As best it can be pinpointed, it was 40 years ago today that the young soldier from California paid his first visit to Washington. The nation's capital was, in a real sense, a shrine, as this city still is for those from the far-off provinces. In the 1940s, a trip from the West Coast cost either four days of railroad travel time or more money for an airplane than most people possessed -- and they didn't take it in plastic form.
The soldier had a brief pass from Fort Bragg, N.C., where his division had assembled to prepare for an invasion -- and by now, thankfully, the occupation -- of Japan.
He took the train up here and spent a day and a night, at her mother's invitation, visiting a pretty girl named Barbara in Annapolis. Then came Washington.
He stashed his bags in a locker at Union Station, then spent a day largely afoot that, viewed in hindsight, seems improbable for the territory covered. He went to the Capitol, viewed the Rotunda and the two legislative chambers, and went across the plaza to the Library of Congress. Alas, the nation's documentary treasures -- the Declaration of Independence and the original Constitution -- were still in the vault at Fort Knox, not yet returned (but since relocated from the library to the Archives).
Then down the hill he walked to the Smithsonian and up Seventh Street, reluctantly skipping the National Gallery of Art, to Chinatown for lunch at, as he recalls it, the China Inn. A streetcar took him to the front of the White House. There he stood in awe, but when he turned around, he broke up in laughter: two streetcars passed, both with signs somehow suggesting they were destined for outhouses -- the No. 20 line, going westward to Cabin John, and the No. 12, going eastward to Seat Pleasant.
The soldier walked farther, to the Washington Monument, riding the elevator to the top -- putting a dime into a hand-held fare collection machine offered by a park ranger. Back on the ground, the soldier gazed across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial, then walked alongside the Reflecting Pool to the Lincoln Memorial.
By now, it was about time to get back to Union Station. He doesn't remember how he got there, but he caught the train back to Fayetteville and recalls traveling across a bridge into Virginia, where the train stopped at Alexandria near what is visually the most hideous tower he had ever seen -- or, for that matter, has seen since, save perhaps some Stalinist edifices in Warsaw and Moscow.
The soldier didn't expect, on that fleeting visit, to come back to Washington, either soon or perhaps ever. But life is unpredictable, and he did return. Not only that, but for a time he lived up the street from that hideous tower -- the George Washington Masonic Memorial -- and, if the truth be known, he grew to be fond of it.