I’ve been to Arlington National Cemetery three times in my life. The first time was on a cold mid-December day. While on a break from a conference, I boarded a Tourmobile. There were three of us on that bus, the driver, the tour guide and me. I told the guide that I wanted to see the Tomb of the Unknown. She looked at her watch and said I could just make the next changing of the guard.
There were four of us at the Tomb, the guard on duty, the relief guard, the officer of the guard and me in the stands with my camera. As they started the solemn ritual, but my raised camera felt wrong and I lowered it. Remaining standing, I watched as the guard was changed with a gentle snow falling, and a cold breeze starting.
I remained with the new guard as he walked his post for a few minutes before I retreated to the Tourmobile stop.
I wrote the following poem about that afternoon and it remains my only memory of Arlington as my camera remained in its case until I crossed the bridge back to the mall.
The tour bus rumbles past
the quiet monuments to the fallen.
Shutters click as the tour guide
speaks the litany of the shrine,
that once was the Lee estate.
Now it is that hallowed ground
where solders come for that long rest.
The Quick rumble passed the carved stones
of the Dead, that once placed
boots of war on their feet.
Their soles now silent.
Now day-trippers take aim and fire.
Cameras, not rifles.
Pictures, not prisoners taken.
The bus stops. The microphone is silent.
To the left a horse pulls a caisson carrying a flag-draped box
That contains a name who once walked.
The warrior sent at our command.
The sightseer sees and falls silent
And hears the echo of guns.
Three volleys and then the mournful notes.
Boys became men
And men became names
And names became graves
Gone is the sun,
Day is done.
God is Nigh.