Cuban Friendship Urn – we’re friends again

Cuban Friendship UrnNow that the U.S. has restored relations with Cuba after a half century of the Cold War, the Cuban Friendship Urn reminds us of a time when we were friends.

Actually, U.S.-Cuban relations are a little complicated. The USS Maine blew up in Havana’s harbor on Feb. 15, 1898 and each side blamed the other. It led to the Spanish-American War that last 3 1/2 months — rivaling the War of 1812 as forgotten wars taught on a snow day in eighth grade U.S. history classes. You know, Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Riders, San Juan Hill? The U.S. ended up gaining Guantanamo Bay that’s still an American base plus current territories Puerto Rico and Guam. We also bought the Philippines from Spain for $20 million as part of the deal.

Anyway, Havana created the USS Maine memorial dedicated to the 266 U.S. sailors that perished that day. The memorial was destroyed in 1926 by a hurricane and among the remains was the urn, which was given to U.S. president Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

Cuban Friendship UrnThe eight-foot, four-ton urn depicts the mast of the Maine with a message in Spanish saying the two countries would remain friends. It was first placed in Potomac Park before removed while the 14th St. Bridge was built in the 1940s. The urn stayed in storage until 2011 when the National Park Service placed it by the Potomac River in East Potomac Park in a little public parking lot few know almost underneath the 14th St. Bridge. (That parking lot is great for walking to the Jefferson Memorial.)

The U.S. and Cuba haven’t been friends in more than a half century, but one day I’ll be drinking rum in Havana and telling locals that Washington has an urn that says we’re friends.




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Barred photo sites around Washington

Washington is the seventh most photographed city in the world, but some buildings and inside exhibits are barred.

The most prominent no-no is the Pentagon because it is a military installation. There are big signs on the perimeter that say no photos and they mean it. Occasionally, I’ll walk a group through the tunnel under I-395 into the parking lot on the way to the 9/11 memorial and someone will take a photo of the building. Moments later, a security vehicle will come by and tell people to stop. I’ve never seen security confiscate anything. Tourists aren’t spies and the police know it. Besides, someone with a long lens could photograph the Pentagon from the highway.

If visiting the 9/11 memorial, you can take photos of it like the one above and the building can be in the background.

On the National Mall, the only prohibition is no tripods because someone could trip in the heavy crowds. But, in less busy times you can usually use them for a brief photo. Just don’t take all day. And, don’t set up under Lincoln’s statue because the National Park rangers will stop you. No tripods by the White House, either.

Mostly, public buildings around town are made for photography. It’s the insides that includes some restrictions. The White House tour only allows cell phone photos, not for security reasons but because they want to keep the line moving.

The House, Senate and Supreme Court chambers and Library of Congress reading room prohibit photography. There are some art exhibits around town that also bar photos to avoid diminishing the old art. Also, no photos of George Washington’s false teeth at Mount Vernon.

Sometimes a guard comes out to the sidewalk to tell you no photos. Seems like every six months this comes up, probably because of new guards, and the police chief sends out a notice that photos are allowed in public areas. If it happens to you, chalk it up as bad luck and let it go. Arguing with security is never a good idea. I shudder to think what could happen.

Anyway, take all the photos you want. Even better, come on our photo tours and we’ll show you the good spots.

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The man behind the grave marker

It’s not often you see who’s lying underground, but former U.S. Secretary of War William Worth Belknap’s image adorns a large bronze medallion on his marker at Arlington National Cemetery that’s worth a look.

Located near the Pan Am 103 memorial (red round marker to the left) and behind the Lee-Custis house’s amphitheater, the large granite marker remembers a former Georgetown law graduate who was the son of Gen. William Goldsmidt Belknap, who served during the Mexican war. The medallion was created by Carl Rohl-Smith.

Belknap (1829-90) rose from Colonel 15th Iowa Vol, Infantry in the Civil War to Brigadier & Brevet Major General U.S. while serving under Gen. William Sherman during the famed march across Georgia. President U.S. Grant appointed Belknap Secretary of War from 1869-1876.

Belknap’s downfall was marrying two sisters (one at a time naturally) who spent money like water. One allegedly sold a prominent position (cough, Rod Blagojevich, cough) that later led to impeachment proceedings against Belknap. He was acquitted by the Senate. Belknap returned to his law practice until his death.

A plaque at the bottom of the marker reads: “Erected by his comrades of the Crocker Iowa Brigade 11th, 13th, 15th and 16th Iowa infantry, Army of the Tennessee. Companions of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States and other friends.”

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Marker gives a new meaning to ‘Anchors away’

Navy commodore George Francis Cutter and his wife Mary Louisa Cutter rest in the rear of Arlington National Cemetery. The Section 1 memorial has an anchor atop a rocky memorial. It’s one of the more unusual markers in the cemetery that’s filled with unusual memorials.

Born 1819 in Massachusetts, began as a captain’s clerk in 1838. He became a prisoner when the USS Truxton wrecked in the Gulf of Mexico in August 1846 during the war with Mexico, but was part of a prisoner exchange four months later. Cutter worked his way up the ranks over the next 33 years before retiring in 1881. He died on Sept. 1, 1890.

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Women In Military Service For America Memorial

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On the edge of Arlington National: Medgar Evers

I like to wander the edges of Arlington National Cemetery, by forgotten graves far from the hordes of visitors who don’t stray far from the Kennedy flame and Tomb of the Unknowns.

It’s peaceful, feeling like a cemetery instead of a tourist area. And, you’ll find the most interesting people on the edges.

With a race blocking access by most entrances one morning, I decided to park at the Iwo Jima memorial and walk into Arlington from the side entrance gate. It’s a little longer of a walk, but there’s nothing short about walking around ANC.

I came to the farthest grave on one side and decided to just see who it was. I was quite surprised I knew the person — Medgar Evars.

Evans returned from serving in World War II to become active in the civil rights movement, especially n the desegregation of the University of Mississippi. He was murdered on June 12, 1963 by Byron De La Beckwith of the White Citizens Council (Ku Klux Klan.)

Two juries of all white men were deadlocked on Beckwith’s guilt, but new evidence brought a murder conviction in 1994 — 31 years later. Beckwith died in prison in 2001.

Evers death was remembered by Bob Dylan in the 1963 song, “Only a Pawn in Their Game.” The 1996 movie “The Ghosts of Mississippi” focused on the second retrial.

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3 Iwo Jima flag raisers buried at Arlington National Cemetery

Iwo Jima Memorial


Battle of Iwo Jima

Seventy years have passed since five Marines and a Navy corpsman lifted a flag into the volcanic ash to inspire Americans into one last push to defeat the Japanese and end World War II.

And three of those men lie nearby at Arlington National Cemetery.

Rene Gagnon

Rene Gagnon

Pfc Rene Gagnon rests nearly within sight of the Iwo Jima Memorial. Sgt. Michael Strank lies in the middle of the cemetery while Pfc Ira Hayes is on the other end of the cemetery close to the Air Force Memorial.

Gagnon and Hayes along with Navy Pharmacist Mate 2C John Bradley would later be known for their war bond rallies that drew $26 billion in the months after raising the flag on Feb. 23, 1945.

Each one is worth remembering as their images on the Iwo Jima Memorial showed a nation that teamwork would finish a war which claimed 60 million people worldwide and more than 408,000 Americans.

Iwo Jima was a speck of a Pacific island about 600 miles from Japan. Its three airfields that could be used to refuel bombers attacking Japan made its capture vital. The problem was 22,000 Japanese soldiers abandoned on the island and told to die for their country.

The battle lasted from Feb. 19 to March 24 with 18,844 Japanese dead along with 216 taken prisoner and 3,000 unaccounted.

It would be the costliest engagement ever for the U.S. Marines with 6,841 dead and 19,217 wounded of the 70,000 deployed.

On the battle’s fifth day, a group was sent to place a flag on the island’s highest point, Mount Suribachi, to inspire American troops. Soon after, another group from Second Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Division, Easy Company that saw only 50 of 310 men survive, and a Navy corpsman who participated in both flag raisings, were sent to retrieve and place another flag whose raising was photographed by Associated Press photographer Joseph Rosenthal. That image won the 1945 Pulitzer Prize and launched the needed bond sales.

The story is well told by the book “Flags of our Fathers” by James Bradley, son of John Bradley. Clint Eastwood produced the movie version plus a Japanese version of the battle in “Letters from Iwo Jima.”

Michael StrankCorporal Harlon Block, the first figure anchoring the flag into the ground, and Strank were killed on March 1. Pfc Franklin Sousley died on March 21. Block was buried in Harlington, Texas, Sousley in Elizaville, Ky. and Bradley in Antigo, Wisc.

Hayes, a Pima Native American in Arizona, later rejoined his unit and served during the occupation of Japan. Sadly, he became an alcoholic who died in 1955 at age 32 of exposure. Gagnon lived an embittered life. Promised jobs during the bond drive didn’t follow and he spent his life as a janitor. Gagnon died in 1979. Bradley suffered shrapnel wounds on March 12. He later became a mortician before dying in 1994.

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Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of Remembrance

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San Martin rides tall among Latin American memorials


When researching the story of Gen. Jose de San Martin, it sounded so much like the nearby statue of Gen. Simon Bolivar that I had to double check I was looking at the latter. No wonder their statues are near each other.

San Martin was the founder of Argentine independence who later helped free Chile and Peru from Spanish rule, too. He even met with Bolivar, who was liberating other South American countries, though the two opted not to work together.

San Martin was born into a wealthy family, was educated in Spain while spending 28 years there. He even served in Spain’s military against Napoleon while rising to Lt. Colonel. Ironically, the Freemason also opposed Spain’s government and joined revolutionary forces in Buenos Aires in 1812. In a fete worthy of Hannibal, San Martin led forces across the highest Andes peak to defeat Spanish forces. He later resigned his commission and went into exile before dying in 1850.

The bronze statue was dedicated by U.S. President Calvin Coolidge in 1922 in Judiciary Square. It was moved in 1970 for what’s now the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial, but rededicated in 1976 at Virginia Ave. and 21st. St. N.W.

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The grave in the tree at Arlington National Cemetery

The grave has almost been lost to a tree

Michael Burns’ grave in the rear of Arlington National Cemetery has a very large oak nearly swallowing the Civil War infantryman’s site. The standard stone marker is right next to the tree, which looks a good century old itself and obviously wasn’t there when Burns was buried in 1864. Makes you wonder what it will look like 50 years from now.

It made me wonder who was the man overshadowed by the tree. With the help of, I found his records.

Born in Ireland in 1834, Burns enlisted May 13, 1861 as part of the Union Army’s 36th Regiment, A Company filled with men from Buffalo, N.Y. The private received a disability discharge on Oct. 30, 1862 in Washington, D.C. The separation papers list “Surgeon’s CTF at Washington, D.C.” as the reason. I wasn’t able to determine what that meant.

My best guess is Burns was injured during a battle outside Washington given the discharge location. He died Feb. 20, 1864, less than four months after his discharge. Everything indicates death was caused by an infection from a battle wound, but that’s just an educated opinion.

The “Washington Volunteers” lost 37 men to wounds and 31 to other causes. Burns was one.

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Happy Thanksgiving

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Bladensburg-D.C. boundary marker at Ft. Lincoln Cemetery

DC Boundary markerLong before it was a staging area for Civil War troops met by president Abe Lincoln or where blood was shed during the Battle of 1812 as British troops marched into Washington or even when it became a cemetery, Fort Lincoln was an historic area.

The 178-acre cemetery established by the Maryland General Assembly in 1912 includes one of the original boundary stones ordered by President George Washington to determine the capital’s exact limits.

The cemetery is technically in Bladensburg, Md. as boundary stone NE7 hugs inside the fence line. Visitors should head as far to the right in the cemetery as possible, pass the columbarium for urns and about 50 feet afterwards across from the Garden of the Crucifixion to find the white stone inside a black iron fence.

The stone was erected in 1791-92 during the survey by Andrew Ellicott. The iron cage was erected around the cemetery stone in 1916 by the D.C. Daughters of the American Revolution and a new one in 2012 using iron from the old cage.

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The Chilean poet who became his own pen name

Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto wasn’t the first writer to use a pen name. But, not many make it their legal name. The Chilean poet who became a diplomat and politician named himself after Czech poet Jan Neruda in becoming Pablo Neruda.

Neruda won the 1971 Nobel Prize for Literature for his poetry that spanned from historical to political to erotic. He read poetry to 100,000 people in a Sao Paulo, Brazil stadium.

After Chilean president Gonzalez Videla issued a warrant for Neruda, he fled to Argentina in 1948 and didn’t return until 1971. He died in 1973, his procession another political move as thousands took the streets in defiance of Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet.

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Wordless Wednesday: Jefferson Memorial

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Something different to visit for locals and tourists alike

It’s a common question from both tourists and friends – what’s something different to see in town?

It’s a question I find as wide open as the ocean and as difficult to cross.

A few questions come first by me. Inside or out? Walking long or short? Artsy or not?

I don’t live downtown so I don’t know the best corner coffee shop, small bookstore or boutique with the coolest things. I specialize in big monuments and great stories of the city stretching from the Capitol to Arlington National Cemetery.

But it’s a question that bugs me because I should know the answer. For now, here’s one I recently recommended: The Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery of the Donald W. Reynolds Center.

If you like paintings and artwork, this is the place. Personally, I was never into it until my kids were in college and we visited art museums in Philadelphia (yes, I ran the steps and saw the Rocky statue) and Chicago plus the ones in Washington. Suddenly, I could see why people sit and stare at the paintings.

I like the massive ones that dominate a wall. Makes you feel like you can walk into them. Seeing the work of real famous painters like Leonardo Di Vince, Rembrandt and Van Gogh’s work is pretty cool, too.

These two buildings are connected by a really cool dome to create an atrium where you can also grab a bite to eat. One side contains portraits. Right now there’s a section of every president. The other side has a wide range of paintings and sculptures.

The museum is free and open until 7 p.m. You can spend 30 minutes or half a day. It’s one block from Verizon Center at 8th and F Sts. N.W.

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Russian markers in Rock Creek Cemetery

Russian graves

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Wordless Wednesday: Light of a courthouse

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My declaration of war: End the madness

Dear Politicians – we don’t need yours thoughts and prayers and excuses because they accomplish nothing. When someone walked into Sandy Hook Elementary and slaughtered children or even shot politicians on a baseball field and yet nothing was done, then I guess there’s really no hope of Congress making an impact.

Politicians – We need your guts. We need you to stop taking NRA money and finding excuses knowing America will simply move on soon enough to the next tragedy. Las Vegas and 56 deaths seem forever ago now and it was just a few weeks.

If I had the answer I would gladly give it to stop this madness. But, we all know we need to change the Second Amendment. I don’t want to take guns away from people who love to hunt. I know gun ownership is one reason why foreign armies will never invade the U.S. for fear of a guerilla war by citizens.

But from now on, I will no longer vote, donate or support any politician who takes money from the NRA and doesn’t vote for tighter gun controls like, oh I don’t know, not letting mentally ill people own them.

If you don’t like my thoughts, know I’m not open to debate. I’ve drawn the line, seen too many people die. I’ve had a family member shot to death over nothing. I no longer care about finding middle ground. It’s time to make Congress work for us and find new politicians.

May God bless America because we’ve never needed it more.

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George & Martha Washington with grandkids at Mount Vernon

GW family

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The Maine Lobsterman along the waterfront

There are no lobsters in Washington aside the ones in restaurants. Plenty of crabs from nearby Maryland, but the seven-foot statue on Sixth and Water Sts. SW along the waterfront shows a Maine waterman “pegging” lobsters by tying their claws.

Sculptor Victor Kahill modeled the bronze sculpture atop a Maine granite boulder after a real waterman – H. Elroy Johnson, who died in 1973 just one year after being used for the statue. Three copies were made and the one at the Maine State Museum and Library was transferred to Washington in 1983.


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