Friday, April 25, 2008


Every kid needs to visit Washington DC sooner or later, so last weekend we packed up all three of ours and headed south for a weekend getaway.

Somehow my prized GPS locked up and froze somewhere on Florida Avenue, just a few blocks from our Capitol Hill hotel, but we managed to arrive OK by driving around a few traffic circles and always keeping the Washington Monument on our right. Or something.

Anyway, we got there early Friday evening, checked in, then checked out Union Station and the Metro. The boy was pretty excited about the Metro train, or "choo choo!" as he called it.

We headed downtown toward the White House. There were fences set up around the Ellipse, and we could just barely see the White House a couple hundred yards away. There were a few other sightseers around, and someone said security was stepped up because the president was due to arrive.

Sure enough, a few minutes later, a big helicopter flew in low and slow, thrupping past the Washington Monument, and...just...hung...there, right in front of us, giving us a clear shot view for a good 30 or 40 seconds. Boy, if someone had a grudge against the guy... I'm just sayin'.

But maybe it wasn't the preznit after all, because over the next 20 minutes, the same helicopter repeated the same route 4 or 5 more times. The kids asked if maybe the vice president had flown in with the president, or whether he might be on one of the later flights. The wife gave the 8th grade civics class answer about the president and vice president being prohibited from traveling together, because if something happens to one of them, the other has to take over. "That's right, girls," I said, "if anything happens to Cheney, Bush will have to run the country, and he's clearly not qualified to do it." I think that one went over their heads faster and higher than the president's helicopter.

So we walked around the Mall some more. The Vietnam Memorial remains awesome. The new World War II Memorial was impressive, but maybe a little too Heroic (with a capital H). It's all soaring columns and victory wreaths and stylized eagles, reminiscent of nothing so much as the Neo-Classical architecture favored by the Nazis -- very Triumph of the Will. In fact, if you had fallen into a coma in 1942 and woken up in front of this thing today, you wouldn't be sure who had won the war.

On Saturday we took the kids to the Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museum, which are much as they have always been, aside from a few new exhibits and some major renovations in the works at the NHM (no blue whale!). The giant sloth has always been my favorite. (Is that the only prehistoric megafauna that shares a name with one of the seven deadly sins?) We got a glimpse of the Hope Diamond, but from the crowd jostling around it, you would have thought they were giving out free samples of the thing.

In the evening we visited the Lincoln Memorial. The girls thought the glowing red lights in the Washington Monument, placed there to keep airplanes clear, made it look like the Tower of Barad-dûr.

On Sunday we went to the National Zoo. It rained off and on, and sometimes pretty hard, but, hey, it's free! The kids liked the elephants a lot. I liked the pandas. I remember when the Chinese gave us the first pair of pandas back in the early 1970s, which is maybe the only really positive accomplishment of the Nixon administration.

These new pandas are just loaners, and I'm glad I saw them. I learned a lot about them. There are three of them: Momma, Poppa, and Baby Bear (OK, those aren't their real names). The baby was born in the zoo, the result of one of only a few successful instances of breeding pandas in captivity.

It's tough to get a panda pregnant. A fully grown, sexually mature female panda will be receptive to sexual advances from her mate only two days out of every year... which is nearly twice as often as a married human female.

We saw lions and tigers in addition to the bears, plus cheetahs, leopards, monkeys, orangutans and gorillas.

Yeah, gorillas. Here's the thing about gorillas. All monsters are scary, but some are scarier to some people than others. Everyone has their own super-scary monster that pops up in their nightmares and gives them the heebie-jeebies. For you, it might be Dracula, or the Wolfman, or Dick Cheney. For me, it's King Kong. I don't know why, but it probably has to do with having seen the campy (but still scary) 1976 Jessica Lange / Jeff Bridges / Charles Grodin re-make a few too many times as a kid.

So anyway, I'm sort of afraid of gorillas, too, even the ones that aren't 50 feet tall. They have a bunch of them at the National Zoo, including a big silverback "alpha male" and some other juvenile males. Apparently, they can be pretty aggressive.

It was raining when we visited the ape house, and all the gorillas were inside, hanging out behind the glass. The setup looked a lot like that old Samsonite American Tourister commercial where the gorilla beats up the suitcase.

Anyway, just as I was wondering how strong the glass separating the gorillas from the people is, and how much I might look like a suitcase to a bored gorilla, one of the younger males suddenly looked right into my eyes and started purposefully stalking out of his tree, accelerating on all fours and With unbelievable swiftness and grace, he leapt from a limb, pounced, and, all in one motion, launched himself on a trajectory calculated to land right on my head and shoulders. It was absolutely frightening. He filled the air, big, black, malevolent, as terrifying as Dick Cheney in a helicopter, his huge arms spreading out to crash down upon me and envelop me in their hairy, smelly power.

But -- aha! -- a million years of evolution count for something: he banged smack into the glass, a clever invention of my Bronze Age ancestors, and bounced off on to the floor and scampered away. Man 1, Gorilla 0.

I had the video camera -- another clever human invention -- rolling the whole time, and here's the video below. It's nowhere near as frightening via YouTube as it was in person. But then again, I'm terrified of King Kong, so your results may vary.

It's a mad house! A mad house!


D.B. Echo said...

I liked the way he pushed the rope aside to come at you. It was like seeing Sean Penn react to the stalkerazzi at a red-carpet awards show.

PSoTD said...

Sounds like you had a great time. Have a suggestion for you - if you take the kids some day to Arlington, go towards the end of the day, and try to make yourself available at the back side of the Lee House at sundown. The park service will come driving up to take down the flag, and in the past they usually let a civilian help - and usually they pick a child, unless none are around. Great photo op.