When my husband and I toured Washington D.C., I had expected to be wowed by the spring cherry blossoms and educated by the museums and memorials. I hadn’t expected to be inspired or to see democracy in action.
Our trip began with the guide explaining that the index card name tags on the wall near our bus seats would rotate. “All will have an equal chance to view the scenery from the choice seats,” she said. “It’s the democratic way.”
On the first day of our five-day tour, we boarded the bus for Arlington Cemetery. Two women, who resembled one another and were probably sisters, sat in the front seat. They kept to themselves. The coach drove slowly, and we viewed acres of flowering apple and cherry trees mixed with colorful tulips. These stood in sharp contrast to the rows of small white gravestones denoting sacrifices fellow Americans—heroes—had made for our freedom.
The next day, the sisters had again moved their name tags to the prime seats. The message of democracy obviously wasn’t sinking in. I’d attempted a conversation with one of them earlier but got little response. They continued to ignore the rest of us.
Our group split into interest groups, and I toured a museum exhibit of self-taught artist Clementine Hunter. The daughter of slaves, Clementine picked cotton in Louisiana. During her free time, she painted scenes of life on a plantation. Her work overflowed with life, hardship, and sometimes joy. Her passion and desire to share her artistic talent gave me a sense of what her life was like back then.
On the third day, several of us caught the sisters moving their name tags to the front. Knowing we were observing her, she set her jaw arrogantly, as if defying us to speak out. Was it worth the trouble to confront her? We remained silent.
While viewing the Cherry Festival Parade, we stood while a uniformed general carried the American flag on horseback. The horse deposited a messy pile. An officer in her spotless, starched uniform and polished shoes would have to walk through it to keep a straight line. A young man yielding a plastic bag rushed out onto the street and scooped up the manure. His swift action left an impression on me. Heroic deeds, I reflected, both large and small, are performed every day.
The memorials to Thomas Jefferson, Franklin Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, the Marine
Corps and the Korean War moved me to tears. With a catch in my throat, I visited with a man on our tour. A retired police officer, he mentioned that he’d been on duty at the World Trade Center during the September 11th terrorist attack. He looked away, his eyes letting me know he didn’t want to talk about it. I could only imagine all he’d seen and done.
On the fourth day of our tour, the retired police officer told our guide about the seat switching. “What’s going on here?” the tour guide asked them. The guide whipped off their index cards and pointed to a seat near the back. When they didn’t go, she said the bus would not move until they did. The women obeyed. Our judicial system at work, I thought, wanting to applaud.
We concluded our tour with a visit to Washington’s Mount Vernon and Jefferson’s Monticello. I was overwhelmed with facts and proof of our founding father’s devotion to our country, but my mind kept flicking back to the police officer who spoke up, to our tour guide who took action, and to the parade bystander who ran out in the street to pick up manure so the military wouldn’t have to walk through it. Modern-day heroes.
As I watch the fireworks this Fourth of July, I plan on sending a thank you to people who fight for a better world, humanitarians who advocate for others in need, and the many people who work tirelessly for the common good. Heroes we meet every day.