Friday 26 July 2013

Arlington National Cemetery

Marble tombstones courtesy

Our trolley wound its way up and down the rolling hills of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.  We passed row after row of evenly placed Vermont and Georgia marble tombstones commemorating the deaths of over 400,000 American servicemen.  Trees dotted the neatly manicured grass.  Gardens bloomed with brilliant flowers.  A gentle breeze wafted through the trolley, a much needed respite from the beating sun.

View of Washington DC from Arlington Cemetery courtesy

Our first stop was President John F. Kennedy's tomb, marked by an eternal flame.  We exited the trolley to take photographs.  A large plaque commemorated the President and his wife Jacqueline.  Two smaller plaques marked the graves of the two children that predeceased them, a stillborn girl in 1956, and Patrick, who lived only two days, in 1963.  After putting away our cameras, we noticed the breathtaking view of the Capitol Building and Washington DC in all its splendour below us.  Our trolley tour guide had told us that President Kennedy had seen that same view when he had visited Arlington Cemetery in the spring of 1963. His words were:  "I could stay here forever."  His request was granted far too soon.

Jacqueline Kennedy placing flowers at her husband's grave after his re-internment in March 1967 courtesy

We were enjoying the view so much that we did not want to get back on the trolley.  We decided instead to follow a group of people who looked like they knew where they were going.  Soon we saw a sign marked "Tomb of the Unknown Soldier".  We followed more signs with the same name.  Up the hill we went.  We followed a cement path which seemed like it might go on forever.  Finally, we came to our destination.

An amphitheatre, which resembled the Colosseum when it was new, sat among gardens and shrubs.  We found our way around the amphitheatre until a large tomb appeared made of marble.  A guard marched back and forth, back and forth, taking 21 steps, changing the position of his rifle, turning, and taking 21 steps again.  Despite the heat of the day, he somehow managed to look clean and neat.  We squinted in the sun and watched two other guards, a sergeant and a private, march out to the tomb.  In a ceremony which took several minutes, they performed "the changing of the guard".  Once the new guard was installed, the other two guards brought out a wreath to be laid.  A bugler appeared and played TAPS.  Then the crowd dispersed, including people from neighbouring states who climbed back in their vehicles and headed home.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier courtesy 

We headed to a bench hoping to catch the next trolley.  After a few minutes, though, we realized it was not a trolley stop.  While waiting I did have a chance to get another magnificent view of the Capitol Building.

We finally found the trolley stop, climbed on board and headed back.  We passed a mansion with giant pillars on the top of a hill.  Was this Washington's house?  No, it was General Robert E. Lee's house.  Lee was married to Martha Custis Washington, the great-granddaughter of George Washington.  Arlington House sat on a large, heavily wooded piece of property.  After the Civil War, in order to put General Lee in his place, the Union confiscated his estate.  This way, Lee would never be able to return home (and he never did). Now the building serves as a museum.

Union troops occupy Arlington Heights during the Civil War courtesy

Our trolley wound its way down the hill, back to the main building.  I purchased a picture book about Arlington Cemetery with the drawing of an American soldier on the front cover.  Not just anyone gets into Arlington.  You have to earn your way in. Our American tour guide told us that her son, who has completed five tours of duty overseas, has just earned his right to be buried at Arlington.  It was an honour to see the graves of these real life heroes.  May they rest in peace.

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