It’s the Arch.
One is tempted to add, “Stupid,” as in Bill Clinton’s famous “It’s the economy, Stupid.” But I come from a more civilized time. Which followed a less civilized time that is embodied – I am forcefully reminded – by Thomas Jefferson himself.
It’s my brother-in-law who brings this point home, as we stroll past a bronze statue of our third president that stands at the museum entrance. “Hypocrite!” he hisses, practically spitting on the placid effigy. “Slave-holding fraud.”
Yikes. Some passions still run strong.
I am of a more forgiving nature, thinking in large part that if we continue to hold old grudges, we’re going to divide ourselves like some of those tired European countries that still can’t get over 500-year-old insults and atrocities.
Besides, I like the museum. Almost always have. It’s built underground, so as not to disturb the disturbing image of the Arch itself. I confess that as a kid I found the exhibits a little confusing because they are laid out in a semi-circle and not along the maze-like lines that I once thought museums were supposed to occupy. Now I see how it works, radiating from Jefferson’s feet and that single jumping-off point in St. Louis, out into all points west. The museum’s got some cool stuff in it: massive old French trading medallions, covered wagons, tipis – and some sad stuff, too, mostly in the form of weary words gathered from both Indians and pioneers.
But like I said, it’s the Arch above that draws people.
It is one of the weirdest and most memorable monuments in the nation. A gateway in concept, it’s a croquet wicket to kids, an anorexic triumphal arch to others, and the hook of a giant Christmas ornament to me – the world being the ball that dangles below. It could only have come from the middle of the 20th-century, when we thought we could do anything and welcomed diverse interpretations. Take a look at our more recent national monuments, especially those in Washington, DC, and you’ll see that they are less daring than this odd thing, more didactic and down-to-earth.
Not the Arch. It came from the days when we reached for the moon.
The base of the massive legs are, of course, graffiti scarred in much the same way that pioneers once carved their names into the soft rock of El Morro in New Mexico. This is a forgivable human compulsion, I suppose, never to be abandoned. But quickly enough the three silver sides rise out of reach of even the tallest vandal and sail up into the blue. Quickly enough, the Arch becomes impossibly fragile, and if clouds are sailing by, it looks always to be falling.
You hear a lot of people saying “whoa!” as they look up. A lot of those same people would never ride the interior tram to the top, and not just because the lines are long.
I’ve been to the top more times than I can count – I watched the thing being built when I was a kid and have visited it frequently over the years – but I rarely think of the view when I think of the Arch. Being inside at the top is like occupying a single point on a curve: You lose your sense of direction.
Also, being up is not the same as being out, and it is forward movement that the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial celebrates. Better to stand on the river front, I think, and look westward through that arch – the eye of the needle through which so many of us have been threaded – and see how much city, land and sky it doth contain.