The Big City

When I moved to the Washington metro area in 2002, I was determined to live in the city proper. Not over the state line in Maryland, nor across the Potomac River in Virginia. I wanted to live in the District of Columbia. I had accepted a new job that would have me working at the U.S. Department of State’s main building close to the National Mall and I had it fixed in my mind that I should be able to walk to work. I remember thinking at the time that if I was going to work in the city, I should live there, too.

My housing search landed me a studio apartment on Massachusetts Avenue, right off of Scott Circle. Rent for my new space took one entire paycheck, of the two I received each month, and the apartment building was in desperate need of both a renovation and an expert exterminator. But, I was living in the city! I had done it! I had somehow navigated my way from northern Indiana to downtown Washington, D.C. I was twenty-seven years old.

I really enjoyed living in the city, too. Everything was convenient. Most things were within walking distance. There was a sidewalk cafe where I could sit and read, a little mart where I could buy a few groceries, a book store close by where I took on a part-time job. It was charming being a part of the constant hum of such a storied city like the nation’s capital. Very Mary-Tyler-Moore-with-the-hat-toss kind of a thing.

Sure, there were less savory aspects of city life. Like my neighbor that I’m pretty sure hadn’t left the confines of our apartment building in decades, relying on mysterious, oddly-timed deliveries for subsistence. Or, that one time I was talking with my friend on my cell phone while hoofing it to my job at the book store and a random guy started hitting me over the head with his umbrella. That was definitely a bit off-putting. Hey, it’s the city. People are ECCENTRIC in the city.

But, I loved walking to work. My thirty minute commute home from Foggy Bottom took me through parts of George Washington University, past the World Bank and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where I would cut over past Blair House through Lafayette Square Park to walk north on 16th Street to my apartment building.

Lafayette Square Park fronts the north side of the White House which, without the three story facade of the south side and sweeping South Lawn and Ellipse, is probably the less iconic side of the historic building. In fact, it looks rather unimposing when viewed from H Street, which runs past Lafayette Square. It just looks like another old house with a really nice fence and beefed up security. I always found it sort of otherworldly to walk right past this compact epicenter of American politics, all casual like on a daily basis. It’s odd to find yourself living in a place that previously had only existed in your mind in scenes from television or pictures in textbooks, the scale abruptly adjusted from your imagination.

Other people were just as surprised at the modesty of the White House from that vantage point, too. I remember standing at the corner of H Street and Lafayette Square, waiting to cross at the light when an SUV with Michigan plates pulled up and stopped right in front of me. The passenger rolled down their window and said, “Excuse me. Is that… the White House? Right there?” I replied, “Yes, it is,” and watched as the small scale of such a huge place registered. “Wow. It’s so… tiny,” they exclaimed before driving away.

The entirety of Washington seems a lot like that. All of these amazing places and historic buildings and important people that are also just places and buildings and people.

Four months after moving into my apartment in the city, I fell in love with Bob and not too much longer after that, I unceremoniously relocated to the suburbs, far away from the White House.

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I had a chance last month to show Charlie the White House when he won a ticket to the Easter Egg Roll through his elementary school. I was excited to head back to the big city and so was Charlie. Obviously.

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We arrived at the White House to find extra long wait times since the festivities were closed for a bit while they sorted out an active shooter situation near the U.S. Capital (this is America in 2016). We eventually made our way through the lines and the crowds and found ourselves on the South Lawn. Charlie wore a button down shirt and tie (clip-on, of course) for the occasion.

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After wandering the grounds for a bit, just relishing where we were, we made our way to the main event, the Easter Egg Roll. Charlie came in last place but I would argue that there are no losers when you’re playing a lawn game with the White House in the background.

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By the time we headed to the bus for the drive back west, it was dusky outside. Traffic was lighter and our drive down Constitution Avenue took us along the National Mall where the monuments were lit up for the night. That’s the best time to visit them, in the evening. It was great fun to point out the same places to Charlie that I found so awe-inspiring when I lived in the city.

More time in D.C. is planned for our upcoming summer adventures. Fifty miles from here to there is far but not that far. Maybe I’ll take the kids to Lafayette Square Park and marvel at just how much my life has changed in the past fourteen years.

Spring Break Grab Bag

We were supposed to spend spring break at Legoland in Florida, fulfilling a lifelong dream of Henry’s to vacation with his favorite mini figures. I had booked everything in January, when the infinite possibilities of a brand new year makes one overly optimistic about traveling 950 miles with three children. We were going to surprise the kids, too, in that super fun way where you wake them up and go, “SURPRISE! We’re leaving RIGHT THIS MINUTE for Legoland! In Florida! Now, get dressed, go to the bathroom and let’s spend the next fourteen hours trapped in a car while I yell, SIT ON YOUR HANDS! every fifteen minutes in the general direction of the backseat.”

It was going to be great. So, so great.

However, at some point, Bob and I decided that we didn’t actually WANT to take the kids to Legoland. We didn’t actually WANT to drive all of the way to Florida. The tediousness to enjoyment ratio was out of balance. There just wasn’t anything in it for us. I mean, other than the unadulterated joy and tremendous happiness of our three delightful offspring. And, I’m going to be honest here, sometimes, that’s just not enough incentive.

We canceled our spring break travels and had absolutely zero regrets. Instead, we promised the kids a week full of adventures. I organized some day trips to new and interesting places and planned little excursions and activities I knew they would love to do. All things that were manageable and low commitment and definitely fewer than fourteen hours from our home base.

Stop #1: Library Playdate With Friends

We were supposed to kick off spring break with a trip to the local library in town which my kids find to be a super special treat since I never take them during the school year because they already bring home tons of books every week from their school library which all seem to magically disappear by their due dates and explains why, after a particularly contorted top bunk bed search for a Davy Crockett title, I ended up relegating the library to a summertime/special occasion treat.

However, on library day, they acted like hooligans all morning long and lost their library privileges so we spent the afternoon at a friend’s house where the kids ran and ran and jumped and played and laughed and did not get into trouble for acting like hooligans.

Stop #2: U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center

For years, we have driven by the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, without really realizing that it was there. What’s visible from I-81 is a mounted helicopter and a few tanks in what appears to be someone’s backyard. There’s no large sign or marker to indicate that the site is an actual museum. So, when we decided to make a spring break trip to finally find these tanks we’d passed over and over again, I half expected to take a tour of some super eccentric individual’s collection of military surplus parts.

That was not the case. The U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center is actually a Smithsonian affiliate, is housed next to an expansive collection of army archives and is on the same campus as the U.S. Army War College at the historic Carlisle Barracks.

The museum tells the story of the U.S. Army’s involvement in conflicts dating back to The Revolutionary War all of the way through to the present “Global War on Terror.” The inside museum tour does a great job of keeping kids’ interest through interactive displays, mini-movies and lots and lots of guns. The walking tour of the grounds is surprisingly expansive with replicas of everything from Civil War cabins to a German bunker. All open for exploration.

This place was such a treat and the kids had a fantastic time. If you’re local enough, I would put this on your summer to-do list. It’s free (donations accepted!), has an on-site cafe, plenty of bathrooms and lots of room to roam. So, very kid-friendly. In addition, there is a DRIVE-THRU Starbucks right around the corner so you can fuel up for the car ride home.

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This GIANT sign obviously not visible from the interstate.

World War I Trench Exhibit

World War I Trench Exhibit

World War II Barrack Tour

World War II Barracks Exhibit

Razor Wire Obstacle Course (I'm thinking of replicating this concept in our backyard.)

Razor Wire Obstacle Course (I’m thinking of replicating this concept in our backyard.)

Stop #3: Target

Because spring break is supposed to be fun for mommy, too. Only, I had three kids with me so it wasn’t fun. At all.

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Travels with her own fairy wings.

Stop #4: Bowling with Friends!

I can’t remember if we’ve ever taken all of the kids bowling before. My memory is clogged full of other important information like, which kid doesn’t like ketchup and who’s out of clean underwear. All I know is that group bowling was not a total disaster as I had absolutely expected it to be. It was really fun! The kids were fully engaged the entire time, only one (1) finger (Millie’s) was smashed at the ball return/shoot and I totally beat the kids to emerge as the big winner which was super satisfying.

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Stop #5: Swimming

Bob was in charge of the swimming portion of spring break and he reported that no one pooped in the pool so, I think, from all appearances, the activity was a grand success.

Stop #6: Antietam National Battlefield

The final stop of our Spring Break Not Legoland Tour was a day trip to Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg, Maryland. I knew of Antietam from assorted history classes, I just didn’t know what really happened there or that this was located only about 30 minutes from our house.

We’ve toured our fair share of battlefields throughout Virginia and Pennsylvania so the details of each tend to blur together in my mind. However, traveling with Bob and Henry to these places is sort of like traveling with my own little history department. They are both so knowledgeable about the American Civil War and were quick to explain exactly what happened. Almost 23,000 persons were killed or wounded in a single day of fighting at Antietam making it the bloodiest day of battle in American history. And, this particular conflict is seen as a lost opportunity by the Union to end the war early when they did not pursue retreating Confederate forces at day’s end. It’s really tremendous to stand there imagining such a destructive scene.

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The battle took place in and around the fields of a few farms in Sharpsburg and the homes still stand today, although one had to be rebuilt after the fighting. While Charlie is most interested in the heavy weaponry used, I really find the little farmhouses to be the most fascinating part of any battlefield tour. Mostly because I simply can’t imagine how terrifying that must have been when a war arrived, quite literally, on your doorstep. There are so many old homes tucked into the nooks and crannies of the mountains around here and I always imagine how scary that would be to see troops emerge over a rise or converge on your front lawn. Something we are unbelievably blessed to have not had to deal with since.

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Through the National Park Service’s Every Kid in a Park program, Henry had a paper pass that he presented for admission to Antietam. The staff at Antietam converted that pass to a special card that he can carry as a 4th grader (through August) that grants him free access to national parks and federal recreational lands throughout the country. I think we’re going to be using it as our guiding compass for summer activities. It’s really a neat program and the parks employees were so great to the kids, handing them trading cards and encouraging their interest in where we were and what we were seeing. They are doing such important preservation work and we should give the National Park Service all the money they need until the end of time forever and ever.

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So, that’s it! Everything we did (and didn’t) do over spring break 2016. Even though Florida was in no way involved, the kids really did have a ball with Henry declaring it the Best! Spring! Break! Ever!

However, out of an overabundance of caution, if you see our kids, please don’t mention that we had the chance to take them to Legoland and didn’t. We’ll get there. Someday. Maybe. (Probably not.)