We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm. ~ George Orwell
In watching the annual TV coverage of the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery this morning, I'm remembering how this place took hold of my soul a very long time ago . . .
On a 7th grade class field trip to Washington DC, Arlington was a compulsory part of our educational itinerary . . . along with a tour of the White House, the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian Institute, and a few other vague and hazy stops. I remember the austere sterility of the White House, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with friends and looking out over The Mall, and the incongruity of a pair of Ruby Red Slippers displayed behind glass in the Smithsonian (oh, the whimsy of American history) . . . but over the years and all these years later, Arlington National Cemetery is what I remember most with vivid clarity . . .
There were neat rows -- rows and rows of bone-white epitaphs stretching out in every direction . . . great lines of marbled, uniform tombstones , intertwined between pink cherry blossoms and stretched infinitely for miles and miles over hills and valleys. Old soul that I was, even as a thirteen year old girl distracted by thirteen year old girl preoccupations (think bashfully holding hands with the thirteen year old boy beside me on the tour bus and pondering what I would wear for the hotel dance later), I was able to disengage from the adolescent chatter to internalize the sobriety of where I was -- the significance.
It was terrible, beautiful, and tragic. These people died for me, I thought. Thousands and thousands . . . maybe millions of men died, sacrificed their lives, so that we -- I -- could be free and red, white, and blue.
It was a simple, noble, and enduring concept. I don't remember how quickly my thoughts turned back to the shy hand-holding, but those haunting rows of glory white sacrifice had become a part of me.
On a different day in a different season . . . I had thought that the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier Ceremony had made a lesser impression. But when -- over three decades later -- we had opportunity to be in Washington DC to watch our daughter run the Marine Corps Marathon, I told my husband, an Air Force veteran with a patriotic soul "You have GOT to see this" . . . as if I'd been there yesterday . . .
It was October 31st in 2011. The entire east coast had been blasted overnight out of quintessential Autumn and had awakened to a skyfall of snow. By late afternoon, it had turned to a cold onslaught of steady sleet. We stood under an umbrella, under the heavy patter and amidst the blowing leaves. It was cold . . . bitter, bone cold. But we stood in that sobering cold in reverent silence with a hundred other patriots and watched the faithful sentinels step in cadence without flinching, watched the soldier transfer his duties to the next soldier, listened to the haunting melody of Taps . . .
and have never been so moved to understand the sacrifices of the men that lay beneath those tombstones . . . have never since been so thankful and honored to brace ourselves against the cold.
Since 1937, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been honored and guarded uninterrupted, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.