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Jack Smith

Two tourists in Washington fly the Atlantic, at least in Spirit, and visit the Red Sea

November 11, 1986|JACK SMITH

We had breakfast in our room, looking out at the Washington Monument in the morning sun.

We had no appointments. We were free to explore the capital at will.

We dressed and caught a cab for the Monument. It is the hub of the tourist scene.

It is also the main stop of the Tourmobile. The Tourmobile is a service that runs blue-and-white double buses to all the main monuments, public buildings and museums of the capital. You buy a ticket good for one day and get off at any stop. Fifteen minutes later you can catch the next Tourmobile and continue on the route.

We got off at the first stop--the Smithsonian Institution's Air and Space Museum. Aside from fine arts museums, this has to be the greatest museum in the world.

It is enormous. It is stocked with the objects and machines of the Space Age--the fabulous age of flight that has taken place within the lifetimes of many persons still living.

One enters the great foyer and looks up to see, as if coming in for a landing, the Kitty Hawk (Flyer I) plane in which Orville and Wilbur Wright, on Dec. 17, 1903, made history's first powered, sustained and controlled airplane flight.

Above it and off to the right hangs Charles Lindbergh's famous monoplane, the Spirit of St. Louis, also as if in flight. In this tiny machine Lindbergh set out on May 20, 1927, to conquer the unknown perils of the Atlantic sky, sustained by nothing but milk and sandwiches. From the mezzanine, one seems close enough to jump out on its silver wing.

From Samuel P. Langley's steam-powered airplane, in which he almost flew before the Wrights, to the pursuit planes of World War I, the Spitfires of Britain's Finest Hour, the torpedo planes of Midway and the Apollo lunar module that took us to the moon, the museum illustrates the inventive genius, the soaring courage and the dauntless curiosity of our time.

It restores one's faith.

We caught the Tourmobile and went round the mall to the National Art Gallery to see the works of another kind of genius. We examined what seemed miles of medieval and Renaissance masterpieces, and finally I stood before a huge pop cartoon by Roy Lichtenstein, feeling a bit relieved, as he must have been, to escape all that history and tradition.

As we neared the White House in our Tourmobile, the guide said that this was the only day of the year that tourists could see the White House gardens.

We got off and stood in a line that circled a heroic bronze mounted statue of Gen. William Sherman and crept a block to a White House gate.

Having cleared security, we walked through the grounds. An Air Force band was playing patriotic airs on the South Lawn.

We saw almost nothing but yellow chrysanthemums. "Nancy must like chrysanthemums," my wife observed.

In the Rose Garden itself, she said, "I've only seen three rose bushes."

A guard overheard her. "But lots of mums," he said with a conspiratorial smile.

We entered the White House and walked through a basement corridor in which were hung oil portraits of the First Ladies. I thought Bess Truman looked young and pleasant.

We were shown through the gilded East Room with its crystal chandeliers, and, in succession, through the Green Room, the Blue Room and the Red Room, in which, we were told, Mrs. Reagan often entertained.

I tried to imagine Mrs. Reagan seated on one of the period satin chairs or sofas, knees demurely pressed together, while she held a teacup and a saucer, conversing with some visiting statesman's wife. It wasn't a room in which I could imagine strangers having a rowdy old time.

I felt the presence of the Reagans in the house. I wondered if they were upstairs in some familial room, feeling faintly anxious about the hordes of tourists trooping through the house below.

I felt sure they were at home. We had noticed that all the public buildings were hung with the Stars and Stripes beside the black, red and yellow flag of the Federal Republic of Germany. A taxi driver told us why. Reagan was to be visited the next day by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl. I wondered if Frau Kohl would be entertained in the Red Room--redolent as it must be of a thousand tourists.

Late in the afternoon we caught a cab to see the Phillips Collection, a fine private art collection in an old town house. Here our eyes feasted on masterworks by El Greco, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh and several modern artists, while our ears were caressed by the strains of a duet playing Debussy, Beethoven and Brahms in the main salon.

That night we dined at the Red Sea, an Ethiopian restaurant in the crowded Adams-Morgan ethnic district. I had picked it out of a shopping and entertainment guide.

It was narrow and crowded. We had to wait at the bar until a table cleared upstairs. The manager and all the help were women. It was an Ethiopian matriarchy.

Our dinner was rich and abundant. It was served on a large common plate without utensils. We had to scoop it up with large, flat, floppy, circular pieces of pasty bread.

I solaced myself by ordering a bottle of Ethiopian wine whose label described it as a "crisp, dry white, pale golden in colour, with a pronounced characteristic aroma, harmonious taste and a very low alcoholic content."

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