Code name Otter
Despite having almost 200,000 members, I often say it’s a small Army. This is how a young Soldier from Montana, met me in Belize and then met me again in Washington DC two years later. He works for the Secret Service and his code name is Otter. Technically, only part of that is true. I’m going to call him Otter. Now that I have your attention, and likely that of the NSA, we shall continue.
I was back east for a very special course that involved a vigorous background investigation. If any of you got black-bagged and held in a secure location, that had nothing to do with me and you should ponder your life choices. Over three weeks, I learned every possible way you can get into trouble with the military. Although several training scenarios were far-fetched, everything was based on actual bone-headed or egotistical actions. My own incredulity just reinforces what a lousy super-villain I would make. Besides, not many super-villains would spend hours chasing fireflies just to get a video for their grandma. I totally geeked out on the abundance of fireflies around the base. The beautiful base, known here as only Fort AboveMyPayGrade, was located a mere 45-minute drive from the capital city. The locals said I should park and take the train to avoid traffic. Based on my California driving experience, I figured I would test my skills among the Capital Citizens. May the odds be ever in your favor.
Driving Miss DC
Patience, young Prius. Driving in Washington DC is a simple event when compared to driving in LA. No matter what time of day I was driving, it never took an hour to go 7 miles. Does that happen habitually while trying to get to LAX? All the damn time! Does the flow of traffic often exceed the posted limit by 20mph? You bet your diesel train horn it does! Back to my pleasant drive from the base to the epicenter of the nation’s politics. After finding a nearby parking garage, I set off across the National Mall to see the highlights and crush my step goal for the day.
My First Pride Parade
While referencing my Googlemaps for the location of historical sites, I noticed a rainbow road above Dupont Circle. What could this Candyland route be? There was a LGBTQ+ Pride Parade scheduled for that afternoon. Mutual sources alerted Otter and I to our shared vicinity in the capital. Accessing a secured line, sometimes called Facebook Messenger, we agreed to meet along the parade route. Neither Otter nor I had ever attended a Pride Parade and couldn’t miss this opportunity. Otter volunteers for Operation Blazing Sword, an organization dedicated to helping LGBTQ people become responsible firearm owners. With many of my friends and Army family being LGBTQ, I was excited to show my love and support as well. The route only covered 1.5 miles, but there were so many registrants with floats and marching groups that the parade lasted well over 3 hours. The music and exuberance meant that I didn’t feel the pain in my feet until the last float had passed. By then, it was late, and I still had coursework to complete. Otter joined his fellow agents in scrutinizing a local alehouse, so we agreed to meet the following day.
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
Before even stepping into the Smithsonian, I discovered the most amazing fact. Admission is free! Yes, admission to every Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC. Upon entering the Rotunda, I was overwhelmed with the many exhibit options and drifted into the Ocean Hall like a bit of seaweed. Upstairs, the Insect Zoo was sponsored by Orkin Pest Control, which I seemed to find more entertaining than my fellow patrons. What’s bugging them? In the next wing, I wandered through the Egyptian displays, noting that theses were the earliest example of hoarders. In Egypt, you could take it with you when you died, although the living members of the household would have preferred minimalism. Not far away, more ancient bones were the focus of a very popular exhibit. Dinosaurs! Many of the complete skeletons on display came from Montana and Utah. Speaking of Montana, Otter finally showed up at the museum, saying something about blackout ops from the night before. I dragged him around to all my favorite bones, continuing down to undiscovered wings.
Unicorns of the sea, Narwhals, was a special exhibit I was dying to see. Combine mermaids and unicorns to make more than my favorite Lisa Frank notebook. These are real, yet still very mysterious creatures despite extensive scientific studies. We wandered among the incredible exhibits, reading and commenting until we were ushered out by the night guard at 4pm. As intriguing as the thought of the museum coming to life at night may be, there were several terrifying sea monsters that should never be reanimated.
No, this is not a cute term for when an elderly person decides to get inked. Twilight Tattoo is a live performance featuring Soldiers from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) and The U.S. Army Band. Performances by The U.S. Army Blues, vocalists from The U.S. Army Band Downrange and U.S. Army Band Voices, The Old Guard Fife and Drum Corps, and The U.S. Army Drill Team are part of the hour-long show. Additionally, we witnessed the Golden Knights skydive to the parade field for General Milley and Sergeant Major of the Army Dailey. A lone officer stood by the edge of the parade field as the distinguished guests took photos with Soldiers and families. The new dress uniforms do not have name tags, and I was surprised to see a four-star general left unattended. Was this the most brazen case of stolen valor ever witnessed? Usually you have to clothesline their aide to get anywhere near the general. Otter and I took an opportunity to swoop in and get pictures with him while he was unfettered and analyze the evidence later. Through the use of high-tech facial recognition, or Otter looking at Google Images, we determined the mysterious man to be General McConville. He is now the Chief of Staff of the Army. I guess all those ribbons on his chest were legit.
March Across Arlington
Starting at the Old Post Chapel Gate, we made our way toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Otter had allowed me to demonstrate my California driving skills while he was still young enough to be more fearless than foolhardy. Our parking spot was near the base commissary, but the closest gate to Arlington National Cemetery was not open. We circled along the wall until we had found the Old Post Chapel Gate and gained entry. The changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was beautiful, artful, and sorrowful. While the bodies entombed there hold a place of honor, they represent servicemembers who were never found. Everyone present was respectfully silent throughout the ceremony, which restored my hope in the humanity of tourists.
Next, we viewed the eternal flame at the memorial between John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. On a semi-circular platform, several quotes from JFK’s speeches are written in granite. They overlook the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument in the distance. Again, everyone visiting the gravesite was silent and appeared thoughtful.
Beauty and solemnity hold together the walls surrounding Arlington National Cemetery. For this reason, even while dying of thirst and footsore, Otter and I could not bring ourselves to climb over the short wall. We had a map, but not all gates are open on the weekend. We knew the direction we wanted to go, but closed gates and construction funneled us further from our goal. Between the monuments, we had gotten turned around and finally exited the cemetery on the opposite side from our parking spot. Neither of us had planned for a lengthy hike and we looked like we had just survived a desert as we spotted a minimart. Bottles of water and Gatorade were purchased and consumed with savage thirst, causing the clerk to give us a curious side-eye. Hydrated like happy camels, Otter and I hiked back to the car for a final adventure.
The commissary is the grocery store on any military base. Since Otter didn’t have a car in town, he had only been purchasing what he could carry home in a backpack. As he piled canned goods and bulky items into cart, Otter exclaimed how pleasant it was to not worry about fitting everything into a single bag. Coming from California, where they believe plastic bags are evil, I was shocked at how many bags they were willing to use to corral our items. Just incase we bought the extra heavy bread; it got its own bag. Oh crap, California is training me to hate plastic bags too! I’m not fully ready to give up my plastic straws yet.
As I dropped off Otter with his plethora of foods and promises to share the pictures we had taken, I was thankful for the Army family I have been given. No matter where I travel, a Soldier will always be nearby and ready for adventures. Safe travels, my friends.