It was July 4th weekend; after driving nearly two days, we arrived at Washington DC right before the annual fireworks show. We were determined to have the perfect view of the display, and spent the day seeking the ideal spot and getting lost in the city.
The night air was cool and refreshing as we situated ourselves on a bridge connecting Arlington National Cemetery and the National Mall just minutes before the show began. The crowds overwhelmed the scene as thousands of tourists and locals alike sought a good view of the display. Amiable chatter filled the air before gasps of awe announced the beginning of fireworks. The firework lit up the night sky and the echoes of the explosions seemed like the ghosts of cannon fire from Arlington. The dazzling explosions and the Washington Monument were both reflected on the rippling water below the bridge.
After the last firework was launched, getting back to the hotel was an ordeal. Once the display was over the crowd moved as one toward the subway. Getting past the ticket counter took fifteen minutes of shoving and jostling through the crowd. Even when reaching the train the waiting continued. Trains would stop but the cars would fill up quickly and soon the cars were like sardine cans on rails. Rather than the wait destroying the good will of the display, however, it seemed to enhance it. We stood among strangers and rather than be annoyed at the wait, we made pleasant conversation. There was still a sense of excitement. Whenever a subway train stopped with an empty car, the entire station cheered.
The next day we were free to properly explore the city. We walked everywhere. The temperatures were near 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and I didn’t pack any shorts. Yet I was in good company. It seemed like the entire city was welcoming us. We talked to fellow tourists from opposite sides of the country, pamphlets extolling political causes were handed to us as we walked through a park, even a mother duck and her children crossed our path, helpfully ushered across the street by a friendly tour guide.
The days were a never-ending whirlwind of monuments. Just as we passed the Washington Monument, we set off to the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam War memorial, the Capitol building, or the White House. I spent an entire day exploring the wonder of the Smithsonian museums, entranced by the well-preserved pieces of history from a segregated train car, to George Washington’s pants, to a collection of prehistoric bones.
History began to seem less of a record of events in a textbook and more of a physical presence.
Seeing the Declaration of Independence right before my eyes or exploring house of Robert E. Lee while touring Arlington created a sense of being the presence of ghosts. The ghosts, not of the people themselves, but of their deeds and of their impact on the world were ever present. They left an impression not just on the sterile exhibits of a museum, but also on the lives of everyone who passed by those museums. Even the fireworks display emphasized the echoes of the past, and the creation of new ghosts in the present. I felt as if I was living history, breathing it in, and in a way I was.
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