Monday, January 26, 2009

The first time I "met" Lincoln

Until time travel to the past becomes possible, I'm not likely to ever meet the living Lincoln (Russell Johnson, "the Professor" from Gilligan's Island, was nearly successful in thwarting Lincoln's assassination in an episode of The Twilight Zone), but I have met him in marble a number of times. I'm referring, of course, to the seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. I'll never forget the first time, when I was eight years old...and scared out of my wits.

By the time my family went to Washington, DC in the summer of 1971, I had already seen an episode of Gomer Pyle, USMC, that made me believe there was an awesome power in that Greek temple on the National Mall. The episode (number 99 of the series) was titled “The Show Must Go On.” In it, the cast is in Washington, DC, to perform a show. Gomer (played by Jim Nabors) is supposed to sing but he develops severe stage fright and loses his voice. Sgt. Carter, naturally, loses his temper. Gomer walks distraught through the nation’s capital, finding himself at the Lincoln Memorial. He enters, and striking close-ups of the Lincoln statue are shown. Gomer walks to the left, where, carved into the marble wall, are the words of the Gettysburg Address. He begins to read them in a raspy voice, which gradually – magically – begins to regain its full strength and sonority. He is cured at Lincoln Lourdes! The show does indeed go on, and Gomer performs “The Impossible Dream,” a song that remains an emotional one for me (not only because of the Lincoln connection but also because it became associated with the 1967 Boston Red Sox and Carl Yastrzemski's greatest year). Here's the clip:

The highlight of the trip to DC for me was supposed to be the Lincoln Memorial. My family built it up plenty. Even at eight years old, I was already a Lincoln nut but books provided a safe distance, physically and emotionally, from the giant of a man and his humongous likeness by Daniel Chester French. When the day came and we began to climb the seemingly endless steps leading to the Memorial, my heart was beating wildly. Given what had happened to Gomer Pyle, what transformation awaited me?

I remember my sister being several steps ahead of me, urging me to climb faster, but I took my time, unsure of how I would handle coming face to face with the Great Emancipator. Eventually I made it. The statue was indeed gargantuan, nearly 20 feet fall, with Lincoln sitting in a throne like a judge, a king, or maybe a department store Santa Claus. The great humor for which Lincoln was known is nowhere apparent on his face. He is white, at peace, perhaps the angel Lincoln sitting in heaven on the favored right side of the Creator. The image is daunting, awesome, yet ultimately not scary.

My father took a photograph of me looking up at the statue. My face is not seen, my memory is not clear, but it would not surprise me if my mouth was fully agape.

I have returned to the Memorial several times since then, most recently in 2005, when I took a photograph of my oldest daughter – then-eight, like me when I first visited DC – melodramatically recreating my pose from 34 years before. This was not something I imposed on her; it was her idea, a tribute, I felt, to my life with Lincoln and her way to show me that she has been watching and listening to me all these years. Intentional by her not, it was a gift that I gratefully accepted.

The seated Lincoln has looked out at countless millions of people, has seen Martin Luther King, Jr. speak on his steps. Now, with another Illinoisan in the White House, I like to think those cold marble lips are finally breaking into a small smile.

1 comment:

Geoff Elliott said...

I've been to Washington, D.C. more times than I can count. I just returned from a 4-day trip to there so I could the fabulous exhibits going on in the city right now about Abe.

I never miss going to the memorial, and this trip was no different. It was the first stop upon arrival. I always stare at the statue, and read the walls. I may not spend a long time there, but the experience is always emotional and moving for me.

Thanks for your post.