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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