Published on: December 2, 2008by Michael Sansolo
In a sharp departure, today’s column comes without any metaphors, sarcasm or irony. This week, it’s all about greatness in various forms that we forget to see every day.
Since I live just outside of Washington, DC, I take for granted that my daily travels take me through places that countless tourists come to visit each year. More correctly, I forget to look. But this past weekend I shed my local blinders and entered the newly re-opened National Museum of American History. Some exhibits demand I write about them.
The first has always been the centerpiece of the museum, but is now redone magnificently. It is the original flag that flew over Fort McHenry in Baltimore in 1814 during a 25-hour naval bombardment. It was the sight of that flag at dawn that inspired a local lawyer, Francis Scott Key, to write a poem we know as the Star-Spangled Banner. (Although I did not know until this weekend that the poem only became the National Anthem in 1931. Somehow, I thought it was much earlier than that.)
The flag used to hang in the entrance hall of the museum in poor condition and with little drama. In fact, it became a more interesting exhibit when it was taken down and moved to a space age clean room where workers suspended on horizontal gantries work to meticulous clean and refurbish the flag.
In a clear example of building interest in something old, the flag is now housed in an incredible hall. There you are reminded of the strange path the flag took through history; how pieces of it were cut off in the 1800s as souvenirs and it was owned by a Baltimore family that stitched an initial into it. But you also learn about the fragile state of the young republic and why the battle of Baltimore was so incredibly important. (There is even a relevant business lesson here - that if you want to build new interest in something old, one way to do so is by positioning and explaining it differently.)
Down the hall from the banner you see a time of even greater peril and when - to my mind - even greater words were written. There, on temporary exhibit, is Abraham Lincoln’s handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address, with prose so insightful and moving that it resonates more than 150 years later.
But not all heroes are as famous as Key and Lincoln and not all settings are as memorable as a battlefield. Sitting between the exhibits is a replica of a 1960s era lunch counter, where a group of black students, moved to action by the start of the civil rights movement, staged a memorable sit-in.
However, my personal favorite moment on this visit through history came a few blocks away at the World War II memorial. Despite my proximity to these sites and my parents’ regular visits to our house, I realized I had never taken them to see a memorial to their own generation. It’s an oversight I’m glad I corrected in time.
At the memorial, I heard my parents’ stories of that time. Of my mother’s cousin who spent his 21st birthday in a foxhole on Normandy Beach during the D-Day assault, wondering if he would ever see his 22nd birthday. (He did and I wonder how that story resonated with my 21-year-old daughter.) I heard my father tell of friends, such as the one who was among the first to set foot on Iwo Jima and survived to tell. Or the one who was a sailor on the US Indianapolis, the famed ship that delivered the atomic bomb and then sunk, only to have its crew set upon by sharks while they waited for rescue.
I got to see my father, now in his 80s, stand by the monument to Pacific Theater battles and look down at the etching in the marble for Okinawa, the first battle in which he was involved. I got to see my mother read the inscription honoring the war at home, in which every family and every child was brought into the war effort through saving, rationing and some form of sacrifice.
As we left, I looked out of at the city of Washington, thinking about the troubles we currently have. And I thought about the lawyer on the ship, the President at the battlefield, the students at the lunch counter, my mom’s WWII victory garden and my 18-year-old dad sailing back and forth across the Pacific - and I thought that maybe we have it in us to get through.
Maybe we just have to open our eyes a little more often.Michael Sansolo can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org