Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day at Arlington

I'd been to Arlington National Cemetery once before my visit this Memorial Day. It was on a trip with the Boy Scouts back when I was in Jr. High (might have been before that even, come to think of it). We didn't stay long; just a visit to JFK's tomb and a jaunt over to see the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. Also, I was probably about twelve; I imagine my worldview was somewhat different a decade ago. This trip, then, was destined to be different. I was alone with my thoughts, and free to set my own agenda.

Arlington is easily accessible by subway. I arrived in the early afternoon--the President had long since left--and the sun overhead stung my eyes as I rode the elevator up out of the station. I didn't really know what to expect in terms of an itinerary; the Tomb of the Unknowns and the Kennedy gravesite are the most famous parts of Arlington, as far as I know, but beyond that I was clueless. The first thing you come across is a visitor's center. I grabbed a map and left.

I decided to work my way towards the northwest corner first. There are a few veterans of the Revolutionary War buried there, and both the Kennedy graves and Arlington House are on the way.

My first stop was at JFK's grave. It's a very moving memorial. You walk a path up to the site that ends at an elliptical paved area. Imagine a line that splits the ellipse in half the long way. On one side of this line, along the edge of the ellipse, there is inscribed a collection of quotes from his inaugural address, which I've reproduced below.
Let the word go forth
From this time and place
To friend and foe alike
That the torch has been passed
To a new generation of Americans.

Let every nation know
Whether it wishes us well or ill
That we shall pay any price - bear any burden
Meet any hardship - support any friend
Oppose any foe to assure the survival
And the success of liberty

Now the trumpet summons us again
Not as a call to bear arms
- though embattled we are
But a call to bear the burden of a long twilight struggle
A struggle against the common enemies of man Tyranny - Poverty - Disease - and War itself

In the long history of the world
Only a few generations have been granted
The role of defending freedom
In the hour of maximum danger
I do not shrink from this responsibility
I welcome it

The Energy - the Faith - the Devotion
Which we bring to this endeavor
Will light our country
And all who serve it
And the glow from that fire
Can truly light the world

And so my fellow Americans
Ask not what your country can do for you
Ask what you can do for your country
My fellow citizens of the world - ask not
What America can do for you - but what together
We can do for the freedom of man

With a good conscience our only sure reward
With history the final judge of our deeds
Let us go forth to lead the land we love - asking His blessing
And his help - but knowing that here on earth
God's work must truly be our own.
Looking beyond the inscription you see a panorama of the capital, with a clear view of the Washington Monument. Opposite the inscription, on the other edge of the elliptical plaza, a wide staircase of about ten steps leads you up to the grave proper. Kennedy is buried next to his wife and two infant children. Instead of headstones, there are horizontal slabs which interrupt a larger rectangle of cut stone. Amidst the stone and above the polished slabs is an eternal flame.

From there I went a little bit to the south to see Robert Kennedy's grave; it is adjacent to his brother's gravesite. It's a smaller memorial than the Presidents, featuring a relatively humble grave separated by a small plaza from a pool of water at ground level that spills over into a ditch, from where the water is recirculated.

From there I made my way past a burial monument to the unknown dead of the Civil War (housing the remains of 2,111 soldiers), next to which was a wreath with a small tag which read in a curling script, "The President." That struck me as interesting--I liked how it detached the man from the office; no one can accuse President Obama of campaigning through Memorial Day wreaths. A lot of the time, politicians plaster their names on things every chance they get--the sign at the NY/PA border says "Welcome to Pennsylvania, Ed Rendell, Governor." Also, it was a nice change of pace from what has felt like the first President who's persona is treated like a brand, complete with snazzy logo. In any case, I didn't stay too long, and moved on to see Arlington House.

Arlington House, I have to say, I was not expecting. I knew somewhere in the back of my head that Arlington used to be private property, but I hadn't heard or had forgotten the story that goes along with it.

According to the Park Service pamphlet I picked up at the entryway, the house was built as a residence and a tribute to George Washington by his step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. Custis's daughter, Mary Anna Randolph Custis, married a lieutenant by the name of Robert Edward Lee.

A few years later, Lee's plans no longer included residing at the estate; he resigned his commission and joined the Virginian forces. The Union confiscated the estate and began using it as a military burial ground. The rest, as they say, is history. Today, Arlington House is a national memorial to Robert E. Lee.

The house itself is nothing incredible; however, it is at the highest point in the cemetery, as far as I could tell, and provides an excellent view of the surrounding area. Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant--the civil engineer and architect credited with planning much of Washington, DC--is buried nearby, which seems fitting.

I wasn't able to find any of the graves of the Revolutionary War veterans when I got to the northwest corner. Lots of interesting tombstones, but nothing that I could identify as belonging to a Revolutionary War vet. Arlington tends to jerk one around a lot, emotionally. On one side of you you'll have a grave of a person who's first name is 10+ letter long, middle name is 6ish letters long, and last name is 3 letters long. This is clearly hilarious. On the other side you'll have a family tomb where the son died at 22 and both parents are still alive, with their names and years of birth on the stone but no date of death. This is rather tragic.

I walk for a while along the western edge of the cemetery, near Fort Meyer. It's about 2:30, and it's started to rain, but I have an umbrella. I hang a right and approach the Confederate Monument. There are graves heading radially outward from the monument in the center, next to which is another wreath from the President. Leaving the main road and approaching the monument, I stopped and looked at some of the headstones.

If someone ever asks me what I think it is to die alone, I'd point them to the spot where I took this photograph. This soldier is nameless, and lost to history. We'll never know who he was or why he fought. I suspect many Americans would be less than charitable in answering that last question. His family never knew his fate, and must have waited anxiously for months before finally giving in to despair. To die on a battlefield far from home would be depressing enough. To leave behind no identifying trace--and no closure for one's family? Devastating.

He couldn't have known it when he died, so I suppose it doesn't matter, but his anonymity left a blank canvas upon which history's pen has left a caricature. He has no name, no face. Others are invited to impose an identity upon him. It's dehumanizing.

Beyond that, though, the tombstone begs you to ask, "what was this confederate soldier?"

I'm forced to answer that he was nothing more or less than a man--imperfect and ephemeral. More that that, I should not presume.

From the Confederate Monument I headed east, towards the Memorial Amphitheater and the adjacent Tomb of the Unknowns. Along the way I saw a memorial to the Americans killed in the Battle of the Bulge; it was a gift from Belgium and Luxembourg. A short ways past it was a group of graves of nurses. There was another wreath at a memorial to Spanish-American war casualties. The wreath stand had fallen over, so I set it back upright.

I walked a bit to the northeast to the Memorial Amphitheater. Everything was still set up from the President's appearance earlier in the day. I arrived just in time for the changing of the guard at three o'clock. Thankfully, it had stopped raining. Before the scheduled changing, there was a minute of silence. I don't remember which government office had made the request. The changing of the guard is kind of neat to watch, but I found it emotionally cold compared to seeing the simple tombstones marked "unknown" scattered around the cemetery. A few photos of the ceremony are below.

Immediately following the changing of the guard, there was a wreath-laying ceremony. I had remembered this from my visit with the Boy Scouts. For whatever reason, the wreath-laying struck me as more personal, both on that visit and this one. Maybe it's because wreath-layings usually involve the public, whereas the guard-changing doesn't? In any case, I took some photographs, although I didn't get a shot of the folks actually laying the wreath, because for that part of the ceremony everyone was asked to put their hand over their heart.

After the ceremony was over, I walked around the Amphitheater a bit. The guards have an office in the Amphitheater, and outside the door there's a small display as well as this plaque:

Next I walked downhill to the east and looked back up at the tomb (towards the west). Looking towards the east, you get a view of the city much like the one from Arlington House or the Kennedy gravesite.

I headed north for a while before turning east, towards the McClellan Gate, which was the original entrance to the cemetery. I was making my way towards the columbarium in the southeast corner.

One of the more chilling aspects of Arlington are the views (like in the photo below) of the rows and rows of identical gravestones stretching out into the distance. I never got used to it. Every time, it felt like a punch in the gut.

It's a sea of tombstones, threatening to swallow you up, as it swallowed them. My head would scan the horizon, side to side. "For what?" I kept thinking. All of them for different reasons, I suppose. It's just overwhelming, really. I couldn't make sense of it.

On the way to the columbarium there's a place where the graves stop. There were a lot of cars parked along the roadside in this section. I realized this was where the most recent burials were.

A group of three servicemen were visiting an old friend. Families were gathered around loved ones. Some of the graves were so new they weren't yet covered in sod and lacked permanent headstones. Many of the graves had objects and letters. One had a poem written in charcoal on parchment. I came across one grave, pictured below, which had a miniature Stanley Cup and a Darth Vader action figure. I digitally erased the name on the marker to protect his and his family's privacy.

This whole section cut at me deeply. Many of the dead here were born within a few years of me. I don't know how to make sense of that. How many more will be laid to rest here, I wonder, before the rest can come home? Its senseless. They should never have left. The whole thing is just insane.

From there I moved on towards the southeast, passing the columbarium. It has simple lines, and the gardens and fountains are very well maintained. It's pleasant and undistracting. I didn't stay long.

Just to the south of the columbarium is what my map calls the "Pentagon Group Burial Marker Sept. 11, 2001." The Pentagon itself is immediately to the southeast of the cemetery. The marker is in the shape of a pentagon. Each side lists the names of the dead. Some of the names have diamonds next to them, others have stars. There's an inscription along the top identifying the monument as being for those who died in the terrorist attack on the Pentagon. I wondered what the stars and diamonds were for. The last panel that I came to told me. Diamond: passenger on American Airlines Flight 77. Star: no identifiable remains found.

I walked southeast to the road that heads along the cemetery's eastern border and headed back towards the entrance. It started raining again. I exited the cemetery through the Women's Memorial, which is a large semicircle capping the end of Memorial Drive. There was a memorial ceremony going on inside. After poking my head in, I stepped outside and took the stairs up to walk along the top of the memorial. I headed down on the other side and walked back along Memorial Drive towards the metro station, ending my visit shortly after five o'clock.

No comments:

Post a Comment