Several years ago the Smithsonian in Washington DC decided to take a few of it's artifacts and take them on the road. The idea was to let people who do not go to Washington DC have a chance to experience some of the nation's treasures. We were lucky enough to have the Smithsonian make Kansas City one of it's stops on the national tour.
We got tickets as soon as they became available. You were assigned a certain day and time to be there to begin your experience. This was done in order to space out the arrival of visitors so that there would not be a great throng of people all trying to get in at the same time. It worked and made seeing the artifacts much more pleasant.
They brought things from all different parts of the museum. A few of the items I saw made more of an impact on me than others. So here are my greatest memories of what I saw that day.
Alan Shepard's Mercury capsule. It was the craft that took America's first man into outer space. Although he did not orbit the Earth and the flight didn't last very long at all, it was the crucial first step in what would be one of the greatest engineering feats of all time. That feat was setting foot on the moon in less than ten years time. I do not remember the Shepard flight really except from what I have seen in old film footage and read in history books. As I looked at that tiny capsule though the thought of what the space program had accomplished from Shepard's first flight up to the Shuttle program and the building of the international space station flooded my American pride. My grandfather told me once that he had been around to see the transits systems of the world go from horse and buggy to trains, to cars, to planes to seeing a man walk on the moon. I wondered then what thoughts my grandfather had when Shepard did his solo flight way back in 1961.
The compass that Meriwether Lewis carried in his pocket during the great Lewis and Clark exploration across the continent was on display that day. It was nothing fancy and wasn't very big, about the size of a small pocket watch. My thinking went to the fact that this little compass allowed a group of men to places where nothing was known. Each day that the Lewis and Clark Expedition started out, they had no idea what they would find and this little compass kept them on the proper course for trying to find that northwest passage that didn't exist. It was exploring into the frontier much the same way Alan Shepard had only with less knowledge.
In one part of the exhibit there sat the chairs and table that General Grant and General Lee sat on and at to bring an end to the Civil War at the Appomattox courthouse in 1865. I have read several accounts of that meeting between the two great Generals and seeing the chairs and the table made the pictures IN my imagination more realistic. I had read how each man respected the other at this critical juncture of our countries history. The Union Soldiers that were there were instructed by General Grant to be respectful to the confederates and General Lee had ordered his troops to be humble but proud in defeat. I look at this event and can see it repeated over and over in wars that have come to an end with the United States on the winning side. The respect that the Untied States treated Japan with the signing of terms on the USS Missouri and how we helped rebuild Japan and all of Europe after the great war. The meeting of Lee and Grant set an example that the world should follow when war's ugliness comes to an end. Unfortunately many countries, including the United States forget the classiness and the respectfulness of what took place at Appomattox. I think some of our leaders should head over to the Smithsonian sometime and take a good look at those chairs. You can learn a lot from just looking at them.
The Wizard of Oz was and is one of the greatest films ever made. It's production and direction used technology in a way that triggered the imagination of those who made that movie. A prime example of how things have changed was set forth with the display of the Ruby Slippers that adorned the feet of Judy Garland during that movie. This film starts in black and white, moves into color and then ends in black and white. That by itself is some pretty useful imagination that made the film special. The ruby slippers tell a much larger story of the imagination that was required. The slippers are ordinary shoes with red sequins attached to them. When you watch the film you don't see that at all. You are told they are rubies and they look like rubies on film. They had to figure out that these little red sequins would be able to fool the child in all of us into thinking that they looked like rubies instead of sequins. It worked. Today they need not even bother with doing anything of the sort. The computer graphic age has taken the imagination that film makers use to have and put it in the hands of graphic artists who are told what it is supposed to look like and simply do it on the computer. To me, when I saw those shoes and the sequins I remember thinking "so THAT'S how they did it." Technology has taken away a large part of our use of the imagination part of our brain.
The one item that made the largest impact upon me though was a simple hat. Simple stove pipe hat. The hat has become synonymous with Abraham Lincoln. To look at the hat you would not think it anything special. It was not fancy but rather plain much like it's owner. Time had taken its toll on the hat. There isn't a lot to say about the hat except for imagining all of the places that the hat had been to and all the speeches when the hat sat under its owners chair while he spoke. I don't know how many of these hats President Lincoln had but to me it represented the President himself. It was at Gettysburg. It was there when the President made his second inaugural address to the nation. It can be seen in numerous photographs by Mathew Brady as the President went out to his troops. It is a humble hat for a humble man. It was there possibly as a personal comfort for the President as he went out and tried to keep this country from blowing apart. It was worn on a head that bore stress beyond belief. A head that was disturbed by events that happened around him. The death of his son, the troublesome mental health of his wife that effected his own mental health. This hat covered the head of a wise man who saw things in a larger perspective than most men could see. He did what he felt was best for the country no matter what the price. The final price was the life of the President, leaving the hat without an owner. The hat then became the property of the whole country representing what this country had survived. Although there can be an argument made for President Washington, personally I don't think this country has had a greater President before or since Abraham Lincoln. We are left with his hat as a memory of the great man.