The Joy of Family Travel: Last Grand Standing
"Those guys aren't wearing pants," observed my 11-year-old granddaughter, Olivia. I was delighted she had noticed.
In fact, we were surrounded by statues of pantsless, grim-faced Roman soldiers - all concealing their lower bodies with large shields - looking down as they have for more than 100 years at Union Station in Washington, D.C.
We were eating lunch at the Center Cafe, perfectly located at the center of the station's 96-foot-high vault. Olivia's sisters Emma, 15, and Madison, 14, glanced up from their panini to look. It was a perfect grandfather moment.
"You see those shields?" I asked. The girls nodded. "They weren't originally there. If you were to take a good look behind those shields from the side, you'd see that each one of those guys is naked."
The girls' panini-filled mouths dropped open.
I raised one eyebrow. "And I mean … totally … naked."
"You're making that up, Papa!" said Madison, who knows me too well.
My wife, Carolyn, squinted suspiciously.
"You mean 'nude'?" she said.
"Yeah, Papa, nude??" Madison echoed.
I smiled smugly. I'd done my research.
"Yep. They were carved naked, and the officials were mortified. They ordered the sculptor to put shields in front of them all."
The girls munched away, gazing thoughtfully as I smiled across the table at Carolyn.
"Chalk one up for Papa! " I told myself.
This lunch was a rare sitting-still moment during a whirlwind two-day visit to the nation's capital. The girls had flown in from New York, and Carolyn and I had driven in from our home in Delaware. We met them Friday night, right at their gate at Dulles International Airport (an arrangement that must be made in advance with the airline). As the five of us walked out of the terminal, I told the girls of a wondrous time when anyone could walk into any airport, stroll up to a gate and meet their loved ones as they got off the plane.
"That's crazy," said Emma, the most cautious of the three.
We drove into D.C. and checked into the Kimpton Madera Hotel (conveniently located near the Dupont Circle Metro but, most important, featuring large rooms with two queen beds, a pull-out couch and bunk beds).
Saturday morning, after a quick breakfast at a Dupont Circle bakery, we were off for the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center — a grand, sunlit interior space at the foot of the Capitol Building's east front. The girls felt excitingly dwarfed by a full-size plaster version of the Statue of Freedom, which tops the Capitol dome.
"She's wearing a bird for a hat," said Madison, the granddaughter with a flair for fashion.
"It looks like the bird pecked her eyes out," added Olivia, the one with a taste for the macabre.
We wanted to tailor this weekend with something for each girl, so for Emma, the bookworm of the family, we headed to the Library of Congress - which is linked to the Capitol via a tunnel under First Street NE.
From a balcony overlooking the library's main reading room, we marveled at the dome and statues of literary figures. We peered into a display case at a copy of the Magna Carta. I looked with anticipation at Emma, who seemed unimpressed.
"Is there anyplace I can actually look at a book?" she asked.
A fair question with a good answer: Down a long hallway, we found the Young Readers Center, where kids can read their favorite books, and galleys of upcoming ones. Emma's blue eyes lit up as she selected a copy of a yet-to-be-published novel. While I scoured the shelves for Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss, and Madison ran her finger along a braille edition of a Harry Potter book, Emma sat on the floor, immersed in her find.
Olivia has the makings of a stand-up comic — she's been cracking jokes since the day she learned to speak. So for her benefit we stopped by the library's Bob Hope Gallery of American Entertainment. After answering the inevitable question — "Who's Bob Hope?" — we weaved around the videos and exhibits about Ol' Ski Nose. Best of all for Olivia was the computerized Bob Hope Joke File: more than 85,000 jokes from throughout his long career. Olivia tried out a few of them.
"Mickey Mouse won an Oscar this year," she said snappily. "It was made of cheese!" Ba-da-bum!
"Hey — that's pretty funny," she said.
The growling of stomachs interrupted, so we walked over to Union Station for that lunch beneath the undressed Roman soldiers.
From there it was a short walk across the Mall to the U.S. Botanic Garden, a glass-enclosed slice of tropical paradise, complete with fern gardens, palm trees and colorful orchids. ("They look fake," said ever-suspicious Olivia.) On this chilly day, the visit was like a quick jet flight to South Florida.
The warmth fortified us for a long stroll along the length of the National Mall — two miles of broad, grassy expanse with the Capitol at one end, the Lincoln Memorial at the other and the Washington Monument an exclamation point in between. We watched kite fliers, admired the proud older men visiting the National World War II Memorial and took pictures that made it look as if we were holding up the 555-foot Washington Monument.
I dropped behind a bit and smiled to myself as I saw the girls clustering around "Cara" — the nickname they have given their stepgrandmother. By the time we got to Lincoln, the sun was setting. Inside the memorial's chamber, together we read the inscription above Abe's head, and Madison observed how bony his knees looked.
Sunday morning came too soon for the girls, I'm afraid — we had to wake them up before 8 a.m. so everyone could have time to wash up.
After a bakery breakfast, we wandered down to the White House.
"It's really not very big," said Emma.
"Where's the dome?" asked Olivia.
"Do they have formal balls in there?" wondered Madison.
It was primarily for Madison, our fashion-conscious granddaughter, that we made our final stop: Madame Tussauds wax museum. Since 2007, Tussauds has had a D.C. outpost, the only branch to feature figures of every U.S. president. Maddie admired the costumes on the wax Taylor Swift and Beyoncé figures. But she seemed most taken with Jackie Kennedy. "I love this outfit!" she exclaimed. Which just goes to show how the passing of a generation or two can change your outlook on a pink Chanel suit and pillbox hat.
We had to get going so the girls could catch their flight back home. As we drove, I asked the weekend's most dangerous question: "So, have you learned anything about Papa and Cara?"
There was predictable silence (thoughtful, I hoped). Then Olivia spoke up: "I learned that Papa and Cara are a lot of fun."
We drove on, and I smiled, silently hoping no one would try to add anything. That was just perfect.
AARP Media writer-editor Bill Newcott now owes fun weekend trips to his 12 other grandchildren.
D.C. With Children
Stay near the sights.
Look near the National Mall or Dupont Circle.
D.C.'s Metro system is easy to use, but taxis can save time and money if there are four or more of you.
After hitting the well-known Smithsonian museums, try something different, such as the National Postal Museum.