Wednesday, we hit the Newseum/Freedom Forum. Now "Newseum" was obviously a name that some advertising or marketing person came up with because no copy editor or editor I know would ever think up such a lame name. Yeah, it's cute, but damn. Despite this, the site itself was tré cool. They had exhibits about the history of journalism, with lots of printing presses. There was a place where you could see digitally transmitted, printed front pages from about 70 newspapers for that day. (Sadly, ours was missing.)
Then there was the Pulitzer photo exhibit. It contained some of the most famous and best photos to win Pulitzers. This was the part that got me. There were some great political photos, like the one of a lonely Kennedy and Johnson walking along, taken from behind during a big crisis. There was a photo of Clinton with Hillary standing behind him during Monicagate.
But then there was a photo of a baby girl who was trying to crawl to a food trough but couldn't make it. A buzzard watched her from behind, waiting. And under it, was the story of the photojournalist who took the photo. It said he got angry letters from people asking why he took a photo instead of picking up the child and helping her. He had been warned not to pick up children because of the diseases they carried. He shooed the buzzard away, but the idea that he hadn't picked up the child haunted him. The photojournalist eventually committed suicide.
There was the famous napalm photo from Vietnam with the girl running naked, screaming. The girl in the photo, the caption said, grew up, got married, and still keeps in touch with the photographer.
There were several others that punched me in the gut, like the U.S. soldier being dragged down the street, beaten and dead, in Somalia.
I was already feeling like there was a hole in my stomach. I was feeling ravaged. And then I came to it.
The firefighter photo from the Oklahoma City bombing.
I've seen this photo before hundreds of times. It became a symbol of a lot of things at the time. Hope, fear, heroism, despair. I never examined it too closely because it was too close to the time I spent there and the people I met those weeks.
Now, I was seeing the photo, blown up larger than I'd ever seen it. There were details I'd never noticed before. Bits of plaster or rock on the child's body. The hard, hopeless look on the firefighter's face. The child's feet. Baylee had no shoes. The socks were frayed. I wondered, awfully, where the shoes had gone and if they'd been blown off in the blast. I examined the photo, unwillingly, and by the time I got to the child's bloody head, face mercifully hidden, tears were already welling in my eyes and I had to turn away. I went walking, too quickly, over to the Berlin Wall exhibit and the glass shrine to fallen journalists.
I wanted to cry. I wanted to be somewhere else, as far away from that photo as I could be. Outside, the air was cool and crisp. The sun was shining brightly, casting its glow on a city I don't know.
I remembered a city I used to know, a place where I'm practically a stranger now.
There were tears in my eyes. It's been almost six years. I walked. My stomach was still tight, coiled and angry. I took deep breaths.
I wanted to put that photo out of my mind, but I couldn't.
I think the only feeling worse than this would be forgetting what this feels like.
On Thursday, our free night, I went up to the city on a chartered bus and saw some of the monuments. I'd seen a lot of it before on my first and only trip to D.C., so it wasn't as thrilling. More exciting for me was visiting with Strega, whom I'd met in Vegas. After some confusion, we finally met at the Foggy Bottom metro station and we went to TGIF where we chatted about MightyBigTV and caught up. She's so cool.
Friday was our last session, lunch with the attendees back at the hotel, and a flight back to Austin.
I was sorry to go because I met some really great, fun people. Journalists are generally cool as Hell to hang out with and these folks were no exception. We all exchanged business cards and there will probably be some recruiting going on as we're all like, "Dude, you gotta come work at our paper! You rock!" I'm sure I'll run into a lot of these people again, one way or another.
Oh, our hotel provided us with USA Today for free, and I got totally addicted to this newspaper. Look, say what you will about the 'Day, but it's easy as Hell to read and they write some goofy, funny stuff. Like what other major paper would put that Survivor lawsuit on the front page? USA Today is a total TV dinner newspaper. With all the Serious Discussion going on of how to make real newspapers work, it was kinda nice to live with a totally fluffy, fun paper for a week. That doesn't mean I'm getting a subscription, but it was a nice perk of the trip.
The guy who taught us about power told a story about how he can often get upgraded to first class just by asking and making a fuss. I asked. I made a fuss. They said I could be in first class if I paid $1,200 more to get upgraded. I politely declined.
And here I am, flying back right now, not in first class. In fact, I'm sitting in front of The Most Annoying Man In the Western Hemisphere. Everyone on the flight hates him except his girlfriend, who is almost, but not quite, as annoying. He's made crappy jokes, he asked for two meals instead of one (he was "joking") and he's been playing cards and slamming the tray, making my seat shake and shimmy with each hand. I wondered to the guy next to me when God started making assholes in six-foot-tall sizes. The dude sounded just like "Jay" from all of Kevin Smith's movies.
A few other odds and ends: Jen has a journal with a title I still can't pronounce (I think it's a chant) and it's really funny. She's won lots of awards, and more importantly, she e-mails me and tells me how fabulous my Web site is, prompting me to e-mail her back and tell her how fabulous hers is. Except I'm not the one lying. She's also linked to this site, which automatically makes her a hero in the true Herculean sense of the word. Go give her your eyeballs. You won't be disappointed.
Another person who's been saying nice things is Jessamyn. She even sent me pictures of a church in Chicago (I know it says Philadelphia) that uses the Happy Face in its services. No, I can't figure it out either:
Huh. Damn. I'll let you guys know if I form any partnerships between this site and any major religions.
Come back Wednesday when I Valentine your ass...
"I think it would be super cool if somebody called me 'Bird-Man of Alcatraz,' but nobody ever does."