SILENCE AND RESPECT' AMID ITS PEACEFUL WALKWAYS, VISTAS AND MONUMENTS, ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY ASKS ITS MANY VISITORS TO MAINTAIN DECORUM
October 25, 1998
From many spots in hectic Washington, D.C., you can see it. Like Bali Hai, Arlington National Cemetery will call you.
After all that official government business in the capital, those official government monuments and official government museums, you might yearn for a place of quiet, a place to walk, a place to reflect.
Just over the Potomac river and up the hill beckons Arlington, Virginia, on the palatial grounds that Robert E. Lee once called home. It seems so far above the crowds and scandal — so quiet and peaceful. Arlington has so many monuments, walkways and quiet vistas that one of them is bound to give you the peace and quiet you're seeking.
“Silence and respect”
Obeying those small signs along the walkways is a tall order on many of the cemetery's busier days. Visitors often make their first stop at the grave of John F. Kennedy, halfway up the hill to Arlington House. Those on foot are huffing and puffing. Those on the myriad bus tours must heed the words of the group leader:
“Everyone, stay with the group. We have a lot of things to see here and can't afford the time to lose people at our very first stop.”
At the sight of the grave's eternal flame, you might get that faraway look in your eyes, thinking back to where you were the day Kennedy was shot. Be prepared, though, for the reverie to be interrupted by a fellow visitor who feels compelled to share his memories with the entire group.
Next, head up the hill to Arlington House. At the entrance, look back across the Potomac to Washington, a view the Marquis de Lafayette described as “the finest in the world.”
It will take the sting off the mutterings of your line mates: “Get up here! You'll lose your place in line.”
While you wait to enter, consider the history of the house. Built as a memorial to George Washington, the house was first inhabited by the president's adopted grandson, George Washington Parke Custis. The grounds stayed in the family, eventually passing to Mary Anna Randolph Custis, wife of Robert E. Lee.
The house has been restored to look as it did when he lived here. Much of the furniture belongs to the family, including those pieces in the upstairs room where Lee made his decision to resign his commission in the U.S. Army to fight for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
The Lees left the house, and in 1864 Secretary of War Edward Stanton put the surrounding land to a use he found deliciously ironic — as the final resting place for all those men who died while fighting against Lee.
If you don't find that quiet in the house, perhaps you'll find it on a stroll through the rose garden, lovingly maintained by Lee.
Or you may find it near the Tomb of the Unknowns, built on top of another hill overlooking Washington. A large marble marker bears the insc ription, “Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.”
Beneath it are four grave sites. Three contain unidentified remains of a soldier from World Wars I and II and the Korean War. The fourth contained the remains of a soldier identified in May as Air Force First Lieutenant Michael J. Blassie, who died in Vietnam and whose family has reinterred him in Jefferson Barracks near their home in St. Louis. The crypt at Arlington remains empty but serves as a memorial to the unknown dead from Vietnam.
Time your visit on the half-hour and you may witness participants from visiting tour groups presenting a wreath, which the honor guard then places near the tomb. Visit on the hour and you'll see the changing of the guard.
Or stop by anytime between to watch the honor guard pace the 21 steps back and forth, stopping for exactly 21 seconds at each end. That kind of order can set one's mind at ease.
Just be ready for a tour bus to pull up in the middle of “Taps,” or for the call “Everybody back on the bus” during a wreath ceremony. Neither the bugle nor the solemnity can totally drown out the complaints of sore feet, camera clicks and subsequent apologies.
Other stops along the way could provide the moment of solitude you came looking for:
The Memorial Amphitheater, adjacent to the Tomb of the Unknowns, has seats for 5,000 and a mesmerizing circle of columns.
The mast of the USS Maine, sunk in Havana harbor in 1898, serves as a monument to all those who died in the Spanish American War.
Or something more contemporary: the marker in honor of the astronauts who died in the space shuttle Challenger in 1986, or the adjacent Iran Rescue Mission Memorial for servicemen killed in the hostage rescue attempt of 1980.
Or perhaps you'll find it between stops, gazing down those rows of 250,000 grave markers. Scan the names; you may see a familiar one that will give you pause to think of your family and friends and wonder whether any of them has a relative buried here whom they might want to visit.
Seeing those trim little markers in straight-as-an-arrow lines, safely nestled beneath a cathedral of branches, just might give you spiritual perspective you seek.
And, if you're lucky, you just might look down in time to see one of those little signs.
“Silence and respect.”
Michael Robert Patterson was born in Arlington and is the son of a former officer of the US Army. So it was no wonder that sooner or later his interests drew him to American history and especially to American military history. Many of his articles can be found on renowned portals like the New York Times, Washingtonpost or Wikipedia.
Reviewed by: Michael Howard