by Charles McGuigan
On the day after Christmas, St. Stephen’s Day, my son Charles and I drove north up 95, followed closely by my daughter, Catherine, and her boyfriend, Tyler, and though we had killed no wren, nor placed its small corpse in a sprig of holly, we honored the feast day by going to my sister Fran’s home in Falls Church where most of the family would gather for a night of Southern fare and yuletide spirits.
A ninety-minute drive turned into a five-hour just barely creeping standstill. Our average speed was just eighteen miles an hour. Cross my heart.
But it was well worth it.
Nephews and nieces, brothers and sister, and their spouses, were there. As always I was amazed by the people I’m privileged to call family, by the breadth of their pursuits, professional and otherwise. Among them are doctors and lawyers, teachers and scientific researchers, artists and musicians, interior designers and historians. Two of my nephews are off to college now, and both, just coincidentally, are studying history and philosophy, one at Loyola, the other in Scotland. My nephew Martin, home from the British Isles for the holidays, played my niece’s mandolin, strumming with ease any song requested. He has the knack, and an ear for music. My son Charles later played an original song on my sister’s grand piano, and sang words that he wrote just a few weeks before, and I was floored by his deft use of language and his profound understanding of what it is to be human. He sang:
“You’re screaming, there’re tears in eyes that are closed today.
We are devastated, you’re not here, and I hope you’re breathing tonight.”
And the refrain:
“Don’t fear, you will be alright.
The sky is clear, and we will never die.”
When he finished, there was silence, and then applause that brought a smile to my son’s face.
Late that night, as my daughter and her beau headed south for Richmond (they both had work in the morning), Charles and I drove over to a motel where we would be staying for two nights. They were the cheapest accommodations I could find at a place called the Inn of Rosslyn built right along Route 50, Arlington Boulevard, just a mile from Washington. This was a three-story pink brick building with bleached pink wrought iron rails, all squares and rectangles from the windows to the rooftop, a throwback to the 1960s, but the rooms were clean and warm and there was cable and internet, and the woman from China, who had been the concierge here for fourteen years, was pleasant, giving precise walking directions to Arlington National Cemetery, our destination tomorrow.
I woke early the next morning, at about six, and the temperature was in the lower teens. I got a cup of coffee in the lobby and squirrelled away a couple of bagels and two apples, and took them back up to our room where Charles still slept. He rose about nine and, after eating, we left the room, layered in clothing, and walked over to Arlington National Cemetery. That day we would walk a total of twelve miles, but never cross over into Washington.
We had an objective here—to see as many monuments as possible, walking to all of them, even in the bone-chilling cold of the Arctic blast that was settling in, a sort of pilgrimage to broaden our understanding of what makes a great monument, one that unites rather than divides. There’s no other city in the world with as many monuments of this order.
From the Inn of Rosslyn we strode briskly down Fairfax Drive and made a right on North Meade Street, passing the US Marine Corps War (Iwo Jima) Memorial and the Netherlands Carillon, skirting Fort Myer, then made a left on North Marshall Drive. To the right of us is an open field that stretches all the way to the horizon, uninterrupted by any development. We climbed over a low stonewall and were surrounded by thousands of white headstones.
Once inside the cemetery, we walked along the maze of narrow winding roads often venturing off the flat asphalt and onto the frost-crisp blanket of grass, treading carefully in among the white headstones, hundreds of thousands of them scattered across the rolling hills that pour down to the Potomac River.
Each headstone, this time of year, is decorated with a deep green balsam wreath wearing a bright red bow. It’s a tradition started in 1992 by Morrill Worcester, president of the Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine to honor the men and women who have served in our Armed Forces. All of these wreaths are donated, and placed by volunteers.
After wandering through the cemetery for a little over an hour, we made our way to a small plot sprinkled with smaller and older headstones, sequestered from the rest. This is the burial site of enslaved African-Americans who had lived in bondage under the former owner of this 1,100-acre estate, George Washington Parke Custis, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s father-in-law. Lee inherited the plantation when Custis died in 1857, and vacated the site just four years later when the Civil War began. On about the time of President Abe Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, a portion of the estate became what was known as Freedman’s Village, a place where recently liberated enslaved people lived and received training, education and medical care to prepare them for lives of freedom.
All the while, as we strolled through the cemetery, I was looking for familiar ground. A couple hours later we reached the top of a hill, and looking downward I could see the convergence of two familiar lanes, and we began weaving slowly among the gravestones, looking for our own names. I found my grandfather’s headstone, and Charles found his grandfather’s, which are less than fifty yards away from one another, though they were interred thirty years apart.
As we wandered, we literally stumbled on the gravestone of a man who served in the Second World War, and when he returned to Mississippi fought in numerous battles on the home front for Civil Rights. He was ultimately shot to death by a coward who hid behind a cluster of honeysuckle in Jackson, Mississippi. A white supremacist ambushed this American hero, Medgar Evers, who was just 38 years old at the time of his death. After I explained to Charles who this man was, we knelt, at my son’s bidding, by his graveside, and each placed a small rock on his headstone.
In the late afternoon we found the grave of John F. Kennedy, another veteran of World War II, who, like Medgar Evers, would fight battles on the home front to secure justice, and would ultimately be killed by another coward in another Southern city.
There is no likeness, no gargantuan statue of this American hero, just a fire that burns night and day, a reminder to us that human freedom and dignity are inextinguishable. The words of John F. Kennedy, cut in granite slabs facing the Eternal Flame, ring with undeniable truths. These are quotes of a thoughtful man who was known for his devotion to the Republic, a man whose words continue to inspire even in times of national doubt and divisiveness.
Here are just two of them.
“LET THE WORD GO FORTH FROM THIS TIME AND PLACE TO FRIEND AND FOE ALIKE THAT THE TORCH HAS BEEN PASSED TO A NEW GENERATION OF AMERICANS. LET EVERY NATION KNOW WHETHER IT WISHES US WELL OR ILL THAT WE SHALL PAY ANY PRICE – BEAR ANY BURDEN MEET ANY HARDSHIP – SUPPORT ANY FRIEND OPPOSE ANY FOE TO ASSURE THE SURVIVAL AND THE SUCCESS OF LIBERTY.”
“AND SO MY FELLOW AMERICANS ASK NOT WHAT YOUR COUNTRY CAN DO FOR YOU ASK WHAT YOU CAN DO FOR YOUR COUNTRY. MY FELLOW CITIZENS OF THE WORLD – ASK NOT WHAT AMERICA CAN DO FOR YOU – BUT WHAT TOGETHER WE CAN DO FOR THE FREEDOM OF MAN.”
To the left of JFK’s burial site, there is a small slab of white marble lying in a bed of grass, behind it a simple white cross. It stands solitary in honor of the former president’s younger brother who also died in service to his country, assassinated just five years after a gunman killed his older brother. On the other side of the Eternal Flame, there is a white gravestone like the hundreds of thousands of similar headstones scattered across the rolling hills of this cemetery of heroes. This one honors Joseph Kennedy, JFK’s older brother, who also gave his life for his country as a World War II pilot who was shot down by the enemy. Above these burial sites, perfectly aligned with the Eternal Flame, there is a flagpole flying Old Glory, directly in front of Arlington House, formerly the home of a Confederate general. And from this spot, looking across the Potomac, you can see the monument honoring President Abraham Lincoln, the man who saved the Republic and helped the nation begin the slow path toward redemption from one of its two Original Sins. This juxtaposition is beyond inspiring.
Throughout the afternoon, though the sky was blue and the sun was bright, the temperature continued to drop. We continued on toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Braving these frigid temperatures, some eighty people were gathered, bundled against the cold, to watch a sole member of the 3rd US Infantry Regiment, or The Old Guard, keep constant vigil over the graves of men and women lost in battle whose names we’ll never know. Another member of The Old Guard would replace this one at the appointed hour. The vigil is kept 24 hours a day and 365 days a year. Besides the wind that sliced through the branches of trees and rustled the last clinging leaves, there was no other sound. Even the clack of the sentry’s leather soles was muted by a cushion that runs the length of his watch. Not even a stray cough, or the clearing of a throat. Complete silence. And all eyes were trained hypnotically on the Tomb of the Unknown.
By the time we left, the sunlight was fading fast, and when we got back to the Inn of Rosslyn, it was already dark. We ate at District Taco on Lee Highway in Arlington, and after we ordered, Charles recounted the day, and marveled at the more than 400,000 thousand monuments to men and women we had seen that day. And the words carved into stone. Sometimes just the names and dates of birth and death and service to country. But other times words that transcend the Republic itself and propel us to become a better people. We talked about the words of JFK and those of his brother, Bobby.
“So monuments are about words?” I asked
Charles nodded. “But they’re also about no words,” he said. And then he reminded me of the absolute silence at the Tomb of the Unknown.
We both slept soundly that night, the deep slumber at the end of a winter day. In the morning we ate breakfast, and after chatting with the concierge, walked into Washington, D.C., crossing the Potomac on Memorial Bridge. We saw the monuments to Albert Einstein, and took his words with us, particularly these two quotes.
“As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.”
“The right to search for truth implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.”
We circled the Tidal Basin, read the words of Abraham Lincoln from his Second Inauguration.
“With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.”
And his Gettysburg Address. “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. . . that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Later in the day, we walked around the Jefferson Memorial and stopped in front of the Southwest Portico to read these words Thomas Jefferson penned for our Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men.”
And right next to this, an excerpt from a letter Jefferson had written: “I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times.”
We spent a full three hours at two other monuments dedicated to more modern Americans, marveling at the beauty of their words. From President Delano Roosevelt:
“Men and nature must work hand in hand. The throwing out of balance of the resources of nature throws out of balance also the lives of men.”
“I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished. The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little.”
“We must scrupulously guard the civil rights and civil liberties of all our citizens, whatever their background. We must remember that any oppression, any injustice, any hatred, is a wedge designed to attack our civilization.”
“Unless the peace that follows recognizes that the whole world is one neighborhood and does justice to the whole human race, the germs of another world war will remain as a constant threat to mankind.”
“The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today. Let us move forward with strong and active faith.”
And carrying the same torch of equality and universal freedom, the immortal words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
“I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.”
“The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of convenience and comfort, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
My son and I feasted on these words for the rest of the day as we roved through the city, then back to Northern Virginia, where we joined a dear friend of mine, Mark O’Brien, for a very late lunch at a Thai restaurant in Falls Church.
We told Mark what we had seen and the words we had read and how we had come to understand that true monuments are not to men, but to ideas that propel humanity forward.
Around the table, as we ate pad thai and drunken noodles, we told stories. Charles recited lyrics he had written. They were pure words, honest words, words that defined the human condition and urged the listener to move forward, not backward.
I quoted these words from Mother Teresa: “Words lead to deeds, they prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness.”
“That’s what monuments are,” said Charles. “Words that lead to deeds.”
“And that’s what your words do, Charles,” Mark said.
“You’re a monumental young man,” I told my son.