My wife Gail’s son John, a wildlife biologist, began a new job with the National Park Service in Washington, D.C., on September 10, 2001. His office was on the East side of the Potomac a mile or so up from the Pentagon. His mother’s desire to see him, his new apartment, and the office where he works intensified after September 11. On Saturday, October 27, soon after the war in Afghanistan began, we arrived in Columbia, Maryland.
On Sunday afternoon we went into D.C. to see the White House and the monuments on the mall. The city was under siege and felt abandoned. Buildings were closed due to the anthrax scare. Some government buildings were surrounded by Jersey barriers. Helicopters flew overhead. Tourists were few and nearly outnumbered by police. The Washington Monument was completely encircled by Jersey barriers, topped with a high fence. The benches on which foot-weary pilgrims sit were empty.
Seeking quiet and peace, we walked along the south side of the reflecting pool on the way to the Lincoln Memorial. But a high school band had gathered there on the steps. The drummers, two African American males in their teens, were repeating a riff again and again. The effect was not quite sad, but certainly solemn. Looking forward, as I was, to the healing silence of that great temple of Liberty, I was a bit irritated with the sound.
But as we ascended the stairs and entered the memorial to stand in Lincoln’s shadow, all consciousness of the music left me. I read the lines of his speeches on the walls, lines so relevant today to the ambiguity of human intention, so large with generosity of spirit toward one’s foes, so modest in his own claim to righteousness, so brave in the face of danger unparalleled.
Meanwhile, the drumming had gone on a long time, that same riff over and over, like a stuck record. Only later did it strike me how perfectly it reflected our national situation—stuck in our anger, our grief, our fear. Then, suddenly, the brass joined the drumming in music wild and free, an improvisation distinctly American. It sounded a call to courage and faith, a call to march in freedom into a future known only to God. Lincoln, I think, would have been delighted.
On a beautiful morning a couple of days later, we visited the National Cathedral. Though the sun was slightly muted by high, thin clouds, the cathedral windows shone in full brilliance. We were walking the length of the nave when one of three small windows in an alcove caught my attention. It was all reds and yellows, an inferno in glass. At the base of the window there were a handful of faces of different races and colors, each face filled with fear, agony, grief, terror. I tried to connect the window to a story in the Bible but could not. We entered the alcove and saw that the sarcophagus of Woodrow Wilson stood opposite the window, and that the whole alcove was dedicated to his memory. The window, I concluded, represented WWI in all its horror. Yet in the Wilson window, the brilliance of the light in the dark solitude and peace of the cathedral, effects a kind of transfiguration. The window calls the viewer beyond the agony of war to that great dream of peace which Wilson offered the world, which the world refused, but whose necessity and truth grows clearer in every subsequent generation.