UNDER THE broiling late afternoon sun, Arlington National Cemetery was hot and humid. It was so hot that I could feel the burning tarmac starting to melt the rubber soles of my deck shoes.

'Is this a hot one?' the genial Tourmobile bus driver asked each of us as we boarded for the cemetery tour. I slumped down into a seat on the open- sided bus, agreeing that it was certainly a hot one.

'This is damned hot,' he continued: 'I've been here since six o'clock this morning and do you know how hot it was then?' He paused for a moment to let us reflect on a suitable reply. There was no reply: we were all praying for the tour to begin before we expired due to heat exhaustion. 'It was damned hot this mornin' and it's damned hot now.'

I had endured 20 minutes in the stifling heat under the impression that the ride to the first stop on the tour - President Kennedy's grave - involved a trip of a couple of miles. In fact, the bus reached the Kennedy grave in about five minutes.

A guide led a party of Russians to the spot where JFK is buried: his grave is marked by an eternal flame and a simple slate headstone across which, on this afternoon at least, lay a couple of white carnations. The guide pointed out the marble terrace with its panoramic view of the city. On a low wall is an inscription from Kennedy's inaugural address: '. . . ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country . . .'

The guide moved the Russians towards a nearby plot with a simple white cross set in a wide sweep of lush green grass. After a long day spent trawling Washington's rich haul of sights, attention was beginning to wane. One of the Russians was confused. 'Who did you say was buried here?' he asked. 'Francis Sinatra?'

The guide winced. 'Robert Francis Kennedy. JFK's brother.'

The Russian tourist was disappointed; clearly he would have preferred to gaze upon the final resting place of Ol' Blue Eyes. However, his confusion was understandable. In America, where politics is a kissing cousin to show business, where a failed film star can become a failed president, why shouldn't Francis Albert Sinatra lie at the right hand of JFK?

''Sir, there is one very good reason why Sinatra isn't buried here,' added the guide with a neat measure of acid understatement: 'He isn't dead.'

ON KRUSCHEV'S famous visit to America in 1960, as his plane came in to land at Los Angeles airport, he looked down and saw thousands of back garden swimming pools glinting in the sun. 'Now I know that Communism has failed,' he is said to have exclaimed.

Today's Russian visitors all know that Communism has failed. A quick spin around Washington DC, however, will show them that while capitalism is not in quite such robust health either, America has lost none of its capacity to surprise. With the 30th anniversary celebrations of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream' speech taking place on the Mall, the city was crammed with placard-bearing civil rights groups and trade union delegates.

To escape the roasting heat, thousands had crowded into the air-conditioned museums that line the Mall. There were hundreds lined up ready to plunge into the National Air and Space Museum as soon as it opened at 9.45am. Even if you had no interest in the milestones of flight, you could enjoy the controlled climate free of charge.

Almost the first thing you see on entering the museum is the Wright brothers' Flyer, the plane that made the first powered flight, in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, on 17 December, 1903. On view in the same area is The Spirit of St Louis, in which Lindbergh made the first solo transatlantic crossing, 24 years after the Wright brothers' flight.

And in the same room is the command module of the Apollo XI, the mission which landed the first men on the moon 66 years after the Kitty Hawk flight (nearby there is a well-worn piece of real moon rock that visitors can touch). Here in the span of a lifetime you can see in one go the astonishing leap from flimsy flying machine to hi- tech moonshot.

The Tourmobile bus offered the only practical way of getting around the rest of the Washington sights through the heat and the crowds. The gum-chewing girl at the Tourmobile ticket desk warned there might be delays 'because of the Martin Luther King 'thang' '.

Next stop on the circuit was the National Museum of American History. Here the prime exhibit in the foyer is the original Star Spangled Banner. At fixed times a screen comes down and the famous flag briefly exposes itself.

Upstairs you can see the original ruby slippers worn by Judy Garland in the film version of The Wizard of Oz. The exhibit reveals that the original Frank L Baum story was more than a simple fairy tale. It was written as an Animal Farm-style allegory based on the struggles of the Farmers' Alliance in the Mid-West at the end of the 19th century.

BALTIMORE, an hour's drive north of Washington, while not quite a film star, has had more than its fair share of walk- ons in the movies in recent years. Film directors Barry Levinson and John Waters both come from the city and both have featured Baltimore prominently in their work: Levinson with Diner and Tin Men, and Waters - variously called the 'Prince of Puke' and the 'Pope of Trash' - for 'cult comedies' such as Polyester and Hairspray. It also has a hefty crop of famous literary sons including H L Mencken ('the sage of Baltimore') and Edgar Allan Poe.

Once you find the heart of the city, Baltimore is a peach. But get lost along the way, as we did, and you find yourself cruising blighted city blocks featuring a cast that looks as though it previously starred in news footage of the Los Angeles riots.

ACROSS Chesapeake Bay from Baltimore, less than an hour's drive away, lies deepest rural Maryland. I set a course south to take us down this finger of land through Virginia to North Carolina, final destination Kitty Hawk. Farm stands along the way offered peaches, apples, squash and that other agricultural product: fireworks.

At the end of this land-finger lies the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, featuring 17 1/2 miles of bridges and tunnel that lead across to Norfolk. Two days before, all tourists had been ordered to leave the low-lying coastal strip of the Outer Banks of North Carolina because of the approach of Hurricane Emily. She turned out to be a storm in a teacup and now the tourists were heading back.

Heading down from the north, practically the first place you reach on the Outer Banks is Kitty Hawk. I asked at the information centre if the Wright brothers' memorial would be open in the aftermath of the hurricane. 'Open? The memorial? Gee. It could be open. It could be closed. Could be either, I guess. Ain't much help, am I?'

The gates to the memorial were padlocked, but there was nothing to stop visitors walking round the gates and climbing a hillock to the monolith erected to celebrate the achievements of Orville and Wilbur 90 years ago.

The Wright brothers, two eccentrics who ran a bicycle shop in Dayton, Ohio, were probably the final examples of a tradition that saw enthusiastic amateurs recording extraordinary technological achievements. Attracted to the Outer Banks for the sea breezes necessary for their glider experiments, the Wrights returned regularly to live in the marshy wilderness around Kitty Hawk, where they were plagued by mosquitoes and drifting sand.

After months of perseverance and endless refinement, the brothers, dressed as always in business suits, rolled the Flyer out for its historic journey on 17 December, 1903.

Below the monument, next to the museum, stone markers set out exactly the distance covered by Orville on his first flight: it was a journey of 120ft which took just 12 seconds with the plane rising to a height of 10ft. Between them Orville and Wilbur made four flights that day, the last one measuring 825ft and lasting 59 seconds. After which the Flyer was tossed over by the wind and never flew again.

The Wright brothers wanted to fly because it fascinated them. They had no desire for fame and fortune, but their achievement brought them both. Wilbur died of typhoid in 1912. Orville, however, lived on as a millionaire, dying in 1948, by which time flight had already become supersonic.

When I boarded the Boeing 747 in Washington for the flight home, I remembered a line I had read which said that the first flight by Orville covered a distance equivalent to half the wingspan of a jumbo jet.

Flights: Scheduled services from Heathrow to Washington by British Airways (0345 222111) and United (081-990 9900). STA Travel (071-937 9971) offers return fares to Washington from pounds 219 travelling with United from Monday to Thursday.

Accommodation: Frank Barrett stayed at the Marriott Residence Inn (0800 221222) in Bethesda, 15 minutes by Metro train from Washington centre: studios from pounds 50 per night with breakfast.

Car hire: Seven days with Hertz (0345 555 888), under its USA On Wheels programme, from pounds 105 including unlimited mileage and Loss Damage Waiver but excluding local tax.

Getting round Washington: Tourmobile (202 554 7950) runs a regular bus service around the main city sights every day except Christmas for dollars 8.50 ( pounds 5.60), children dollars 4 ( pounds 2.60). Buy tickets from booths or drivers.

Further information: Washington Convention & Visitors Association, 1575 I Street, NW Washington DC 20005 (202 789 7000); Visit USA Information Service, PO Box 1EN, London W1A 1EN (071-495 4466).

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