06 February 2011

A Child’s Winter in Washington

The White House in the snow.
(Gee, that was an obvious caption, wasn’t it?)

Upon learning that young Lucas Shelton will be exploring America’s capital this winter, while his mother sings at Washington National Opera, I’ve been besieged by happy memories of my own boyhood adventures in the city. Like Lucas, I was a Houston boy running along the frosty streets of Washington for a few weeks while a parent worked. My dad performed his Naval Reserve training duty there, whereas Lucas’ mom is performing Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Lucas is thus only indirectly an American naval officer’s son — but close enough.* I haven’t seen Lucas since he was a baby — ages ago, as he would no doubt be first to tell me — but I know what he’s in for.

The National Mall.
The headquarters of the Smithsonian Institutions is at left.
(I’ll have to ask Cathy Karnow what that tall, pointy building is.)

My brother and I didn’t have to endure a blizzard, as Lucas has, but we saw more snow than we were accustomed to. We were poorly prepared for the cold, though Mom had packed our warmest clothing: cotton corduroys. We had reasonably sturdy jackets, but if we had any kind of gloves, I don’t remember them — my hands are still numb, all these years later. And so, in a struggle for survival that would have impressed Jack London, Linc and I became adept at seeking out alternate heat sources, notably including the hand-drying blowers in the restrooms at the Smithsonian and the freshly baked gingerbread from the Raleigh Tavern Bakery in Colonial Williamsburg.

One day, as we stood waiting for a bus, a woman from the Canadian consulate took pity on us, and gathered us under her big fur coat, where we huddled, happy and relieved to be thisclose to suffocation, and nearly as close to her breasts. Only years later would I understand how sexy this scene should have been, and she did smell awfully nice, but it was purely from gratitude that I fell in love with that woman, on the spot. When the Canadian lady’s bus arrived before ours did, Linc nearly left with her. He knew a good thing when he found it, and he wasn’t going to shiver on the sidewalk ever again, if he could help it.

The Madison Boys, around the time of our Washington adventures.

During the day, while Dad was working, Mom would take Linc and me through the Smithsonian, an experience at least as educational as school and considerably more entertaining. We were interested in everything, and some evenings, we’d bring Dad back with us to show him our favorite exhibits.

On weekends, the whole family drove to Williamsburg, Mount Vernon, and Monticello. James Madison’s home, Montpelier, was still a private home, belonging to the DuPont family, but a caretaker let us — as authentic Madisons — visit James and Dolley’s gravesite.**

Dad’s February training duty alternated between Washington and Jacksonville, Florida: one year in one town, the next year in the other. This pleasing, established rhythm didn’t have much effect on the Department of the Navy, however. One year, the brass decided that Dad’s training duty would go unpaid, though they neglected to tell him so until after he’d arrived in Washington. Since missing two weeks of his “real” job meant missing two weeks of pay, the Navy’s stinginess stung, and belt-tightening ensued. (Only years later, when Dad retired, did he get paid for those two weeks.)

Lucas’ dad is in the Navy, too.
Chad Shelton as Pinkerton, Central City Opera, 2010.

I’m not sure that Linc and I even noticed the change in our fortune — apart from our suddenly acquiring the habit of scouring the ground near parking meters for dropped change along the National Mall. It was a game to us — suddenly we were breadwinners!***

We didn’t make much money, but we defrayed the cost of our lunches in the Smithsonian cafeterias, and one day we splurged, going to a hamburger joint called the Little Tavern that became my brother’s idea of heaven for years afterward. When we got home to Houston, he wrote the words “Little Tavern” in pencil across one of his building-blocks, so that his toys could have the pleasure of eating there, too.

The beautiful exterior doesn’t necessarily reflect
what happens on the interior —
but that’s a lesson best left to grownups.

Lucas Shelton is a little younger than Linc was that winter, but he’s a smart kid and the chances are, he’ll learn plenty. Washington is a great place to visit if you already know American history, but it’s a great place to start to get to know it, too. And because of my childhood experiences, I tend to think of the capital as a remarkably child-friendly place.

Even in the Dark Ages, when I was a boy, the Smithsonian was full of interactive displays, buttons to push and machines to operate, especially in the Museum of History and Technology. The Museum of Natural History features all kinds of interesting animals, from dinosaurs (fossil) to donkeys (stuffed), and some of them seem designed — whether by nature, by the curators, or by God — to make an impression on small kids.

What Mommy does: Ana María Martínez as Butterfly (right),
With Lucy Schaufer as Suzuki and Trevor Casey as Trouble.
Houston Grand Opera, 2010

I was absolutely convinced that the replica of the Blue Whale was about to come crashing down on top of me, and while I did keep a respectful distance from it, I was thrilled. (I was also terrified by the Foucault Pendulum, but that’s rooted in fears better reserved for discussion with my therapist.)

Scavenger hunts (“Find a picture of a woman in a blue hat”) are all the rage among kids in art museums these days, as I was reminded a few weeks ago at the Cloisters. The National Gallery has “postcard tours,” in which kids are given a packet of photographs of objects, details from paintings or sculptures, then sent off to look for them. That can be a great way to get kids used to looking at art, rather than shuffling past it like any other tourists, and the Gallery’s collections are superior: all these years later, I’m finding new treasures there, as well as beloved friends of my youth.

Maternal devotion: Ana as Butterfly.
With Trevor Casey as Trouble, Houston Grand Opera 2010

Apparently, there’s now an International Spy Museum with lots of kid-friendly activities. Mercifully, this museum didn’t exist when I was a boy. My brother was already adept enough at spying on me, thank you.

Washington boasts other, perhaps more conventional, attractions, including the National Zoo and its pandas. Really, the city seems to have made a sincere effort in recent years to keep from boring the country’s youngest citizens. But Lucas will have an edge over all the rest.

After all, his mommy can sing him to sleep, after a hard day’s playing in the snow.

Urban legends: It is NOT true that the color of the marble changes at a line marking the previous record snowfall in the capital.

* NOTE: It’s worth noting that, when it came time for me to see my first Butterfly, at Dallas Civic Opera, Dad took me because he “didn’t want your mother to know what American naval officers do on shore leave in Asia.”

**One unfortunate consequence of visiting the homes of great Americans was my absolute conviction that I, too, would some day be the subject of comparable interest and devotion. A few years later, when I outgrew my first bike, I refused to part with it, on the grounds that it would be needed for my museum.

***To this day, I look for change on the street, and I always pick it up. In recent years, friends have tried to persuade me that it’s bad luck to pick up a coin that’s tails-up, but I insist that finding any money on the sidewalk is always good luck, in and of itself. And now you know why.

The Madison Boys in Washington, 2010: Memories of our capital adventures remain a powerful bond between us.


Janice Hall said...

Well, ever more things we have in common: I lived in DC as a child (grades 1-3), and I also loved the city. I remember touring the White House, and I could recite the names of all the First Ladies. (I once went trick-or-treating as Dolley Madison; yes, I did.)
I also appreciate the beautiful winter images you found to go with your article. Miss you,

Janice Hall

William V. Madison said...

Thanks, Janice!

(Other readers may recall that Janice herself has sung Cio-Cio-San, notably in a production directed by bad boy Calixto Bieito, in Berlin.)