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I love to tell people who will still listen about my high school class trips back in the day. Mostly, they were made up of scheduled trips to local Venture Stores for the usual collection of September’s pens, pencils and notebook paper and unscheduled stops to the corner convenience store for soda and Cheetos. But in truth, we actually did have a real senior class trip.
Legend had it the Latin teacher sold his soul to make it happen, though I now believe it was more of a conspiracy theory. It was determined the man never had a soul after forcing us to translate Kennedy’s inauguration address into the language of Cicero. But there was a rumor he could have stolen several souls from my friends when we robbed the library of last year’s translation stuffed between the pages of Catcher in the Rye Cliff Notes. The man literally set the classroom ablaze with Latin translations when the papers came due, every single one identical to the next. So, a few lost souls may have been just the right payment for the cheating scandal, which were no doubt passed along to the devil himself.
But there we were, bags packed and acting like 8-year-olds on a Boeing 727 headed toward Washington, D.C. We ran up the 896 stairs to the top of the Washington Monument to look out a window smaller than the 727’s, fought each other to be the first to sit on Lincoln’s lap for pictures at the other end of the Reflecting Pool, and watched open-mouthed as a Marine guard threatened to shoot a student off a concrete barrier near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
Before they banned us from the Capital for the next decade, we managed to squeeze in a trip to the Smithsonian. The National Air and Space Museum housed a number of fascinating bits of aviation history. The Wright brothers' original aircraft, Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, and the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird spy plane all flew overhead. Various spacecraft and satellites were also showcased, including Mercury Friendship 7 capsule flown by John Glenn and the Gemini IV capsule flown by Ed White during America's early space missions.
The National Museum of American History had its own special pull for us. We saw the first American flag, a ton of WWII military equipment, and the bullet that killed Lincoln, along with fragments of his skull. That was about the time we regressed from 8-years-old to maybe 5 or 6. One of my friends said his father told him that Einstein’s brain was here at the Smithsonian and suggested we find it; easier said than done.
A group of us searched the many floors, the dark corners, and every obscure display, but Einstein wasn’t going to make an appearance until we asked someone. We finally found a maintenance man cleaning the floor. He was singing to himself as he slung a soaked mop across the linoleum.
“Hey, mister,” I said. “Where is Einstein’s brain?”
The man started laughing and couldn’t stop. He aimed the mop at the bucket but hit the rim and tipped it on its side. Soapy water ran in three directions.
“What’s so funny?” asked a friend.
“Because…,” he tried to calm down. “Because most of you little shits usually ask for John Dillinger’s penis!”
Perhaps a little gangster history applies here. I’m reasonably sure that most American boys who reached adolescence in the 1960s, especially from Chicago, knew about Dillinger’s penis. It was enormous; reports ranged from 12 to 27 inches, and it was preserved in formaldehyde at the Smithsonian Institution. On high school trips to Washington, the boys would spread out and look for it. Some even claimed they saw it. A less well-known version of the story insisted that no, it wasn’t in the Smithsonian, but at FBI headquarters, and that for years it rested in a jar on J. Edgar Hoover’s desk. Others said it actually was nearby at the Army Medical Museum. At any rate, boys identified with the dead gunman and his parts; everyone knew what you meant when you referred to “my Dillinger.”
By the way, if anyone is looking for Einstein’s brain, the story started with Dr. Thomas Harvey, the pathologist who was on call and conducted Einstein’s autopsy. While most of Einstein’s body was cremated shortly after his death, his ashes spread in an undisclosed location, Dr. Harvey removed Einstein’s brain from the autopsy suite for further study without initial permission from the family. After dissecting and photographing the brain, some of it was carefully sliced and made into microscopic slides. Harvey stored much of the preserved brain in a proverbial jar in a cider box. Once the good doctor finished researching Einstein’s genius, he gave the Arby sliced remains back to the family. They basically said, “WTF, what do we do with this?” It was promptly donated to the Mütter Medical Museum in Philadelphia. This is where you’ll find that small slice of history.
Coming of Age | The Hollow Man Series, International Espionage