Dry brown leaves swirled at the base of the Minnesota Vietnam Veterans Memorial, next to a bouquet of orange flowers.
My three children and I stared at the more than 1,000 names etched into the polished black wall, the names of the Minnesota soldiers who died or were missing in action.
"What are the flowers for?" asked one of my sons.
I explained to him, and said we were lucky we were not bringing flowers to lay in memory of a great-uncle or grandfather.
With Veterans Day coming up Thursday, it seemed an appropriate time to show my children the memorials on the Minnesota State Capitol Mall, many of which commemorate men and women who served in the military. The Minnesota Historical Society recently launched a phone tour of 21 monuments, so we tried that as well, with mixed results.
Since looking at monuments is not my kids' idea of fun, I bribed them with lunch first at the Minnesota History Center, where we picked up the new "History on the Spot" phone tour map. (You need the guide, since the phone number and prompts are not posted on the tour.)
As we walked toward the Capitol Mall, my 8-year-old pressed my cell phone to his ear and enjoyed figuring out how to punch in the two digits that correspond to each monument.
"Leif Erikson! Whoa! What the heck," he said as he punched in 07. "He doesn't have anything to do with Minnesota. He's a Viking!"
"What did you learn?" I asked after he listened.
"It was all about the statue," he complained. I guess he was hoping for a story.
We stopped next at the memorial for civil rights activist Roy Wilkins, who grew up in St. Paul and became head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 1955. I listened to the phone while my children played tag among several tall metal walls. I learned that the walls symbolize the barriers created by racial discrimination. A spiral of stone pyramids evokes Wilkins' work for legislative justice.
"Does he have anything to do with Minnesota?" asked my 8-year-old.
"Nope," said my 11-year-old. "They just added him because they didn't have enough people."
I bit my tongue and handed the phone to my 8-year-old so he could prove big brother wrong. The recording neglected to mention that Lindbergh grew up in Little Falls, Minn., so I enlightened them.
We breezed by statues of governors John Johnson and Knute Nelson and paused briefly at Christopher Columbus to wonder how he got there. We passed through the Women's
Then we visited the war memorials.
I found the Korean War Veterans Memorial the most poignant. A larger-than-life bronze soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder is shown walking toward an opening in a 20-foot high wall, an empty silhouette of a soldier.
I asked my children what they thought it meant.
"Sadness," said my preschooler.
"It represents him walking out of the war?" speculated my 8-year-old.
"I think the empty space is ... like ... his spirit," said my 11-year-old son. "Like his body is not there anymore, and what's left is his spirit."
I told them what the recorded tour said — the empty space represents soldiers missing in action. By now, I had figured out that the tour worked best when I listened and passed on interesting tidbits.
We stopped at the Minnesota World War II Memorial, where I tried to read text panels while keeping the kids from running up and down a granite slope symbolizing the descent into war. (What is the etiquette about playing on public artwork? Anyone?)
We finished our tour at the naval gun that fired the first American shots of World War II. The kids climbed on the gun's metal seats while I told them its history. It was mounted on the U.S.S. Ward, which was patrolling Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Just a few
Did my children love this outing? No.
Was it worthwhile? Yes. Seeing a big public statue prompts the question: What's so important about this person or event that we put it on the state's front lawn? I hope my children walked away with a few visual impressions of Minnesota's history.
Did the phone tour help? Well, somewhat. The recordings provided interesting background but fell short of their potential. The tone was too formal to be kid-friendly, which is a loss, since the format has such potential to engage young people. It sounded too much like someone reading text on a brochure. A more conversational style and a few lively anecdotes would have engaged the kids, and made it more interesting for me as well.
Apparently a memorial for Minnesota senator and vice president Hubert Humphrey is in the works, and I got to thinking, wouldn't that be cool if a phone tour told you who he was and then gave you a chance to listen to Humphrey's own voice, say a couple minutes from his 1948 speech before the Democratic National Convention?
Imagine standing in front of his likeness on the mall and listening to his words. Now that would be a phone tour worth taking.
Maja Beckstrom can be reached at 651-228-5295.
What: Self-guided phone tour of monuments on the Minnesota State Capitol mall
Where: Minnesota State Capitol, 75 Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., St. Paul
Information: Access "History on the Spot" phone tour by calling 877-411-4123.
Cost: free (cell phone companies may charge you for minutes)
Target audience: The phone tour is geared toward adults
Crowd pleaser: Sitting on the U.S.S. Ward gun
Avoid: Trying to visit all 21 memorials
Tip: Pick up a free phone tour flyer at the information desks of the Minnesota History Center or State Capitol. A self-guided brochure costs $2 or visit the online tour for free at www.mnhs.org/places/sites/msc
For more: Find more Family Outings, including a primer on touring inside the State Capitol, at minnmoms.com.