Bucket of Lard

“At dinner that evening, our server told us it wasn’t wise to venture outside the hotel after the sun went down.”

Washington Plaza Hotel

I was a decent speller throughout my school years. Most likely it came from reading lots of books. There were several times I won our classroom spelling contest. That’s as far as I ever got.

My son Gunnar took after his old man. Not only did “G-Man” win his classroom and school competition, but he went on to compete at the ACSI National Spelling Bee in Washington, D.C. I was the lucky parent going along as chaperon.

“G-Man” is a nickname we gave him. His mother and I also call him “Mr. G”, and “Big G.” It has to do with with the first letter in his name. The “Big G” moniker most likely comes from lines in a Cheerios commercial,

“Big G, little o, means Go Power!”

I’m sure my son is more than elated his name doesn’t start with o.

Our daughter also has a unique nickname. Miranda to this day is called, “Panda Miranda.” Joleen nicknamed her after a bear and not Panda Express. Pardon me for drifting off subject. Time to get back to the spelling bee.

The year was 1992. Gunnar and I flew from Anchorage International Airport to Washington National Airport (now Ronald Reagan National Airport). I recall walking to a taxicab loading area, and seeing all kinds of expensive cars lined up in a reserved parking lot. There were BMW’s, Jaguars, Cadillac’s, Lincoln’s, you name it. I assume those vehicles belonged to politicians away on business. That left a bad impression on me.

Our taxi ride was another unsettling experience. The man driving the cab wore a turban. That in itself is not unusual. What was discomforting was that he was one of the most unfriendly people I’ve met.

I tried to start a simple conversation, yet he offered nothing in return. It was easy to see that he either didn’t care for his job, or he resented us. I’m a pretty good judge of people and this guy put me on edge. When he glared at us in the rear view mirror, I made it a point to stare his direction as well. I’d been taught that eye to eye contact is good. In this case it eventually stopped him from watching us.

The route this man took to our hotel had me mortified. We drove past parks and derelict buildings where inebriates lined the street. Some of them lay on benches while others were propped up against walls. Garbage was everywhere. The picture was not pretty. It definitely was not something I expected to see in Washington, D.C.

Our cabbie dropped us off at the Washington Plaza Hotel. This was the designated hotel for all spelling bee participants. I made sure to tip the guy in spite of his rudeness. The Washington Plaza Hotel is a great place to stay. Everything was spic and span, with grass and foliage well taken care of. Compared to the Motel-6’s our family generally stayed in, it was quite fancy.

Gunnar and I checked in and were taken to our room. I wasn’t used to anyone carrying my bags. This was the first time I’d come across such. Once again tip money came in handy.

“Mr. G” goes to Washington, D.C. – 1992

That evening we ate a specially prepared dinner with other students and their parents. We were given tickets to ride a bus the following day to areas of interest.

Gunnar and I chose a bus taking us to Arlington National Cemetery. While at this place of homage, we visited President John F. Kennedy’s grave site and The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. From a distance, I could see Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s stately mansion called, “Arlington House.” Large white columns were visible in foreground. Unfortunately, we didn’t have time to take a tour.

“Arlington House” from a distance (photo by me).

After several hours at Arlington, our tour bus took us downtown to the Smithsonian Museum. Gunnar was most thrilled in seeing their space display along with aviation exhibits. “The Spirit of St. Louis” hung from a ceiling. This was the airplane that Charles Lindbergh flew across the Atlantic in 1927.

What caught my interest out of all the displays, was the SWAMP RAT XXX dragster that drag racer Don Garlits drove to NHRA victory in 1986. I knew this car was at the Smithsonian, yet didn’t realize it held a spot of such provenance at the front door.

On top of the dragster’s cowling were the following words in large letters, GOD IS LOVE. There’s a poignant story a to why Garlits has that saying painted on each of his race cars. This bit of information comes from the Museum of History website:

“The dragster carries a Christian cross and the words “God is Love.” This reflects Garlits’ experience in 1959 when, after an accident, his system could not handle pain-killing drugs. In severe pain, he cried out, “Lord help me,” and his pain ceased.”

“Swamp Rat XXX.”.
I took this photo a the Smithsonian – 1992

Seems I’ve drifted from the story line once again. I’ll try to keep things on my son traveling to Washington, D.C., to participate in the ACSI National Spelling Bee a bit more on track.

After a full day of visiting historical places including the Smithsonian, we returned to our hotel. It was starting to get dark, yet we decided to go outside and walk across the street to a corner pharmacy. While inside the store Gunnar and I received strange looks. A couple of rough looking characters seemed to quietly ask,

“What you doin’ in this ‘hood?”

Purchasing our goods, we hustled back to the hotel entrance.

At dinner that evening, our server told us it wasn’t wise to venture outside after the sun went down. We’d already figured that out.

Saturday morning was the beginning of competition. Gunnar seemed more interested in a female competitor than he did the bee. He’d met her during a group get-together that first night. I believe she was from Washington State.

When it was his turn for a word I was as nervous as anyone. I could see my son was too.

The announcer carefully enunciated,


Gunnar was allowed a repeat pronunciation including an explanation of meaning. He asked for both.

Firkin. A pail or tub used in measurement purposes, such as a ferkin of lard.”

My son paused a second before attempting to spell the word. There was unsteadiness in his voice,

F – E – R- K – I- N?”

I’m sorry.” the announcer said. “The correct spelling is F-I-R-K-I-N.”

We flew home the following day. Gunnar was bummed but also happy in having made the trip.

I told him that I’d never heard of a firkin.

“My grandparents called a bucket of lard a bucket of lard!” I informed him.

Joleen’s Grandpa Schweitzer had a shockingly funny description for another bucket filled with different material, yet I kept that one to myself.

Firkin of lard

I saw enough of Washington, D.C. to last a lifetime. Other than not getting to step foot in Robert E. Lee’s home, I was happy. I truly appreciated the unlimited history of the place. What I didn’t like was the feeling of evil lurking within. I get this same queasiness each time I visit Las Vegas.

Ironically, some 24-years later, Gunnar moved to the Washington, D.C. area on a job assignment at the Pentagon with his wife Kaye, and their children, Kevin & Grace. The family, along with my wife in tow, were able to take a tour of Robert E. Lee’s home. I stayed behind taking care of our animals. The description Joleen gave me upon her return to Arizona was more than enough to satisfy my curiosity. I have no reason to go back unless of course, one of my grandchildren should qualify for the spelling bee.

*written mainly for my grandkids

“F-e-r-k-i-n?” No, this isn’t Gunnar. I didn’t get a good one of him up there.

Author: michaeldexterhankins

ordinary average guy

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