Last week I spent some time in Washington D.C. I had business in the area, but like most of us, when I get in the vicinity of the Mall, the monuments, and the Capital building, I find myself wanting to browse the wares of our country. There is art to peruse and documents to consider. Inventions large and small are collected there, as are homages to the achievements of average men and women who became heroic leaders through word and deed. And there are aircraft. Spacecraft, too.
The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum is one of the best visited museums on the planet. A quick glance around the main room can remove any mystery for why that might be.
Spacecraft from the early and spectacularly successful years when humans reached for orbit and beyond stand on the floor. Hanging overhead are old favorites like the Spirit of St. Louis, which allowed Lindbergh to conduct the first non-stop service from New York to Paris. Admittedly, he carried no passengers. But the achievement set the world on fire just the same.
Not far away is the Bell X-1, which Yeager took through Mach 1 and into unknown territory. Hanging between then is SpaceShipOne, a slightly goofy looking machine that might be the basis for a Sci Fi series, except that it really did fly from a hangar in Mojave into space and back again — without the backing of any government.
On this visit, I focused less on the hardware. Not for lack of interest. As an experiment. At least in a couple cases, I’ve had a small hand in restoring or maintaining aircraft that are closely related to those on display. In at least a handful of them, I’ve got time in type. I know what it feels like to sit in the front seat, hold the stick, press the throttle forward, and build enough speed to become airborne. I love that stuff, but this time I was more interested in the one thing that outnumbers the aircraft on display every time I visit. The people. I spent my time watching and chatting with the people who came out to see the sights, bask in the aura of the historic specimens, and sate their excitement for the wonder of flying machines.
While the machines are largely an indication of American industry and its potential, the audience viewing them is a study in international awesomeness. Moms and dads shepherd their young ‘uns from room to room, pointing, jabbering away with excitement, and imagining adventures yet to occur in real life. It’s fantastic.
While watching a video on naval aviation I noticed a very American looking young man of about 30 who was translating the film into Hindi for an older couple in traditional Indian dress. I can only assume they were his parents. Yet the sight of them, two generations who had traveled from the other side of the world to the east coast of the United States, and the realization that among all the things they could do or see while in town, they chose to spend time at the Air and Space museum — well it just warmed my heart.
In the National Archives are documents so awe inspiring the crowd stands hushed and patiently in line to glimpse the worn and faded pages in simulated twilight. At the Museum of American Art you can gaze upon David Hockney’s work, or Roy Lichtenstein’s. Inside the cool, dark corners of the Museum of American History you can see a dress uniform worn by George Washington, or a buckskin jacket that once graced the back of George Custer.
Yet the Air and Space Museum attracts more visitors and elicits more dreams of personal glory for the simple reason that anyone who walks through the doors can realistically achieve the goal of flying. Perhaps as a passenger, maybe as the sole manipulator of the controls, but they can fly. Regardless of age, gender, national origin, religious affiliation, height, weight, hair color and their ability to throw a decent spiral or catch a fly ball, they can fly.
On the flip side of that coin, we will probably not write documents as magnificent as the Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. We will not paint like Hockney or Lichtenstein. And it is highly unlikely anyone will ever line up to see a shirt you or I wore to a party, or to work, ever.
But an aircraft? Oh yeah, people will come out of the woodwork to see aircraft. They clamor for stories of who did what in those machines. Whether they’re slow and gangly or sleek and quick, the flying machine still draws massive crowds day after day.
On the other hand, there were a group of people who seemed to have little interest in the machines on display. They were the security team positioned at the doors. Their work is tedious, monotonous, repetitive, and unfulfilling I’m sure. So much so that they’ve become rooted to their chairs and wedded to their workstations and show no inclination to turn around, look up, and marvel at the phenomenal works of art and science all around them.
We would do well to take note of that fact, remember it, and check ourselves to see which crowd we fall into. Are we the people who would travel half way around the world to see our son, but make time to see something amazing and historic up close for ourselves? Or are we the folks who sit in the midst of it all, immune from amazement, inoculated to wonder, bored to the point of disinterest?
It’s an interesting question, and one that deserves consideration.