Storms all along the east coast. High pressure system sweeping across the east. Or was it low pressure? Or cold front? All those colored lines behind the meteorologist start to confuse me after a while. It looks like some crazy cosmic battle plan. Either way, I’m pretty sure those big green blobs and little clouds with cute sparkling lightning bolts and rain meant that it was supposed to storm today.
We got a little rain around Delaware as we were coming from Philly to D.C., but that was it. No big deal. Which meant we got a full afternoon to go visit Arlington National Cemetery. After being dragged around and misdirected by the OnStar navigating system, we pulled into the cemetery around one in the afternoon. We have the pass that lets us into the family parking lot, so we got to bypass the visitor lot and pull right in. I felt important.
First stop was to walk over to Maw-Maw’s grave site. We found it very easily since it is just one row back from the parking lot. Since we were last there, they have put the marker up and covered her grave with grass. Also, there are dozens of new graves all around her, many that haven’t even gotten the actual marker put up. It made the area look a little different, but much nicer than when we were there in the cold and rainy winter. They average 28 burials per day in the cemetery, so these plots start to fill up fast.
We stood there for a while and paid our respects. It was nice to take some time to be there and think of and remember her. It’s a fitting way to finish a trip that we know she would have loved to take herself. I’d like to think that she was with us along the way.
Eventually, we moved over to the visitor’s center to look into touring the cemetery. When we were there for the funeral, it was too cold and nasty out so we didn’t get to tour the grounds. We got tickets for a shuttle that would drive us around the grounds and allow us to get off on the three major stops: the Kennedy memorial and gravesite, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Arlington House, Robert E. Lee’s old house.
Of course, as we have all trip, we met more people from North Carolina while waiting for the bus. The guy that took our ticket was actually born in Roanoke Rapids (where Maw-Maw and Paw-Paw grew up and finally settled in, and where Dad grew up) and went to school in nearby Weldon. He started talking fondly about N.C. barbeque (Eastern-style, of course) and how much he missed it. He said they try to make it in D.C., but it doesn’t even compare.
Then we found out that our bus driver was from Wilson. He came back and talked to us for a while before we took the tour. North Carolina people are everywhere. It really is a small world, or at least a small country.
Our first stop on the tour was the Kennedy grave. It’s a beautiful little monument with the eternal flame flickering in the wind. JFK and Jacquelin Kennedy Onassis are buried there along with two of their children who died early. One of the graves is only marked “Daughter.” On a wall across from the graves, there are multiple inscriptions of a JFK speech.
About sixty feet to the right down the hill from the JFK grave is the grave of Robert Kennedy. His grave is very modest, especially compared to JFK’s. This one has just a simple white cross standing and a flat marker on the ground with his name and dates on it.
The next major stop was the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. To get to the tomb, we walked around a beautiful Greek-style amphitheater that is used for various programs in the cemetery. The whole thing was made out of marble, I’m pretty sure. It was impressive.
We got to the tomb just a few minutes before the changing of the guards ceremony and found a seat up front. When we were here to bury Maw-Maw, they had a TV in the waiting room showing the tomb and we got to see the changing of the guards on that, but this was much more impressive. They look like toy soldiers. Like they are robotic replicas of each other. They have to be a certain height and size to qualify for the Honor Guard, and they go through rigorous training to get to do this.
They have been guarding this tomb non-stop (24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days out of the year) for about 60 years now. They don’t stop for anything: weather, national events, 9/11. The guard paces back and forth, going 21 steps each way. He also waits 21 seconds at each side. He switches the gun at each end so that it is always away from the actual tomb. The 21s represent the 21 gun salute, which is the highest honor given to a veteran.
The tomb is actually four tombs, one of which is empty. There are unidentified bodies of soldiers from World Wars I and II, and from Korea. There used to be a unknown body in the Vietnam one, but, thanks to DNA technology, they were able to identify him and he is now buried near his hometown around St. Louis, Missouri.
The guards go through the change like clockwork. All organized and synchronized with precise timed movements. The officer comes up and announces the ceremony, then goes to check the new guard coming on. He takes about five minutes to check his gun and uniform before moving him towards the marching area. He then stops the other guard and they salute the tomb. Then the guards switch places and it continues on.
In the summer they switch every 30 minutes (because of the heat) and in the winter they switch every hour.
The next stop was the Arlington house, where General Lee lived. When he was there this was obviously not a cemetery. It was actually land bought by George Washington’s grandson. Lee married into that family and ended up living there with his wife until the Civil War broke out. When the war was over, a Union general decided to get back at Lee for leaving the Union army by putting the graves of Union soldiers all around his house so that he wouldn’t come back and live there. It worked: they never returned. And that is how Arlington Cemetery started.
The house was kind of disappointing though. They are working on restoring it and there just wasn’t much to see. We quickly left there and the bus took us back to the visitor’s center.
We have a hotel nearby in Arlington, Va., where we will be staying for our last two nights of the trip. Tomorrow we plan on hitting up some Washington museums, namely the Smithsonian of American History (if that’s what it’s called), the Holocaust Museum, and the Air and Space museum. If we don’t get it all done, we will do it on Friday morning and head out after that.
Paw-Paw said that he wants to come visit about every six months, so we will have more opportunities to come explore and there is no reason to cram it in now.
Here’s to our last full day!