“A Man’s character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation”. (Mark Twain)

What must my hosts be thinking of me, I wonder.  The habitual use of ‘amazing‘ and ‘wow‘ probably means I’m regarded as a little inarticulate, or as we would say,  “a bit tup!”  I struggled to find the adjectives to give voice to my emotions as yet another astonishing sight, taste, song or person invaded my overflowing senses.  Even now, sitting here, back in a very cold and snowy Wales, I still struggle to describe what I have recently enjoyed.

Explorer in the Smithsonian

We are standing in front of the Space Shuttle 'Enterprise', it's huge, it's astonishing, how often did I watch it take off, standing in front of it is another one of those 'wow' events.

Space Shuttle Explorer

Enterprise is undergoing renovation, weird to see this iconic machine so close.

Space Shuttle Explorer

So big that it is only possible to photograph it in sections or at an angle - hard to believe what this machine has done and where it has been....

I’ll start at the end; the last afternoon before checking in for the long flight back to Heathrow and onwards to Wales – to cold and snow it seemed.  I half wondered whether I would be delayed as the London airport had been cancelling flights for the previous two days.

I suggested that we leave Washington a little early and take a look at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space ‘out of town’ museum, the Udvar -Hazy building.  It houses the most diverse collection of planes and other aircraft and has some quite important historic specimens.  I grew up in the era of the Appollo missions, I well remember watching the moon landings and the tension of the near disaster of Appollo 13.  I remember well the horror of the Challenger explosion and the later shuttle disaster on re-entry.  Therefore to stand next to an Appollo capsule is pretty awe inspiring, that the capsule is dwarfed by the Space Shuttle Enterprise causes yet another lapse in my adjectival ability.  ‘Awesome’  is what my friends over there would say…. I couldn’t possibly comment.

One of the greatest events in World history (great in the sense of its magnitude and significance) was the dropping of the Atomic bomb on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end the 2nd World War in August 1945.  The plane that delivered the first bomb is here on display, the  B29 bomber the Enola Gay stands ghost like in the great hanger of the museum, belying the history it represents.  America didn’t have the monopoly on great planes and several interlopers have made their way into the hall of fame.  Another with a significant history, and an ignominious end, is Concorde.  An Air France model dominates the lower display area; despite the terrible Paris crash and the subsequent termination of its service, Concorde stands iconic in air travel history. When I was at college in Bristol the testing of Concorde was taking place at nearby Filton aerodrome and daily we would see this magical shape overhead, I actually got to go on board 001, an Air France plane, some years later.

Enola Gay, the deliverer of the first Atomic bomb

Hard to believe what this machine did, the dropping of the first atomic bomb in August 1945

The deliverer of the Atomic bomb, Enola Gay

The men who sat in this cockpit changed the world, for better or worse.


Concorde in the Udver-Hazy building at Dulles

No passenger aircraft is more iconic than Concorde - wouldn't you say ?

Air France Concorde in the Smithsonian Air and Space museum

The distinctive long pointed nose cone in the flight position.

Air France from above

The super-sonic shape of the Concorde can be seen from the wonderful sky-walk balconies at the Udvar-Hazy, it really is quite a building.

Military aircraft dominate the displays, unsurprisingly I suppose.  Dozens of WW2 fighters and bombers of both Allied and Axis forces with some really rare Japanese planes and the more familiar American and British stars such as Spitfire, Mustang and Flying Fortress.  I particularly liked the little Lysander, hanging quietly from the hangar ceiling, the ungainly over-wing plane was the transport for secret agents being ferried to and from France in the dark years of WW2.  The real star of the show however, for both myself and my American co-pilot, has to be the most secret plane yet to escape the grips of American paranoia, created in the famous Skunk-works as long ago as the early 1960s and used for high altitude long-range reconnaissance on the edge of space.  The Blackbird has always been my all-time favourite and it dominates the display in its black stealthy moody crouch.

Blackbird at the Smithsonian Museum

Say no more - SR71 Blackbird, most facts about its performance are still locked up in Top Secrecy.

Lysander in the Smithsonian

The little Lysander used to ferry SOE agents, looks the part in the darkness of the roof space of the Smithsonian Air and Space museum.

Without a doubt the museum is a must for anybody with any interest in flight.  We enjoyed the visit immensely and it is free (although I was amused to find the same ploy as used by our National Museum at St. Fagans, entry is free but parking charge is exhorbitant).  It was the perfect way to see off the last few hours which otherwise could have been a little fraught and stressful.

The penultimate day was spent wandering some of the significant sites I had not yet visited.  We walked over Memorial bridge – memories of the cortege of JFK crossing over – and passed by the huge Lincoln Memorial and the best (in my view) of the war memorials, the Korean War, and then to the newest and surely one of the most important memorials/statues in Washington.  Martin Luther-King Jnr stands alone as the symbol of the American Civil Rights movement (erroneously in some senses as there were many other warriors and casualties) and his memorial has been long overdue, if still somewhat contraversial.  He stands in white granite (Chinese I believe !) looking out over the Potomac, flanked by polished grey marble slabs on which are inscribed some of his famous statements.

Welshwaller at the Lincoln

Standing outside the Lincoln Memorial convinces me I am indeed in D.C. - again !

Korean War Memorial

My vote for most symbolic of the great Washington war memorials, the Korean War is little known or taught apparently, this monument evokes the tension.

I feel privileged to have seen it, many Americans have yet to visit but clearly it has already become a mecca for Black Americans and I was moved to see old and young standing blank faced or reading the inscriptions, quietly and with dignity.  So many visitors to these great monuments of past suffering seem to completely miss the point.  So often one sees people laughing and smiling as they have their photograph taken in front of one or other of the solemn slabs.

King of Washington - the Martin Luther-king memorial

A statue which demands contemplation, of the past and the future. Martin Luther-King stands eminent on the banks of the Potomac.

We wandered along the Tidal Basin towards the grand edifice of the Jefferson Memorial, a huge classical dome of white marble (having missed it last time I was in D.C. and having already been to Monticello, his home, I wanted to see it), the sun shone brightly and the water was gleaming.  It was hard to believe it was supposed to still be winter, in some places the Cherry blossom was already blooming.

Washington Monument across the Tidal Basin.

The sky, the water, the Washington Monument, oh yes, I was definitely there.

Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial

Across the basin the Jefferson Memorial on the right, stands apart from the main concourse of the Mall and the Washington Monument.

The big surprise for me was the less obtrusive FDR memorial – as it is called – (the Americans are used to shortening the names of the great monuments, even the newest has already been dubbed MLK !). Franklyn D. Roosevelt was the longest serving President and had the unenviable job of steering the United States through both the depression years and the Second World War.  His 5 terms and leadership are somewhat understated by comparison to some of the other huge white marble edifices, but it is oh SO impressive.  Built of Rose granite blocks and with inscriptions and bronzes, fountains and plazas, the near 100 metre long site is without doubt my favourite of the Presidential commemorations.

Franklyn D. Roosevelt statue.

The bronze of FDR with his little Scottie dog is as understated as the monument itself. It is staggeringly emotive, not least because of the inscriptions of the great man's speeches.

Bread Line bronze at the FDR Memorial

Surely THE most evocative bronze in the whole of DC. the Bread Line statues feature in the FDR memorial, representing the years of the Great Depression and his efforts to overcome the problems in American society.

What struck me most of all, both in the tablets of the Martin Luther-King monument and the ones at the Roosevelt site, was how relevant many of the quotations are today.  In fact the FDR quotes are breathtakingly applicable, does that mean therefore that we have made no progress at all since the days of these great men ?  I suspect it does.

FDR quote on the balance ofnature

This plaque, with the shadows of the Cherry tree, is as relevant today as it was all those years ago.

A waste of resources is the unemployed

Another quote which today's politicians could do well to heed.

The return to D.C. had taken place on the Sunday following a short weekend of enjoyment in Durham NC.  We attended a fantastic concert on the Friday evening, the Carolina Chocolate Drops performed to a packed audience in Chapel Hill.  If you don’t know their music have a listen on You-tube.  I love their re-incarnation of traditional southern music in which the fabulous fiddle playing is only enhanced by the singing.  Some rugby was able to be enjoyed at a local bar on the Saturday morning which was slightly surreal for me, beer and England v Scotland in an American bar !!??  Unfortunately we couldn’t get the same on Sunday for Wales v Ireland so we headed north.  On a rather dank Saturday afternoon I had another strange experience watching Iron Lady in a cinema in a multiplex in Durham NC.  I thoroughly enjoyed the film but could not understand what the fairly large Amercian audience got out of it, given one needed to have a fairly good understanding of the Thatcher years, not least her cabinet members and the significance of Dennis, miners and conflicts.  For some strange reason sequence is lost around the Falklands and the Brighton bombing.

The return to North Carolina entailed a fabulous 4 hour journey through some stunning scenery as we drove up through the Blue Ridge mountains (along the highway called the Parkway) and Caesars mount.  Stopping at an ‘overlook’ I was astounded to see Cold Mountain off in the distance.

A view of Cold Mountain

Cold Mountain - I've read the book, seen the film and now...... I've seen the moutain !

Driving through the wonderful winter scenery, although a longish trip, was enjoyable for me nevertheless.  I was astounded at how much of the land was still covered in deciduous woodland.  On the drive through the Blue Ridge mountains and at ‘overlooks’ (as they call their viewing points) all that could be seen, from horizon to horizon, was forest.  It must be quite a sight when in full leaf.

We arrived in Washington via a parkway drive along the Potomac and past one of the last monuments I was determined to visit.  Finally, on the last morning (prior to heading off to the Udvar-Hazy building) I got to stand next to the iconic 2nd World War monument, the Iwo Jima statue.  Of all the great monuments in Washington, this one is probably best known around the world.  Standing next to it did not disappoint.  The sculpture is quite astounding, the detail of body and clothing, equipment and expression is stunning.  If you don’t know what it represents there is no excuse for not finding out.  To see it in person rounded off my visit in great style.

The iconic Iwo Jima monument

The statue of the U.S. Marines raising the Stars and Stripes on Mount Suribachi, Iwo Jima is as impressive close-up as it is in any books or films I've seen.

The end arrived, suddenly and unexpectedly in some respects, but having the last two days in Washington, wandering and meeting up with old friends from the 2009 Smithsonian Folklife Festival was the way to do it.  It was an unusual set of circumstances that saw me travel to that far- off land in January, not a time normally associated with a touring holiday.  Everything conspired in my favour however, the weather was incredible, I got sunburned in Charleston, the food was indescribable (and I mean in the best way !), the hospitality immense, and my Tour guide and inspiration stood tall in more ways than one.  Thank you America, thank you all you Southern Folk, thank you Whitney Brown, I owe y’all !!   Diolch yn Fawr.

I leave you with two pictures, the one sign that never ceased to make me smile…

Wrong Way in the U.S.

This sign tickles me, it occurs a hundred yards or so along a dual carriageway on the side you should not have turned down, a bit late methinks !!

In a Presidential election year let’s hope America heeds the warning……..

Entry to Museum of Air and Space

This is the entrance to that fabulous Udvar-Hazy, it sums up the contradictions inherent in this amazing country.


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