Thursday, December 16, 1999
One of the most embarrassing things I've ever done involved the body of
This was brought to mind this week because Tuesday was the 200th anniversary
of his death. (Yes, yes, I know - you didn't even know he was sick.
The truth is, I've been a big G.W. fan for as long as I can remember.
In 4th grade I sprung to his defense when classmate James Archer claimed
Lincoln had been our greatest president. I even hurriedly arranged
a mock election between the two and - surprise, surprise - G.W. won in
a landslide. Little did I know that that would be the last election
I would end up feeling good about.
But I digress. The important thing to know for those into embarrassing
confessions is that less than two years after this mock election I personally
visited Mt. Vernon and saw G.W.'s tomb. I was impressed, and not
merely because until then I'd thought we were only allowed to bury our
pets on the grounds of our home. G.W.'s tomb happens to be a small,
very tastefully decorated red brick structure nestled in the woods near
his mansion. This structure has an impressive black iron gate on
it. Provided he or she is reasonably close and facing the right direction,
virtually anyone can gaze through this gate at the raised stone sarcophagus
of our first president. Martha allegedly is in there somewhere, too,
but apparently Fate ordained that she play the good wife even after death
and not draw the gaze away from her husband's place on center stage.
There seems to have been a guard on duty beside this gate the day I visited.
I was very impressed by this at the time but now realize that whatever
department was paying his salary probably had not assigned the sharpest
tack in the box to pinning the safety to the tomb, if you know what I mean.
No matter. His uniformed presence made me sweat even more than the
96 degree June day did. In retrospect, I can't believe I did what
I actually did with an actual, living, breathing guard there.
I took a photograph.
Big deal? Well, yes. It was my first time ever to a tomb or
other residence of the dead and I was only 11 but even so it seemed a rather
disrespectful or tasteless thing to do. Sure, the guard didn't even
look my way when the flash went off and I've yet to receive a letter of
complaint from George or even Martha to this day.
Maybe if I hadn't been using a camera as shitty as Polaroid's ColorPak
II. Geez, that was about as bad a thing as I could have used back
when G.W. had only been dead 171 years. Unlike today's Polaroids,
the ColorPak II required you to physically separate the developer paper
from the print, after which you had an off-color print in one hand and
a sheet of smelly, chemical- laden mess in the other. There being
no trash can beside the tomb for some odd reason, I hurriedly stuck this
mess in my mother's 96 degree purse when she wasn't looking.
George deserved better.
Embarrassing Confession #2: When we took a photo of the U.S. Capitol,
we just left the sheet of smelly, chemical-laden mess lying on the grass.
My therapist tells me to forget it. That it was a long time ago.
That I was only a kid at the time. That my mother was actually the
one who walked a little ways off the walkway and stuck the smelly, chemical-laden
mess on the grass under a tree - and she was 41. If anyone should
have stopped her disrespectful idiocy, it should have been my normal IQ'd
20-something sister - the only other person anywhere in the vicinity.
I was actually the one who insisted we start carrying a little bag with
us just to put these chemical messes in from then on.
My therapist also tells me that I have to keep in mind the context in which
all this occurred. The U.S. was at that very moment bombing the hell
out of Vietnam. The biggest anti-war demonstration in history had
taken place on the Mall just days before our arrival. Much of the
Mall was still encircled with snow fences as it awaited repairs.
The president had installed machine guns on the White House grounds for
use on any American citizen who got out of line while waiting for the tour
to begin. What we did really wasn't so bad in comparison.
Too bad that therapist is never around when I wake up in the middle of
the night, cringing hysterically.
Too bad all my requests to install machine guns at each corner of my ego
just to repel the guilt have been denied by my HMO....
Embarrassing Confession #3: During the boat ride up the Potomac to
Mt. Vernon, I stared out from the front of the boat and was almost overwhelmed
by the urge to toss a ring I was wearing into the water. It was a
silly, cheap little ring but it meant a lot to me at the time and I was
tempted to toss it into the water just because I knew I shouldn't.
I later discovered that Poe had written about exactly this impulse in his
short story, The Imp of the Perverse. At the time, however,
it just seemed a strange, personal craziness which I somehow managed to
Consequently, I now have absolutely no idea whatever become of that stupid
ring. It's probably in some forgotten landfill instead of safely
and memorably ensconced beneath waters containing at least ten parts of
history per million....
There will now be a brief "DOH!" intermission.
No one's asked me to give a speech commemorating the 200th anniversary
of George Washington's death, and it's highly unlikely anyone ever will
now. But if anyone ever does ask, here's what I would say:
We can perhaps best honor the memory of the Father of our Country by tossing
our rings and keeping our chemical messes to ourselves.
And if we can also manage to read widely enough and long enough to avoid
having to refer to the same 19th century author two days in a row, so much
Relive The Golden Words Of
Trade It All Away For What's
Behind Door #Tomorrow
(All Material ©1999 by Dan Birtcher
with an assist
from the spirit of little Tommy Jefferson)