Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Part II – Arlington National Cemetery

The next morning I had to buy a pair of shoes. It seems the pair I wore to the WH now resembled small boats taking on water. However, not deterred, we headed for Arlington National Cemetery - a place I’ve wanted to visit all my adult years. We passed the Lincoln Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial, beautiful structures commemorating great men. Traveling up to Arlington Memorial Bridge with the horse and rider on each side of the entrance depicting sacrifice and valor, a serene anticipation overcame me. I remember reading that the span, built in the late 20’s and opened in 1932, memorialized the joining of the North and South - the strength of the Union.

We crossed over, parked and entered the visitor’s center. Gal Friday asked me if I wanted to take the guided bus tour but I declined. I really wanted the time to experience and savor the feeling of this hallowed place. Even though my soul mate’s soles were beginning to dog her, she graciously agreed. Large framed photographs of JFK and events during his funeral hung on the wall. Oh, oh, weenie tears again. We decided to walk up, and I mean up, to the Kennedy gravesite and then to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I dearly wanted to see the changing of the guard. I’ve read about the rigorous life of the guards and what an honor it is to be trained for this esteem duty.

Gal Friday walked upwards, as I rode, to the Kennedy gravesite. It sits below the Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s home, overlooking a beautiful valley and the famous Mall incorporating the monuments and the US Capitol. There it burned- the Eternal Flame. We stared at it for a long time, then looked at each other, but didn’t say a word. I’m not sure you can adequately express certain emotions. Bronze plaques denoted the graves of John, Jacqueline and their two children, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy and the unnamed stillborn daughter. Following a few minutes of personal thoughts, we started climbing to higher altitudes and thinner air toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Now worrying about nosebleeds, we followed the signs and went further up an even steeper hill to the Tomb. However, when we reached what we thought would be the site, another sign pointed down steps to the actual site. Gal Friday descended the stairs, but since I couldn’t navigate steps in my chair, which by the way still drained water, I chose to ride back down the hill and take the lower road back up to the Tomb. Here things got a little dicey.

Being a man of keen observation and cognitive reasoning, I noticed a shortcut. It seemed more efficient if I cut through this section of the cemetery instead of staying on the road down the hill and back up the lower road. The whole cemetery is roped off, but at this particular spot the rope was missing and this gave me access to this area. I thought maybe they ran out of rope by the time they got way up here. Although this section was quite steep, I assumed, since my pathway was all down hill, I should encounter little difficulty. So, ignoring the thousands of signs warning you to stay off the grass, I decided to make my play. My reasoning kept me guilt free. I presumed my feet wouldn’t be touching the turf, only the wheels of my chariot and, ergo, I wouldn’t technically be breaking the rules. If caught and they wanted to arrest my chair…well that was a whole different scenario. Once I came to the hillside curb and peered down, I was reminded of the time I climbed to the top of the ski long jump ramp at Lake Placid. But with derring-do, I started down.

Now no one tells you this, but to keep all the lush grass at Arlington picturesque green, water is applied in great amounts and often. As I shoved off, my chair immediately began hydroplaning down the hill and I frantically dodged the white gravestones as they flew by, happy I didn’t have a speedometer to scare me even more. I felt the small amount of hair that remained on my shiny pate flatten out in the wind. I suddenly had a better appreciation for not only those ski jumpers at Lake Placid, but the slalom racers too. With God’s help, I made it safely to the bottom of the hill, but a hell of a lot faster than I anticipated. I looked back to make sure I hadn’t leveled any markers or tore up chunks of this revered sod. After wiping my brow and letting out sighs of relief, I bowed my head in a prayer of thanks and as I did so I glimpsed rope. Hanging rope strung from post to post walled in the section and excluded me from reaching my goal, the lower road.

I sat there in disbelief. Panic tried desperately to take over, but I thought about the brave interred souls surrounding me and I fought the feeling off. A sinking sensation made its way to my brain and I concluded it manifested itself because of my predicament. I was wrong. My chair, with me aboard, was slowly settling southward into the green, green grass of the most treasured resting place this country has to offer. You see water takes the course of least resistance and uphill won’t do. So there I sat at the bottom of, what now looked like Mount Everest, in a reservoir for the southeastern United States. I reckoned at the rate I was sinking, they would be playing Taps over an unknown civilian at sundown.

As people walked by staring - some even stopped to laugh - I quickly decided to retrace my path and head for the high road, which I was crazy to leave in the first place. Dubious about my chance for success, I began my uphill journey.

I set out on a wide zigzag climb between rows of markers and actually had pretty good control of my chair until mid-mountain. I felt as though I made Camp Three on Everest, but I needed the top. The power indicator on my chair let me know my batteries were getting low and I , once again beat down panic. Very slowly my chariot crawled upward. I’d go two yards up then one yard back as ole Mr. Gravity determinedly pulled at me. After inching up, what I now considered the green monster at Fenway Park and barely avoiding gravestones, I reached Camp Five. But the last five yards were the steepest and I planned a long-angled approach hoping to defeat the natural laws of physics. When I looked at the upper road, now so close, yet so far away, I thought I heard my chair groan. Undaunted we began the final climb. We made one, two, almost three yards when slowly the chair started its downward slide. I quickly tried to reverse direction and turned as acutely as possible to stop the downhill thrust. No dice -- Mr. Gravity emerged victorious. I jammed my joystick every way possible, but to no avail. With an embarrassed whack, my chariot and I came to a disrespectful stop against a grave marker. The name on the stone was Walker, which I found somewhat ironic. I tried the old trick of rocking back and forth like I use to do in the snow trying to dislodge a stuck auto. I couldn’t help crack a smile when memories of going parking in the upstate NY. Wintertime with my high school sweetheart often ended up in a similar situation. But all I accomplished was digging a rut into the plush green earth. What could I do? I knew Gal Friday must have thought I was kidnapped. She had often warned me about not carrying my cell phone in case of some dilemma like this. I thought I heard William Bendix utter, “What a revolting predicament this is.” (You have to be a senior citizen to remember the television show “The Life of Riley.”)

Shots from a nearby military funeral echoed through the pastoral hills. I prayed they weren’t leveled at me. After enough time to berate myself properly, I heard a voice call out, “Do you need some help?” I looked up on the road and five soldiers dressed in fatigues stared back. Many people of all races, creed, color and occupations had passed by, but who stopped to rescue me, the US Army. How much more symbolic could this be? This was like a Hollywood script. Here I sat, in trouble, needing to be rescued, surrounded by thousands of brave soldiers who gave their lives rescuing people in trouble. The poetic irony hit my heart with a thud and weenie jumped to the fore. Following a respectful pause, the five came down the hill, pushed me to the top of Mount Everest and carefully carried my chariot and me over the curb and gently placed us on the road. I felt like raising a flag like the Marines did on Mt. Sarabachi on Iwo Jima. I thanked them profusely. Before they started down the road, one soldier turned and said, “Hey, no problem, you were in trouble and we thought we could help.”

For a long time, I sat there looking over the neat rows of white markers on top of real heroes and I swear I heard wafting softly through the pristine hills of Arlington National Cemetery, “Hey, no problem, you were in trouble and we thought we could help.”

Knowing Gal Friday must be worried about my well-being, half of my brain screamed “Get moving, buddy”, but the other two thirds wouldn’t let this moment end. So I sat there for a few more minutes looking out over our Nation’s Capital and wondering how different this magnificent scene might be if not for these men and their comrades. I reflected on, not only the heroes buried here, but also those who never made it to these sacred grounds. I thought about my dad who served in the Navy during WWII and my brother Bob who served in the Army and was nearly killed when he took shrapnel in the back in Italy. My other brother, Bill, was a navigator/bombardier on a B-29 in the Pacific Theater. Stationed on Tinian, the same island the Enola Gay left for Hiroshima, he flew bombing runs over the islands and Japan. Yes, I sat there a few more minutes.

It had been nearly an hour since Gal Friday and I parted. Finally I sped down the road as fast as my chair would go. I’m sure my chariot was ecstatic about the downhill route; in fact I think I heard it smile. We connected with the lower road and began a much less steeper incline to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the expected wrath of one Gal Friday. As we passed the watershed area I previously was sinking into, I turned my head in the opposite direction. Who wants to be reminded of past mistakes, especially colossal blunders like I just pulled?

As I turned up yet another path, I found Gal Friday resting on a park bench. Trying not to notice the steam blasting out of her ears like an erupting volcano, I described my plight as quickly as possible in hopes she wouldn’t recognize my total stupidity. Somewhat placated, she joined me for the short walk (uphill) to the Tomb. We arrived just as the changing of the guards was being performed.

I mentioned before about my respect for these men. They are the elite, the crème de la crème of the 3d US Infantry (The Old Guard). Guarding the Tomb began in 1926, but the 3d Infantry became the sole group of sentinels in 1948. In 1920 during WWI, Great Britain honored their soldiers killed or missing in battle with a tomb in Westminster Abbey and we built and interred our first unknown soldier in 1921. You should read about that initial ceremony, it’s really something. There have been four burials - unknowns from WWI, WWII, Korean and Viet Nam. The Viet Nam soldier was later identified by DNA testing and exhumed. His body now rests in the cemetery.

The changing of the guard goes like this and I quote from an official website: “An impeccably uniformed relief commander appears on the plaza to announce the Changing of the Guard. 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.

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. Twenty-one was chosen because it symbolizes the highest military honor that can be bestowed -- the 21-gun salute.”

As we left the Tomb, I asked Gal Friday, who has nerve problems with her feet, if her dogs were hurting. I didn’t have to be in the National Honor Society to guess the answer since I saw her now limping. At that point I did the smartest thing I did all day; I asked her if she would like to ride with me back to the van. She sat on my lap. I don’t think my Chariot was too happy about taking on a second passenger but off we flew down the roads of Arlington National Cemetery. Because she appreciated the relief so much, she graciously forgave my earlier faux pas.

No comments:

Post a Comment