Monday, June 2, 2014

Backtracking: U.S. presidents in London

I've been meaning to post this for awhile now, but then Florence intervened.  In London, amidst trips to the National Gallery of Art, the Tates (Modern and Britain), and various other art experiences, Heather and I stumbled upon or sought out monuments to American presidents. There are probably others, but we found four: three honoring all-time "greats;" one honoring a "good," who gets bonus points for helping one of the greats save civilization.  (For my searching, historical take on a connection between a specific president and art, see A Poseur's Guide to Art: Lesson #6. And, no, there are no Richard Nixon memorials in London. Or pretty much anywhere, for that matter, unless you count the Watergate.)

The greatest of the greats? Abe is in Parliament Square outside Westminster Abbey. He is in good company, joined by, among others, Winston Churchill and Nelson Mandela. Churchill agreed to his statue on the condition that it have an electric current running through it. The PM was, apparently, loathe to be memorialized for eternity bearing a patina of pigeon poop. Churchill was a problem solver.

The Father of the Former Colonies peering out over Trafalgar Square with the National Gallery of Art in the background. Quite sporting of the Brits to honor George, no?  They're such good old sticks.

FDR, with cane, surveys Grosvenor Square from his perch on the north side of the park. To FDR's left is a September 11 Memorial Garden, which  honors all of that day's victims, including 67 murdered British citizens. To FDR's right, bordering the square on the west side, is the American Embassy, which, unfortunately, looks like an amped up version of the McIver Building. UNCG folks know what I mean ... awful. FDR is looking at ...

... the Eagle Squadrons Memorial. The Eagle Squadrons were formed by the Royal Air Force and consisted of American volunteer pilots willing to fight alongside the Brits well before the U.S. officially entered WWII. 

Ike is memorialized for his role as Supreme Allied Commander, hence the uniform and the five stars around the pedestal.  His back is to the American Embassy -- just as well -- and, coming full circle, he looks out toward … 

... FDR, possibly appealing for a little help in dealing with Field Marshal Montgomery.  Monty, according to just about everyone who knew him, was an insufferable prat.  Engraved on the side of the pedestal is an excerpt from Ike's Order of the Day for June 6, 1944: "Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: You are about to embark upon a great crusade ... the hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you."  Indeed.

We saw FDR and Ike on, appropriately enough, Memorial Day.  This was affecting, but was made less so by the fact that the FDR and Eagles Squadron memorials are undergoing significant renovations such that we could only appreciate them at a distance.  But this brought to mind an unbelievably emotional experience Heather and I stumbled into in 2000 on a Memorial Day in Paris. We had decided to visit the Arc de Triomphe.  We jumped on the Metro and got off at the Charles DeGaulle-Étoile station, which exits right next to the Arc.  We’d barely had a chance to orient ourselves when we realized that in the middle of the day, one of the busiest traffic circles in the world was empty of traffic.  Moreover, an honor guard carrying Old Glory and the Tricolor was parading down the Champs Elysees in near total silence.  We had no idea what we were in for.  The honor guard marched up to a slew of dignitaries and a French military band waiting beneath the Arc.  Then, someone – probably the American ambassador to France – was saluted and presented with a proclamation.  At this point, the honor guard lowered the Tricolor in relation to the American flag, and the military band raised their instruments and played the Star-Spangled Banner.  Beneath the Arc de Triomphe.  Looking out on an empty Champs ElyseesWhere Hitler marched his army after the fall of France.  Where the Allied armies marched after the liberation of France on their way to defeating Hitler.  To this day I get goose bumps thinking of it.

And by the way, the honor guard was marching toward the Arc from the southeast. Had we hopped back on the Metro at Charles DeGaulle-Étoile and grabbed a Yellow/Line 1 train toward Château de Vincennes, we could have retraced the honor guard's steps, ridden two stops and gotten off at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Metro station.  For a couple of Americans in Paris, how cool is that?

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