OUR CAPITAL IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS
At 10, I was a mini-adult—much preferring to talk with the grown-ups to playing with my classmates. Oneida was a sweet, red-haired girl from “the country” who went to work in my father’s office at the Athens Table Company after graduating from high school. I enjoyed talking with her—and she became like a “big sister” to me. She would sometimes come home with Daddy after work on Friday and spend the night with us. We would stay up all hours talking—about our dreams, about her boyfriend Jack, about our families.
One day she told me that she’d found out she was to have a week’s paid vacation from work—her first. She well knew that my parents didn’t really take vacations—and that I’d never gone on a trip except to visit relatives. “How would you like to go with me on a trip?” she asked. “And you can decide where we will go.”
I spent a few weeks looking at maps—and came up with my top choice: Washington, D.C. It sounded perfect.
My parents were skeptical because Oneida had never traveled before. Finally, Daddy said we could go if my half-sister Tootsie “chaperoned.” She was a 29-year-old war widow with three sons—and they lived in a garage apartment adjacent to our home. He and Mother would keep the boys—and pay her way. Of course, she hadn’t ever traveled either, but at least she was older.
I spent a month or so planning our itinerary. I ordered maps and travel brochures, read up on all the guided tours of Washington—and had each of our seven-day trips scheduled full. We consulted my half-brother Easy, who was an FBI agent during the J. Edgar Hoover era and had some contacts in Washington.
We would go by train—leaving Athens late on an August Saturday afternoon and arriving in Washington early Sunday morning. We made reservations at the Raleigh Hotel (corner of 12th Street, N.W. and Pennsylvania Avenue). Finally the day came and we three “country bumpkins”—10, 19 and 29– headed off to our nation’s capital for the first time.
As the train rolled into the city, I was enthralled at my first glimpses of the skyline–so many marble buildings I recognized! We checked off everything on my itinerary that week—even taking a boat on the Potomac to visit Mount Vernon and a bus tour of the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. The hotel wasn’t air conditioned and the temperatures were scorching. It seemed that all the glistening marble buildings just made everything hotter.
One day we visited the U.S. Capitol—and it was awe-inspiring—massive, secure, the very heart of our national government’s legislative branch. I remember standing in the Rotunda staring up at the ceiling fresco (The Apotheosis of Washington, painted by Constantino Brumidi in 1865). Was this a temple or a government building? The planners must have had both ideas in mind.
Yesterday the views inside the U.S. Capitol were unbelievably different. Words used to describe what happened there include “mobs desecrated this hallowed building,” “breached,” “unprecedented,” “attack on democracy.” Marble and frescos do not make a nation—people do. And sometimes we try to destroy it.