When I do get around, I write about it. If you want to read exclusively about my visits to United States presidential sites, you can do that over here.

Travel: Virginia

I think of Virginia as my backyard, in that I keep a rusted-out Camaro there. You probably figured out that there are about a million writeups of Virginia sites on the presidents pages. Here's some of the other stuff.

Arlington National Cemetery

December 28, 2013

You get only one go-around in life, and I'm spending mine visiting people who already went around. For my 37th birthday I sounded the Horn of Nerdly Summoning and led a group of friends and family to Arlington National Cemetery. There is no better way to celebrate birth than surrounding yourself with graves, as far as the eyes can see. Verily.

There are more than 400,000 people buried in Arlington, so you have to be selective about who you visit if you don't have the whole day -- or if you're leading a group of people who could easily mutiny and throw you in an open grave when you try to lecture them on Masonic symbols for the fourth time. I had visited the cemetery before, but I have a much nicer camera now. I also have a deeper connection to death, what with my constant aging. So it was good to return.

We started by calling on William Howard Taft. He didn't meet the standards of physical fitness that we usually expect from a soldier, but then again, he wasn't one. Taft was the Secretary of War for a few years, and he also ended his public career as the Chief Justice of the United States, so he was eligible for Arlington a couple of times over. He has a nice spot fairly close to the main entrance. You might argue that he needed the bigger plot to fit his body, but I think of it as a sign of respect.

A minute away, you can find Robert Todd Lincoln. He was a member of U.S. Grant's staff during the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, and he later served as the Secretary of War for presidents Garfield and Arthur. And oh yeah, he was Abraham Lincoln's son. Robert has the creepy distinction of being distressingly close to the first three presidential assassinations in U.S. history. He wasn't that far away when his dad was murdered; he was walking through the Washington D.C. train station with Garfield during his shooting; and he was at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo when McKinley got capped.

The good people at Arlington gave Lincoln's corpse some closure by thoughtfully burying the fourth assassinated president a few hundred yards away. In truth, JFK's grave is probably the highlight of the cemetery for most people. Kennedy was considered a war hero by his admirers, thanks to his efforts to save his crew following the sinking of the PT-109 during World War II. (Never mind that he was in charge of the boat, and it was cut in half during an open-water collision with a Japanese vessel. And forget that he had physical ailments so serious that he never should have accepted his assignment. Also, don't dwell on the fact that he spent part of his Navy career having an affair with Inga Arvad, who might have been a Nazi spy.)

What you should focus on is his very nice gravesite. Kennedy rests near the crest of Arlington's big hill, underneath the famous eternal flame. If you look toward Washington, you see a very nice stone pavilion, carved with quotations from his political career. (Never mind that they were probably written by speechwriters.) If you look up the hill, you see what appears to be the façade of a Greek temple, the visual representation of democracy and enlightened government. The illusion is only slightly spoiled by the knowledge that it's a plantation house.

That house was my inspiration for returning to the cemetery. The building has stood on that hill since the early stages of the 19th century, when it was built by George Washington Parke Custis. Custis was the step-grandson of George Washington, and he was more or less raised by the first president, who had no children of his own. Washington died in 1799, and Custis wanted the mansion to serve as a monument to his grandfather -- there wasn't a Washington Monument back then, and there wouldn't be a completed one for another 80 years. Custis had a lot of memorabilia related to Washington, and the house was his place to display it; according to our park ranger, he would sometimes pitch George's old field tents in the back yard and let people re-enact the glories of the Revolutionary War. She didn't say if any visitors cut off toes to simulate frostbite at Valley Forge.

Custis wanted the house to look like a temple, to reflect the importance of his hero. Two-story columns support a huge pediment, and the whole thing is covered with a faux-marble finish. If you were traveling through the new city of Washington, it would have been one of the most notable landmarks, as its position on a hill above the Potomac would have put it in visual range of Georgetown and the new downtown. Nothing else would have been built at that height, and the house is roughly on the axis formed by drawing perpendicular lines connecting the White House and the Capitol. Pierre L'Enfant, the designer of the city plan and George's chief military engineer, envisioned those lines as key spots for monumental structures. (L'Enfant is today buried on the front yard of the mansion, at a spot overlooking his city. His is the only corpse in the graveyard with a better view than Kennedy's.)

With my freakish love of presidents, that's all I needed to justify a visit. The story of Robert E. Lee is just a bonus. As a young Army officer, Lee maried Custis' daughter, Mary. That tied him to the Washington family, and when Custis died in 1857 it made Lee the master of the mansion. He was still in charge when the Civil War started.

Lee turned down the opportunity to lead the Union forces, staying loyal to his home state of Virginia. With his keen understanding of tactics, he understood that it might be difficult to keep his primary residence just across the river from the capital of the nation that was now actively trying to kill him. He fled the plantation, and the Union Army soon occupied the estate. Within a few years, the land had been converted to Arlington National Cemetery. A few years later, one of Lee's descendants sued the government for ownership and won, but there were lots of bodies already in the ground; he sold the land back to the feds for a very nice price. Today, the government officially operates the plantation as "Arlington House," the nation's memorial to Lee -- who was, if you want to split hairs, a traitor. Who says there are no second chances?

The last time I was at Arlington House, it was under heavy renovation. All the furniture was gone and all you could do was walk through a bunch of empty rooms. A few years later, they have now renovated upwards of four rooms; there's some nice period furniture and paintings in the downstairs parlor. As it turns out, we went on maybe the busiest day of the year. The ranger said they usually get about 100 visitors, but on my birthday -- a glorious Saturday in the week between Christmas and New Year's Day -- they were expecting 3,000. People probably knew I would be there.

Virginia State Fair

September 26, 2010

I love Virginia. I loved visiting as a youth, I loved my college years there, I love each of the 72 presidents born within its borders and I loved living there in my 20s. If they sold hard alcohol in grocery stores I'd marry Virginia. But there's a lot of Virginia that I never got to know. Namely, the chainsaw-related stuff.

In all my previous years in the commonwealth, I'd never seen any chainsaw demonstrations. But on Sunday I saw two. In the first, a man used a chainsaw to carve a giant fox's head out of a log. At one point, he flipped the chainsaw, just in case you saw him doing art and were about to question his manliness. In the second, two lumberjacks used chainsaws as part of a skills competition (I believe the technical term is 'jack-off).

This all went down at the Virginia State Fair, which is the happiest place on earth, if you enjoy fried food and chainsaw demonstrations. If you don't enjoy those things, we probably can't be friends. Rather that give you a coherent narrative for the day, here's a list of some things you might enjoy.

Pig races. The most exciting 15 seconds to 3 minutes in sports! Pigs are asked to run one lap on a 190-foot track, cheered on by their loyal fans ("pig rooters"). We saw three heats. One featured Florida "wild pigs," the second had some younger pigs (they looked like Babe) and the third had Asian pot-bellies. Most pigs had names that reminded you they were a future foot product. You can't really beat the drama of a good pig race. For the pot-bellies, pig No. 1 sprinted out to an early lead ... and then stopped five feet from the finish line to root around in the straw. Standing still, he maintained his lead for about two minutes as the other pigs wandered aimlessly and hardcore pig racing gamblers had a series of debilitating strokes. But standing still near the finish line was not a viable long-term strategy, and pig No. 2 pulled out the victory. A heartbreaking defeat in super slow motion. It's a great metaphor for the human condition, only with fat pigs.

The original redwood log house. This is a house made from log. Not logs; log. It was carved from a single section of hollowed-out redwood, and they make sure to let you know that it's the original redwood log home. ACCEPT NO SUBSTITUTES! The house had three rooms and appeared to be functional; it was significantly nicer than some of the Motel 6 rooms I have booked for myself in recent years. Now, you are probably thinking, who would ever do such a thing? Where would you get the idea to carve a home out of a giant log, and wouldn't your friends talk you out of it if you tried? Well, you are not thinking. Because if you wanted to make a house out of a single log, then you probably have no friends.

Disgusting food. Much like the Maryland Renaissance Festival, there's plenty of disgusting (i.e. good) food at the state fair. Unlinke the Renaissance Festival, at the state fair the original live animal form of the meals is often in close proximity to the booth where you bought your food. Much of it is on a stick or fried. I had a corn dog, fried pickles, sliders, an "elephant ear" (funnel cake dough in the shape of a frisbee) and kettle corn. But I left with my head held high, for I never tried the "Pork Parfait" -- a cup of mashed potatoes, gravy and pork. I have stared into the true face of horror, and its name is the Pork Parfait. It sounds like something you'd invent if your friend said, "what's the most disgusting food item you can imagine?" "A pork parfait," you'd say, washed down with a tall glass of gravy and tequila.

Animals. We had high hopes for the "alpaca fashion show," but it turns out that sign was missing a hyphen. There were no alpacas wearing mascara and trying to smeyes. Other animals were definitely fun to see, from the little tiny duckies to the great big Texas longhorn. There was a nice demonstration video of cattle being birthed, in case you never want to be hungry for meat ever again. And I particularly enjoyed the "prize chicken" pavilion, which was an excellent reminder of the horrors of genetic manipulation:

Farm equipment. Apparently, they don't use horse-drawn plows much anymore. Farms are now cultivated with the use of a single vehicle, which has a glass-enclosed cockpit and is about the size of a small single-family home. From what I could tell, this machine would plant, harvest, bale, cook and package any crop you might grow ; it can also mulch the leftovers back into the soil, produce an ethanol-gasoline blend from whatever crop you are harvesting, go online via satellite technology, find a reasonable market for your product, then arrange the transportation. It also applies for federal farm subsidies of its own volition and takes your kids to school. You can see this vehicle at the state fair, and then you can thank god that Stalin never had access to such technology.

Lumberjacking. We got a nice display of competitive lumberjacking, as well as a history lesson: the games were invented by bored off-season lumberjacks hanging out in bars. Seriously. That's what they told us. There were several fine events, including the axe toss, in which they thow a Bunyanesque weapon into a tree stump from 30 feet, and logrolling. There was no competition where the lumberjacks fended off jokey speculation about their sexuality using axes, but I bet that's just because they wanted to keep the show G-rated.

The Midway. When they say "midway," they must mean "midway between crapville and boredomtown," because this was the most disappointing aspect of the fair. It was raining by the time we tried to go on the rides, and a ferris wheel operator told us "our brakes don't work at all when it's wet." So, either this guy is telling the truth and a major state fair is renting massive carnival rides that become death traps in a light rain, or ... the employees operating it really needed a pot break.

Balloon Tour / Dinosaur Land

October 12, 2010

The one thing you need to be a first-rate balloonist is the ability to wake up at 5 a.m. It might be nice to have a global positioning system, a butler in a chase car and a manservant with 70 hours of balloon flight training, but those are frills -- and they're worthless if you can't get up at 5 a.m. to go ballooning. "I can't do that!" you are saying. "I will never be a first-rate balloonist! I'll never impress that woman at the methadone clinic!"

I'm here to help. The key -- and I can't stress this enough -- is to have a few beers the night before. Not six beers -- that will make it very tough to get up. Not one beer -- you aren't firing up a Segway to the land of Nod with just one Rolling Rock. You need to have three beers, ending around 10 p.m. You'll be out by 11 and you're going to sleep like a corpse. Your liver will work a relatively easy night shift, and when the alarm goes off at 5 (I recommend setting it for "Feels So Good" by Chuck Mangione or "Lady Love" by Lou Rawls) you'll be in tip-top ballooning shape.

By "tip-top" I mean that you'll be able to stand upright for an hour. That's the core of the ballooning experience. You wake up at 5, your wife drives you to the launch site, and then you stand in a basket. If you're feeling particularly active -- like Chris White, expert balloonist -- you can spice up the experience by helping with the setup. First, I helped hold the balloon open while fans filled it with air. Then, Bob (our pilot) asked me to help him lift up the basket, which was lying on its side. We propped it up to a 45 degree angle. Then Bob said "fire in the hole," and -- pay attention, this is important -- a portal to hell opened up about 24 inches from my face. Bob hit the flame jet to help make the air in the balloon hot. Then the balloon got really big really fast, and a bunch of middle-aged people had to hop into the basket. Like gazelles! Old, creaky, bloated gazelles.

The actual ride was a fabulous experience. You float calmly over the landscape, with no noise -- other than the periodic sound of flame jets burning a hole in the universe itself. The views of Loudon County, Va., were astonishing; people waved to us from the porches of their fabulous homes, and we resisted the urge to spit on any of them. Countless deer frolicked below, reminding us of the immense need for an army of bow-hunting deer haters, ASAP. If we could have hunted deer from our balloon, I would have done so. If we could have done so with anvils, that would have been totally awesome.

And then, after a graceful glide through the firmament, you land on some dude's property. Maybe the balloon people have arrangements with the many landowners of Loudon County, or maybe you just have to hope that no one will open fire once you drop onto their yard from above. If you can handle this ambiguity, you will be a first-rate balloonist.

Land of the Lost

After a hard morning of ballooning, we had worked up a tremendous appetite. So we drove all over Virginia in search of food. The bad news is, all we found was a Perkins. The good news is, in the search for that Perkins, we came across Dinosaur Land, which features "more than 40" statues of the mighty beasts. And also a statue of King Kong, and a giant octopus.

Dinosaur Land is a wonderful educational destination for anyone hoping to learn about giant fake dinosaur statues. It's also stunningly familiar if you've been to Dinosaur Kingdom in Natural Bridge, Virigina -- because many of the statues were made by the same sculptor. His name is Mark Cline, and he specializes in stuff that you will love if a) you are under the age of 12; b) you appreciate irony. In Natural Bridge, he has recreated Stonehenge, only with foam; each year, foam druids gather there to honor the foam deities who are the driving force behind Also, Dinosaur Kingdom features dinosaurs attacking Union soldiers, who have foolishly tried to cultivate them as weapons of mass desctruction. Behold the glory!

Dinosaur Kingdom is a little more reserved, but it is still extremely awesome. There are large statues of dinosaurs, in a place where large statues of dinosaurs should not be. If that's not an intriguing Saturday to you, then we really can't be friends.

Pope Leighy House

March 29, 2011

Homeownership is the American Dream. Making your friends and coworkers jealous also is the American Dream. Loren Pope was a great American, so he doubled up. After reading about Frank Lloyd Wright in a magazine, he put his journalism skills to use (he was a copy editor at the Washington Star) and produced a six-page butt-kissing letter, asking Wright to design him a home on a copy editor's budget.

Wright was susceptible to flattery and often desperate for money, so he hopped on board. He sat down with the Popes, asked about their lifestyle and plans for the future, and banged out a Usonian home: 1,200 square feet at $7,000. That was a nice chunk of change in the 1940s -- but hey, it got you a house by the most famous architect in the country. Not bad!

Today it's known as the Pope Leighy house, and it's the only visitable Wright house in the DC area. On Saturday me and the superfriends stopped in for a visit, and I'm happy to report that Wright didn't phone it in. Suburban homes take square footage for granted these days; Wright had 1,200 to work with in constructing a two-bedroom, one-bathroom home, and he had ideas for just about every square inch. There's a very clean aesthetic that runs through every room:

  • "Natural" surfaces. Every wall is either cypress wood or exposed brick. There's no surface you would paint or paper, and you couldn't hang up your singing electronic bass. The floor is dyed concrete with embedded radiant heating pipes. The most you're getting away with is a throw rug; anything beyond that, may god have mercy on your soul.
  • Horizontal lines. Every cypress surface is a horizontal plank, offset from the neighboring plank by wide bevels or grooves or whatever architects call it. The grooves match up perfectly, even around the corners. Shelves built into the walls sit perfectly in the grooves, so they don't mess up the pattern. The heads of the screws holding the panels in place are all oriented so that their grooves are horizontal. The horizontal mortar grooves between the bricks are all scooped out a few extra centimeters, while the vertical grooves are filled in with mortar dyed to match the bricks. So from any distance the brick walls appear to be a series of long horizontal lines, not an offset stack. Why? Because horizontal stripes make a house look fat. You know, like a 1,400 square foot house.
  • Windows. Wright had a thing for natural light, so there are lots of big windows, plus a strip of "clerestory" horizontal windows around the top of much of the house. He didn't want you hanging curtains, shades or drapes of any kind, which seems odd for a notorious adulterer.

But in a Wright house, you also get some crappiness running through every room:

  • Ass-ugly furniture. Part of the deal when you worked with Wright was that he furnished the house. That meant ugly, relatively cheap-looking pieces whose only real virtue is matching the walls. It's like "This End Up," but not as finished looking.
  • No storage. There are a few small bedroom closets, but since there's no basement in a Usonian home, you basically have nowhere to keep luggage, extra linens, cleaning supplies, old books, extra children, your victims, etc.
  • Crappy kitchens: Based (conceptually, at least) on rail car kitchens, the idea was that the woman (it was the 1940s) could stand in one spot and have everything she needed in reach. The chain could be shorter that way. HEYOOOOO! Practically speaking, this means very little cabinet space and only enough countertop to slice a single tomato. You get more crap from the average wedding registry than could possibly fit in an entire Wright kitchen.
  • Narrow doors: I had to turn sideways to get into the master bedroom. Seriously.

It's an interesting mix. Wright was brilliant but inflexible; there are stories of him visiting homes he had designed, waiting for the owners to go to sleep and then rearranging the furniture and ripping down curtains. It seems baffling that a man could be such a fanatic about details -- but only the details that seemed relevant to him. He's now near the top of the "biographies I wouldn't mind getting for Christmas" list. Hint, hint.

The tour was great, at least for me and my friends. Our guide was an older guy named Fairfield, and he had that perfect combination of humor, flakiness and overwhelming knowledge. You can probably knock through a house that size in 20 minutes, but we were talking for 75. Guides make such a huge difference for these things. Be nice to them.

And not far away ...

... from the Pope Leighy house is a very large watering can. Offered without further comment.

Gunston Hall

June 11, 2012

Those who seek the humanity in our founding fathers should love Gunston Hall, the stately Edwardian home of George Mason. For at Gunston Hall, they teach us that the founding fathers were a bunch of dirty copycats.

Seriously. George Mason himself was, to a great degree, a copycat. His story wasn't that unusual for an 18th-century rich Virginia white guy -- he probably copied it from someone. Mason was the oldest of three children in a wealthy plantation family. His dad died when he was relatively young, and as the oldest George got the sweetest inheritance. Over time he had something like 100,000 acres scattered around Virginia and Maryland. While an excellent businessman (unlike your typical society-conscious rich Virginia white dude, he died with money in the bank), he was also book nerd, having self-taught himself the law and philosophy by reading from his uncle's library.

Since book-learnin' was a rarer thing back then, Mason was called to service at Virginia's constitutional convention, near the start of the Revolution. Mason's great contribution, copied largely from old British philosophers, was a statement of the rights of man that no government could usurp. (Except for slaves, of course.) Virginia's Declaration of Rights was popular enough to be reprinted across the land, so classic phrases like this were highly visible to anyone who might want to steal them:

"All men are by nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot, by any compact, deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety."

Yes, Thomas Jefferson, dirty grade-curve-wrecking cheater that he was, stole the Declaration of Independence from George Mason, who stole it from old British dudes.

The reason we know lots about Jefferson and not so much about Mason is because George never left the house. He didn't have much choice in the matter. In his mid-20s he married a 16-year-old, then proceeded to pop a bun in her oven roughly every 15 months for the next two decades. They had 12 kids before his wife died from a tired uterus, and nine of those kids survived. On top of that, George had some unfortunate run-ins with gout -- George Washington later copied this from him -- so going anywhere was pretty painful. They emphasize this around the estate today by placing a bench every four feet.

The important thing is, George never left home; he never served in the military; he didn't mess with legislatures of any kind. All he did was submit his bill of rights, and since he was a widow at that point in his life, he then rushed home to order his servants to make a bunch of bag lunches for the kids. It's tough for a single parent in any century.

But if you have to stay at home, you could do worse than Gunston Hall. As an Edwardian home, it's meant to be symmetrical. On the exterior, that means the same number of chimneys and windows on each side; on the interior, it means doors opening into a brick wall, if you need doors on both sides of a room to preserve the illusion of symmetry. Mason himself designed the outside, but brought in an indentured servant from England to help out with all the fine woodworking on the interior (no stone -- all wood). The place is pretty small, for a rich guy's house; just a study and a bedroom on the "personal" side, then a parlor and a formal dining room on the "public" side. Upstairs was mostly bedrooms, because as you might remember, George Mason had 38 kids. Most of the furniture is reproduction and a lot of the decoration is a historian's best guess, but it seems pretty classy in a very pragmatic way.

They haven't done a full-blown re-creation of the plantation's outbuildings and slave quarters, because you'd probably need money to do that, and the George Mason business isn't exactly booming. We took a trail leading from near the house down to the Potomac, where boats would have picked up the crops. It was marked on the pamphlet as half a mile, but they neglected to mention that you need a machete. The trail was a mess, a bridge over a creek was out at one spot, and the "landing" was a bunch of soda bottles and dead logs with about three square inches of sand. If anyone in our party had gout, we would not have been able to make the journey.

Gout-addled George did make one long jaunt, though. When they got around to writing the Constitution, he figured it was worth the trip to Philadelphia to pimp out the Declaration of Rights. Mason spoke about 125 times at the Constitutional Convention, mostly pushing the "weak central government" plan, which we now think of as Jeffersonian even though it's really Masonian. He voted against the final Constitution when it didn't have a bill of rights attached, which pissed off George Washington enough that they never really socialized again (despite being neighbors). Mason went back to his gout palace to live out his days, and then James Madison stole his ideas to have the Bill of Rights enacted during the 1st Congress. Mason died in 1792.

Which Thomas Jefferson copied in 1826.

A buildup of uric acid

Fun story: when I was about 24, I realized that I hadn't had a physical in some time. So I went to random doctor on my insurance plan. The guy was a really fat Ukranian doctor -- something like four chins with his head down. He did not appear to be the model of health. When explaining my bloodwork, he said that I was at high risk for gout, and that at my age I would probably have to eat a diet of mostly rice for the remainder of my days.

I never saw that doctor again. And I don't eat much rice, and I don't have gout. I do have, however, some gout-themed song parodies that we started singing once the 92 degree heat and the awfully maintainted trail started getting to us:

  • Gout, gout. Let it all out. These are some pains I can do without.
  • Gout at the Devil!
  • Twist and Gout.
  • You're gout of touch, I'm gout of time

George Washington Masonic National Memorial

December 28, 2011

On the day I was finally eligible to run the government -- my 35th birthday -- I decided to learn about running the government. And so I went the George Washington Masonic National Memorial.

As you may have read in many reputable blogs, soiled pamphlets and Dan Brown novels, the Freemasons have been controlling international geopolitics since the Jurassic era. Masonic aliens used their seismic cannon to set off the climate-changing volcanos that killed the dinosaurs, then planted "human" DNA into the ecosystem. Since that day, they've been hiding in the moon's shadow as they cultivate humans to be hunted for sport on their home world. A select few aliens are given human appearances so that they can better shepherd us in person; these "people" are known as Freemasons.

All you're going to get at the Washington Memorial is the cover story, of course: the masons were Medieval stoneworkers who traveled the land building cathedrals, eventually starting a professional guild that incorporated a moral code. Over time that evolved into small groups of old white guys in funny hats riding motorized wheelie-popping trikes at Memorial Day parades. The point is, there's lots of confusion and mystery surrounding the masonic organizations, who keep lots of their rituals hidden from the public eye, except for the wheelie-popping trikes. Let's see if we can clear some of that up, right after this mysterious picture of a burning bush.

The first thing to understand: everyone was once a freemason. The reason so many U.S. presidents were masons, according to our guide, is that 25 percent of white males in 18th-century America were Freemasons. There were no bowling leagues, and women could go to church with you. So Freemasonry was your best bet for getting out of the house for a few hours and flip through a copy of Colonial Jugs with your buddies. Since that time, most masonic organizations have grown at a crawl compared to their competition -- probably because you don't have to sacrfice a beloved bet to join most intramural soccer leagues.

The various symbols of freemasonry also aren't as creepy as you're thinking. For example, the "square" (a metallic right angle) was a tool used to make sure that blocks were cut into perfect, stackable units; if you think of people as stackable units, and the square as a way to measure their character, then people with moral right angles can stack into an enormous and strong edifice. This moral edifice can then be used as a defensive structure from which to pour moral cauldrons of moral boiling oil on moral infidels who are attempting to steal the moral alien crystal that is is the source of your moral power. Not creepy in the least, right? Even less creepy are the aprons, which all masons wear as a way to both honor the professional roots of the society (stoneworkers could hold tools in an apron) and to hide embarrassing arousal when checking out a buddy's wife at the regular masonic mixers.

You also must know that not all Freemasons are created equal. George Washington, for example, was a "master mason" -- enough to be the head of the Alexandria lodge, but in the specialty branches of masonry, he would have been a peon. The Scottish Rite goes up to the 33rd degree, and "master mason" is only the third. Only through hard work and philanthropy, or through being the lodge master's brother-in-law, can you ascend to the upper tiers. The 32nd degree is "Master of the Royal Secret." That is much cooler sounding than the 33rd degree: "Inspector General." But oddly, neither title matches the pageantry of the sixth degree: "Intimate Secretary." Really. In case you're wondering, at least one president did actually get the 33rd degree: Truman was huge into masonry, and he needed the 33rd degree to get nuclear authorization codes from his alien masters.

There's also a "York Rite," which has fewer steps but more-interesting costumes. Gerald Ford was a Royal Arch mason, which is part of the Yorks. Then there are groups like the Shriners, the Tall Cedars of Lebanon and the Mousketeers, which all require members to be master masons before joining. So, when you add it all up, if you ever see a weird clubhouse in a city that no one goes into or exits, it's probably a masonic harem.

As to the building: it's pretty cool. Masons the country 'round chipped in their contributions, which ran through the Alexandria, Va., lodge that Washington once ran. The temple went up in the 1920s as a way to honor the most famous mason, and in its design it was meant to mimic the reported appearance of the lighthouse at Alexandria in ancient Egypt. The only real addition is elevators. There are two, on opposite sides of the temple. At the ground level, they are maybe 60 feet apart, and at the top level they are 8 feet apart. They say this is because they ascend at a 7 1/2 degree angle -- because they can't say "demon magic." Either way, it's impressive. The entrance has a nice statue of George in an apron, two murals depicting masonic scenes from his life, and stained-glass windows of other cool contemporary masons (like Benjamin Franklin). Off of the gift shop, there's a recreation of the original Alexandria lodge meeting room, with some very interesting swag, such as Washington's original masonic president chair. The highlight for me was the clock that was in the room when Washington died at Mount Vernon. His attending physician, Dr. Dick -- a freemason and member of the lodge -- opened the clock and cut some cords. So for more than 200 years, that timepiece has been frozen at the exact moment Dr. Dick killed George by bleeding him for the 39th time to cure minor flu symptoms. Also on display is the trowel GW used when laying the ceremonial first stone of the Capitol; it is on occasion busted out when a new momentous building is started, or whenever someone must be smeared with quick-drying cement as part of the initiation hazing.

The real draw, though, is the tower. There are nine floors total, each narrower than the last, and the upper floors are decorated by various masonic organizations. The Scottish Rite gets the 4th floor, and they installed a tasteful mini-museum dedicated to George and his life. Nothing strange there. The fifth floor is donated by the York rite, and it is largely unnotable, except for two things: one, the entire room is done up like an Egyptian tomb complete with glyphs depicting various Old Testament scenes; and two, they are stashing the Ark of the Covenant there.

The sixth floor is an off-limits library where the masons store all the personal information they've been gathering on you by using the Patriot Act. The seventh floor is dedicated to "Cryptic Masonry" from the York Rite, but we were unable to visit it. Still, I'm sure they had nothing to hide. The eighth floor is a chapel dedicated to the Knights Templar, with large stained-glass Jesus windows. I particularly enjoyed the skull at the foot of the crucifix in this window, as well as statue of a mounted crusader trampling a scimitar and turban, because it reminds us that religion is MEAN.

And finally, we've got the Tall Cedars of Lebanon on the ninth floor. They chose to recreate King Solomon's throne at one-seventh scale, so that it now looks like the ultimate cat bed. This floor also has access to the outside observation deck (at around 330 feet, I believe). From that height, you might notice some subtle masonic symbols hidden in the surrounding landscape. See if you can find them!

I particularly enjoyed all the inventive and conspiracy-friendly decoration; I also liked that you had to fight a martial arts master of a different discipline on each floor before ascending. You might have heard that the very top of the tower has a radio transponder linked to George Washington's still-living brain, which is transmitting a pacifying telepathic message that keeps most of America as docile lambs, ready for the alien slaughter. If you're going to see that thing, you should definitely earn it with some karate.

Now, personally, I don't buy into conspiracies. But I do enjoy a good coincidence. One of the murals in the main lobby shows Washington and other masons coming to the charitable rescue of some suffering Philadelphians in 1778 -- the middle of the Revolution. Philadelphia is my hometown, so that's cool. Even cooler is the date of the event.

One man's quest to be the humblest person alive
Copyright 2014, Chris White