We had Monday off, so eight days ago, I booked a tour of the Pentagon. That might appear to be advanced planning, but since eight days is the minimum lead time for booking that tour, I consider it to be an impulse eight days early.
Getting there was fraught with challenges. I was getting ready to change Metro trains half way to my destination when I suddenly realized that the letter that I absolutely had to have to get onto the tour was sitting at home on my table. I thought I might have barely enough time to retrace my steps, so I hopped back on a train going in the other direction. That train was promptly taken out of service, and I didn’t feel I had enough time to complete the trip at that point. So since the only path open was forward, I transferred trains and headed toward the Pentagon. I started plotting that I could find a library or Kinkos and print out the letter when I realized that I could access the original email on my phone. I still wasn’t totally happy, but I figured that perhaps a few strategically shed tears would make the difference. Inevitably, no one even asked to see the letter, so I was glad that I didn’t go back.
I had enough time before my tour to go see the Pentagon 9/11 memorial. In Connecticut, and possibly in most of the rest of the country, September 11th invokes images of the World Trade Center in New York, but here in DC, the emotions of that day center around the Pentagon where 184 people died.
The depth of information at the Pentagon memorial fascinated me. Each person is represented by a bench cantilevered over a small pool of water. If you are reading the name and looking at the building, then the person died inside. If you read the name and are looking away from the building, then that person was on the plane. At the base of the bench, if there are other names listed, then those are of family members who also died on that day. Curving around the outside of the memorial is the age wall. It starts at 3” tall for the youngest victim, and rises to 71” tall at the far end for the oldest. So with almost no words, I am given the story that three-year-old Dana Falkenberg was traveling with her sister and her parents on the plane. Each person was cherished and cared for, and it was all beautifully done.
Inside the Pentagon, home of the Department of Defense, I became immediately aware that my experience with the military is woefully inadequate to allow me to decipher all of the various uniforms that were everywhere. There are more officers than enlisted personnel in the Pentagon, and I’ve heard it said that in this location, the Colonels get the coffee.
My tour was led by a young man in the Air Force, who traversed virtually the entire route walking backwards, and we had his equivalent from the Army making sure that none of us wandered off. The guide explained that the Department of Defense had been created in 1947 out of the former Department of War (the land-based troops) and the Department of Navy (the sea-based troops) to reduce competition and foster cooperation among the divisions. There is obviously a fair amount of good-natured banter that remains, however. Our Air Force representative explained that September 18th is the anniversary of the formation of the Air Force, and thus in 1947, he said, “We were the new kids in town.” The army voice growled from the rear, “You are still the new kids in town!”
The Pentagon is the largest but most efficient office building in the world; in spite of the size, it only takes about ten minutes to get from any one location to any other. It feels like a small city, which contains a CVS, a best buy, clothing stores, and multiple food courts which wafted their aromas at us throughout our trip. The tour mostly focused on the displays in the halls, so we went by the POW/MIA display, the MacArthur displays, and in one hallway, there are paintings of each signer of the Constitution who also served in the armed forces.
I was highly entertained by the stories about the paintings by John Trumbell that documented the formation of the country. For example, Adams and Jefferson had a well-known rivalry, from which Adams usually came out on top. Knowing that Trumbell would be painting the signing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson invited the artist to his home, and treated him extremely well. As a result, Jefferson is not only painted in bright colors and Adams is depicted as more balding than he was at the time, but upon close examination, it can be seen that Jefferson is standing on Adams’ feet.
Trumbell was not allowed to sign his paintings, so he tended to paint himself into the scenes, either fourth from the end or fourth from the American flag. Congress started to catch on and was threatening to punish him, so in one painting, Trumbell’s face is on a woman instead of a man. Our guide characterized our searching for Trumbell as “Where’s Waldo- Colonial style.”
A special treat was that because my group had a cadre of young sea cadets, we actually went in to the Hall of Heros, which has large replicas of the Medals of Honor for the Army, Air Force, and water arms of the military, and which has the names of all the people who have won these awards listed on the walls. There is a gold star next to one name- a man whose work in Vietnam was highly classified and thus only recently has been honored as he deserved.
The presence of the sea cadets also produced extra details that we would not otherwise have gotten. We stepped outside at one point, and when the cadets started to put on their hats, the guide said, “no cover.” Inexperienced with the military as I am, I eventually understood that when a soldier or sailor steps outside, he or she is expected to put on a hat. When we stepped into the central courtyard, our guide explained that those five and a half acres are the largest “no hat, no salute” zone in the United States. To some extent, it’s a necessity because otherwise there are so many officers around that enlisted personnel would have to Velcro their hands to their foreheads the entire time.
So if you visit DC and can tear yourself away from the Smithsonians and the zoo, where you can’t yet see the baby panda anyway, I do recommend a tour of the Pentagon.