WASHINGTON -- Despite a week of warnings that the nation's monuments and tourist destinations could be targeted by terrorists, huge crowds flocked to such locations Saturday, with many saying the Memorial Day visits had taken on new meaning amid America's latest war.
In Washington, tickets to tour the Capitol were gone by 9 a.m. The Washington Monument was sold out an hour later.
In New York, crowds lined up for blocks under a hot sun to visit warships docked along the Hudson River for the city's Fleet Week. Some of the ships are recently returned from service in the Middle East. "We figured this is the safest place to be," said Dale Clancy, a Long Island woman who was viewing a display of gas masks and radiation suits on the amphibious assault ship Iwo Jima after passing through metal detectors watched over by Marines armed with M-16 assault rifles.
The events of the last eight months, and the recent terrorism alerts, also did not undermine the most basic Memorial Day weekend tradition: leaving town. The American Automobile Assn. estimated that 35.2 million people would be traveling over the three-day holiday weekend, slightly more than a year ago. One change was noted, however: More people were wary of flying. The number of air passengers was expected to drop to 4.1 million, from 4.4 million last year.
Here in the Washington area alone, nearly half a million residents headed out of town, shedding a winter of capital city cabin fever for the Atlantic Coast beaches, many for the first time since Sept. 11, according to the auto club.
And in the usual ebb and flow of holiday weekends, hundreds of thousands of others headed into town: to tour, to learn, to mourn. They began coming at sunrise to the grassy national Mall and soon filled the museums and monuments that frame it.
"I didn't pay much attention to it all," Douglas Kabell, a Lutheran minister from Accident, Md., said of the string of warnings and advisories issued last week in New York and Washington. "My son just wants to go up the monument," he added while standing in a long line at the Washington Monument ticket booth. "We tried to tour Congress, but those tickets were gone. They started lining up at 5:45 a.m. over there.
"I'm sure Sept. 11 still affects a lot of people, but my attitude is, 'Don't think about it.'"
Others couldn't help thinking of it, including a group a few feet behind the Kabells. Teacher Faye Brown and a crowd of 153 eighth-graders were all wearing matching T-shirts for Blacksburg Middle School's annual trip to the capital. Fewer students from the southern Virginia school made the Memorial Day weekend outing than in any year before.
The trip was shortened from two nights to one because of security concerns--a decrease that mirrors the 50% drop in school field trips to Washington since the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to tour operators.
Some of the Blacksburg students said they were making a statement, as well. "If you think like that, you're letting the terrorists win," said Jennifer Tanko, 14. "They want us to be scared, but we've got to be strong now."
Jordan Ellis, 14, used the same argument to convince her wary mother to let her come. "We can't just stop leading our lives," Ellis said. "That's not living."
On the far side of the obelisk, past roads growling with thousands of bikers on Harley-Davidsons arriving for today's annual Rolling Thunder veterans motorcycle parade, Peter Wiesner used a similar philosophy to explain his weekend road trip.
"If God wants me, he's going to take me. Nothing I can do about it," said Wiesner, 56, who drove eight hours from Ontario, Canada, to visit the Vietnam War veterans memorial. He was one of 40,000 Canadian Vietnam vets, he said, and wore his old fatigues to prove it.
"Maybe that's what it is for me, what explains why the threats don't worry me," he said. "I've seen horror."
In New York, authorities canceled a birthday celebration for the Brooklyn Bridge after intelligence reports of potential attacks on the city and its landmarks. But 20 fighting ships, with more than 6,000 uniformed Navy personnel and Marines on board, arrived as scheduled for the city's 15th Fleet Week since 1984, docking at Staten Island and Manhattan's Pier 88, an easy walk from the Times Square theater district, which was teeming with visitors Friday night.
On Saturday, sharpshooters stood watch from the ends of the massive ships as pleasure boats sped up and down the Hudson River on the weekend that marks the start of the boating season.
"The threats may be real and all that, but there's no way we were staying away," said Philip Foote, a former merchant marine whose 20-year-old son, Christopher, is stationed on the Iwo Jima, a multi-purpose assault ship that can carry 3,200 personnel. Foote's father--Christopher's grandfather--also was a Navy man, fighting in the battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.