There was a lull, so I decided to get out of the hotel and take a quick walk. Work travel is much more of the former than the latter; you fly in, you do what you're paid to do, you fly out. It is a breathless experience, from airport to hotel room to meetings to events to hotel room, eat, rinse, sleep, repeat. Last year I went to New York City four times. I don't remember why. "On business".
But this was Washington D.C. I had been there once before. 30 years ago? At least. We were on a Family Trip, visiting relatives, doing a swing of the east coast. We drove through D.C., watched the monuments go by in a blur through the car windows. On a schedule, no time to stop, look at The History, kids. Wave as it goes past. I woke up on the day I was set to fly out, checked my email, Facebook, Twitter. Catching my eye: Boehner's Press Secretary and Obama's Press Secretary were embroiled in a 140-character slapfight. I felt the sudden urge to shower and walk, see some of those monuments, breathe in the past.
History has a weight. It's writ large, yes; you walk through marble shrines and the deeds they represent and you feel it. These were men. They woke up in the morning with snot in their eyes. They had callouses and hangnails and receding gumlines. What we call history they called work, or perhaps survival. The weight of history, what gives it poignancy as well as power is this: those making it usually don't know that they are. Did that make it better, the not knowing? Or did it make it worse?
My dad had a huge crossbow. It was a simple one; no hand-crank or loop to put your foot through for leverage while you pull the string back. A crosspiece stuck through the stock. The thing had a three-foot wingspan. He brought it back from Vietnam. I was a kid and I was fascinated by it, the crossbow, the war, the past; my favorite war movie was The Green Berets, with its pungee stakes, Tiger Teams, and John Wayne there to tell the Vietnamese kids "you're what this war's all about" while the sun set in the west. My dad also brought back movies, shot on a Super 8 camera. His buddies, skinny and shirtless, sitting in lawn chairs and drinking Budweiser, watching rockets blowing up jungle in the distance. "The only casualty I ever saw was a guy falling off a bar stool," he'd tell me. It was history, and it all seemed so exciting.
There is a place called the Chosin Reservoir. You've probably never heard of it. It's in North Korea. A battle was fought there; November 27 through December 23, 1950. 30,000 UN troops were surrounded by 67,000 North Korea and Chinese troops. Temperatures during this time were well below zero, and everything froze; guns, morphine, blood plasma. I remember reading about it in junior high. There was a story: a Marine had been shot through the jaw during an evening firefight. The bullet went clean through one side of his jaw and out the other, and his jaw was held to his head by his own blood. It was so cold, you see, that the blood immediately froze. The cold that was slowly killing his fellow Marines saved his life. He lay awake all night, surrounded by his buddies, who offered what comfort they could. Dawn came, and with it warmth. Enough so that the blood holding his jaw to his head thawed, and when it did his jaw fell off and he bled out and died. Killed by the sun. Can you imagine.
So there was a lull, and so I went for a walk, down to the National Mall. The Mall is a great expanse, and on that day the wind was whipping down it. I'd forgotten a beanie, and my head was throbbing with the cold, but it seemed right somehow. My flight was supposed to leave at 2:00; a storm hitting Chicago changed all that, and so I'd be leaving at 6:30, flying into Dallas, and then home. I had some time to walk. I took it.