When I was in Washington, DC for a work trip a few weeks ago, I decided to get lost in Arlington Cemetery for a few hours.
When I arrived, I went on the usual path. Through the visitor’s center, past the tour tram ticket window (tram?!? who needs it!), and up the hill towards some marker arrows pointing towards something far away. And I walked with the packs of tourists who aimlessly followed the concrete path ahead. It was only when I got to the Kennedy gravesite that I realized I wasn’t fit for this type of tour. I needed to explore a bit differently…
The weather was perfect (low 80’s and not a bit of humidity), I had the time, and a blurb in the brochure encouraged me to get off the paths and wander… so I did.
I stepped off the path and walked on the grass. I read gravestones as I walked by, and I abandoned the tour guide and just walked.
As I wandered further away from the “normal tourist” path that most people take, I found myself stumbling between official funeral parties, slowly realizing that this wasn’t just a memorial of the past but was alive and well each day as a tribute to newly fallen veterans of every rank and age.
A few nights prior to my visit to Arlington, I had waited for the shuttle back from the metro to the hotel with a few people from Arizona. They were in town for a funeral on Friday for an “uncle” they had never known. He had died as a pilot in Vietnam, but was never found and was officially “missing” this entire time. His sons had always thought their Dad might just show up at the doorstep one day… and never stopped doubting that possibility until the news of his official death just this year. They estimated there were about 60-80 people in town for the funeral, 46 years after he passed. I didn’t run into them… but every time I saw a funeral party, I thought about what their story was and what brought them there today.
After about an hour, I started noticing placards placed at the bottom of many trees, and noticed they belonged to certain military divisions. I picked up my iPhone and googled “104th infantry arlington” and found the link to a FLICKR photo, which indicated the tree was in Section 32.
And under this Yoshino cherry tree, I found this living memorial to my grandfather’s WWII Infantry Division. My grandfather proudly attended the annual reunions with his fellow veterans, and there were always little Timberwolves mementos around their house. A few people stopped alongside to see if I was staring at anything momentous. At least I knew I was.
Eventually I made it to all of the “sights” in the cemetery as well… but just wandered off the beaten path and around and around some more. It’s only fair to do that to a memorial of that size on such a beautiful day…
I continued to walk and wander towards downtown where I was meeting a friend after 5pm.
I walked across the bridge. I kept walking until I hit a mountain of tour buses and tourists who opted for a/c vs. blisters on their feet.
I stared into the reflecting pool that was empty, but was just as vast and impressive as a concrete structure on the mall.
I stopped to pay respects to family members, and help a few veterans find familiar names on the vast wall.
And finally I ended up at a memorial that was new to me: the WWII memorial. It was just as grand and memorable as I thought it would be…
While the overall memorial is grand and captures the war in scope, the field of 4,000 stars is the true memorial. One star for every 100+ soldiers who lost their lives for the United States. It resembles and expanded flag… and is still so hard to wrap your head around that it was just two generations before…
I ended my memorial tour looking straight up at the marker for the city: the Washington monument. And after a 6 mile wandering tour that afternoon, I just had to smile and say a prayer of thanks to everyone that made that afternoon possible.
Thanks to everyone in my family who served and thanks to every other person in your family that did the same.
Happy Independence Day!
p.s. and a very special Happy Anniversary to Mom & Dad L and Mother and Father M who share the 4th of July as their wedding date.