Walking into the historic William G. Wood Armory in Washington, D.C., you can’t help but feel a sense of history. The acoustics of the drums almost match the magnificence of the ceiling, and the sound of thrumming-in-your-ear rounds of hand-grenade ammunition that are played before every SNAFU and walk-up robbery echoes in the air. Despite its history, the building is often dark and dingy, and the blue fence blocking off a large portion of its interior seems to prevent anyone from ever getting inside. But the significance of this building cannot be underestimated.
It is here, in this rustic yet imposing building on Pennsylvania Avenue, that President Woodrow Wilson chose to send hundreds of thousands of troops and tens of thousands of civilians — including women, the mentally disabled and even little children — to fight in the Spanish-American War. If someone said that “Texas is the new Spain,” they’d be wrong. We are also the new Spain, for Spain was in no danger of invasion during the war. America was a free nation.
So when I visited the Weapons Training Building one afternoon last week, I was surprised that I was not greeted by a guard, a gate or someone going through my bags — rather, there was a guard, a gate and someone checking IDs. While I was having a conversation with a member of the NRA, a quiet server came up and handed out the menu. In Spanish, the menu is actually set out in front of us, but the menu in English contains a mix of items, such as sushi and burritos.
We opted for fried chicken, sushi and a meat burrito. You know, typical lunch fare. After an hour, I nearly felt a little fatigued from all the food and what was surely a bit of a wait. But in true Washington fashion, the bartender came over to my table, greeted me by name and told me that he knew I had been to a couple of bars last night and asked if I wanted a drink. He gave me one. Then he gave me some chips and guacamole and another drink. He even brought me two alcoholic beverages. He may not have meant to, but he clearly had.
The last drink he presented to me was a Bud Light.
As we talked, I pointed out the wall of photographs and explained to him that the photograph he was holding was of the president’s 100th birthday celebration. The service gave one the sense that they had been directly involved in the birth of the United States, and they had a certain pride in that. It’s a concept a lot of people don’t fully grasp, and even among many of my fellow citizens, it is rarely discussed or considered. There’s a real reason why so many in this country see Washington, D.C., as a place where the only politics and government, especially after the Watergate scandal, seems to be playing hide-and-seek in polite society.
For a few moments, I actually felt a bit of patriotism, being awed by these men and women. I felt they mattered. At that moment, I wanted them to matter even more, so I asked the bartender if I could have the beer. He stepped over to the bar, climbed a ladder and replaced it with a ceramic one. He made a ritual gesture as he turned the first hammer. Then he got back to work, whisking away my plate of food and bringing it to me without so much as a touch on it. It was not a standard-bearer for independence and dignity. Instead, it was a cross between a servant and a Roman gladiator.
I nearly choked on my Chipotle burrito when he brought it back to me. I never expected it to happen. I never thought it would be something akin to a display of cruelty in front of my eyes, but I have finally concluded: There’s no time limit on remembering the sacrifices of those who fought.