Saturday, August 27, 2011

Arlington National Cemetery

I quote from the Arlington National Cemetery web site at some length because it's a flawless description of what we saw in the early afternoon of August 15, 2011, while standing on the balcony above the Tomb of the Unknowns, also known as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, though there's more than one set of remains there.

"An impeccably uniformed relief commander appears on the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard," the site explains. "Soon the new sentinel leaves the Quarters and unlocks the bolt of his or her M-14 rifle to signal to the relief commander to start the ceremony. The relief commander walks out to the Tomb and salutes, then faces the spectators and asks them to stand and stay silent during the ceremony."

Everyone did so.

"The relief commander conducts a detailed white-glove inspection of the weapon, checking each part of the rifle once. Then, the relief commander and the relieving sentinel meet the retiring sentinel at the center of the matted path in front of the Tomb. All three salute the Unknowns who have been symbolically given the Medal of Honor.

"Then the relief commander orders the relieved sentinel, 'Pass on your orders.' The current sentinel commands, 'Post and orders, remain as directed.' The newly posted sentinel replies, 'Orders acknowledged,' and steps into position on the black mat. When the relief commander passes by, the new sentinel begins walking at a cadence of 90 steps per minute.

"The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process. After the turn, the sentinel executes a sharp 'shoulder-arms' movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closest to the visitors to signify that the sentinel stands between the Tomb and any possible threat."

More on the impressive ceremony and guards is here. They guard the Tomb all the time, which made me wonder whether their duty is suspended during a major emergency -- such as Hurricane Irene, which is at the gates of Washington even now. Turns out there's a recent precedent, Hurricane Isabel in 2003. Snopes says that "a contingency plan had been established that if winds reached 120 mph the guards could retreat from their usual exposed-to-the-elements posts in the tomb plaza to take up positions in the trophy room, which is above the tomb plaza and has a clear view of the sepulcher. This plan was not put into effect."

I added the italics above. To show my amazement. Winds of 100 mph? No problem. 110? Still no problem. But you might want to consider coming in out of the wind at 120 mph.

I'd expected to come to Arlington alone, because cemetery tends to be off-putting for the rest of my family, but somehow I persuaded them how important this place is. It was a clear, hot day, so we decided to ride the tourmobile that makes three stops in the cemetery. First is at the Kennedy graves; then the cemetery's amphitheater, which includes the Tomb of the Unknowns; and then to Arlington House, also called the Custis-Lee Mansion. Since the tourmobiles come by each stop every 15 minutes or so, and you can board one when you please, we didn't have to hurry along at the stops. In fact, I insisted that we linger in some places.

The Kennedys still draw a crowd.

President Kennedy is there, of course, but so is Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, and a son and daughter of theirs who did not live long, on either side of their parents. Not far away are Robert and Edward Kennedy.

In a section down the hill from the Kennedys are a number of Supreme Court justices. I spied Oliver Wendall Holmes Jr., Thurgood Marshall and William Rehnquist. I later found out that they are in Section 5, which also includes William O. Douglas, Potter Stewart, Warren Burger, William Brennan and Harry Blackmum. All together eight of the 12 members of the high court interred at the cemetery are in Section 5. Why it's popular among prominent jurists, I couldn't say.

The Kennedys have a nice view. Uphill is Arlington House, while downhill looks toward the Washington Monument on the other side of the Potomac.

There are a lot of fine vistas at Arlington National Cemetery, somber and beautifully landscaped at the same time, as the best cemeteries are.

After the seeing Changing of the Guard near the amphitheater, we made our deepest foray into the cemetery, and were well rewarded for our efforts. Among other things, we saw the mast from the USS Maine that's the centerpiece of a memorial to the sailors who died on her in 1898. The remains of 228 of the 266 men who died on the Maine are near the memorial. Remember the Maine, I say. Not as an example of Spanish perfidy, but because history isn't bunk.

From there we made our way to the Confederate Memorial, which isn't a legacy of the Civil War, but of sectional reconciliation in the early 1900s. It's an elaborate work by Moses Ezekiel, a prolific artist who had the distinction early in life of being the first Jewish cadet at Virginia Military Institute and a participant, as a VMI cadet, in the Battle of New Market (May 15, 1864). He's buried next to the memorial.

While at the Confederate Memorial, we witnessed a funeral procession go by on a nearby road. I could tell that the deceased had been in the Air Force. The band passed by, then his horse-drawn caisson.

Arlington House has a terrific view of Washington. In the midground is the tomb of Pierre Charles L'Enfant, designer of Washington DC, who died in 1825 but wasn't interred here until 1909. In the background, the Washington Monument again. It's visible from a lot of places, as I'm sure it was planned to be.

The mansion is undergoing restoration, but you can still walk through it. I spent some time talking with one of the docents about an exhibit in the mansion depicting the early 19th-century family relations of the Lees, Custises and Fitzhughes, and more generally the First Families of Virginia. It isn't something I know a lot about, except that I'm descended from a Taliaferro. Countless thousands of North Americans can probably say the same.

While my family cooled themselves at the cemetery's visitors center, I had one more place to see, near the main gate, before I left: the grave of William Howard Taft. President and Mrs. Taft have a tall stone in a shady spot, along with markers bearing their initials only.

Unlike at the Kennedy grave site, no one else was there but me. Until a family of Germans ambled up to look at the grave, that is.

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