On the road to Arlington National Cemetery, the traffic congestion caused me to go into “travel dad” mode. This is a nickname my kids came up with to describe me when I become intense behind the driver’s wheel during family trips.
We entered the roundabout just outside the entrance to Arlington Cemetery. I began to circle. Suddenly, a police car whipped in and cut me off, halting traffic without warning to allow a funeral procession the right of way. To my wife’s dismay, I complained about the raw deal an extra second made. As she was pointing out my selfishness another funeral procession entered the roundabout. I couldn’t help but gasp, “For crying out loud …you have got to be kidding me.”
My wife wasn’t happy with me and my kids just shook their heads, shaming me. “Travel Dad” quickly retreated, realizing as he should have all along – this isn’t really a tourist attraction, it’s a place for solemn respect.
I am an Army veteran who had served in peace time Germany. Many of my friends stayed in or were called back for Operation Desert Storm as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. A close cousin of mine enlisted a few years after I left the service and has since done five tours of duty in the two wars. Fortunately, my visit here would not include seeing the fallen of anyone I knew personally. But as soon as you enter these hallowed grounds and see the seemingly endless rows of white marble headstones, it dawns on you the magnitude of true sacrifice required to maintain the ideals of our nation.
I stared at the lush green lawns checkered with marble headstones sprawling to towering trees, over hills and beyond. The perfect rows of nondescript, uniform, white headstones went in every direction creating beautiful symmetric patterns. All of the stones I could see had a cross outline etched in the top center. I dropped to a knee and did a quick sign of the cross as a reaction to the flood of emotion overcoming every fiber of my being.
I heard my children express their awe with one word that came from under paused breath, “Wow.” But the word carried long and low. Everywhere we walked it was all that we could see. It was a heavy price for a place that charged no admission. Our path went uphill and our feet became as heavy as our hearts.
Our chattering voices discussing the impact and history of Arlington came to self-hushed whispers when we heard the clicking of shoe heels. It was a serviceman in dress uniform, marching alone, with a weapon angled upright over his shoulder.
The large marble cube he was guarding had the following words carved into it:
Here Rests In
Known But to God
It overlooked manicured green space bordered by shrubbery as high as trees.
We were at the Tomb of The Unknown Soldier.
Remarkably, it has never been officially named and is also referred to as The Tomb of The Unknowns. It is guarded 24/7/365. The original tomb lay to rest the remains of an unidentified WWI soldier. It symbolizes the resting place for all who have fallen in battle but were never identified. In front of it are three white slabs at ground/plaza level. These were added later. One has the remains of an unknown soldier from WWII and another from Korea. The third had the remains of an unknown soldier from Vietnam until DNA testing in 1998 identified him.
We counted the tomb guard’s paces at 21 in one direction and then 21 in the other. This symbolizes a 21 gun salute. The guards do their pacing for 1-2 hours at a time before there is a changing of the guard. The shift depends on the season and time of day. They march on a rubber mat that gets worn through about twice per year and is then replaced. From the looks of the path worn deep into the rubber mat as we looked on, it must have been near the end of its service. When the ceremonial changing of the guard occurs, there are three soldiers involved. The stone walk next to the rubber mat is stained by the soles of the shoes by the relief commander and new guard from the precise and repeated footprints made visible by time.
Complete silence is required during the changing of the guard ceremony and everyone in the area must stand. The snap precision of the procession is remarkable. The incredibly fit soldiers, polished shoes, pressed uniforms, serious faces, dark sunglasses (worn due to the glare off of the surrounding marble) and shiny bayonets at the ends of the two rifles all resonate with respect for the occasion. The relief commander and new guard face one another and the relief commander inspects the new guard and his weapon. There is a bit of theatre in this ritual as the weapon is flipped and spun impressively and then the commander’s head snaps down or to the side to further inspect the weapon.
We were mesmerized.
The old guard and relief commander marched off. The new guard paced slowly and deliberately. The steel in his shoe soles clicked for emphasis when he did an about face after marching 21 paces one way. He turned to march 21 paces back and would continue this for the next hour until the next changing of the guard. We faded away from the scene but the scene would never fade from our memories.
Many of the services conducted at Arlington National Cemetery are done so at the Memorial Amphitheater. It is adjacent to the Tomb of the Unknowns and accommodates approximately 5,000 people. Ground was broken in 1915 and it was dedicated in 1920. Previously, a smaller wooden structure was used for services. The present one is grand in scope and architecture. It hosts special occasions such as Memorial Day services but most of the time it’s open for visitors to peruse.
The amphitheater is made of Vermont-quarried Danby marble. A cornerstone contains a bible, copy of The Declaration of Independence, copy of the U.S. Constitution, and a 1915 U.S. flag among other things. Inside is a klismos which is a type of throne dating back to ancient Greece. It is a definite photo opportunity to have family members take turns sitting in it while the camera person stands at the far opposite end of the amphitheater.
“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,” are words from President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address which are inscribed above the amphitheater stage.
On our way to the Marine Corps War Memorial also known as the Iwo Jima Memorial, we heard Taps being played. Off to the side of our pathway were just a dozen men in their dress blues. They snapped their posture and weapons to parade rest. They were laying to rest one of their own.
Yes, this is an active cemetery, not just a historic site.
We paused for a moment of silence and then quietly altered our course to avoid coming any closer to this private ceremony.
The Iwo Jima monument was a decent trek and I’m not even sure if it’s actually inside Arlington’s grounds because we had to cross a road and open grassy areas to get there. This was one of those works of architecture that stood high but also had intricate detail. It depicts the iconic WWII photo taken of Marines in the Pacific planting the American Flag. We snapped a lot of photos because it really captivated us, as it does all onlookers. But none of the photos gave it the majestic feel we had seeing it firsthand. Not even close.
Next, we were struck by the simplicity of the Kennedy brothers’ graves. Robert Kennedy’s humble grave is marked by a small white cross and plaque that reads only of his name and the year of his birth and death. That’s it. President John F. Kennedy’s grave is marked by a flickering, eternal flame. Standing there made me think of all of the old television footage I had seen of that tumultuous time in our nation’s modern history. I felt connected in a way I hadn’t before.
After a day of walking – lots and lots of walking – we rested our weary heads on pillows at the Washington Hilton Hotel. This is the infamous site where President Reagan and others in his entourage were shot. Again, we whispered about the price of freedom. The days ahead would bring that price further into focus. Our “magical history tour” grew roots in our hearts and minds.
By Rocco Satullo, your tour guide to fun!