NBC show The West Wing, I half expected to see Josh Lyman jogging along the Reflecting Pool or Leo McGarry shaking hands with a U.S. Senator up on Capitol Hill. Speaking of Capitol Hill, my daughter was in awe of the Capitol Building. She said to me, “I’m going to work there someday.” I reminded her she needed to overcome her dislike of cities. But a girl can still dream, can’t she?  
L-R: Government Girl, Poli-Sci Ellie, and Aunt Babs enjoying the fabulous DC weather in the National Mall. Poli-Sci Ellie reading some of the names at the Vietnam War Memorial Wall. Our group heading to Capitol Hill for dinner at We, the Pizza. 
The most memorable part of our DC tour came about when we encountered our first Honor Flight veteran at the World War II Memorial. For those unfamiliar, Honor Flight Network is a program in which veterans from World War II are flown in to see the 2004 memorial that was erected in their honor. Honor Flight Network is a nonprofit organization dependent entirely on donations. It does not receive any funding from our government.  Data from the Department of Veterans Affairs states that we lose an estimated 640 World War II veterans a day. Due to their advanced years, for many, this trip to the memorial will be their last adventure. To date, Honor Flight Network has flown over 100,000 veterans into DC.
My friend, Michele McDonald, heard about my upcoming trip to DC and was quick to tell me to be sure and “hug a veteran.” She knows all about Honor Flight Network. She lives in nearby Richmond, Virginia and has recently completed her second turn as a “guardian.” Guardians are approved volunteers who are asked to accompany and treat the Honor Flight veterans assigned to them as if they are a member of their family and, while Michele lives nearby, there are other guardians making the trip from other states who have to pay their own travel expenses. It’s the guardian’s job to ensure each veteran has “a safe, memorable, and rewarding experience,” per their webpage at I asked Michele how she heard about the program. She said, “My husband had been watching FOX News interviewing the director of this movie called Honor Flight - One Last Mission. It was going to be playing locally here and he asked if I wanted to go. It was about WWII. I thought I'd just tag along. This movie just sucked me in and I thought to myself, ‘I have to be a part of this—for the Veterans.’ I have never before been so passionate about anything like this.” Michele will be going on her next Honor Flight Network “mission” in two weeks. She notes that you may not always get picked to go, but she has been fortunate so far and picked each time. Eleven missions have been run from Richmond to date. I asked her how it felt to be a guardian and she told me about her first experience and what it was like from the moment they departed the buses. Honor Flight volunteers known as “ground crew” greeted the WWII veterans and their guardians. Many of the ground crew members are veterans of the Vietnam War. Michele added, “They (ground crew volunteers) started hugging these men and women. Bending down to wheelchair level and saying thank you and spending time to talk with them. The general public was wondering what was going on. And then, it was like the parting of the waters…people just moved to both sides and started clapping and thanking these folks. Even little kids! That’s when I really got choked up! I was sooo proud to be amongst these men and women. I felt like I was the fortunate one and a true American.” Michele notes that it is a truly gratifying and overwhelming experience. Many of the veterans require extra assistance being pushed in wheelchairs or helped with their walkers. EMT’s even have to be brought in to help with others needing specialized care with oxygen tanks and such. Michele’s last veteran talked to her about his career as if he was just “one of the guys.” He was part of the United States Navy’s Underwater Demolition Team and planted explosives underwater. Michele urged me to imagine what it must have been like to be a scuba diver back then and the equipment they used. Although he wanted to come across as “one of the guys” to Michele, the other veterans in his group made sure she knew he later made the rank of admiral! Michele was quick to say she highly recommends this wonderful organization to others who wish to volunteer their time as a guardian. She’d really like to see folks in the 20-30 age group get involved so they could hear, firsthand, what these amazing veterans went through in order for them to live in a free country. From the moment the public greets them Michele says, “They feel so proud. So loved. So unforgotten. You're not human if you don't tear up at that point!”
Michele volunteering as a guardian for Honor Flight Network. L-R: With Former Senator Bob Dole who tries to attend each Honor Flight mission to greet the veterans. With veteran Harold. With veteran Wally--The Admiral!! 
   Government Girl's dad, Poppa Don, served tours of duty in Vietnam with the United States Air Force. Poppa Don was career military, serving for many years and they moved from base to base as a family.  My father-in-law served in Vietnam with the United States Army. For Government Girl and me, greeting the veterans at the memorial was a very emotional experience. Just from saying seven simple words: “Thank you for your service and bravery.” My daughter overheard a guardian say to her wheelchair-bound veteran, “Boy, you’re famous! Have you ever met so many strangers in one day?” “No,” he replied with a chuckle. Hands down, witnessing the Honor Flight Network in action, was my favorite part of our tour and it will be a memory that stays with me always.
A great mother/daughter road trip. L-R: My Daughter and me with the Washington Memorial. Cherry blossoms and the architectural beauty of the Capitol Building. Park on Capitol Hill. 

Our trip to visit Government Girl was incredible. A nice, relaxing time of catching up, eating tasty food, meeting G.I. Joe, and feeling like part of the family. I feel
good about Government Girl’s new life. I know she is content and well cared for. In all honesty, her Marine has her spoiled rotten—and, well, good for her! She deserves it. Maybe next time we’ll visit the Smithsonian.    

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