The Arsenal of Democracy: WWII Planes in Washington D.C


On Friday, I saw the WWII flyover on the National Mall. They called it the “Arsenal of Democracy” after FDR’s famous phrasing in 1940, a name which in our modern age are both comically overwrought and entirely American – perhaps representations of the same thing.  It was the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day, and 15 historically sequenced formations of historic military aircraft had been permitted to fly over the US capitol, sponsored by the Commemorative Air Force (a group whose existence I was until now entirely unaware of).

They would fly down the Potomac River, then fly over Independence Avenue – buzzing the World War II Memorial, where a group of veterans and dignitaries would gather, proceeding over the Washington Memorial and the Mall.  I could not miss the thing, of course. This is one of the moments that makes enduring some of the indignities of DC, especially when heat-and-metro-outage season hits, slightly more worth it.

When I think of WWII aviation and the war itself, how we remember it in this country – well, I think less of Europe and much more of the tropical remains of the war I’ve seen in Asia, the remains I will divert myself to go look at whenever they are available, as if I feel it is mildly incumbent upon me. And they are, in their way, neglected: the reminders of the war in Burma and in Chongqing don’t get the visitation and the affection that the sites in Europe do.  As a friend noted on Twitter, the  sites are reminders of a sweaty and brutal jungle war – and who romanticizes jungle warfare, with its insects, its rotting feet, its miserable sweat?

We as Westerners are better at imagining great battles on stony beaches and in cities with lots of soaring cathedrals. This particular imagination is, I suppose, what fueled the Arsenal of Democracy. But me, I guess I am a tropical creature, if my life trajectory so far means anything. I remember being the only person knocking around General Stilwell’s house in Chongqing, overlooking the Yangtze river, and the only person in the Flying Tigers museum besides. So, I went to the Arsenal of Democracy in a way to help add some color to the things I have read about World War II in China – the sound of the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, what the Douglas C-47 aircraft used to make the nerve-wracking journey over The Hump looked like from below.


Thousands and thousands of people had emerged from their office buildings to join the tourists to watch the flyover, a rare event everyone could agree on. I made my way from my building at Farragut West and headed down 17th street, past the White House. The heat is already like summer but I can comprehend it, it’s not worse than Cambodia, not yet, anyway. As I was nearly to the mall and passing the Association of American States, I saw some of the first planes go over, in a tight formation, somewhere far away. I hurried up, hoping I hadn’t missed anything. The airspace around Washington D.C. is some of the most tightly restricted in the world, locked down even more after September 11 – a topic I know a little about, as I am bound to know all kinds of tiresome things about FAA regulations on unmanned aerial vehicles. So to see anything flying in this vicinity was a bit of a novelty in and of itself, an exotic sight.

People were massed around the Washington Memorial, but the crowds looked ike a sweating, nostalgic Woodstock. I weaved through them, stopping for a moment to take a picture of a young red-headed man who was staring up at the sky, as an early formation of planes went overhead. I had come to the place in large part for the acoustics, to get a sense of what these particular,  historical airplanes sounded like overhead, but there was highly obnoxious jackhammering going on around, from the perpetual revamp of the Mall, and I kept walking.

I headed for the WWII memorial instead. Famous airshow announcer Rob Reider was commenting in a typically silvery voice and I stayed put, grateful for the interpretation, which I could really use. I only recently became interested in aviation, I was never the kind of person who could identify a certain model of historical airplane from just glancing up at the underside for five seconds, as Reider spoke in a  voice that was entirely suitable for a special presentation on the History Channel about what was to come. The first formation was composed of trainer craft: the Piper L-4 Grasshopper, the Beech AT-11 Kansan with its glassed-in nose, the North American AT-6/SNJ, the Boeing Stearman PT-17/N2S. People applauded in scattered and perfunctory chunks as the planes went over, although it was very evident the pilots couldn’t hear them – which, in that case, what were we applauding exactly?


At the  memorial, the first rows of folding chairs were reserved for veterans of the war, and there were lots of them, in olive green uniforms and military hats, looking up at the sky with baseball hats on, with wives and children sitting beside them, often clutching their forearms. Young soldiers in vintage paratrooper gear stood and looked over the water. I photographed two girls in WWII outfits, in blue and red, who smiled prettily. A man in a old Navy uniform, with stark white bell bottoms, patrolled the area and frowned a lot while shooting pictures.

I circulated around the area, trying to figure out where the source of the announcement was coming from, but I could never quite get sight of him. “And our special guest former senator Robert Dole!” he announced, and everyone cheered. I tried to stand up and see what Robert Dole looked like from one of the raised platforms around the WWII memorial but couldn’t pick him out of the crowd, which was a disappointment, since I recalled going through the 1996 elections as a young child and having no clear conception of his appearance (beyond “elderly).

As I looked down to the platform where the special guests were, the planes kept going overhead – there were 56 of them in all, and they would all go over our heads over the next 40 minutes or so, in formation according to certain battles or some other (somewhat loose) historical association. The weird shape of the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, which famously and retributively shot down Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto. The speedy North American P-51 Mustang, of which there were seven present at the flyover, and the Grumman F4F Wildcat, which went toe-to-toe with Japan’s Mitsubishi A6M Zero.

b-29 superfortress

On the platform below, I watched as a group of veterans with artificial legs, most about my age, walked below, taking pictures with one another, and I looked at them for a moment, then felt strange about looking at them, about noticing the particular nature and origin of their injuries. I looked up at the planes again, to break up the weirdness of the moment, the noticing : a huge Boeing B-29 Superfortress cut through the sky ahead of us, and everyone stared at it for a moment, a little moment of distinct mechanical reverence, tinged slightly (perhaps I imagined this) with fear.

It is the only flyable B-29 Superfortress in the entire world, and I did feel lucky to see it, outside of computer-generated versions of such in nostalgia-drenched movies – an enormous black form, as big as you had imagined it if you were prone to historical re-imagining. They are the planes that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan. This was not, I think, mentioned in the commentary.

The last formation was devoted to the dead of America’s air wars in WWII, the Missing Man Formation, composed of the gull-winged Vought F4U Corsair, the Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, the North American P-51 Mustang, and the cyan-colored Grumman TBM Avenger. “This is the symbolic moment of this flyover,” Reider told us, in case we were wondering what to feel, and also wondering why one plane would intentionally fall away from the others, which would perhaps be the kind of thing everyone would Tweet about.



“Everyone should stand,” he added. Someone started to play taps, and all the veterans rose to their feet and saluted, and in that moment I felt like I should salute too, but I didn’t, although at least I was standing up. My sensation of patriotism, which is fickle and odd, emerged in me for a bit and I had uncharitable thoughts about the people who remained splayed out on their lawn chairs and on their towels, who failed to meet the moment with reverence, or at least with bothering to entirely notice.

The planes came over, with one plane – either the Mustang or the TBM Avenger, I can’t tell – with a plume of colored jet trail behind it, meant to represent the smoke from a direct hit. It fell away as it passed over our heads, and was gone. That was the end of the flyover.

We all started to walk back immediately, to get out of the sun. “Remember: if you speak English, thank a veteran,” he reminded us, as a sign-off. A woman began thanking people.

Leaving DC, Reasons I Disapprove of Seasons

DC rowhouses.

Hello, Internet. I’m in Iowa for a couple weeks, having successfully flown the Washington DC coop. I am in the process of preparing for and sorting out the details of a trip to Cambodia and Burma (and possibly Laos).

I plan to leave in early October. I miss Asia, and I miss Asia even more when the seasons began to change in the US and a certain foreign crispness finds its way into the air. I am very much a tropical creature, and I have none of the usual US fondness for and nostalgia for snow. Nasty stuff that must be dealt with, more like. Though I suppose you can’t smack your friends in the face with a wadded up ball of rain, so there is that.

Went to Boston to meet with my lovely and benevolent GlobalPost overlords. Stayed at the house of friends from Tulane, who are doing a quite successful job of being adults a bit outside of Cambridge, Massachusetts. This is heartening to see: people my age who have a home, agency, and jobs they don’t hate. It is easy to get sucked into the constant economic mire and convince yourself that the world is sinking into a cesspool, your generation is particularly affected, and Oh Why Bother Anyway. This is not necessarily true.

We visited the Boston Aquarium, where they are removing every last creature from the massive, central ocean tank so that they can clean and renovate it. This meant we got to watch scuba divers wrestle and transport sea turtles and rays. Sea turtles are easier to tangle with: you rely on the element of surprise and swim up under them, hustling them into a plastic box and walking them down the aisles of your aquarium on wheels.

Stingrays are the problem: smooth, slippery, irate, extremely good at bouts of angry thrashing. We saw one huge stingray successfully escape its captors and the mist net they were using to contain it: we watched as it swiftly circled the walls of the tank, a bit of a “Come at me bro” look in its admittedly unexpressive eyes. Don’t mess around with stingrays.

Elephant at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum.

I left Massachusetts in 2007 and have successfully avoided coming back since: not due to any real particular ire towards Massachusetts but more because I’m now pretty convinced I will actually wither and die when confronted with cold climates. Still, Boston is lovely: a city that feels downright exotic to mostly-West Coaster me, where everything is old, cobble-stoned, and has a distinct feeling of age to it.

Most US cities are defined by their sparkly newness, and this is especially true of the West, my West, where the population shifted around the 1950s and bought neon signs and convenient burger salons with them, where no one built inconvenient narrow alleyway houses, where we have boxes made of ticky-tacky. My classmates live in a house from around the 1920s and say this is considered relatively new in their neighborhood: Boston has an enviable connection with its past, and perhaps a more enviable connection with the water.

There are many cities built around ports, on the water, but not many construct as many attractive buildings on the waterfront. And then there’s all the fishing boats, the wharfs, the activity around there: reminds me especially of the Basque countryside in Spain. Same ocean, a few thousand miles apart, give or take. There is probably a chill in the air in very early September in the Basque country too.

One downside of traveling as much as I do: you become a bit detached from the “usual” progress of seasons. If you remain in one place, you are able to subconsciously track about when you should be breaking out your sweaters, or preparing for rain, or worrying about tornadoes: you lose this ability when you are perennially on the road, and must rely on the Weather Channel or word of mouth to fill in the gaps.

Misty morning near Hamilton, Illinois.

A chilly night or a remarkably hot day or a rain storm fill you with surprise: there is no context for This Time of Year. Fall happens now, or it could happen then, or it might not even happen at all, or it might look different from everybody else’s. My brief experience with Massachusetts seasons in Great Barrington left me feeling deeply offended, especially when April rolled around and it was still snowy, frigid, and largely impassable between classes on the Simon’s Rock campus.

I took it as a personal affront, coming from a state where April is the month where summer begins, as if the Berkshires particular geography was an intricate conspiracy designed to make my life suck.

It’s still summer in Iowa, although there has been a little rain since I was here last a month ago, and the plants and grass look a bit less put-upon. The weather is a glorious 70s: I wonder if I could successfully manufacture a life outrunning the seasons, using jet airplanes as a panacea against reality. (They don’t outrun time, but that would be nice).

I am definitely outrunning the election, at least. As was planned. 

Stuff You Should Read:


Little Serow: Isan-style Thai food For the Tragically Hip

 Washington DC is lamentably short of half-decent Thai restaurants, but there is one exception: Little Serow.

Little Serow is a curious beast, a fixed-menu walk in restaurant that serves intensely authentic Isan-style Thai food to a decidely chic audience. It is apparently owned by a husband-wife team of Westerners who went to Thailand, liked the food, learned how to cook it, and opened a restaurant.

This therefore almost falls into the genre of Nostalgic Anthropology Restaurants, which actually tend to be quite good in my experience.

The dining room is dark and colored a minty green one usually associates with bubblegum: there are no Thai antiques or plinky traditional music in evidence. Walk-ins only: expect to wait for you seat if it isn’t a weekend, standing around among the Converse-wearing crowd.

Little Serow also isn’t particularly cheap: about $45 a person for the fixed menu. A good deal in DC, a bit horrifying for me as I got used to spending up to $2 a plate for the same stuff whilst living in Cambodia.

However, the ingredients are more expensive here and few people know how to make this stuff, so I’d be a jerk to begrudge them. The wine list is quite excellent. I suggest prosecco or another kind of sparkler. Prosecco works with really pungent Thai food, as it tuns out. Same reason it works with caviar, I guess.

Little Serow’s pretense and coolness would be tiresome as hell, but as it turns out, the food is pretty great. I haven’t had flavors like this since I was last in Northern Thailand and Cambodia – in fact, I’ve never had Thai food like this in the USA at all.

Oh god, I’m so glad pork rinds are becoming cool again. I ate a ton of them as a little kid – BBQ flavor, the only kind that would do – and was so happy to arrive in Southeast Asia and realize people loved them there too. This would be the Isan equivalent of chips and salsa while watching the game with your boys: pork rinds dipped into a smoky, spicy eggplant dip. I could eat this all day.

Pork rinds are good for you. They’re low carb. Look it up. Pigs aren’t made of carbohydrates.

Glass noodle salad with lime, chili, peanuts, cilantro, and mint. This is a pretty typical, refreshing salad in Southeast Asia – something people eat riffs on in Cambodia a lot, too.

Herbaceous and refreshing, the sort of thing you could deign to languidly consume on one of those 102-in-the-shade-with-humidity-goddammit days that both Washington DC and Thailand are prone to. Little dried shrimps abound.

I should mention that if you are allergic to shrimp, don’t eat here. Just avoid Southeast Asia, really. Especially Cambodia. That’s a good way to die. (My aunt managed it, but I made sure I knew the Khmer for “IF MY AUNT EATS SHRIMP SHE WILL DIE” with accompanying knife-across-the-throat hand signal just in case!)

Now this is something you’ve probably never had before – fried rice cakes in a pungent, hot and sour lime juice and chili dressing with mint, cilantro, shallot, and I think a touch of lemongrass. As it turns out, fried rice cakes soaked in lime take on this almost chicken-nugget like texture that is rather addictive, almost meaty. A good choice for the vegetarian who occasionally feels pangs of remorse. Pungent, crunchy.

I should add I don’t find the food at Little Serow all that spicy. However, my friends claim I fried off all my tastebuds in a childhood accident so you might want to tread cautiously.

This is a Isan-style salad with ground catfish, basil, dill, lime juice, mint, chili, fried shallot, fresh shallot, and probably other spices I’m forgetting. I  happen to be a big catfish fan – blame it on the Southern genes – and Southeast Asia is in fervent agreement. Also, catfish get big enough to devour smallish people (like myself) in the Mekong, so my sympathy for the bewhiskered, muddy bastards is minimal.

Ground catfish happens to be fantastic, especially when combined with a lot of pungent spices and eaten out of lettuce cups. I wish I could order this up for lunch. It’s somewhat like a larb gai salad with catfish, by ways of comparison. My favorite dish at Little Serow. Am having occasional dreams of making it myself. Of course, I must first grind a catfish.

Chinese broccoli with fried s,melts in an oyster sauce. I love Chinese broccoli in oyster sauce, to an extent that many people find somewhat confusing as most people would probably not regard a cruciferous vegetable tantamount to, say, miniature buttercream cupcakes with likkle sugar heart on them. But love it I do. I especially love it if you put much misunderstood and delightful fried smelts on top of em’. Just eat the heads, they won’t kill you, you weenie. Full of calcium. And eyeballs. Those too. 

Charcoal glazed pork-rib with onions and dill in a semi-sweet chili sauce. This is the dish everyone lauds at Little Serow, apparently, and it’s definitely pretty good. Certainly reminiscent of stuff I’ve eaten from smoky, late-night meat stalls in Cambodia and Thailand, sexed up a bit. (It would be difficult to secure a license for a whole pig food truck here in Washington, I wager, though I am also 99% certain some clever little shit has made the attempt).

Nice and tender meat, although I actually prefer it a little chewier. But that is a truly minor complaint on my end.

Dill is not something we associate with grilling too  much in the USA – most of us restrict its use to salmon and perhaps Green Goddess dressing – but it happens to be insanely popular in Vietnam, and widely used elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Ok, so what exactly differentiates Isan food from the stuff you might reasonably encounter at a mall Thai-food stand? Well,  Isan food is heavily influenced by the pungent, herb-filled cuisines of Laos and Cambodia, and that’s definitely in evidence at Little Serow, where every dish is full of vibrant, occasionally challenging flavors that rarely get much air-time in trendy US restaurants.

Americans for some reason don’t really go in for Eau de Aged, Pungent Fish Mashed With Chilis and Tiny Little Bones. Shocker. (This is not something you would be served at Little Serow, relax).

Isan food is also known for being even spicier than the Bangkok-style Thai food we usually encounter in the USA, which is really a feat, as Thai food in Bangkok can easily be blow-the-roof off hot if you ask nicely. I know that the only time in my life I have thought food was going to actually kill me occurred when I unthinkingly told a little old Lao lady at a Bangkok food stand to “make my papaya salad spicy.” Jesus God.

Yelp seems to indicate that a lot of people try this place out and fail to get it, but I’m happy to admit that this is not among the easiest cuisines in the world to fall in love with – pungent, spicy, just-plain-weird flavors are the order of the day. Don’t go in expecting to order chicken pad thai, in other words. Not that there’s anything wrong with that venerable, delicious dish.

I have a lot of beef with people who desperately attempt to find THE MOST AUTHENTIC version of whatever cuisine. Authenticity is nice and all, but in the case of, say, Isan style food, Really Authentic usually involves a lot more wild frog, insects, and breaches of hygiene. (I won’t get into what REALLY AUTHENTIC Khmer food as served through a US lens might be like). Taste should really be everything. I can appreciate Little Serow, but I can also appreciate a dynamite chicken pad thai.

Things You Drank Out Of in Ancient Times – Sackler-Freer Museum, Washington DC

In lieu of anything enlightening: these ancient Iranian drinking goblets on display at the Sackler-Freer Museum in Washington DC are fantastic. I should remake them and sell them at inflated prices to frat boys. It’s infallible.

The lion looks less sure of himself than the lynx. I think he’s subject to more angst. It’s OK, bro. We all understand. It’s hard to be, well, drunk out of.

A trip to the Sackler swiftly reveals the Chinese under the Zhou conquered the art of the insanely trippy drinking jug. This is another object I need to fabricate and sell at Urban Outfitters to dreamy twee girls who want to drink their Barefoot wine in a, like, artsy way in their dorm rooms. You know, when the RA is out of town.

It’s got an owl on it.

I present no snark with this, as it is awesome and I would like to display it on my mantel with tasteful spot lighting. In the event that I ever own a mantel, which is looking doubtful.

Insofar as I am aware, you cannot drink out of this ancient Chinese man. Which is all well and good, because I think the strain would ruin this poor little fellow. I want to get him some psychotherapy. The artist is good at portraying neuroses.

This is just glorious. I must find a poster. It’s titled Shishi, and it’s by Tsuji Kako, a Japanese painter who lived from 1870 to 1931. Shishi, according to the Freer Gallery’s caption, refers to a fierce guardian lion. I would love to have one of these fluffy, befanged green eyed wisps following me about.

Here’s a Kamakura period Shishi I really like, from the Nara Museum. He’s awesome. I want him to come to life so we can have adventures together. It would be like Adventure Time, but you know, set in Asia.

I’ve been awake far too long.  

A culinary seafood painting – you’d hang it in your sushi restaurant. Why I haven’t seen it before is a mystery. Just marvelous – something else I’d like to have staring at me in my Future Nonexistent Study. Via the Freer: Taki Katei (Randen) , (Japanese, 1830-1901) 
Meiji era 

“Beauty in the Guise of a Man” (Danso bijin)
20th century, prior to 1927. Shima Sei’en , (Japanese, 1892 – 1970)
Taisho era

Perhaps my favorite. I love how contentedly flippant she looks. Shima Se’ien was a female artist, and apparently a rather subversive one, maintaining the flirtatious nature of traditional Japanese female portraits while turning the tradition on its head. I like this girl a lot – she sort of reminds me of myself. A look at Ms Sei’en’s oeuvre reveals she would likely have been a helluva manga artist in latter generations.