Washington D.C: A Dad And Daughter's Guide To The Capital

Watching millions of dollars getting printed, staring at The Hope Diamond and kidding yourself you're a spy at the FBI museum is just the start...
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‘The Lake family are on the move.’ ‘The Lake family are eating ice-cream.’ I’m with my girls, we’re walking across The Mall in D.C. after seeing, we think, Obama’s motorcade cruise up Pennsylvania Ave, we’re paraphrasing The Tuskegee Airmen from Night At The Museum 2. It’s a family favourite, critics be damned. We’re having a ball and piling in and out museums at a fair old clip. All the guidebooks and info on the www. recommend booking ahead, where booking is necessary, to avoid the Summer crowds but we’re not having any problems and, in truth, it’s not that busy.

The day before we’d been on the Bureau of Engraving and Printing Tour to see, what else, people making money. Our tour guide had a voice like Barney the Dinosaur and seemed to love her job. Me, I’d be sick as hell printing up $90m a day then picking up my pay on a Thursday evening, no matter how much they paid me. Sadly, unlike brewery tours, there are no free samples at the end. The kids liked it, they had their photo taken beside a cool mil in uncirculated $10 bills and, like most tours, we ended up in the gift shop. Seems a bit odd but you can buy money. Bills with auspicious serial numbers, 777************, $1 for $4.95. A bargain. In all honesty though, it’s a cool tour, interesting and, due to the subject matter, something that appeals to just about everyone.

The Smithsonian Castle, a five minute walk from our hotel, offers a snapshot of the other museum’s offerings. Who wouldn’t be impressed by a pair of Bobby Orr’s skates? I was. Or a piece of wood from The Hindenburg, or a stuffed grizzly bear, or a Gibson electric guitar, or Chuck Yeager’s helmet, or a Native American headdress? The girls were disappointed we didn’t meet Brundon, (maybe it was his day off?) and they displayed some serious ITT (that’s Intent To Touch if you haven’t seen the flick) in an effort to entice him from any shadowy alcove he may have been hidden in, but nothing.

The Mall, America’s front lawn, is undergoing major repairs so you don’t really get the feel of the full two mile stretch from The Capital to The Lincoln Memorial but it’s still pretty impressive. The Washington Monument is iconic. I’m still not sure how some Egyptian looking tower ties in with Washington the man, even after 5 visits to D.C... I should pay more attention, I guess. It’s currently closed for repairs after the earthquake that hit the Eastern Seaboard last year. I was using a jackhammer at the time and never felt a thing. One interesting fact about the monument; when it first opened it boasted an elevator, one that took 20 minutes to reach the top, one that was for men only. Women and children had to walk up while the men played cards and no doubt laughed like loons at the thought of the Mrs hiking up the stairs with the kids.

The Smithsonian Castle, a five minute walk from our hotel, offers a snapshot of the other museum’s offerings. Who wouldn’t be impressed by a pair of Bobby Orr’s skates? I was.

The Air and Space Museum is my favourite museum ever. More so the Air, less the Space. The airplane is surely one of man’s most amazing inventions? After flight conquering space was almost inevitable but that first tentative glide must have been something else. Most, if not all, of the airplanes on display are the real deal. Spirit of Saint Louis? Check. The Wright Flyer? Check. Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega? Check. Howard Hughes H-1? You get the picture. It’s a massive place and you could spend days in it and still not see everything.

It’s quite something to see an old timer standing looking at the cockpit of an American bomber adorned with over 200 painted red bombs, each signifying a mission, and speculate as to his part in the relatively recent history of our messed up world. To see a Messerschmitt up close is a bit unnerving but that’s tempered by the sight of a Spitfire in the same gallery. I could go on and on about the museum, I love it, not the supersonic jets and that but the golden age planes, when everyone wore a suit and a hat and life just looked so optimistic.

My wife sat it out, and, in hindsight, I sort of wish I had too but you only go round once, though it sure as hell felt like a lot more at the time. I’m talking about The Flight Simulators. Amelia (12) and Alice (10) in one, Holly (also 10, a twin) and me (never mind how old) in another. The simulators looked ace. Three minutes of chasing and shooting enemy planes in a brilliant white shinny cocoon for only $8s each. What could go wrong? Strapped in and ready for take off. 5-4-3-2-1. My God, it went with a jolt. Holly’s hair pointed straight up, then flopped in her face, then up again, then my head started spinning and my guts twisted inside. Had I had anything to eat in the last couple of hours I’d have coated the inside of that contraption with it. Holly laughed and screamed and shouted that maybe I should have taken the controls. Too late now, we’re in a death roll. I made a perfunctory attempt to shoot some planes on the screen while we span more and more, faster and faster, we were on the final revolution, having skipped wash and rinse. I thought it would never end. We laughed that laugh you only laugh when you’re scared stiff but it was great. Three minutes of pure out of control terror that we’ll laugh about , embellish and look back on for the rest of our days. I’d forgotten all about the emergency stop button. Amelia informed us Alice had ridden the whole ride with her hand over it. They’d been spinning too, though, judging by their gait though not as much as us.

Judge for yourself. Amelia made a short animated film entitled Aircraft Simulator Ride. You can view it here.

We bought a bobblehead Einstein in the gift shop. We saw the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit then headed across The Mall to see The Hope Diamond. ‘The Lake family are off to see The Hope Diamond’. Mum and the girls enjoyed the diamond exhibit. I hoped to God we could get out without hitting the gift shop.

In this post 9/11 world of ours the F.B.I. tour has been suspended. However, there’s a new (at least to me) attraction opened up that would slake anyone’s thirst for intrigue. The Spy Museum. I wasn’t sure what to expect, the girls were all excited about it. Alice has a thing for Ninjas. There’s a Ninja display. It’s a private venture so you pay. It’s worth every penny. My wife missed a treat, opting for the more somber Holocaust Museum. I understand her interest but it’s not somewhere we’d take the girls, at least not until they’re older. The spy tour starts off a bit gimmicky, you’re asked to memories and assume an identity. I found myself accompanied by a 62 year old Australian woman headed for Austria on business, a 17 year old Mexican girl visiting colleges and, in truth, I don’t remember my eldest’s choice. I’d be some spy.

We bought a bobblehead Einstein in the gift shop. We saw the Tuskegee Airmen exhibit then headed across The Mall to see The Hope Diamond.

After that it’s into the displays. They’re brilliant. The girls disappeared into some duct work, crawling on their bellies overhead and reappearing a few rooms down having been treated to the recorded works of Fidel Castro. I made my way through the exhibits marveling at the bugs and cameras and single shot guns disguised as lighters, scale models of underground tunnel systems employed by the Viet Cong and wincing at the size of the ‘Espionage Kit’ a Russian spy could hide somewhere unpleasant. The girls cracked codes in a replica of a Bletchley Hall room while I studied a genuine Enigma Machine. There’s a full scale mock up of the Berlin Tunnel where U.S. spies eavesdropped on Communist telephone conversations and an interview room furnished with clear perspex (Plexi-glass) chairs and tables that the East Germans used in a bid to thwart bugging. There’s some good stuff in the Spy Museum and you shouldn’t miss it. Two of my lot said it was the best part of the trip.

The other? Well she loves her cup cakes (buns if you’re from Yorkshire, like me). Georgetown Cupcakes is, apparently, the place to go for all things sweet and sickly. The place is featured on a T.V. show and girls of a certain age (my research suggests 10) go pop star mental for it. In fairness, the cakes are good. We got lucky and arrived at a time when the line wasn’t too long. Yes, people que up to buy cakes these days. You can buy T-shirts too, and caps and, and, and we did.

Passes for a tour of the Capitol are easy enough to secure. You can get White House Tour passes too if you plan ahead. This was a last minute trip, we’ll catch it next time. Our Capital tour guide was, I’m not making this up, Brandan. The girls donned headphones and laughed. ‘Brundon’ ‘ Did they run out of U’s?’ (See Night At The Museum 2). The tour is good, informative and worth taking. It’s amazing how many times you hear the phrase ‘The government stopped as they couldn’t afford it.’ Unlike today (see Bureau of Engraving).

We had a lot of fun. We kept it light hearted. We ordered room service one night and watched, as you do, Night At The Museum 2 in our PJs. There was still something I wanted the kids to see. The Archives houses the Declaration of Independence, The Constitution ( I hadn’t noticed before but Rhode Island never signed it) and The Bill of Rights. I thought the girls would be bored but they humored me, put on brave faces. Or maybe they found it interesting too? A guy on line asked me where I was from, if I was a citizen and who I’d be voting for. They can be so shy Americans.

Like all good trips the only bad part was, we all agreed, coming home. D.C.’s a good place to visit, in spite of the government presence dominating the place, it’s far from stuffy or boring. There’s plenty to see and do. Next trip down our first stop is going to be the Newseum. It looks fascinating.

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