By MARSHA MERCER
Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home 16 miles south of the nation’s capital, is the country’s most popular historic estate. It's easy to see why: educational exhibits, acres of beautiful grounds and gardens, a magnificent mansion, outbuildings and unspoiled river views.
What Diann and Simon, friends who live in England, and I didn’t expect when we joined the tourist flock the other day was to be moved to tears. The visit certainly didn’t start out that way.
The first thing we noticed about our fellow tourists is that we Americans are, well, loud. Our summer touring plumage tends toward bright T-shirts, shorts and sneakers or flip-flops, and we favor those nearby with our full-throated comments on everything from the heat to the state of our feet.
After standing in line 40 minutes, we finally reached the mansion where Washington lived and died. Human border collies herded us expertly through the house in short order. Mount Vernon has very knowledgeable guides, but their top job during peak times evidently is to keep the line moving to the next room. To be fair, a million people visit Mount Vernon annually, so you can’t expect to lollygag in Washington’s bedroom while others are waiting outside in the sun.
Standing on Washington’s porch – all the chairs were occupied by our countrymen -- we admired the timeless vista of the Potomac River and the forested Maryland shoreline. People took pictures or talked their kin walking elsewhere on the grounds in for a landing.
We headed to Washington’s tomb where a wreath-laying ceremony takes place at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily from April through October.
About 50 men, women and children whose accents said they came from around the country chatted and lounged near the brick building where Washington, his wife, Martha, and other family members are interred. An historical interpreter said she would select people from the crowd to participate in the ceremony. Uh-oh, I thought, this could be cheesy.
But then the guide asked if any military combat veterans were present. A white-haired man squared his shoulders and stepped forward, his two young grandsons close behind him. He had fought in Vietnam. She asked for non-combat vets, and two younger men came to the front.
And that’s when something surprising happened. We, the people, quieted down and started paying attention.
The guide thanked the men for their military service, and people applauded warmly. Then, she did something at once simple and extraordinary in our post-9/11world. She unlocked the padlock and opened the iron gates to Washington’s tomb.
Everyone stood a little taller as the Marine led us in the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Navy man read the final paragraph of Washington’s circulating letter to the states. The Vietnam vet and his grandsons placed a boxwood wreath in the tomb.
In his letter of June 8, 1783, Washington expressed hopes that God would protect the states and would cultivate in the citizens “a spirit of subordination and obedience to government” … that people would “entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow citizens … and particularly for their brethren who have served in the field.”
Washington wrote that he hoped that God would help the citizens dispense justice, love mercy and emulate divine charity, humility and temperament. Otherwise, “we can never hope to be a happy nation.”
The passage is sometimes mistakenly called “Washington’s prayer.” Several versions exist with editorial embellishments that Washington did not write. The adulterated versions include invocations to “Almighty God,” “Thee,” “Thou” and a reference to praying in Jesus Christ’s name.
Some conservative members of Congress recently cited the faux prayer to knock President Barack Obama for saying that the United States is not a Christian, Muslim or a Jewish nation.
On this June day, though, patriotism and the dream of the patriarch of America trumped modern politics. Some tourists found themselves getting choked up.
Tough times like we’re having bring out feelings of isolation and separateness. Our sense of shining American possibility dims amid massive bankruptcies, foreclosures and layoffs. But here was “the father of our country” reminding us of our rich, shared heritage. That moment, we united as Americans.
Diann, a Texas native, married her English husband more than three decades ago and has lived in England all these years. She sometimes thinks she has more in common with the British than Americans.
But when she said, “I pledge allegiance,” tears sprang to her eyes. “Standing there,” she said later, “I thought, these are my people.”
As the crowd, still quiet and reverential, walked from the tomb, the Vietnam vet rubbed his eyes and said, “We weren’t expecting anything like that. We were just going to take a picture.”
© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.