WASHINGTON - With its blend of mystery, intrigue, and danger lurking around the bend, the International Spy Museum seemed to have all the necessary ingredients to keep my kids mesmerized for an afternoon.
At least it look that way for the first hour when Melanie and Jake practiced crawling through air ducts without making a sound, saw the dreaded lipstick pistol used by the KGB during the Cold War, and listened to training films on the fine art of bugging someone's house or office. Yet, when we reached the hall of fame section devoted to the world's great spies and quickly bypassed another floor that examined the history of spying during World War II, my 11- and 9-year-old had reached their limits.
"It doesn't have enough hands-on stuff," Melanie complained.
"If you were here for a week, you couldn't read everything," Jake chimed in.
Out we marched into the fresh air to take in the sights of all those glorious buildings that rise above Washington's National Mall. The Capitol and its signature dome shined white in the sunlight at one end while that famous obelisk, the Washington Monument, seemed to pierce the blue skies. Sandwiched in between were all those colonnaded facades of buildings my wife, Lisa, and I were itching to spend time in - the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Freer Gallery of Art. But we understood quickly that if this was going to be a family vacation, we had to prioritize sites and assume that the children would burn out after an hour or two at each locale.
So we said ta-ta to that rare da Vinci painting inside the National Gallery to remain outdoors and frolic through its sculpture garden. Roy Lichtenstein's colorful sculpture of a house slanted downward and looked like it was moving as you walked around it. There was also one of Louise Bourgeois's monumental spiders and Claes Oldenburg's immense typewriter erasers. The kids feigned interest when their art historian mother tried to provide insight on each of the artists, and Melanie was soon sprinting over to the carousel.
That night, the kids were complaining once again when I told them we were going to a Middle Eastern-Asian fusion restaurant in Georgetown called Mie N Yu.
"Can't we just have pizza?" said Melanie. "Or Mexican," said her brother.
"No, we're going to try something different," I said as our foursome made our way in.
"Wow, this is different," said Lisa, looking up at a foursome eating inside a large steel birdcage.
"That's our most popular table," said the hostess as she showed us to a circular booth backed by large pillows in the Moroccan Bazaar section. Set under a mosquito net, we felt as if we were inside our own cocoon and the kids immediately loved it. The stylish restaurant evokes the locales of the Silk Road, with sections of the two-story building devoted to Morocco, Turkey, Tibet, Venice, and Japan. The food also mixes flavors from various countries, like an appetizer of banana pesto hummus that the kids devoured, and mussels in a spicy red curry sauce that left a smile on their parents' faces. For entrees, the Thai red snapper, stir-fried with snow peas and served with wasabi mashed potatoes, was a big hit. In fact, the kids didn't challenge me about my choice of restaurants the rest of the trip.
The following morning we decided to visit the National Air and Space Museum and take a 90-minute tour of its highlights. We were lucky to have as our guide, Pat Nagel, who worked as a stewardess with American Airlines in the early '50s and whose husband flew missions with the Air Force during World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. She was more than qualified to tell us a thing or two about flight. She showed us the capsule that carried Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins to the moon, the original 1903 Wright Brothers airplane, the first passenger airliner, the DC-3 used by Eastern Air Lines in 1936, and a small plane that someone pedaled across the English Channel.
As we entered the cockpit of a
"Sure," he mumbled, but boy did he and Melanie perk up when they entered a small exhibition in the back corner of the building that showcased memorabilia from the National Museum of American History, currently being renovated and scheduled to reopen this fall. Jake grabbed my camera and took shots of the incredible tidbits of Americana on display, including the top hat Abraham Lincoln wore when he was shot, a Babe Ruth autographed baseball, the original R2D2 and C3PO, Dorothy's shoes from "The Wizard of Oz," and George Washington's uniform.
Pleased to finally see some degree of amazement on my kids' faces (even a question or two on the civil rights movement after seeing the actual Greensboro, N.C., lunch counter where four black students were refused service in 1960), we caved in to their request to dine on Mexican fare and had lunch at the Austin Grill. We feasted on burritos, chips and guacamole, and a Southwest chicken taco salad, all washed down with glasses of limeade.
Afterward, we strolled over to the National Portrait Gallery to see the renderings of the presidents. There were Gilbert Stuart's famous painting of Washington, a close-up of Richard Nixon done by Norman Rockwell, and an almost abstract offering of JFK, created by Elaine de Kooning. Melanie liked the bird above Lady Bird Johnson's head, while Jake seemed most interested in jumping across a shallow reflecting pool in the new indoor courtyard.
Yet, I knew that if George Healy's two-dimensional canvas of Abraham Lincoln failed to evoke an emotion with children, Daniel Chester French's impressive sculpture would no doubt impress. We took the kids to the Lincoln Memorial after dinner, and it was hard to get them to leave. With his back to the Confederate state of Virginia, Honest Abe peers through the columns out onto the reflecting pool of the Mall. Bathed in Lincoln's shadow as he sits on his marble throne, it was hard not to get misty-eyed thinking about the time I, most likely the same age as Jake, stood in this exact spot with my mom and dad.
I finally realized this is why families make the pilgrimage to visit the capital. Not to spend gobs of time ingesting every bit of information on the history of this great nation, but to pay tribute to a few of the worthy people who devoted themselves to America. The memorials were just our speed, spending a half-hour or so at each to glance at all those thousands of names lost in Vietnam, to see Jefferson standing tall under his mausoleum, and to speak out loud the memorable quotes of FDR as we walked along the sprawling stone wall of his tastefully done homage.
"The only thing we have to fear is fear itself," blurted Jake. Then off he ran to climb a pine tree.
Stephen Jermanok can be reached at email@example.com.