February 9, 2005
The story of how I suddenly came to be in Washington, DC on Australia Day can be found
but it is a happy one and there is champagne involved. January 26, 1788, was the day when the first British Governor landed on the shores of what is now Sydney Harbour, raised a flag and drank a toast to the health of King George III, and we have celebrated it ever since. This year, I celebrated by releasing books around Richmond and Washington.
Due to the oddities of the International Dateline, it was already Australia Day 2005 when my best BookCrossing buddy sparky-redhead led me through Richmond and the Virginia Capitol, a building constructed in 1788, where I felt the tide of history wash around me. Imagine! This grand building is as old as Australian civilisation. Naturally, I released a
book in the foyer. I'd brought a roll of BookCrossing stickers with me, and had fun putting them on historic monuments, public notices, maps and so on, in blatant imitation of
Charbono, who went through several rolls of stickers during the Australian BookCrossing Conference in Sydney a few months earlier. You can see one in the corner of the plaque in the photograph below, freshly peeled off the roll in my hand.
We toured some nearby historic places, including the Museum of the Confederacy, a nifty little lunchroom (where I was charmed to find "Route 66" root beer) and St. John's Church where Patrick Henry gave his famous "Liberty or Death" speech, before sparky-redhead drove me back to the train station. I gave her a packet of chocolate Tim-Tams, and we said goodbye. It was a momentous day for both of us, me because I got to meet sparky-redhead after sharing so much of her life on the BookCrossing forums, and I saw some inspiring buildings and places; and sparky-redhead because she scoffed the whole packet of Tim-Tams on the drive home!
I gave her a book as we spent our last moments together.
Over the Top With Jim, a quintessentially Australian book, one of many I'd brought along with me in my big yellow BookCrossing tote bag. I couldn't quite blanket America with Australian books, but in the few hours of planning and packing for my trip, I'd conceived the great notion of participating in the Australia Day Release Challenge in Washington. Accordingly I printed off a dozen bookplates specially designed for the Australia Day release by Melbourne BookCrosser Saine, featuring a photograph of the Victorian State Library, and when I returned to Washington, I cut them out and stuck them into my Australian books.
First cab off the rank was a release that evening while I was doing a little housekeeping in the hotel's guest laundry. I figured that people are always hanging around laundries waiting for their clothes to wash or go through a dry cycle, so what better place to release a book? In fact, there was a book rack thoughtfully provided for me to slip a copy of Gallipoli into. Gallipoli? That's the place in Turkey where Australians first went into battle as countrymen in WW1. We fought well, but the Turks fought better - they were defending their homeland.
Next day was Australia Day here in Washington. A fair dinkum January 26th. None of this mucking about with time zones business! Mind you, the day usually falls in the middle of a hot, dry Australian summer, and it was a new experience to see ice and snow on the ground in January.
First stop was the Australian Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue, where I released My Place by Sally Morgan, a story of a search for roots in Australia. I was a little nervous about platoons of security guards here - the planter tub I released the book in isn't located in the driveway of the embassy because it looks pretty, but to stop car bombs - but though I spent five minutes taking off my gloves, dressing up the book, putting it into a ziploc bag, arranging it beside my bright yellow Washington Journal, looking for the best angle, taking photographs and finally putting all my gear away and wedging my gloves back onto my frozen fingers, nobody even poked their nose out of the door. Maybe they were having a barbecue around the back.
Next stop was the Washington YHA youth hostel, a likely spot for a bit of bookswapping. As it happened, security here was pretty minimal, and I was able to drag my BookCrossing tote bag into the lounge, where I made release notes on the outrageously expensive Internet terminal and checked out their bookshelf. I released John Laws' Book
of Irreverent Logic, Australia's answer to Rush Limbauagh, I guess. Hugely popular, hideously embarrassing. I copped
a bit of flak when I confessed what I had done, Australians worried that I might be expelled from the country if the authorities ever heard about this.
Keen observers will spot the presence of my black and yellow Washington Journal in both pictures. This is a notebook which I used as a journal to write entries in when I wasn't online. I also got people I met along the way to write things in it, which was fun. And I left the facing side of each page blank so that I could paste in things like postcards, ticket stubs and so on. A precious souvenir of my trip. I'd been inspired by
Rubyjules' BookCrossing Journal, which I'd been privileged to carry on its Australian leg of a round the world tour via Scotland and Iran, and I made sure that it was prominently placed at every release point, smiling for the camera as its little black stick legs carried it along. I couldn't resist, and took that copy of
Wild Animus in exchange.
I then found a post office where I had an errand in connection with Rubyjules and her journal. I'd earlier scanned in the pages of her journal, complete with postcards, maps, handwritten entries, drawings and so on, printed out the pages and now I was to post them to her, as it looked like the actual journal, currently in New Zealand, might take a while to get back to Vermont. Naturally I included a packet of Tim-Tams and another Australia Day release -
Cop This Lot, about a couple of Australians discovering how things are done on the other side of the world. I scrawled a note to enclose, and looked for my journal to include the BCID.
Horrors! It wasn't in my bag! I emptied the contents of my big BookCrossing bag onto the Post Office counter to make sure. Books, maps, books, stickers, bookmarks, books, gloves, camera - all manner of things, but my little black and yellow journal was missing. I checked the last few shots on my camera, and saw that it had been with me at the youth hostel. Obviously I must have been so excited at finding the copy of Wild Animus that I had forgotten my journal.
I posted off the package to Vermont and retraced my steps, skidding through the hard-packed snow in my haste, to the hostel, where I found that the scene had not changed. My journal was there, and likewise the book I'd released. My relief was vast, but I'd lost a good half hour in backtracking.
Never mind. I headed straight down to the Mall to continue my exploration of the Smithsonian, but I got sidetracked at the National Archives. A chance to see the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and other items - who could pass up such a chance? I certainly couldn't and after passing through some tough security, I poked around inside, quickly realising that I could spend a week in here and not be done. The actual stars of the building are housed in "The Rotunda of Charters of Freedom" and the place is set up for vast numbers of visitors. Of course, like the rest of my visit in this cold post-Inauguration January, the place was near deserted, and I could inspect items at my leisure.
Ah, but if only I had more leisure!
Never mind. I gazed at the historic treasures, thinking deep thoughts about the significance of those few sheets of paper and parchment, the men who had written and signed them, and this great nation that was the result. I didn't begrudge the dim lighting, intended to preserve the ink, at all. May these precious and thrilling words last for hundreds and thousands more years. The USA was the first of the great modern democracies and the concepts expressed in these documents have shaped nations in the centuries since a few isolated colonists spoke out against injustice and tyranny. My own nation of Australia has every bit as much "We the People" in its founding documents as America, and if Australia began with a signature rather than a war, so much the better. I felt like a younger sibling, standing there - the oldest child fights the battles for independence and sets the precedents, so in their proper time the subsequent brothers and sisters reap the rewards without a struggle.
I released a book outside. I'd like to say that I had one prepared for the occasion, but I had nothing that seemed appropriate, so I let go
Up the Organisation!, a sardonic view of large corporations that I'd intended to set free outside one of the enormous public service buildings that make up so much of Washington. The tiny book seemed almost lost outside the majestic front entry of the Archives building.
Another impressive building was the nearby National Art Gallery, where I browsed all too briefly and snaffled a shot of this glorious picture
Take Your Choice by John Peto, which I think should be renamed Mount Toberead.
But my main target for today was one of the Smithsonian's stars, the ever-popular Air and Space Museum, and I hurried across the snowy Mall, the Smithsonian Castle looking wonderfully appropriate in its wintry setting, to the great square-edged glass building, so much at odds with its more classical neighbours.
Here was aviation and space history staring you in the eye the moment you walked in the door. I gazed in childish wonder at the Spirit of St. Louis, the X-1, the X-15, John Glenn's Mercury space capsule, Ed White's spacewalk Gemini, and wonder of astronaut wonders, the Apollo 11 command module that had taken Armstrong, Aldrin and Collins to the moon in 1969, when I was a schoolboy watching those grainy first steps in black and white.
I've got to say that it took me a while to get out of that entrance hall. I ran my fingers over a piece of moon rock, polished smooth by millions of other fingers before me, but still a fair dinkum piece of the moon. A slice of those most distant of mountains, those inaccessible peaks that silver my sky on a monthly basis, right here beneath my fingertips. A part of the ultimate trip, one more link in a chain of humanity, I felt that I had stepped into a new season of my life. Skyring may not be able to fly to the moon, but the moon flies to Skyring.
I spent a happy afternoon in the museum, exploring all manner of flying things, from the Wright Flyer to jet fighters and spacecraft. I ran my eyes over a genuine Lunar Module, walked through the cabin of a classic propliner, and stood in wonder at the canvas and wire contraptions into which the first combat aviators strapped themselves to soar into a deadly sky.
Yeah, I'm a plane nut. No denying it. These things push my buttons, and I was well and truly pressed by the time I walked out, a shining hour or three later. But before I left, I set free another book, a cheerful look at the Australians of my father's generation called
They're A Weird Mob, and I tucked it in beside that historic Apollo 11 capsule.
The day was fading as I ventured back out into the Mall, and my final Australia Day pilgrimage lay at the far end. I stepped out briskly, past the grand museums and galleries, the barricaded construction zone around the Washington Monument, a group of high school students snowbattling across a busy road, and into the circular cloisters of the World War II Memorial. Not my destination, but an impressive place all the same. I found another
Australian book in my bag, and left it here amongst the stone.
The sun was setting as I hurried beneath the bare trees. The frozen waters of the Reflecting Pool were a sheet of ice on my left, the shadowed face of the Lincoln Memorial ahead of me drawing closer and on my right hand side, somewhere amidst the deepening twilight, was the black stone of The Wall, sunk down out of sight. I found a path, crested a small rise, and there it was, a stream of people here in the cold sunset standing and walking quietly along the path beside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
As the space program reached a climax with the moon landing, Australians and Americans were fighting a war in Vietnam. There's a wall in Canberra marked with the names of those who died, and here in the heart of Washington is another wall, a great many more names, thousands and thousands of them, and just as the visitors in Canberra search out certain names and slot poppies in between the slabs bearing the lists, here visitors come to see and touch and make rubbings of the names of those they remember.
I left two books here, side by side. The first is a story of Australians in Vietnam, a bittersweet memory of a jungle war called
The Odd Angry Shot, later made into a moderately successful movie, and beside it I left an American book about remembering Vietnam. On its cover was a picture of a flak vest placed at the apex of The Wall, at the place where the two great wings of stone meet at a shallow angle, forming a V for Vietnam, and there was only one possible place to set it free.
I set the books down amongst the fallen leaves at the base of the black wall, stepped back and took a photograph. I carefully retrieved my journal and lined up another shot along the eastern wing, the stark column of the Washington Monument catching the final watery, wintry rays of the sun, people walking, making rubbings, standing silently for photographs, or just gazing up at the names. I felt a bit of an intruder here in a sacred American place, but there was that undeniable bond between our two nations. We had fought side by side in Vietnam, and Korea and World War II before that, and again in subsequent combats, including the current war, where we were again helping to share the load.
Vietnam must hold a special place in American hearts, just as that long ago defeat in Turkey rings down the years in Australia, where each year people rise in the early morning to attend a service at sunrise to commemorate a dawn attack that began a legend of a hard battle fought in a distant place for reasons few of the participants could have explained. They went, they did their duty, they did their best, and some of them gave all they had. It is fitting that friends, families, comrades and descendants come here to remember those who never came home, and I was glad that I had come to pay my respects at the end of a very strange feeling Australia Day.
I raised my camera again to take another photograph - I usually take two or three of the same scene - when the young man in the foreground of the photo above reached up to the cold black surface of The Wall to touch a name. And my heart.