Column: A day at Arlington National


When we moved from Southern California to Alexandria, Virginia in the early 1990s, we did what any normally curious people would do in this new territory. We explored the trove of historical sites that nearly inundate the region: the august memorials on The Mall; Civil War battlefields all over the place; and running or biking to Mt. Vernon seven miles away, to mention a few.

Since we were transferring journalists, we got to know certain typical corridors of Washington, D.C., and I, as a newly minted Capitol Hill correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, quickly became familiar with the Capitol’s labyrinthine internal spaces and byways, the House and Senate office buildings and the press galleries of both branches of Congress.

Even as President Clinton and Speaker Gingrich went at it hammer and tong and shut down the government a couple times, the general tone on the Hill seemed, in retrospect, like Romper Room compared to the hateful and vile toxic slough it has become today. Members of both parties socialized, an activity that is incomprehensible today.

My Metro commute to work took me by the Arlington National Cemetery stop, and one of our earliest weekend jaunts took us there as visitors. It is a grand and solemn place that lodges in the mind forever. The endless undulating green carpet of headstones and the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns are sights that burn into you.

A few months ago, we went back to the cemetery for the military funeral of my daughter-in-law’s father, Bob, a career Air Force pilot. In an odd way I looked forward to the episode, loaded as it would be with timeless ceremonies and grave gestures of honor.

Inexplicably, getting on to the cemetery grounds had a couple of hiccups. The two young MPs we encountered (ah, youth) wanted some documentation that we did not have, although they were entirely polite and waved us through at the mention of the word “funeral.”

The first act of the day was a service at chapel with the flag-draped casket. Young soldiers showed up for their specific duties and the strong thread of military exactness and probity took over every minute thereafter.

Bob’s horse-drawn casket was taken to the burial site about a mile away. We caught a ride with a family member, and twice cemetery maintenance crews stopped their work and stood respectfully as we slowly passed by.

Everywhere you looked were the white headstones. Our 4-year-old granddaughter uttered, with a child’s uncomplicated understanding, the awful and beautiful truth: “That’s so many dead soldiers.”

The burial site was in a section where the most recent deceased are placed. Arlington is filling up. The formalities witnessed here will at some time stop, which is difficult to imagine.

An assemblage of soldiers to the left went through their time-honored duties as the rain just held off. A rifle salute rang out and a bugler sounded “Taps.”

We briefly stopped by the buffet after the interment since we had a train to catch back to Manhattan. The mood was upbeat in the afterglow of a service well and properly done.

As we made our round of goodbyes I ran into Bob’s oldest son Joe and we did our man hug. “I held it together pretty good until ‘Taps,’” Joe said. “Then I melted a little bit.”

My moment came as the honor guard was folding the casket flag into its three-pointed memorial shape. I had seen this done many times before to no teary effect. The soldiers were about 12 feet away and they performed their duty with utter precision. Then the folded flag was handed to a soldier with a special responsibility. He was charged with putting on the finishing touches.

With his white gloved hands he pushed here, tucked there, tightened up a corner. Then he offered the flag, with a slow ritualistic salute, to another soldier with a special duty. He made a sharp about-face and walked slowly to Bob’s widow Peg and delivered the perfect flag.

That’s when something happened in my throat.