To D.C. and back in 24 hours: playing it by ear with Dad

J. H. Osborne • Oct 6, 2019 at 5:00 PM

A few columns back, I mentioned my father and I once showed up unexpectedly at my Uncle Harold’s home just outside D.C. at 6 a.m. I said that would be a whole other column. So here it is, a story that epitomizes my father’s sense of and encouragement of adventure and playing it by ear.

On a hot day back in early August 1993, I was itching to make a quick trip to Washington, D.C, to see an exhibit at the National Gallery. It wasn’t just any exhibit. It was “Great French Paintings from the Barnes Foundation” and would be the first time the artworks could be viewed by the public so easily. I have a minor in art history and the exhibit focused on some of my favorite periods (Impressionist, Post-Impressionist, and Early Modern) and artists (Seurat, Cézanne, Matisse).

It had taken a court order for the exhibit to take place. Dr. Albert Barnes collected more than 2,000 pieces of artwork during his life and left strict guidelines, most notably that the works would not be loaned out. Many had never even been photographed. By the early 1990s, the circa 1920s museum that housed the Barnes Collection was in dire need of maintenance, especially climate control. The artworks were in danger. A judge agreed to the foundation’s plan to remove the artworks during renovations and to place 80 pieces on an international tour to help raise funds.

The National Gallery was the first stop. Other stops were Paris, Tokyo, Fort Worth, Ontario, Philadelphia, and Munich. D.C. was my best shot. I wasn’t flying as frequently as I had in the ’80s. Dad was retired. I was working as a night cops reporter at the Times News. And my car was 1978 Chrysler LeBaron with probably 150,000 miles on it, more or less. Dad kept its big V-8 engine running well, but sometimes he didn’t think I should wander too far with it. I don’t remember what mechanical problem he feared I might encounter on that particular trip, but a day before I was going to head out, he said he’d decided to ride along with me. Just in case.

Back then I loved to drive at night. And a night departure would work well for Dad because my grandmother, 91 and still living alone in her own home, would call him each night about 10 to say she was safely in bed. On mornings Dad didn’t take her breakfast, he would call to make sure she was up and around and OK. The next morning, while we were in D.C., Mom would call instead and say Dad had gone to help me with something (not a lie). As for Uncle Harold, Dad thought it would be great fun to surprise him by showing up at his house in the early morning.

So at about 11 p.m., I was making a sharp left onto Interstate 81 at Colonial Heights and we had trouble: that starts with “T,” which rhymes with “C,” and that stands for “coffee!” Our large mugs of coffee slid off the dashboard into Dad’s lap. Ever patient, he didn’t get upset. He was so calm it wasn’t until we got home the next night that I knew how severely he’d been steeped in coffee. Mom, holding up his briefs, had asked what on earth happened. It didn’t look like a stain or splotch. It looked like they’d been dyed. Dad had pretty much ridden up I-81 siting in a pool of coffee.

We made good time, stopping only for gas and sparse restrooms breaks. So when we  arrived at Uncle Harold’s, on the far side of D.C. in Silver Spring, Maryland, we were both in need of a bathroom. I knocked on the front door of his two-story Colonial-style home and was relieved to hear movement inside. I could tell he was coming from the far side of the living room, which meant he’d been already awake and in the kitchen.

“Où sont les toilettes?” I said quickly as soon as he opened the door, his face revealing we had in fact left him near speechless. I, of course, knew where his bathrooms were, and he stood aside so I could dart to the one off his den. Dad had brought in his small satchel, and Uncle Harold took him upstairs to give him fresh linens as he entered the bathroom up there to freshen up.

Uncle Harold returned to the kitchen, and in no time we were seated around his formal dining table with scrambled eggs, bacon, toast, pastries, a sliced tomato or two — and a cantaloupe sliced up as well. Dad ate heartily, especially the cantaloupe. Uncle Harold said that evening he was to meet his children at Aunt Frida’s (his former wife’s) for a picnic wishing her bon voyage on a trip to Europe. We said no problem — we’d likely be downtown all day. He offered to give us a house key. We said hide it under that flowerpot.

We parked in a nearby parking garage for D.C.’s Metro system and made our way to the train. It was Dad’s first time on the Metro, which is above ground in the suburbs but a subway downtown. We rode the Red Line to Union Station. We could have gotten closer to the National Gallery, but I wanted to at least walk through the Capitol and then walk the few blocks to the gallery.

Not long after we left the Silver Spring Metro station, Dad whispered, “When will we be someplace with a bathroom handy?” Uh-oh, I thought, that cantaloupe is a workin’.

“Union Station,” I whispered back.

When we disembarked, we quickly found a restroom and Dad went inside. I waited. And waited. And waited. Thousands of people hurried in all directions, including constant traffic in and out of that bathroom. Finally Dad returned. “That’s the busiest place I’ve ever been in my life,” he said. “And the noisiest.”

We did enjoy a walk through the Capitol and I took photos of Dad standing on a terrace on its west side, the National Mall in the background. We were among the first in line at the gallery and inside the exhibit lickety split. We spent all morning slowly moving through the exhibit. I spent a good half-hour just soaking in the magnificence of “Models” (Poseuses), a very large (nearly 8 feet wide by more than 6 feet tall) oil painting by George Seurat, executed in his pointillist style. If I close my eyes today and concentrate, I can remember it as if it were 20 minutes ago. I stood at a distance. I walked close enough to see each “dot” of paint.

We had lunch at the museum restaurant, returned to the exhibit a little longer, and ended up in the gift shop. I purchased the exhibit catalog (paperback, $25) and a print of Henri Matisse’s “Le bonheur de vivre” (The Joy of Life). I later had it framed, and for years it hung on a wall in my dining room.

It was only 2:30 and we were done.I made a bold suggestion: If we went directly back to our car and got on the Beltway headed back toward Virginia, I believed we could beat the worst of D.C. rush hour traffic and make it back to I-81 by dinnertime. We could stop and get a room whenever we got tired and be that much closer to home the next morning. Dad jumped all over that. We made such good time that when we hit I-81 we didn’t stop for food until we were well south. When we did stop, we got it to go. Dad asked me every half hour or so if I needed to stop or wanted him to drive for a while. I said no, but if he wanted to stop we would. He said keep driving, we’re doing well.

We arrived home almost 24 hours to the minute from our departure time. Dad talked to Grandmother. We called Uncle Harold and told him we’d driven home. He was as surprised as he’d been when we showed up for breakfast that morning.

The exhibit book, that print and the few pictures of Dad and me at the Capitol that morning are now among my favorite keepsakes. But most of all I cherish the memories of that quirky 24-hour trip with Dad.

J.H. Osborne covers Sullivan County government for the Times News. Email him at [email protected]

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