Quote of the Day:
“On fame’s eternal resting ground their silent tents are spread, and glory guards with solemn round the bivouac of the dead.” –inscription on McClellan’s Gate, Arlington National Cemetery, from “Bivouac of the Dead” by Colonel Theodore O’Hara, CSA (can’t make this stuff up)
TB spent six days in Washington, D.C. last week, my second lifetime trip to the capital. Seventeen years ago I drove up from school with Sweet on Spring Break to hang out with MD. The itinerary for this trip, at least in daylight hours had much in common with that long ago journey, but my appreciation for the monuments and the museums I visited both times was deeper this year. One thing that remained the same was the impact Arlington National Cemetery had on me. On neither visit was I particularly excited about visiting Arlington in planning the trip, but now, as then it turned out to be an awe inspiring and moving experience.
Other than the crowds that surround JFK’s eternal flame and those who come to witness the eternal vigilance at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Arlington is a quiet place. It is also beautiful, not only from the gently rolling hills, springtime blooms and perfectly ordered grave markers, but for its stunning views of Washington’s major landmarks just across the Potomac River. Places like this send my brain on odyssey, for better or worse.
Unlike most of the people who visit Arlington, the lowlight of the day is stopping by JFK’s resting place. It is simply too crowded and too much of a sideshow atmosphere to have an impact on me. That is not to say I would recommend skipping this stop. Because on the way up to JFK, you must pass a corner of Arlington dedicated to many of our greatest, or at least most influential Supreme Court Justices, laid out side by side as if to allow their continuing observations and collective wisdom and debate to continue for eternity, all together in a place where they can look down on Washington, missing nothing that transpires there. A court with Holmes and Black, Marshall and even Burger along with the others, no longer limited to only nine, sitting aside St. Peter and probing the complexities of humanity’s decisions and their accountability therefore I think would be of great assistance to the Almighty and no small benefit to those of us hoping the pearly gates swing open upon our approach.
After the hordes leave the section of Arlington dedicated to JFK, his wife and his brother, they make for either Robert E. Lee’s pre-Civil War home or for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. My gang headed first for the Lee home located at the apex of the park. After enduring an arduous uphill climb, we were rewarded first with views of the Pentagon, then the Lee gardens, and finally a stunning panorama of Washington with the Lincoln Memorial dominating but also with views of the Capitol, the Washington Monument and the Jefferson Memorial. The Lee home itself becomes something of an afterthought. Other than the view (a snapshot is below) I was intrigued by the burial of Union soldiers along the perimeter of Lee’s flower and herb gardens. These gravesites are the only ones in the Park that I noticed that were not laid out in the orderly rows of which we are all familiar. I couldn’t help but wonder if they were put there as some sort of insult or punishment to Lee and his family or if there was some other reason for their placement in this spot. The vast majority of Union dead are across the way, behind McClellan’s Gate, so there had to be a reason for placing the graves of only a couple of dozen men around the Lee home and garden and space clearly wasn’t the issue. Whatever the cause, I suspect Lee would’ve approved. They give the garden a level of peace and dignity it could never possess standing alone.
Leaving the Lee Mansion, we made our way to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, taking the long way around and having the space to ourselves. I spent a few minutes at the Rough Riders Memorial, the mast of the USS Maine and the monuments to the astronauts killed in the space shuttle disasters alongside the men who were killed attempting to rescue the hostages in Iran. I skipped the Confederate Memorial, because it was in a direction I didn’t want to walk and because the issue of secession and its consequences was weighing on my thoughts. More on that maybe tomorrow. After watching the solemn changing of the guard at the “Tomb”, we began to head for the exits, again taking the long and solitary route. As the shadows lengthened, the Park only grew more beautiful and I regretted I didn’t have more time to stroll and reflect on the history buried in the place. There is so much to take in. The graves of American icons such as Audie Murphy, Abner Doubleday and Dashiell Hammett (Medal of Honor winner/movie star, credited inventor of baseball and author of The Maltese Falcon, respectively) are just a few of the names to be found there, the famous interspersed freely with the common–the citizen soldiers who used to fight for America who left their farms and offices and families to fight while needed and who I most admire of all our military heroes.
I had hoped to get a glimpse of General John “Blackjack” Pershing’s grave but was unable to spot it in the limited time available. Pershing is hard to find for a reason–he left specific instructions, orders really I suppose, that his grave be marked with a small white stone, identical except for the inscription to the stones used for his men. I know a little of Blackjack’s career, but this small fact makes me want to know more–sounds like a guy TB could respect.
Fittingly, as we left, I spied the Air Force Memorial in the distance. It is three arcs rising skyward assymetrically representing vapor trails like those behind a streaking jet. Flyin’ J was with me and though we joke about the military and our divergent politics a lot, I was privileged to be in this space with a man who has flown into war zones in Afghanistan and Iraq and will do it again whenever and wherever he’s asked. And regardless whether I approve of the politicians that sent or will send him out, I honor his willingness to go. That’s the thing about Arlington I guess. The stones do not tell us whether the man or woman beneath was a Republican or a Democrat. With a few exceptions for foreign allies, there are only Americans. Arlington, more than any other place I’ve been is a reminder that what we have in common far exceeds our differences, even in these times of increasingly hostile political rhetoric.