My trip to Washington D.C.
The following is 100% Fiction. Take it for what it is.
About four years ago when I found out I was going to Washington D. C. for a work trip I decided to make a small vacation out of it also. I made arrangements with my company to take a full week of paid vacation after my four days of drumming up business for the software company I work for back home.
I had heard the best way to see D.C. was with one of the many charter touring companies. You pay them money they provide transportation and tickets to the various monuments and museums. I would make a whole day of seeing the White House as well as the various presidential and war memorials. I would also spend a few days going through all the buildings of the Smithsonian. That was all fine and good but what I really wanted to see was Arlington National Cemetery.
Arlington, for me anyway, was a duty to go and see. It was a duty, that as an American, I believed I owed to the men and women buried there. Dont get me wrong I didnt view it as a chore or something I did solely because I had to. Rather, I wanted to do it and I actually looked forward to see and walk on this hallowed ground.
It was a beautiful late spring day. It was almost a little too warm for this time of the year but at least it was clear and not muggy. When the bus dropped us off the tour guide gave us each a return boarding pass with the tour company logo on it that matched the one on the side of the bus and its number. I guess they wanted to make sure we didnt get on the wrong bus. We were told to clip them to our shirts. They were the same kind visitors got when they went into secured government buildings. I guess they were playing up the D.C. angle. We only had about an hour before the cemetery closed for the day. We also had about 20 minutes to walk around before the last changing of the guard ceremony at The Tomb of the Unknowns for the day. I definitely did not want to miss that so I stayed close to the Tomb for the duration of the 20 minutes.
When the time arrived for the ceremony to start I was already in the front row. The crowd was respectfully quiet during the entire ceremony. The members of the 3rd U.S. Infantry (Also known as The Old Guard.) performed their assigned tasks with the utmost military precision and grace. The Tomb Guard marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb, turns, faces east for 21 seconds, turns and faces north for 21 seconds, then takes 21 steps down the mat and repeats the process 24 hours a day/365 days a year. Through rain, shine, sleet and snow they guard soldiers buried there that are "Known But to God."
After the ceremony most everybody was headed out towards the parking lot. I decided to head towards the Kennedy burial site. It was pretty much deserted when I arrived. There was only a grandfather and his grandson standing in front of the Eternal Flame. The grandfather was leaning over and speaking to the child in hushed tones. I waited until they moved away before I approached.
The Flame is about ten feet away from the walk way. It was in the center of a bricked patio like structure with grass coming up between the gaps between irregular shaped large paving stones. It didnt look like an unkempt walk way in which weeds and grass were starting to push their way through the gaps. The grass in between the stones looked well cared for. Weirdly enough there was only a small chain roping visitors on the concrete walk and away from the burial site and the actual Flame itself. In front of the Flame are the grave markers.
I was reading the grave markers and starting to tear up a little bit. I didnt know these people. I hadnt even been alive when they were taken away from us. Other then Mrs. Kennedy I had only seen them in black and white news footage. I was very deep in thought and trying not to break down and cry like a baby when I realized someone was standing next to me.
I knew it was a man. I could see his black shoes as my head was bowed trying to control the sobs. The next thing I know a handkerchief came into my view as my head stayed bowed and he said with a clearly Boston accent:
'Here. I always bring extra with me when I visit them.'
I wiped my tears and started to thank him. When I looked up into his face my brain took a good three seconds to register who had given me the handkerchief. While my brain was catching up I noticed he was wearing a well made suit to go with the black shoes. He was in his seventies by that time and his white hair was thinning a little. His famous face had a lot of wrinkles on it. He had lived a long and sometimes very trying life. It was all written on his face like a grandfatherly Marlboro man.
'You know' he started 'I come up here a lot. I try to come up when I can just visit them without all the cameras and reporters looking for a photo op.'
I just nodded stupidly.
'When I was four Jack used to carry me around on his shoulders a lot. I guess he was just practicing for when he carried us all around on his shoulders.' He said while looking at the plaque for President John F. Kennedy.
He then looked up and said 'Dont feel bad crying for them. Jack and Bobby were taken away way too young. There is no shame in crying for them because they deserve our tears for their efforts of bettering our lives but remember the living for those are the ones that deserve our efforts for bettering their lives.'
He then did something profoundly human and simple. He reached his hand out and rested it on my shoulder as if reassuring me for my loss.
He then said 'Thanks for coming to remember them.' And turned and walked away.
It was then that I noticed five or six people standing behind us in sunglasses and ear pieces with wires coming out of them running down their shirts. I realized the Secret Service had pretty much kept all other visitors away from the site and I was alone now because of that fact.
I was still trying to figure out what just happened when I remembered I had to catch a bus back to my hotel. I started walking quickly back to my bus. I didnt think it would be very dignified to run through a cemetery, let alone the most famous one in America.
When I came around the corner to the parking lot my heart sank. At first it looked like there was only a government vehicle left in the lot. Then I turned my head left and saw my bus had pulled up to the curb with the door open. The bus itself didnt catch my eye but rather the Secret Service guy waving me ahead did.
When I got to the door he talked into his mike that was in his right hand just like on TV. He said 'VIP is boarding bus now.' He then turned to the driver and said 'The Senator greatly appreciates you and your companys patience in this matter. '
He nodded to me and started walking towards the only other vehicle in the lot, the government car. I got on the bus in a daze and hardly registered the mostly shocked and questioning stares I got before I sat down. It was a very quiet trip back to the hotel room.
I boarded a plane home the next day. I had almost convinced myself that yesterday did not happen. Well, at least not how I remembered anyway.
As I write this shortly after his passing I cry a little knowing we are worse off with him gone but I also remember I need to better the lives of those around me. He had done it through the tears of his tragic loss of brothers. I think I could do it through the tears for a man I had only met once.