Nearly everyone has someone famous in their family tree that they will claim in opportune moments. In my family that person is Robert E. Lee ( you thought I was going to say Howie Dorough from the Backstreet Boys didn't you? :) ) Granted he's like my great, great, great, great Uncle, but still, it's pretty cool. Now, apparently my degree in History failed me because it was only recently that I learned Arlington National Cemetary was established on Robert E. Lee's former plantation. So, one my recent trip to Washington DC I made it a point to visit the cemetery.
The day we went was cloudy, the threat of rain always on the horizon, so we carried umbrellas with us. The area was suprisingly crowded. Lines of highschool students shuffeled up the walkways while tourists piled onto trams, forgoing to element of exercise that comes from walking the hills of the area. We walked along, stopping to take photos of the picturesque white headstones lining their way up the hills. As I read the names and dates on the headstones I began to imagine their lives. Some where long, some were short. Some died as far back as the civil war, others much more recently. Some were even joined by their wives. The farther up the hill you walked the headstones changed from simple, white to the larger, heavier, and more elaborate headstones of higher officers.
At the base of a grassy hill sat the presidential memorial for John F. Kennedy. Buried with his wife, baby daughter and baby son, an eternal flame marked their memory. A little to the left, stood a solitary white cross, a marker in the memory of Robert Kennedy, and at the far end of the lawn another, much newer white cross commemerated Ted Kennedy.
We walked farther up the hill and came to a path that would take us to the towering Arlington Mansion. As I looked on the enormous beige colomns I couldn't help but be amazed. It was huge! It was a size of house I would expect much more today, not 150 years ago. You were allowed to go inside and tour the mansion, but a large tour group encraching upon the door led us to forgo that option. Instead we turned around and took in the view. Beyond the grave of Pierre Charles L'Enfant the city of Washington DC, which he designed, and the monuments of the National Mall stood out in the distance. It's a truely beautiful view. I could stare at it for hours.
Down the hill and up another we came to the infamous Tomb of the Unknown soldier. A huge crowd had gathered for what we thought was the changing of the guard. As we approached a soldier began to shout "the ceremony you are about to see has been in place for more than 200 years." Oooooh, this could be interesting. With percise steps and heel clicking reminicent of Dorthy in "The Wizard of Oz," he walked to the side of the carpet, picked up a flower wreath and placed it in front of the center of the tomb. Then four others, in formation walked out and stood in front of the wreath. We were then instructed to place our hand over our hearts as another soldier played Tapps. With more precise steps and heel clicking they all exited, only to return a few moments later with a new wreath. I turned to my friend Monica, a DC native who had been to Arlington several times before, to ask if that was the changing of the guard, because it sure didn't seem like it to me. She got a suprised look on her face and informed me she had never seen this ceremony before. It was as new to her as it was to me. After the second flower wreath ceremony things seemed to be over. A different guard took his place on the carpet, and with great detail marched from one side to to other, switching his gun from shoulder to shoulder on precise counts. At one point a woman must have tried to step over the rail to get a better picture because the guard stepped out of his postition and shouted "Mam! Please stay on the other side of the guard rail," and he stayed there until she was back in her place. If I had been that woman I would have peed my pants. I was startled enough and I was totally in the clear.
After the guard had been doing his duty for around 8 minutes the real changing of the guard began. There was a lot of shouting, gun inspecting and marching. Several minutes later a new guard had taken his place on the carpet and we decided to make our exit.
Arlington doesn't offer the thrills of an amusement park, the excitement of a live show, or even the satisfaction of a good restaurant. Instead from a visit to Arlington you are able to gain an understanding of where our country has come from and of some of the people who helped us get here. You are also able to play a part in celebrating the memories of these men and women, whether they were a President or a Private, each headstone has hopes, dreams, and a story attached to it, in turn offering so much for us to learn.