Arlington, Virginia – August 17, 2012
My meetings finished up early today, so I took the opportunity to go to Arlington National Cemetery. I had passed by many, many times, but never stopped.
Coming up out of the Metro stop, one is facing the Women’s Memorial about a half-mile in the distance. Just short of the memorial is the entry to the visitors’ center. I stopped there first to pick up a map and get myself oriented.
Leaving the visitor center, I decided to explore the Women’s Memorial. After looking at the fountains at ground level, I decided to climb one of the sets of stairs. When I got to the top of the stairs, I had my first good view of all of the perfectly aligned white headstones for which Arlington National Cemetery is known. Regardless of the topography, the headstones remain in perfect formation. One’s eye is drawn up the hill to a majestic mansion with large tan-colored columns as one looks to the west. That is the former home of General Robert E. Lee. While standing there, about halfway between the monument and the mansion, I saw a black carriage carrying a coffin. It was drawn by several black horses, leading a hero to their final rest.
I retraced my steps somewhat and began the climb toward President John F. Kennedy Gravesite. Walking along the road, it is just amazing the numbers of graves that stretch out in every direction. It was interesting to finally see in person the JFK gravesite that I have seen in so many photographs over the years. The eternal flame was a little challenging to see in the bright sunshine, but it was there.
Leaving the JFK Gravesite, I decided to head next to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. That ended out being quite a hike, and a lot of it was uphill. While I was walking to the Tomb, I noticed it was easy to pick out the headstones of those buried in the Jewish tradition. Those headstones always had several small stones placed on top of them, just as one sees in the movie Schindler’s List.
When I arrived at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, I found myself at an amphitheater to the west of the Tomb. It was reasonably large, but I have no idea of the purpose. The entire time I was there, I did not see anything happening in the amphitheater. I walked to the front of the amphitheater and caught my first glimpse of the Tomb and the Army Honor Guard. The precision and reverence with which the lone soldier marched was quite inspiring. The soldier’s shoes have metal pieces attached at the heel and toe of the shoes. They definitively click at specific moments of the march.
After being there for only about ten minutes, it was a treat to discover the changing of the guard ceremony begin. I was surprised because it was the bottom of the hour. I thought it only happened at the top of the hour. The service starts with a sergeant emerging from a room below the amphitheater. The sergeant also has metal pieces on his shoes. He marched out to the center of the Honor Guard area and announced there would be a changing of the guard. While he made the statement, another soldier emerged from the same room, stands in place and awaited the sergeant at one end of the Tomb area. The sergeant turned and marched toward the relief guard. Once the sergeant reached the relief guard, they literally stand toe to toe. It is during that time that the sergeant looked over the uniform of the new guard from toe to head, front to back, and side to side. When that inspection is complete, the sergeant examined the guard’s weapon with a flair that must be seen to be believed. Upon completion, the sergeant and the new guard march toward the center area to meet the current guard. The current guard is relieved, the new guard takes his place, and the sergeant and the previous guard march out of the area back to the room below the amphitheater. The whole ceremony is quite moving and impressive.
The only bad thing about the changing of the guard is it occurred under a blistering sun. I was very uncomfortable and sweaty. I had on a t-shirt and shorts. I cannot even imagine how uncomfortable the guards must be. After the ceremony, I had to sit on a bench in the shade for a while to cool down.
Once I recovered, I made my way toward the mansion of General Lee. While en route I passed through a Civil War area of the cemetery. Some of the monuments there were quite impressive. When I arrived at the mansion, I was amazed by the view. Looking in one direction, one can see the Pentagon and the Potomac River. Looking toward the northeast one can see the Washington Monument and the Capital. I decided to tour the mansion. I was disappointed because there was very little to see inside. Apparently, because of the recent earthquake, most items had been removed, and restoration was taking place.
Leaving the mansion, I felt lucky that the remainder of my walk to the Metro would be downhill. On the way out I did stop by the President Taft Memorial. I was the only one there. A little different than the crowd that was always around the JFK Memorial.
I am glad I went to the cemetery. It left me feeling very patriotic.
The gravestones seem to go on forever.