It started out as a day for heroes, not a fashionable notion, and never stopped. After the Lincoln Memorial we walked to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial where I riffled through the book of the dead and found the name of my first best friend, Thomas James Schneider, whom I knew as Robbie. He was almost three years older and lived next door to the house in Maple Heights, Ohio, where I lived for my first three years.
From life I’ve retained two Tom Sawyer-like memories: The time we nailed a stack of two-by-fours to the back of his father’s garage and the time we put a garden hose inside my father’s Willy’s Jeep under the sincere impression we were cleaning it. From his death I remember Robbie’s funeral, during which his grandmother suffered a fatal heart attack. I didn’t make a rubbing of Robbie’s name on the wall but ran my fingers along the letters carved in the granite.
We crossed Constitution Avenue and walked to the Albert Einstein Memorial so our ten-year-old could see his hero in bronze. Both boys climbed the physicist to rub his nose, already shiny from the hands of admirers. From the bench where Einstein is seated I copied into my notebook this quotation attributed to the great American who chose to be an American:
“As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.”
We moved on to the National Museum of American History and for the first time I saw the “Star-Spangled Banner” spied by Francis Scott Key over Fort McHenry. On the train from Washington to Fredericksburg, I read Fredericksburg: A Guided Tour Through History (2010), a combination tourist guide and potted history of the battle written by Randi Minetor. Of the fifteen thousand three-hundred men buried in the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, fewer than three thousand are identified. Minetor quotes General Robert E. Lee as he observed his men driving Union troops into Deep Run on Dec. 13, 1862:
“It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”