Monday, September 24, 2007

Chance Meeting - Monumental Result

Land Rover Expedition Time: Late April 1998

I am not much into boats, but most girls like a sailor. So, when the New Zealand Embassy invited TH and I to a function at Baltimore Harbour, I jumped at the chance.

The Whitbread Around-the-World Yachts had arrived and, while there was no specific New Zealand entry into the race that year, New Zealand crewmen were serving on nearly every boat. The function was to welcome these New Zealanders and celebrate our nation’s "can do", prowess. J and N were also invited, as were F1 and F2. We responded with apologies for F1 and F2, saying they were due to arrive in the next few days. Well, we hoped they would be arriving. We still didn’t know where they were, or even if they were going to show up for our own function.

Our Embassy also kindly offered a place on their guest list for the PR representative from Land Rover North America. TH and I were invited to be her personal hosts for the night, which was a real privilege.

The evening opened with a powhiri (a formal Maori welcoming ceremony)

TH and I accompanied our Land Rover guest (Nancy) within the group of guests/visitors to be welcomed by the New Zealand Ambassador and his staff, so I could explain the ceremony to her, as it unfolded.

Many of the Embassy staff were Maori and several were in appropriate ceremonial dress. One of these, a strapping young man of great height, performed the wero (the challenge). During the wero, which is an ancient ritual, it is customary for a strong warrior to approach the visiting party in a war-like way. This includes brandishing a weapon (such as taiaha, or spear) chanting and poking out of the tongue. This is a demonstration of strength to signal that the visitors are welcome, if they come in peace. If not, the hosts are prepared to vigorously defend themselves.

At that stage, I had not seen the powhiri performed outside of New Zealand. The effect on many of the American guests, who had never seen a powhiri ever before, was fascinating. Nancy, buoyed by her own personal guides (TH and myself) either side of her, was thrilled and appreciative. The others were all interested, as expected, but many looked quite nervous. The most terrified looking of them all was the Mayor of Baltimore, who was a huge black American.

As "chief" of the guests, he had been appointed to accept the "offering". This is a vital part of the wero, where the challenging warrior lays down an item, often a piece of fern, as an offering. If the visiting chief does not want war, he will accept this offering by picking it up.

The Mayor, despite looking like he might run any moment, was well briefed. When he crouched down to accept the offering, he never took his eyes off the warrior, which was the exact protocol. However, I could see the fern frond shaking in his hands as he stood up again.

As soon as the offering was picked up, a warming song of welcome burst out from the hosts, which we (as the guests) responded to with a song of our own. The two sides then happily intermingled, there were the usual speeches and then the food was served.

Towards the end of the evening, after Nancy had left, I met a man who was the region’s department head for the American equivalent of the Ministry of Labour. When he discovered I was a tourist, he asked me to call him Jim. Then he enquired if I had visited any of Washington DC’s monuments yet. I said that we planned to do that the next day. He asked which one I would visit first. My reply was instant – The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There are a lot of monuments, many of great significance in Washington DC.

I imagine that not many tourists would name the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as first on their list. Jim looked surprised, but pleased as well. I knew immediately that this memorial was a special place for him.

He asked me why I wanted to visit this one. I told him about our expedition’s major sponsor, the CEO of Repco New Zealand, Bob Wyeth. Bob had told me about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when he last visited Washington DC. He described the three key components of the memorial - the Wall of names, the Three Servicemen Statue and Flagpole, and the Vietnam Women's Memorial.

Bob described "The Wall" in great detail. It starts as a short panel with the name of the first soldier killed, builds up progressively to taller panels, which list the names of more and more dead soldiers. At full height, this wall is well above a tall man’s head, and it stretches out, like a black wedge in the land, for many long paces. Then, the panels get progressively shorter and end with one short panel again, inscribed with the name of the last soldier killed. In total, there are over 58,000 names! At the base of each panel, still grieving family and friends leave flowers, poems and gifts.

Back in New Zealand, big, tough Bob had tears in his eyes, when described to me something that had happened during his visit to the memorial. An elderly man had shuffled along "The Wall" and stopped just past the halfway point, where Bob was standing. He fingered a name etched on the black, marble panel. Then, the man bent down and gently placed an old-fashioned penknife, one with a bone handle, at the base of that panel.

As the man turned away he announced, to no one in particular, that he had given his son that knife for his twelfth birthday. Bob asked the old man to tell him about his son. The boy had grown to a tall 18-year old, had enlisted in the US Army and was sent to Vietnam. A short while later he was posted "missing in action". Over the years since, the old man had kept the knife to give back to him when he returned, and had never moved house, so his boy would know where to find him. But, ill health and old age had now forced him to sell or give away most of his possessions in order to move into a small room at a retirement home. The man said he’d never given up hope, until now, that some day, some how his son might return. He added sadly that, even if he did, there was no house for the boy to come home to anymore.

I had tears in my eyes, too, as I finished telling Jim this story. Jim patted me gently on the shoulder and thanked me. He then told me that he was the Chairman of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans. He had been a helicopter pilot. TH and I talked a while longer about the memorial with Jim. He asked a lot of questions about our expedition and said he would like to know more.

It was getting late in the evening and the Embassy bus would soon be leaving to take us back to Washington DC. I suggested that he attend our Embassy event. Unfortunately, he would be away on business. With J and N’s permission, I gave him their contact details. He was due back in town on the day we planned to hit the road again. He promised he would find a way to get in touch, shook mine and TH’s hands and left. I thought I would never see him again.

But, the day before our departure a week later, Jim telephoned. He was flying back to DC the next morning and he asked if he could visit us at J and N’s home before we left.

We agreed. His plane arrived on time and he came straight from the airport. He brought three gifts with him. He presented me with a gold Vietnam Veterans Memorial commemorative coin, in a red velvet box. From our conversation at the function in Baltimore, he knew that TH was interested in military aircraft. So, he gave TH a squadron badge from his own unit. He also gave us a small package to give to Bob Wyeth, on our return to New Zealand. He told us that it was a letter and another commemorative coin. He said that, in his letter, he thanked Bob for sponsoring us as, through us, he was able to hear Bob’s memories of his visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Jim told us that he’d also written that we were worthy ambassadors for New Zealand, and our sponsors, and how proud Bob could be of having two such people representing Repco around the world.

We were quite overcome. But, it gave us a terrific boost. This was just what we needed when setting forth once more on the great adventure and after a comfortable rest stop.

© Eventful Woman, 2007
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Monday, September 10, 2007

Bizarre meeting with George Washington

Land Rover Expedition Time: Late April 1998

We made history in historic Williamsburg, Virginia.

A big chunk of Williamsburg has been preserved as an historic quarter and tourism is huge business here. Everything is available and for sale – tours of historic houses, lectures, historic walks, opportunities to dress up, take photos, buy old-fashioned sweets, learn hand crafts, or take a horse and buggy ride. These buggies ply their trade amid the usual traffic. They were quite probably the only road legal vehicles we were able to overtake in our entire journey through the States. We made the most of it, and overtook several. We did a "U" turn and tried it again. Oh, the excitement.

Pleasurable as all the speeding was, (for an old Land Rover), we had to move on to be in the Washington DC area for our official expedition event at the New Zealand Embassy. The trouble was we had no idea where F1 and F2 were or whether they would show up for it.

TH and I discussed whether something terrible had happened. If there had been an accident, we felt they would have been in touch. Or, if they were incapacitated, surely the USA police would have contacted their counterparts in New Zealand and a message would have been sent to my American cousin Susan. All of our friends and families had our "in case of emergency" contact points, and one of these was Susan.

We had all agreed, when the expedition team split up, that we would keep in touch by leaving regular phone messages with Susan. While we had checked-in with Susan, F1 and F2 hadn’t. Not once in the month we had been apart. Other than a vague plan to travel further south, we had no idea where they were.

I stewed on all the possibilities and came to the conclusion that there were two likely scenarios:
1. some sort of ghastly back-woods adventure gone wrong, where they had stumbled over a cliff, but their vehicle or bodies had not yet been discovered; or a sinister variant of this (a la the film "Deliverance") where they had been murdered and were now hidden in unmarked graves, deep in the forest, or maybe in a river
2. they simply hadn’t bothered to make contact

However, they had also promised to be in Washington DC in time for our big event at the New Zealand embassy. I knew that F2 was particularly looking forward to this, so I was pretty sure she wouldn’t miss it. Even so, their lack of contact and consideration was really irritating me. We also had an invitation to attend the 50th Anniversary Land Rover commemorative event at Land Rover North America’s Head Office on 30 April. TH and I would look a bit silly without the all-important 1948 Land Rover at this event.

We were headed for Reston (Virginia), just outside of DC. We were going to stay with two New Zealand friends, J and N. I rang to confirm we would be arriving the next day. At that stage, they hadn’t heard from F1 and F2, either.

I had met J in New Zealand via my work place. She was a highly skilled, self-employed office worker, who provided her services on a temporary basis for companies with short-term staffing needs. We had got on well and had arranged to meet socially, with our husbands. Shortly after that, N scored a great career opportunity near Reston. We said our sad goodbyes, but promised to keep in touch.

And so we did, with emails every few days. J was unable to work in USA, as she didn’t have the necessary "Green Card". But, she made some good contacts via the New Zealand embassy and met up with the "at home" spouses of other immigrant workers. J was instrumental in the fact that the New Zealand Embassy was hosting a function for us.

Over a year earlier, I had emailed J about my idea for a photo opportunity with the NZ Ambassador. She gave me some excellent advice on what to say and how to say it. I was stunned and delighted to later receive a very quick reply from the Ambassador to my letter. Not only did he agree to the photo with the Land Rovers outside the NZ Embassy, but he also offered to host a promotional function for us.

On the afternoon we arrived in Reston, we had arranged to meet N in a shopping centre car park on the outskirts of town, rather than try and find our way to their place on our own. What a treat it was to see N’s beaming face as we pulled in. I gave him such a big hug. With the exception of the couple we had met at Yosemite National Park, these were the first New Zealanders we had met up with, since leaving home. N then drove on ahead in his car, so he could lead the way to his and J’s home. J and I threw our arms around each other as soon as we arrived.

We planned our next few days with care. We wanted to see the sights in Washington DC and we wanted enough time to prepare for our event at the New Zealand Embassy.

The Embassy staff advised the details as soon as I got in touch with them. They had arranged a sort of a posh BBQ as our function for the 1st May. This fitted well with the Land Rover theme and would enable us to wear our sponsors' clothing, without looking out of place. The Embassy had invited some appropriate trade contacts and a number of New Zealanders, including J and N, to help celebrate our cultural "can do" Kiwi attitude, as personified by four New Zealanders driving around the world in old Land Rovers. The head PR person from Land Rover North America would be an honoured guest. There would be formal speeches from the Ambassador and myself.

For our first social visit into Washington DC itself, we aimed straight for the Smithsonian Museum. This is actually a whole collection of museums. There were two specific things I particularly wanted to see. The Apollo 11 exhibit and the infamous statue of a bare-chested George Washington dressed up as the Greek God, Zeus.

These two goals were for two very different reasons. I was 13 years old when Neil Armstrong first walked on the moon. It was the most exciting thing that had happened in the world according to my limited view at that time. I had followed everything with great interest. I knew the names of all three astronauts and their history, as well as I knew that of The Beatles.

Everything about the astronauts was exciting. I wanted to BE them far more than I wanted to play a guitar. Most of all, I dreamed I would one day launch into space. I still do. I am determined to fly to the moon and I am convinced there will be public flights available in my lifetime. In the meantime, to be able to see the Apollo command module would be a real thrill.

I made straight for the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum first.

My first impression on the command module was that it was so tiny. It was hard to imagine three men living in such a small space for so long.

The module was tilted so the heat shield was clearly visible. A glass panel covered it, but it was easy to see its scarred, blackened surface, seared by its fiery re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere. I stood for a long time imagining what it would have been like. Those terrifying minutes, scorching through re-entry, must have felt like forever.

It was time to find the other "must see" (for me) - George Washington, aka Zeus. This really appealed to my quirky sense of humour. I have always loved studying human behaviour. Propaganda and politicians provide ample entertainment and sport in this area.

The statue was difficult to track down. (Remember, this was 1998, when the Internet was not as it is today). I just kept on asking and eventually found it at the National Museum of American History. It was placed in a busy, walk-through area. Even though it was huge, people just walked on by, barely noticing. It was displayed without adequate lighting and sort of tucked under a stairwell. Quite clever positioning, if you didn’t want to draw attention to something. This was probably due to the statue’s controversial history.

I guess it all must have started with noble thoughts on the origins of democracy and the senate – Greece. I could see how this would have been seen as the right association with the first-ever American president. To be fair to George Washington, he didn’t have a say in this toga party. He was long dead by the time certain bureaucratic "toadies" decided on this as an appropriate tribute. Well-intentioned men would have made speeches to seek support and funding. At the time, it all would have fitted with the Roman pillars and the classical Greek architecture elsewhere in Washington DC. Horatio Greenough was commissioned as the artist/carver and the resulting statue was proudly put on display in 1841.

But, culture doesn’t easily transplant to an entirely different country, and particularly not through time zones. Dismayed questions began to be asked. Is it right for the "father of the nation" to be semi-nude? Why, you could even see his nipples.

The statue got moved and was tucked into a less conspicuous place. But, of course, more questions were raised – why do we show disrespect to such an important figure in our history by hiding it away? Hah – they were damned if they did and damned if they didn’t. Eventually, the statue was placed into storage with the hope that, over time, it would be forgotten. But, he was the first President after all, and the damn thing just kept on resurfacing.

And, now here it was, in one of the Smithsonian museums, with someone all the way from New Zealand asking about it.

I admired the statue for awhile, which was impressive in white marble. But, even I had to admit, it was bizarre seeing Washington like that – a warp in time, like I had entered some sort of parallel universe. I watched the people moving past. Most never noticed him. There were so many glories in the museum that they moved quickly through this thoroughfare, in order to see the next wonderful thing.

Maybe they were keen to look at the other George Washington artefacts in the museum – a lock of his hair, his battle sword and even an egg poacher he used at Mt Vernon. They didn’t know what they were missing.

© Eventful Woman, 2007
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