There is a place in Arlington National Cemetery where not many people go, since it isn’t near any entrance, memorial, or landmark. It’s quiet. It’s deep in the cemetery and no one wants to walk that far. This is where my grandparents are buried and where my first stop on my road trip down south began.
My grandfather was a Navy Corpsman during the end of WWII and the Korean War, serving in the South Pacific as a medic. Marines didn’t have their own so they used men from the Navy, and my grandfather saw a lot of terrible things. He returned home different and with a purple heart that would eventually be stolen from him. I never knew him, but I sure did know my grandmother.
She was a firecracker of a woman who loved the New York Mets almost as much as she loved her kids. She worked as an emergency room RN her whole life, and it made her tough as nails. Our night time snack of choice together was Kraft Mac and Cheese and Coca Cola. She grew grapes in her back yard that we smashed up into jelly, and she smoked like a chimney.
On the way out we stopped by the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It is always a solemn and humbling sight, and we happened to be there during the changing of the guard. These soldiers embody everything soldiers strive to be; dedicated, regimented, able to serve no matter what, undistracted and dignified.
I watch them and wonder, what is going through their heads? Have they walked those 21 steps and paused those 21 seconds for so long that they are able to do it while thinking about other things? Maybe they are thinking of a fight they had with their girlfriend, or how they can’t wait to go home to her. Do they notice if their belly grumbles with hunger, or their throat tickles with thirst on a boiling summer day? Does an ache in their back bother them, or a bunched up sock in the toe of their boot? Do they look for pretty girls in the audience out of the corner of their eye? After all, they are still men. Then again, maybe for that hour of their life their minds are focused so diligently on their duty that everything melts away and all that’s left is honor and purpose.
In addition to seeing them change the guard – which really reflects the unity between soldiers – we also witnessed them lowering the flag. For this ceremony we had to stand with our hands over our hearts the whole time as the soldier who was just relieved, as well as the commander who escorted him out, both lowered and folded the flag. They walked in time with each other, didn’t speak a word, and lowered and folded the flag with painful precision. I got goosebumps as they walked the flag past us and also couldn’t imagine how it felt for my grandmother to be handed a similarly folded flag as they put her husband in the ground.
It was late in the afternoon as we weaved our way around the confusing web that is downtown Washington D.C., and we had a late lunch at the Tune Inn. The last time I visited Arlington, I was only a kid. I remember the food we ate in the back of my dad’s truck, and the long drive on the Jersey Turnpike more than I remember what it felt like to be in that place. As an adult, I really felt the sadness as I watched a widow walk behind her husbands casket as it was pulled by six horses to his own nondescript tombstone. I felt humbled by the dedication of the soldiers who guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I felt how proud it was to be an American as I watched them lower and fold the American flag. I also felt small and vulnerable standing on a hill and seeing the hundreds of similar tombstones spread out before me on perfectly manicured lawns, but thankful I had people like this to protect our country.
I thought about this as we left Washington D.C. behind and headed into the muggy Virginia night.
Thank you for reading. Please feel free to subscribe to The Hungry New Yorker to hear more about my travels on my road trip South.