When "George Washington" refused to shake my hand today, I could only shake my head: It had already been a very peculiar Fourth of July -- and it would get more bizarre before it was over. After studying and admiring the man for many years, I naturally leaped at the propitious moment to greet the general as he stood not far from the entrance of his Mount Vernon home.
"A gentleman from Virginia does not take the hand," he explained when I asked for the honor. "It is only from approximately Pennsylvania north where men engage in such a greeting. Where are you from?"
"Georgia," I said. "I guess I should know better. So ... how do I greet you?"
"We bow," the courageous and patient commander said.
I immediately turned my head down and bent forward but saw out of the corners of my eyes he hadn't moved.
"But we are not monarchs," he said, gently. "There is no need for you to avert your eyes. Let us try this once more."
Feeling slightly ill at ease because of my thought that I was not worthy of the general's gaze but appreciating the lesson in equality he was trying to teach me, I maintained eye contact and bowed -- though the striking difference in our heights still made it difficult to keep him in my sight.
He nodded his head affirmatively and gave me a quick smile.
"Thank you, " I said.
Moments later, Washington's troops along with modern-day security forces jumped onto a new mission: A panicked father was screaming at the top of his lungs for his son, Teddy, last seen wearing a yellow shirt with "Nantucket" on it. The troops began their search.
Ten minutes passed, no Teddy.
Everyone on the front lawn repeated to each other the description of the boy we were looking for to make sure we had it right. Our stomachs tightening, we put down their slices of America's birthday cake as we all joined the search.
Five more minutes, no Teddy.
The father walked by, muttering to himself, "I've got to call my wife. I've got to call my wife."
Fearful tears broke out like the plague, jumping from one person to the next as the hunt continued. A voice from nowhere screamed, "We've got him! We've got Teddy!" Mount Vernon staff grabbed the father and told him they would take him to his son. He was safe.
We all breathed a hugh sigh of relief. I then went to do what I had come for -- paying my respects to the real George Washington at his tomb. I visit his home and his grave often; America would not exist today without him. As a student of the American Revolution and as a patriot, the Fourth of July means more to me than any other holiday. I well know what that whole generation endured to give us the country we have today.
My Independence Day got off to a strange start, though. First I opened The Washington Post and saw that it had published a letter I wrote last week in response to its absurd, sycophantic and worshipful coverage of the death of pop star-turned-freakish-pedophile Michael Jackson. Though I do media outreach for a living, I don't think I had ever written a letter to the editor for myself. Considering all I could say about the Fourth of July, I wasn't quite sure what to make of the fact my letter appeared today but was on the subject of the vile media and public praise of the once-talented entertainer who should have died in prison rather than in his mansion. A man does not pay $17 million to the family of a child he "allegedly" molested if he is innocent.
The Post also contained the story about Alaska governor Sarah Palin stepping down a year and a half early for no apparent reason. The Post reporters could make no more sense of the incoherent non-press conference than I could when I saw it last night. In typical Palin fashion, she took no questions -- choosing instead to ramble in so many directions with mal-formed thoughts that the viewer was left with as much clear information as before the event started.
The hormones inside me want me to like Palin because she is a very pretty woman. My conscience outweighs my porcine predisposition, though, and I just can't embrace the bubbly circumnavigator. I don't know that her departure from office, like Jackson's from the Earth, leaves any real void in our society, but I am at least happy for the wolves Palin is fond of allowing cowardly men with big guns to slaughter from airplanes. Maybe the Canis lupus will catch a break.
Paper perusing done, I hopped on my bike and headed to my first stop at the National Archives for what I thought was going to be a deeply moving ceremony that climaxed with a public reading of the Declaration of Independence. I stood ready for the air on my arms to stand up readers hit my favorite line about how "we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."
Instead of an uplifting moment, the National Archives started well with music from Revolutionary War soldier re-enactors but dropped the ball with too much speech making. Adding insult to injury, the National Archives selected three children to do the reading. There is nothing more cloying than having children read a document that surpasses their understanding and that was written by grown men of great intelligence. I gagged when the first child approached the podium looking like he had just left an event at a private golf club. I left before the kid could even get to "laws of nature", giving the National Archives an "F" for its effort. Probably an F minus considering the poor quality of the sound system.
The ride out to Mount Vernon, though, was beautiful. I gave a triple thump on my heart (my own non-military version of a salute to something worth honoring) to the men buried in Arlington National Cemetery. I took in the view of the monuments sitting across the Potomac. I appreciated more than even usual the freedom to ride my bike anywhere my legs are willing to take me.
Despite the crowds, though, more odd things kept happening. Families walking on the trail kept themselves to just the right lane. Joggers only ran two to a side instead of in formation blocking the whole trail. Packs of bikers even rode single file. Weird.
On my return trip from Washington's home, I went back through security and, unlike during Inauguration Week, found LOCAL, courteous policemen and other security officers who were able to tell me how to get around security fencing to streets I needed to take. One even offered to inspect my water backpack while it was on my back so I didn't have to spend five minutes taking everything out.
With 50-plus miles under my belt on the day, I hit my own neighborhood and passed under the tracks that are but a few stone throws from where nine people died on the Metro crash last month.
Not long afterward, I saw an old man who had apparently collapsed on his driveway next to a cheap bike. He was motionless and I thought for a moment he might have had a heart attack. He sat up as I approached, and I opted not to mention the advice that a better bike would put less of a strain on him. Especially at his age.
I got home and replayed the beauty off the strange ride in my head. I thought of all the people I saw out having fun ... families of all races and melting pot mixes making all kinds of things on their grills, women jogging with their dogs, boaters cruising along the Potomac, men fishing on its banks. Friends throwing footballs and kicking soccer balls. A father pitching a Wiffle ball to his son.
I sometimes get upset on the Fourth of July because I don't think people pay it or the generation of men and women that first gave us our freedom enough reverence. I do realize my own favorite founding father John Adams wrote that he expected this day to be commemorated with "Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other".
Though I take my history pretty seriously about every day of the year, maybe I should lighten up a little on this one. Maybe I should give my fellow Americans more credit. After all, it's almost time to watch the District's fireworks on TV while getting ready to walk over to Takoma Park's rendition.
Wait, no ... ABC News is STILL talking about Michael Jackson and bragging about the live coverage it will provide of his funeral. It's also "reporting" that staggering numbers of people are registering to obtain free tickets to his funeral service.
I sense Washington himself rolling over in his sarcophagus.