Ulysses S Grant and Me

The Greatest General Ever

I have a thing for Ulysses S. Grant. I am not sure how I fell into this rabbit hole but I am sure it had something to do with Father Abraham (that’s Lincoln). I love Lincoln for many reasons. He was funny and wise. He loved his boys and yet they died breaking his heart. He was given a task that no mortal could really solve and he did the best he could only to pay for it in the end. I have read many biographies about Lincoln and Grant would show up as his favorite general. Well, if U.S. Grant was Lincoln’s favorite general, there must be something there. So I started reading about him.

Grant’s reputation has been tainted for a century largely because of the revisionist history of the Lost Cause. He beat Robert E. Lee so he had to be villanized–the story is that he was a drunk who did not care about his men and a coorupt and incompetent as President. But now historians are taking a deep dive and it is clear that Grant was perhaps the one of the greatest tactician in war, his troops loved him, he was modest, humble and probably too trusting of his friends. He was the President who pushed Reconstruction and tried hard to carry out Lincoln’s hope to rebuild the South and give former slaves the freedom they deserved and to ensure they had their full rights. That did not go over too well in the South as you can imagine. He was the first to deal with the Ku Klux Klan. He put them down with military might.

Grant was small in stature and he had little patience for school. So he did not do well at West Point. He had two talents–he was a horse whisperer. His relationship with horses was legendary. He could ride any horse, even the most difficult. His favorite was a beautiful war horse named Cincinnati. He was know for eschewing military clothes, favoring the garb of a private. When he travelled to Washington to see Lincoln, he did so by himself without much fanfare. Once he showed up at the Willard Hotel, acting like an average guy just after Lincoln had named Lieutenant General of all the armies. He was trying to check in but he had no reservation. They were giving him the run around as if he was a pauper trying to get an expensive room. Someone suddenly realized it was Grant and murmurs went through the hotel that the General was in the lobby. He was mobbed by well wishers.

After he finished two terms as president, he went on a world tour and was feted wherever he went. His tactics as a General were studied worldwide.

For a lot of reasons after his presidency, he was perpetually in need of money. He was never very good at business. But he was a good writer and he was convinced to write his biography. Mark Twain learned about this and sought to publish the book himself. Being an admirer, Twain wanted to make sure Grant got as much money as possible from the deal. Grant went to work writing. But the worst thing happened. Grant developed throat cancer, likely driven by the cigars he constantly smoked. (He puffed day and night.) He eventually died a horrible and painful death from throat cancer. Twain got the book published and it is considered one of the best military biographies ever written. I’ve read it. It is clear and concise, as you would expect.

So I am kind of a fan.

In April, we went to New York to see a concert at Radio City Music Hall (Matt needed to seen A-ha, a band from his youth what I am not really familiar with but that is a different essay).

With an afternoon free, Matt asked me if I wanted to go to Grant’s Tomb. Well, hell yes! So we taxied to Harlem 122nd and Riverside Drive. Officially known as the General Grant National Monument, this is the largest mausoleum in North America.

Grant Monument
Inside dome
Lee’s surrender

Both Grant and his wife, Julia, are buried there. The tomb spent years in a decrpit state, graffiti covered and neglected. It was restored in large part due to the work of Frank Scaturro. As a college student at Columbia University, Scaturro volunteered to be a guide at the Grant Monument. He found it to be in serious need of attention and began a solo effort to have the Park Service and Congress fund a restoration. The most important being to secure the place from vandals in off hours. He eventiually prevailed.

But eEven now, we found a monument in serious need of attention. The plaza in front needs serious work, many stones are loose or broken. The building looks like it needs a good cleaning all the way around. There is a horrible art project from the 1970’s that may have seemed like a good idea at the time but really needs to go. And for our purposes, the monument is not handicapped accessible so I had to carry Matt’s knee scooter up the stairs.

When we arrived a ranger was talking to two women about Grant and the Civil War. I started listening and nodding along. Then I joined the conversation. Three women gabbing about Grant and Lincoln. It was nerdy and fun. It turned out that these two women did not know each other. They happened upon each other in the building both interested in what the ranger had to say. We talked and talked that poor ranger’s ear off until it was time to close the place. We helped him close up and walked away still talking.

One of the women mentioned that the bicentennial of Grant’s birthday was coming up and there was going to be a big dinner in his honor. I said, well, let’s just look that up on the old internet. And I found it is about one minute. The Grant Monument Association was throwing a party–a dinner and “colloquy” between General David Petraeus, and Ron Chernow and Ron White, both Grant biographers. (The Grant Monument Association was originally responsible for getting the monument built. It was rekindled by Scaturro when enough people agreed the monument needed repairs, protection and just some TLC. I have since joined.)

I looked at Matt and asked whether we could get back to NYC to go to the dinner. It would be a weeknight. He said we would make it work. So I bought tickets to the dinner and we were set. We said goodbye to the ladies went on our way.

Two weeks later, April 27, it was time to celebrate Grant’s birthday. There was a wreath laying ceremony and celebration to be held at the monument in the morning, and then the dinner would be later that evening. We caught the early train to NYC and cabbed it up to the monument.

We took our seats. The monument was bedecked in the colors.

“Let us have peace” are words Grant spoke in his inauguration address.

As we waited, a woman from NYC’s public radio asked to interview us about why we were at the ceremony. We told her we were from DC, which impressed her greatly. We travelled all that way to celebrate Grant’s birthday? Yes. She asked us what our feelings were about the fact that Grant did not have a great record on race. I proceeded to give her the history of President Grant including his fight to preserve voting rights for former slaves and his taking on the Klu Klux Klan. She did not know any of this. She asked how I learned all this and I answered, “I read books.” I mean, jeez. What kind of question is that?

The ceremony began and we were entertained with a military color guard, speeches by politicians, generals, and Grant’s great great grandson, Ulysses Grant Dietz.

After the proceedings we were getting some snacks and we saw one of the women, Dakota, from our first visit. We waved and asked, do you remember us? She could not believe we came back and we were going to the dinner! Too hilarious.

Me, Matt and Dakota

We said our goodbyes and headed back to the hotel to get ready for dinner. The dinner was to be held at the Union League Club, one of those old school men’s clubs that has been around since the 1800’s. This club was formed as a break away group when the original Union Club refused to denounce the Confederacy. 

Just for fun here are the rules on “decorum”:

  • On weekdays, until Friday at 4:00 pm, jackets are required for gentlemen and appropriate equivalent dress is required for women throughout all areas of the Clubhouse. Athletic shoes, hats, flip flops, cut off or short shorts, tank tops, or crop tops are not permitted anywhere in the Clubhouse or Terrace Café, at any time throughout the year. Jeans are not permitted on weekdays. Ties are required only during dinner hours in the Mary Murray Room and Lounge and at evening committee events, except where the event announcement states otherwise. Jackets may be removed when playing billiards. Blazers and ties are available for members and guests to borrow while visiting the Clubhouse. Starting at 4:00 pm on Friday through Sunday evening jackets are not required but are encouraged.

    Members and guests are expected to dress in a manner respectful of the membership and the Club. Collared shirts are required for men, and jeans and trousers must be in good condition.

    On Saturdays and Sundays from Memorial Day weekend through Labor Day members and guests may wear dress (e.g. Bermuda style) or golf shorts in the Clubhouse. Jeans are also permitted on Friday evenings starting at 4:00 pm, between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

  • Members are at all times responsible for ensuring that their guests are aware of and comply with the Club’s dress code. Private event hosts may, at their discretion, permit “business casual” attire in those rooms rented exclusively for their event. Jeans are not permitted. Hats and coats must be checked in at the Coat Room on the Ground Floor or kept in overnight rooms.Hand luggage is not permitted in the Union League Café, Bar & Lounge, Main Dining Room, Mary Murray Room, or Main Lounge. Members and guests going to or from the outside to overnight rooms, the Fitness Center, or squash courts are not required to comply with the dress code but are expected to be respectful of the Clubhouse, the membership and our guests. Proper attire is to be maintained in the Presidents’ Room. Jackets may be removed upon entry.

You know, when I read this code I think, hey, I wish more places had rules like this. This is the way people used to dress. No more. I am so sick of seeing people in shorts and t-shirts in the theater and in restaurants. It is so not approriate. But that is the basis of another post.

So off we went to the Union League Club to have dinner and see a colloquy. 

The dinner was populated with what looked liked elderly men, military types, and young West Point cadets. At dinner we had three cadets at our table. In the old Stephen Colbert fashion, I asked if Grant was a great general or the greatest general. They did not get the joke. I am afraid to think they were too young to remember. But the cadet did admit that Grant was a fantastic general. I can’t say I remember the dinner itself. I think the food was good for a banquet kind of dinner. Mostly it was about watching General Petraeus ask questions. 

Talking Grant

It was interesting to listen to the historians discuss Grant but I did not really learn anything new. But hey, I was there just to celebrate his birthday. We need more attention to be paid to Grant. I will do my best. 

March 24 – Cherry Blossom Kite Festival

Right before it was blown away.

The kite festival was back after a two year hiatus.  The Kite Fest starts off the Cherry Blossom Festival.  People converge on the Mall around the Washington Monument to celebrate kite flying.  Everyone tries it.  Even me.  At least once a year I break out our kites and give it a go.  The wind is excellent around the monument and the area is clear of buildings and trees, so it is generally safe flying. 

As we approached the Mall, we were puzzled because we did not see very many kites in the air.  As we neared the monument, the reason became quite clear.  The wind was howling.  It was as cold as a winter’s day.  There were numerous kites mangled on the ground or stuck in kite eating cherry trees.  

Kite eating tree

  Undaunted I decided to try my kite.  It was a double box kite and it was going to go far fast.  I managed to get it into the air, but it was the wrong kite for the weather. I was wrestling with it as it bounced around on the air currents.  Then one terrific gust, and boom, the kite string broke and the kite was gone.  It dove to the ground like a kamikaze and then rolled right into the kite competition area.  Oops!  I ran after it, but it kept rolling.  I finally caught up with it about a half mile later when someone stopped it and folded it up.  Well, so much for kite flying.  We turned to leave and the sky before us was filled with dark gray clouds.  Even though it was the end of March, snow and sleet pummeled us as we made our way another half mile to the car.  That was pretty miserable.  Such is the weather in D.C.  It can be 80º and sunny one day and 30º with snow the next.  That’s okay.  It makes life a bit more interesting.  

February 28 to March 10 – the days just disappear

Is it because we no longer go go go? Is it because we are settled in our ways? Why do the days fly by with nothing to show for it? But doing the little things we do gives us some structure and maybe allow us to have brief moments of just being aware.

I took the cat to the vet and then we drove around town while I ran errands. This is not momentous. But for those few hours of being in the car with a tiny cat was very much in the moment time spent. I talk to her and she looks at me with resignation very much wanting to get home where it is safe. I understood where she was coming from. I tried to explain to her that it can be fun being out and about. She was not convinced. I did not really believe it either. So we went home and another day passed by.

These disappearing days add up until you find yourself saying “I can’t believe it is March.” Thomas Mann had a theory about time that I think is true. Have you ever noticed that a week on vacation feels like a month? His theory was that the routine of life, the sameness, compresses time–it goes by quickly because it is always the same. But that sameness also makes yesterday feel like last year. Can it really be that we celebrated Christmas three months ago? it feels like a year ago.

But when you go on vacation, routines are interrupted and things are new. Time then slows down because it has a new orientation. Sensations are different, what you see and hear is different. Your routine clock changes. I think he is right about this. It is the routine, or rut if I am being honest, that makes time fly. The only way to slow time is to open up to new things.

February 27 – Ukraine War Protest

Protests were breaking out everywhere and I just had to join in. I drew up my poster. I had heard about the Ukrainian soldier who had told the Russians to go fuck yourself and well, that poster just write itself.

We drove down to the Russian Embassy and the protest was in full swing. We somehow ended up in the car parade so Matt waved the poster out the passenger side window while I drove along. When we came in front of the woman leading the crowd with a bull horn, she saw our sign and said started chanting, “Putin, go fuck yourself.” Putin, go fuck yourself.” Everyone joined in and waved at us as we passed by. It felt good giving support.

Unfortunately, there was not a parking space to be had so we swung down to the Ukrainian Embassy to see if there was anything going on there. It was quiet with just a pile of flowers out front. By the time we got back to the Russian Embassy, the crowd had dispersed. Good times!

Hilarious. People are so funny.

February 24 –  A.D. 16 — The Next Broadway Hit

            You hear it here first.  We saw a musical that you are going to want to see on Broadway in a few years. It is called A.D. 16 and it was premiered here at our local regional theater, Olney Theatre, of which we are a member.  To say this musical was fun is really an understatement.  Mary of Magdala is a sixteen year old girl who wants to be independent.  This is not a thing in Nazareth. Then she meets the dreamy 16 year old boy next door named Jesus and she falls head over heels in love.  Fantastic songs and fun ensues.  A lot of old school R&B and soul sounds, some rap and some ballads all to make up an endearing and watchable show.  This is going to be great on Broadway and I can say we saw it here first.  

            We actually saw another show here in D.C. before Broadway—Come from Away.  It premiered here about a year before it made it to New York.  It was a wonderful story and you just knew this musical was going somewhere.  And it did. So will A.D. 16. Here is a link to the Post article.

February 22 – Junk Drawer

            Every house has to have a junk drawer.  If you don’t have a junk drawer, you are doing yourself a disservice.  You need a place to toss stuff when you don’t know where else to put it.  (Kondo can kiss it.)  Every so often I try to sort through it because I know I have tossed  things in there that I have long since forgotten why I kept whatever it is if I can even identify it.  This year it was many, many extra string light bulbs and twist ties. Here is a look at what is there:

yoyo, random golf ball, a sand egg timer
Those are definite keepers.
false vampire teeth (I have no idea why I have those but they may come in handy some day when I am bored) and the
baby from a King cake
broken bell and chocolate 50 cent piece and
an old souvenir from Silver Docs

February 20 – Bird Count

Yummy. I did not know a hawk would eat suet but there you are.    

            Every year the Cornell Ornithology Lab does the Back yard bird count.  If  I remember, we participate.  You just count the birds that show up in your yard. It is easy and fun because we like to go, oh look it’s a blue bird. There is the titmouse, there is hte downy woodpecker. Yeah, our lives are that exciting.

This year we had a treat—a hawk on the ground eating suet I had tossed.  He/she usually hunts the feeder and we do now and then find evidence that he has snagged a meal, usually a smaller bird. He was not letting anyone near that suet and, of course, no bird wanted to go near it because the hawk will eat them.

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