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Washington DC

When reporter Pippin Ross was a young girl, her parents took her and her best friend on a trip to Washington, D.C. Her memories of the nation's capital have always provided a graceful backdrop to her most cynical feelings about government. She recently took her son and his best friend to Washington, D.C. and saw that all the grandeur and history still have a profound impact.

Traveling with Kids: Washington, DC
by Pippin Ross

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Train conductor: "All Aboard!"

We had to take the train to Washington D.C. from Massachusetts because thirty years ago, when I was 12, that's how I got there with my parents and my best friend Suzy. I remember all the gleaming white buildings with important-looking people streaming in and out of them. It was a memorable trip I wanted to duplicate for my 10-year-old son and his best friend Chris. I was hoping that through the boys I would re-live the awe and inspiration I had experienced then. Just like Suzy and me back in 1968, the boys knew exactly what they wanted to see during our three day visit -- everything.

Nick: "The White House, the Capital building, the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial...and my friend told me that the 'Smiss-smonian'...whatever, that's really awesome."

Chris: "And the FBI and the Mint and the National Archives and politicians at work."

As important to the boys as seeing the sights was the possibility of a sighting.

Nick: "I want to meet Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky...and don't forget Linda Tripp."

Pippin: "What would you say to them?"

Nick: " 'Hey Monica, how's Bill doing?'...I don't know."

FBI batch We did meet the president...okay, we saw the back of his head as he greeted a crowd of tourists near the Air and Space Museum. The sighting, however, seemed to leave the boys flat. The impeachment trial had just concluded and they were struggling with his infidelity. They often argued over whether or not Hillary should file for divorce. One thing they really did like, however, was the FBI.

Suzy and I never visited the FBI -- and I'm glad. I found the tour tedious. Chris and Nick loved the guns and gangsters and got a big kick out of the acronym they invented for the agency: Forty-something Bald Investigators.

Washington DC has a way of reminding you how little you know - or worse, how much you've forgotten. I relied on my husband John, who majored in American history, to help the boys navigate the important dates and details:

John: "This was the Declaration of Independence, which was written by...?"

Kid: "Thomas Jefferson?"

John: "Correct! And the Declaration of Independence was signed...?"

Kid: "1776!"

John: "Right. And the Constitution was signed...?"

Kid: "1812?"

John: "No 1787. And where was it written?"

Kid: "On the back of an envelope!...I know, Philadelphia."

John: "Whose signature stands out because it's larger than anyone else's?"

Kid: "Thomas Edison?"

John: "Nope, John Hancock...and why did he make his signature so big?"

Kid: "Because he was so proud of his signature?"

John: "Not exactly...."

A few weeks before we left on our trip, I followed a tip and contacted the office of our congressman, Richard Neal. One of the things most congresspeople do for their constituents is arrange tours of the Capitol. Walking through the historic building with a congressional aide who seemed delighted to be sprung from his office, Chris and Nick wasted no time figuring out political priorities. Which politicians, they wanted to know had the best offices?

Aide: "The plum is to have an office that has a Capitol view."

John: "I bet those turn over very infrequently."

Aide: "That's right, that's the problem. Nobody wants to give them up."

Capital Apotheosis Our aide was often stymied by the boy's questions, like this one from Nick as we stood gazing up at the Apotheosis of George Washington, the sumptuous mural on the rotunda ceiling.

Nick: "The first time they painted it, wouldn't the wet paint drip off the ceiling? "

Aide: "I'm not sure. I'm not sure."

Discharged out a side entrance of the White House after a tour that was also arranged by our Congressman's office -- Nick was frustrated that we hadn't seen any of the First Family's personal affects. So he concocted his own tour.

Nick: "Okay, this is Nick's room. Oh my goodness! There's Nick's cat Buster lying on his bed...and there's Nick's boxers and his T-shirt...oh, and there's one of Nick's pencils, how amazing!"

Me: "Can you imagine having people walk through your house?"

Nick: "No. All day? What if you were in your underwear or something?"

Suzy and I had goofed around a lot too, but like Nick and Chris we were often moved by the meaning and history of what we saw. We were impressed by the Smithsonian and the trek to the top of the Washington Monument. The rotunda, the Vietnam War Memorial, and the Washington Monument were among the sights that seemed to have the greatest impact on Chris and Nick.

Lincoln Memorial Their favorite though, was the Lincoln Memorial and its reflecting pool -- where to my amazement, Chris realized this was the site of one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s most important speeches.

Martin Luther King speech: "I have a dream. I have a dream that one day my four little little children won't be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. I have a dream today...I have a dream that one day little black boys and little black girls will join little white boys and little white girls and walk together as brothers and sisters."

Coins in hand, the boys decided to make two wishes -- one private and one public.

Nick: "I wish that I could come back here one time by myself and with my kids."

Chris: "I hope my country in my lifetime will not get in another war."

The Vietnam War was at its height when I first visited Washington. Influenced by our protesting older siblings, Suzy and I believed the war was bad. Even so, it didn't diminish the respect I had for the people and philosophies that shaped my country.

On this trip, thirty years later, I realized that a dark cloud -- although of a very different kind -- hung over Chris and Nick. So I made a wish at the reflecting pool too: that Chris and Nick will always find a reason to care about our nation's political process -- even when it makes them laugh.

In Washington D.C., I'm Pippin Ross for The Savvy Traveler.

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