Crying at the Tomb of the Unknowns and at the Vietnam Memorial

Quick update from yesterday. I omitted beheading in the list of ways journalists have died. How could I forget Daniel Pearl? Apparently Bill O’Reilly thinks it’s acceptable to subject journalists to such a death. Maybe he’d like to volunteer? Oh, wait, I forgot, he’s not a journalist.

Larry and I had decided not to go on the late-morning tour of Fort Ward in Alexandria, Virginia, and to save our energy for the highlight of the trip when the Veterans of the Vietnam War placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. We had thought the bus would return to D.C., but it was going directly from Alexandria to Arlington. Jack, who organized the tour, suggested we take the Metro. I was rather looking forward to revisiting the clean, quiet, generally civilized subway, a total contrast to noisy, smelly, transport in NYC and Phila. We walked around the corner to the building with the Metro sign in front of it. The door was closed. Another couple said they had come out that way in the morning. We went around another corner. The escalators weren’t working, and there was a barrier across the entrance at the bottom.

At this point Larry was getting upset, afraid he was going to miss the event. Since he’s the commander, it wouldn’t have looked good. We went back to the hotel, and the man at the concierge desk pointed us to anther entrance. This one was open, and we bought tickets, walked downstairs and around in circles because there didn’t seem to be any signs for the Blue Line, which is what we needed. Larry asked a workman, who handed him a Metro map and said that they had closed part of a couple of the lines and that the best thing would be to go in the opposite direction and then catch another line, and then …

At this point we were going to be late, so we thanked him and headed for the exit, or tried to. It seemed we were trapped. I was beginning to feel like I was in a Kafka story, or maybe a Beckett play.

Of course when I picked up the paper the next morning, the banner on the Metro section was cancellation of Blue Line service.

We finally came out of another exit, farther from the hotel and ran back to the taxi stand in front. We got over the bridge in a few minutes and met the rest of the group, which had just arrived. For reasons that became obvious later, we couldn’t ride the tour bus up the hill and had to take one of the cemetery tour buses. The other option was to walk, but I didn’t want to go by myself. I knew I couldn’t find a companion. The guide and the driver and the dispatcher engaged in a contretemps about whether we would do the entire route, which would put us at the tomb at 4 p.m., useless for a 3:15 p.m. wreath laying. After some back and forth, we went direct to the top and found four luxury tour buses parked in front.

They were part of American Warrior and had delivered a group of World War II veterans and their escorts for the changing of the guard and the wreath laying. It was a moving sight to see the rows of veterans (most in wheelchairs) sporting red hats and their escorts in their red T-shirts. We learned that the volunteers are generous, dedicated folks who deserve special recognition for their service.

Larry went off with the other officers to await their turn at the wreath laying. Meanwhile the changing of the honor guard began with perfectly attired, white-gloved soldiers marching in precise squares with heel clicks that sounded like rocket fire and a gun inspection. These videos are good but no substitute for seeing it in person. I missed a few minutes because a woman standing behind me pushed me and I lost my balance on the steps. She finally got the message when I recovered and stepped back up.

At the end of the service the soldier removed a heart-shaped yellow wreath and laid it at the back of the tomb with a group of others. A family brought their wreath and set it place as the guard played Taps. I always cry when I hear it and this was worse, looking out over all those gray-haired veterans and thinking of my father who used to hum or sing Taps around the house every once in a while.

Then it was the Middletown veterans’ turn. I’ve noticed that no matter how long they’ve been out of uniform, former military men just fall back into it as soon as the form up. And this time was no exception. They looked so majestic going down the steps and of course I cried some more. A repeat of Taps just made it worse. They came back up the steps. We took a while to regroup as everyone had some emotional reaction.

Their wreath stayed up for the rest of the hour because when we returned to the visitors center we were able to see the next changing of the guard on a video screen.

The view from the top of that hill is breath-taking with the rolling hills in the background and the stark white tomb in front. The only drawback is the regular, and I mean regular, blast of noise from the flights taking off from National Airport. It really detracts from the solemnity of the occasion.

The trip back down the hill sent me into another tailspin because the guide pointed out the rows and rows and rows of Civil War graves. I kept thinking of my Uncle Charley Hudson who survived but was shot near Winchester, Va., just days before Lee surrendered. The guide said the graves were laid out so that they formed exact rows in every direction. It is an overwhelming sight.

We got on our tour bus and rode to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. In some ways this was the most difficult part of the whole trip because I was looking at the names of my contemporaries who had gone to fight a war that made no sense and then got treated dreadfully because they had been duped by the government just like the rest of us. The memorial itself is perfect: stark, human scale at first and overwhelming as one moves to the center. The flowers and poems and photos are mute tributes to the fallen.

One of the women who had been there on Veterans Day said the ceremony is amazing with Native Americans on horseback who perform a ritual at sunset. On the way back we passed a group of white tipis being erected for the occasion.

We walked a short distance to the Three Serivcemen Statue, and I kept thinking how young they looked and yet how already battle-hardened they were. And then we visited the Women’s Memorial. I think I cried the hardest at the expression of the woman with her head tilted back, waiting in obvious desperation for a chopper to come pick up the wounded soldier.

By then everyone was pretty wiped emotionally – and also cold as the sun had begun to set and the wind turned from brisk to downright freezing. So we declined to stop at Iwo Jima, though we saw the American Warrior buses there and the veterans gathered around. I must say that it’s much more impressive than the half-size version in New Britain.

File this last bit under “Who knew?” In the way these things work, I was behind on some of my online reading and after I returned I found this article, indicating that newly freed slaves had built a thriving community. We probably drove right over Freedman’s Village, but no one at Arlington seems to know about it.

Tomorrow: Are We There Yet?

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