My First Trip to Washington
When I was a kid, most of my family’s overnight travels involved visiting relatives or attending my father’s annual army reunion, trips within a day’s drive or so from our Western New York home. But my parents believed that introducing their children to our nation’s capital was important enough to merit a special trip.
When my older sister and brother reached their early teens, my father packed up our car and drove them and a cousin of ours to Washington for a visit of several days. A few years later, when I was in ninth grade, it was my turn.
This time, Dad and I flew, a momentous event in itself. I had never flown before. Dad’s first and only flight had been on a troop transport in the Philippines during World War II. Another first: it would just be the two of us on this trip, the predecessor of my travels with Dad decades later.
So one day in April 1969 during Easter break, we packed our suitcases, donned our suits, and headed for the Greater Buffalo International Airport. After kissing Mom goodbye at the gate, we walked down the jetway and boarded our plane for the hour-long flight to Washington, D.C.I took photos below with a Kodak Brownie Camera my mother had handed down to me a couple of years earlier. It had only two controls: a shutter release button and a film advance nob. It took 24- or 36-exposure rolls of film I had to thread onto a take-up spool. It had a detachable flash unit that used disposable flashbulbs. Given these limitations, I took relatively few photos, mostly of buildings and monuments. I no longer have prints of some, although I still have all the negatives. The images below I scanned from some of the remaining prints.
We probably flew on a Boeing 727, with its rear-mounted engines. We sat in the last row, so our view was limited by both the wing and an engine.
As we flew down the Potomac River on our approach to Washington National Airport, we passed over what I now recognize as the Theodore Roosevelt Bridge. We were on the wrong side of the plane to see the city. But as our jet turned around on the tarmac after landing, I got my first stirring view: the Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument lined up in the distance.
We visited several Smithsonian buildings, including the Museum of Natural History. One notable change on the National Mall since then: the streets running down its center are now graveled pedestrian paths. I took the photo on the right 40 years later at the same time of year.
The Smithsonian Castle, across the Mall from the Natural History Museum, was the institution’s original home. The building was completed in 1855. To the right: the Castle 40 years later. It now houses Smithsonian offices and a visitor center.
I took my only interior photo in what is now called the Smithsonian’s Arts and Industries Building. This Apollo capsule was launched into space two years earlier on the first test flight of the giant Saturn V rocket. Four months after my visit to Washington, a similar rocket and spacecraft would carry Apollo 11 astronauts to the Moon.
Our most sweeping views were from the top of the Washington Monument. We took the elevator to the observation level. Later we walked down its 898 stairs, something the National Park Service no longer allows.
The monuments on the National Mall were my favorite photographic subjects.
I moved to the Washington area almost 15 years later. Although I never planned to stay, after 34 years I’m still here. Sometimes when I’m looking down the National Mall at the Washington Monument or across the Tidal Basin at the Jefferson Memorial framed in cherry blossoms, some deep memory resurfaces, and for a fleeting moment I can imagine seeing these scenes as I did for the first time. Sometimes I can even recall a scent that I associate with the room at the Hotel Harrington where my father and I stayed.
The prints of the photos I took with my old Brownie Camera have faded, but I still treasure them as my first images of the place I now call home.
David Romanowski, 2017