A View From The Wall
After spending a wonderful week in Key West, my wife and I are driving home to New York with friends when we suddenly become the beneficiaries of a rare and wonderful twist of fate. We realize today is Saturday, it is the Memorial Day Weekend, we are northbound on I-95 and approaching Washington, DC. It is one of those eerie moments in life when time, place, and unforseen events all converge to create an unexpected opportunity to live a very special moment that will stay with you for a lifetime.
We decide to stop at Arlington National Cemetery. It is mid-afternoon now so neither crowds nor parking should be a problem. This will be my first visit to Arlington so, after consulting our road map, we plot a course to DC.
On the Virginia side of the Potomac River, across from the Lincoln Memorial, we discover the 624 acres of rolling green slopes where hundreds of thousands of servicemen and their families have been laid to rest. About 200 of the the original acres once belonged to the family of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. In 1864, the US government tried to steal the property surrounding his mansion in an effort to cope with the flood of Civil War casualties that was inundating Washington's hospitals and cemeteries. Curtis Lee, an heir to the estate, later sued the federal government to establish his claim to the family property. After the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, congress paid him $150,000 for title to the land.
We make our way from the parking area, through the visitors' Center, and slowly up the rising grade of Roosevelt Drive. We continue up the incline of Weeks Drive until we reach the marble stairs leading to the burial site of President John F. Kennedy. At the top of the stairs is the eternal flame framed with Cape Cod stones and four bronze plaques that mark the graves of John, Jacqueline, Patrick, and an un-named daughter. As we turn away to leave the site, we can see the entire Washington skyline spread out before us. It is an awesome and beautiful sight to behold.
Only 100 feet away is the grave site of the President's brother, Attorney General, and US Senator Robert F. Kennedy, but the day is waning. There is so much to see and so little time.
We meander up the slope of Roosevelt Drive until we arrive at the Tomb of the Unknowns. "Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God" is inscribed on the sarcophagus of a nameless World War I combatant who was entombed here in 1921. In front of this tomb, flush with the surface of the terrace, are slabs marking the crypts of unknown servicemen from WWII and Korea.
We have timed our arrival to witness the ceremonial changing of the guard. With precise cadence and dignified pageantry, the sentinel standing vigil at the monument is relieved and replaced. In a similar manner, wreaths are placed before the tomb to commemorate the Memorial Day Weekend. On Monday, as on every Memorial Day and Veterans Day, the Commander In Chief will present his own Presidential wreath.
As we make our way back to the parking area, I am struck by the serenity that prevails on these shaded slopes. I see some of the grave stones are large, others are small; some ornate, others plain; some are rectangular while others have rounded corners. They are made from white granite, gray marble, or cast in bronze. Some are bright, some dark, some glossy, some matte. Many appear to be newer with freshly sand-blasted inscriptions that have been recently filled with black. I also see others that are weather beaten and yellowing with age, with lettering that is difficult to read. The variety of markers speaks volumes about the individuals they immortalize. They mark the final resting places of over 275,000 souls from many walks of life, of all creeds and races, of every rank and station in life. While I would like to honor them for their service to our country, and some, for their sacrifices defending the principles it represents, yet, it is I who feels honored and privileged to be here in this hallowed place and at this particular moment in time.
We still have some daylight to cross over the Potomac into Washington, DC, pass by the Lincoln Memorial, and head up Constitution Avenue. We can see that the motorcycle clubs are out in large numbers this weekend. Black leather vests are everywhere. MIA flags, Harley-Davidson patches, and Vietnam insignia are as prominent today as Old Glory. Even with six bikes filling each parking space it is still hard to find one that is vacant. We cruise up Constitution, come about and return on the other side of the National Mall. Stopping by the Washington Monument, we create our own little photo op before moving on toward the Jefferson Memorial. As we drive by, he is still standing in the center of the rotunda. Between the pillars, I see him smiling at me as I drive past.
We park two blocks from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and stroll over to the monument. I feel like I have just stepped into all of the movie clips that I have ever seen since it was completed in the fall of 1982. Between the tiny dark wedges at both ends, each with only three names, are 138 other panels that ultimately tower in the center with hundreds on them. It is a chilling walk for me. Along the way I see pencils left behind for the next person who wants to make a tracing of a name on the wall. Among the small flags and wreaths along the base are countless photos, sketches, and even a clipping from some home town newspaper with a headline announcing the death of the local high school football hero in Nam. Inside of a plastic bag, I spot a pinochle hand with four different aces and a long book in spades that was left, I imagine, by a pinochle playing comrade who managed to make it home. Although each article left at the wall is unique in some way, they all exclaim "You are missed and you are remembered."
It never occured to me that I would find myself here at this national shrine on this very special weekend. Fate has blessed me with a surprise gift to add to this trip's precious collection of memories.