As I wrote about earlier, our motel in Rosslyn was near the Iwo Jima Memorial, which adjoins Arlington National Cemetary. Thus, a walk to the former lead to a walk through the later. We did this a couple of times during our stay. First, we walked from our motel past Iwo Jima along the entry road to Arlington National Cemetery to cross the Memorial Bridge, then followed the Mall to the National gallery of Art, where we viewed the Dying Gaul and other galleries. On our last morning, before driving home, we walked to Arlington National Cemetery to circle the sections from our Civil War through WWI, WWII, Korea, Vietnam, and ceremonies set up for later that day. Along the entry road, on foot, we could take time to observe the many sculptures in hedge niches, which I had never notice when driving in to find parking.
As our walks were early (the gate open at 8 a.m.) we could view the row-upon-row of grave markers without umbrella-weilding guides and clusters of disinterested to bemused tourists ticking another to-be-seen place from their itineraries. I recalled a walk through the cemetery a decade or more ago with one of my nephews. He had a low attention span for to-be-seen places, preferring more adventuresome activities. As a good uncle I counselled him that the way to voice his opinion was not to moan and roll his eyes, but state that he had enjoyed the experience and was ready to move on. After we passed by the main stops along our walk, he smiled and sarcastically said, “Uncle Oscar, I have had a good time. I’m ready to go.” Well, at least he listened to me.
As we were alone, we could walk a little more leisurely. We ascended the hill to the Lee-Custis house, walking along the garden lined with graves of Union soldiers from 1864-65. I recalled another story told by a friend who lives in the Shenandoah valley, whose ancestors were on the Confederate side of the division. She can recount the various offenses that the Union armies bestowed upon her family and community, from arresting and killing non-combatants to stabling their horse in the church yards to defile the holy ground with horse dung. She told about her tour to Arlington National Cemetery, and the guide’s comment that the cemetery formed during our Civil War when the Union forces began to bury their soldiers to prevent General Lee from returning to his home that overlooks Washington, D.C. after the war. She stated that the guide made a comment about the cemetery having only Union soldiers. She interrupted him and marched him a few plots over to show him the graves of the Confederate soldiers. Never cross a southern lady.
As we turned back from the southern boundary of the cemetery, the bells at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier began to ring, 9 a.m. We stopped at the tomb to observe the changing of the guard. We have seen this before in tourist season. On this morning, we and three others stood in silence.
On our walk back to the north gate, we crossed below the Lee-Custis House. There burns the Eternal Flame at JFK’s memorial. For whatever human and political flaws he may have possessed, in many ways he represents our ideals of mid-20th century citizenship. We are a nation of individuals and must strive to direct our individuality for the betterment of each other. Yet, in the background stands the house which represents the conflict of private and public duty. A home taken in war. Someone’s garden turned into a graveyard. Life and death are never far apart. Memory will only be eternal if we visit the memorials of our past, and know when we need to leave quietly, to return to living.