150 Years After the “Moody, Tearful Night”

This weekend finds me at home, surrounded by my usual clutter, LPs, and the laptop.  Last week, however, Betsy and I made a weekend road trip to Washington, D.C.  April 14 was the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and I was determined to see the Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination Exhibit at Ford’s Theater before it closed Memorial Day weekend.  (My only regret is that Susie was not able to see it, but her spring break schedule and the home stretch of her high school senior year did not mesh with any time she could get to Washington.)

The line “moody, tearful night” is from the second stanza of Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” one of the poems he wrote in Lincoln’s memory.  He published it in 1865, in his collection Sequel to Drum-Taps.

The first page of "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," as i appeared in Sequel to Drum-Taps, published by Whitman in 1865.

The first page of “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” as it appeared in Sequel to Drum-Taps, published by Whitman in 1865.

The trip was also the first extended road trip Betsy and I have taken together.  She doesn’t like to drive outside the Athens city limits, so when I asked if she wanted to come to Washington, she knew that meant going by Greyhound.  I was quite thankful for Greyhound’s companion fare special, so two could travel for the price of one.  We boarded the bus just after 9 p.m. here in Columbus, and were at Union Station on Massachusetts Ave., NE in Washington around 8:30 on Saturday morning.  Except for a chaotic layover and bus transfer in Pittsburgh, the journey went off without a hitch.

I was happy to see there was high demand for the exhibit at Ford’s Theater.  I had to buy advance tickets on Ticketmaster’s Website, and I was able to get one of the few remaining slots available.

We spent the day and early evening with my learned friend Robert Nedelkoff,  whose knowledge of history, publications, and music is boundless.  (I wanted to veer away from using the adjective erudite, at least this once.)  Robert would be my first choice for phone-a-friend if I was ever a contestant on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.

Our Ford’s Theater tickets were not until 11:30, so we visited the Museum of Natural History, including seeing the Hope Diamond and a flawless crystal ball (about the size of a bowling ball).  I made a point of paying my respects to Martha, the last surviving passenger pigeon, who died at the Cincinnati Zoo in 1914.  (In 1982, my friend John, who was visiting me in Marietta from St. Louis, told me he had read about her in his Golden Book Encyclopedia.  We threw caution to the wind and hitchhiked to Washington, and seeing Martha–misnamed Matilda in the encyclopedia–was high on our “to do” list.  I took a picture of her with my phone and sent it to John, who now lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Betsy posing with her new friend Triceratops horridus.  (I couldn't help thinking of those corny taxonomic phrases used in Road Runner cartoons when I saw this.)

Betsy posing with her new friend Triceratops horridus. (I couldn’t help thinking of those corny taxonomic phrases used in Road Runner cartoons when I saw this.)

No matter how many times I visit, Ford’s Theater is always special to me.  Although all three of us were a little impatient during the wait (the line stretched around the block from 10th St. NW onto F St.), I was glad to see there is enough interest to create a long line.

Betsy had never visited Ford’s Theater before, and Robert and I had been there during my trip in November of 2013.  (Betsy’s first trip to Washington was when she was 10 or 11, when her mother brought her to an Equal Rights Amendment rally.)  She was in awe of the interior of the theater, and there was not a peep out of her when we went across 10th St. to the house where Lincoln died, a rooming house owned by a Swedish tailor named William Petersen.

To quote the diary of Gideon Welles, who was Secretary of the Navy under Lincoln and Andrew Johnson:

The President had been carried across the street from the theater, to the house of a Mr. Peterson. We entered by ascending a flight of steps above the basement and passing through a long hall to the rear, where the President lay extended on a bed, breathing heavily. Several surgeons were present, at least six, I should think more. Among them I was glad to observe Dr. Hall, who, however, soon left. I inquired of Dr. H., as I entered, the true condition of the President. He replied the President was dead to all intents, although he might live three hours or perhaps longer.

The giant sufferer lay extended diagonally across the bed, which was not long enough for him. He had been stripped of his clothes. His large arms, which were occasionally exposed, were of a size which one would scarce have expected from his spare appearance. His slow, full respiration lifted the clothes with each breath that he took. His features were calm and striking. I had never seen them appear to better advantage than for the first hour, perhaps, that I was there. After that, his right eye began to swell and that part of his face became discolored.

We lunched at Wok and Roll, the Chinese restaurant located on H St. NW, which had been the boardinghouse of Mary E. Surratt, where the conspirators had planned Lincoln’s abduction and eventual assassination.  I am not overly fond of Wok and Roll’s cuisine, but I wanted to eat there because of its historical significance.

But the trip was not exclusively devoted to Lincoln’s memory.  “Climbing the Exorcist steps” has been on my bucket list for quite some time, so we rode the Metro to Georgetown, with its narrow cobblestone streets and its townhouses.  Robert led the way to Prospect St. NW, where we stood at the head of the steep steps that play such a prominent role in the movie The Exorcist (1973).  I have seen the movie quite a few times, the first time at age 16, and I remembered vividly news reports that showed people passed out on theater lobby couches, or vowing not to go back in to watch the movie because it was so horrifying.

The movie does not fairly represent the steps’ steepness.  We looked down them from Prospect St., and from there they almost seemed vertical.  Yet, I was determined to climb them.  So, I walked down to M St. and asked Robert to immortalize the moment.

I was quite proud of myself, because I managed to sprint up the steps in less than 40 seconds.  Both Betsy and Robert know about my aneurysm, and Betsy wondered if maybe paramedics and an ambulance should be at the ready, but I trotted up the steps.  I realized that I would not have been able to do this a year ago, at least not without stopping to rest on one or two of the landings during my ascent.  (I am still in awe of the fact that the Georgetown crew and track teams regularly run wind sprints up and down these steps!)

Above is photographic proof that I made it up the Exorcist steps in a respectable time.  I apologize for not being able to rotate it so that it is more vertical.

When the rain began falling, Robert took us on a rather unique tour.  He showed us all of John F. Kennedy’s pre-White House residences and trick pads, from the time he was a freshman Representative elected in 1946 until he moved into the White House in 1961.  This also included the house at 3017 N St. NW, where Jackie and the children moved following the assassination before moving to New York.  We also went by the residence of Donald Graham, chairman of the Graham Holdings Company and former publisher of The Washington Post (succeeding his mother, Katharine in 1979, who had become publisher after the 1963 suicide of Donald’s father Phil Graham).

Betsy and I were both exhausted but happy when we arrived in Columbus late Sunday morning.  While waiting at Union Station for the bus that would take us back to Ohio, we watched some of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner live on a screen in the waiting room (CNN’s coverage).  Robert had mentioned that he didn’t have $3000 to spare so that the three of us could get a table there.  (We did, however, have beverages at The Georgetown Inn, although we did not look genteel enough.)

It was probably just as well that we could not get a berth at the Correspondents’ Dinner.  In my I love typography T-shirt, faded jeans, and tennis shoes, I would not have blended in at all.

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