Have you ever had one of those sudden, time-shifting moments, where you’re engrossed in a book, your mind’s eye fixed on the scene it’s creating, only to be abruptly shaken back to the present?
We all have them, and I had an intense one yesterday. I was sitting in my car on Jefferson Avenue, steps from the Mall, content to have found that rare piece of prized property in DC, an empty spot in the free, three-hour zone.
Knowing the winter season would translate to little or no line, I had decided to take in the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit at the National Museum of American History. This is one of those places that Washingtonians list under, “Been meaning to go, but I’m not waiting 30 minutes in line.”
But with my interest in Key, this was a must-see. So as I waited in my car for 10 am to roll around, I read Anthony Pitch’s account of the British assault on Fort McHenry in his "The Burning of Washington." This magic man had me there on the night of September 14, 1814, as cannons roared, rockets exploded, and despair hung over Baltimore as the British launched shell after shell.
Suddenly, someone on busy 14th Street behind me laid on their horn. Startled, I looked up and was back in my car along the Mall, looking at the Capitol in front of me, our symbolic house the enemy had torched before their assault on Baltimore. And over my left shoulder, the White House, which was fire-worked too. And to my left, inside the museum, protected and preserved, the almost 200-year old flag that inspired Key to write “... was still there.”
Actually, some historians still debate about how long the huge flag (30x42) Mary Pickersgill and her helpers sewed, had flown over Fort McHenry. I found this out after entering the Museum and chatted up a docent who was preparing for the 10:15 guided tour. We discussed those middle days of September, 1814, when Francis Scott Key stayed up all night witnessing the constant bombing by General Ross’s forces.
One thought, the docent said, is that during the rain storm that pelted the battle area, Armistead ordered the 15-star flag lowered, and then hoisting up of the storm flag, also sewn by Pickersgill. Others say that the big flag flew all the time to serve its purpose of raising spirits and defying the lustful enemy.
I had been excited to finally see this flag that draws so many visitors to it, but what the docent said worried me. Was it the big flag that Key saw from the Tonnant in the dawn’s early light of September 14?
The guide said it would have to be, because Key could not have seen the smaller one in any detail.
Relieved, I took in, almost by myself, the Star-Spangled Banner exhibit. Frustrating you can’t take any pictures, even of the informative stations. But definately a must see, with artifacts, the flag, of course, and music playing, such as Jimi Hendrix’s controversial, but mesmerizing rendition at Woodstock (I happen to love it and think he meant no disrespect whatsoever).
I forgot to mention one thing. When 10 am was approaching, and the smattering of patrons waited outside for the Museum to open, a Joseph Henry re-enactor kept us entertained by talking about Washington. As the doors swung open, , he began to sing the national anthem with piped in music. About half went inside, while the other half of us quickly decided it was appropriate to turn around and face the nearest flag flying across the Mall at the Smithsonian Castle.
Don’t mean to be melodramatic, but standing there, the anthem transported me back again to Fort McHenry. I didn’t sing, but I followed the words more than ever before.