According to accounts in the next day's papers, it was the ceremonial event of Memorial Day, 1920. About 10,000 District of Columbia residents turned out along a two-mile stretch of 16th Street NW. to watch city and military officials plant 507 trees beside the roadway.
Each tree commemorated a D.C. soldier killed during the World War. The American Legion imbedded a small concrete column in the ground near each tree. On the facing edge of each was a bronze plaque, about the size of a policeman's badge. It bore the dead soldier's name, his branch of service and the words "Memorial Tree, World War, 1917-18."
But within a generation, the 16th Street memorial had begun to turn into a down-at-the-heels disgrace.
The trees began to wither and die, the victims of automobile exhaust and indifferent care. The plaques began to disappear, stolen by who-knows-whom and presumably sold as scrap bronze. And the concrete columns began to crumble with age.
Today, as another Memorial Day approaches, to walk up and down 16th Street, between Alaska Avenue and Webster Street, is to get almost no sense that there ever was a full- fledged memorial there.
Only about three dozen of the commemorative trees remain, and many of them are not originals. They are saplings, planted by the District government over the years, as time and money permitted, to replace those planted on May 30, 1920. Few of the saplings are more than 20 feet high.
Not only are they not as majestic as 62-year-old trees would have been, but many replacements haven't thrived, either. All along 16th Street, there are gaps along the curbs, where trees once were and aren't any longer.
Several dozen of the concrete columns are still there, but they have been nicked and chipped. Occasionally, they have been run over by motorists (you can see tire marks on some). And occasionally, they have been used as targets for thrown beer bottles (you can see the shattered evidence beside many).
The plaques? All gone except one.
His name was Mark Hardin. He served in the U.S. Army. Somehow, this old salute to an old soldier of an old war has survived in its small plot on upper 16th Street.
A vandal or a thief has tried to change that. Hardin's plaque has been pried up at the edges. It is starting to rust. It is probably just a matter of time.
You might think the American Legion would have done something to correct the 16th Street situation. Think again.
"We have never been able to come up with the money," said Rose Long, executive secretary of the D.C. Legion. "There always seems to be a more pressing need." This year, for example, the D.C. Legion expended most of its money and energy on the Vietnam veterans' memorial, which was dedicated in West Potomac Park in March.
Plainly, Vietnam veterans deserve a memorial, and the D.C. Legion was correct to support it vigorously. But it's distressing that one war's veterans seem to have to compete with another's for a proper place in the city's memory.
Doesn't the solution to the 16th Street problem lie with volunteers?
Isn't there a group of high school industrial arts students who would make 507 plaques as a class project? Isn't there a construction company that would donate concrete for 507 columns, and the manpower to pour them? Isn't there a retired admiral or general who would give two weeks of his time to make sure the whole thing got done properly?
Let's put the "memorial" back in Memorial Day along 16th Street. The D.C. American Legion's phone number is 362-9151. Mine is 334-7276. If you'd like to volunteer goods or time, the next move is yours.