Twilight in Arlington
“Young man, are you in the military?” asked the woman on the Metro. We were at that moment heading west through DC on the Blue line. We hadn’t yet crossed under the Potomac into Virginia. I chuckled to myself; I did 15 years on active duty, a tour in Iraq, and I’m now about 6 into my reserve career. And I just turned 50. It was gratifying in some vain way that she thought I was young.
“Well, yes ma’am; in the reserves. Is it that obvious?” I asked, smiling now. “Your haircut gives it away.” “Can I help you?” I asked. I noticed a man with her. Both of them were about my parents’ age, I figured in their seventies. The man appeared to be trying to look like he wasn’t listening to us. “Well, maybe,” she said. “We are in town for a few days and we don’t know our way around. It’s our first time here.”
Ah yes, I nodded. Washington, DC, is the most confusing city to get around the first several times you visit; I found Paris with its innumerable “arrondissements” to be easier to navigate when I made my first trip there with my wife — who had been there before — in 2002, than I found DC to be the first time I went in 1993, and then after several years of being stationed there after I entered the military. It took me years to figure it out.
“Ok,” I said. “We want to go see the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial,” she continued. “Well ma’am, that’s down off the Mall. In fact, it’s just south of where we are right now. If you think of things like this it helps. Think of the Mall as a huge clock. The White House is at 12, the Capitol at 3, the Jefferson Memorial at 6, and the Lincoln Memorial at 9. The Washington Monument is the hub, right in the middle. If you can find the Lincoln Memorial, which is no problem, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial is just a short walk to the north of that toward Constitution Avenue. If you go down there, the park rangers can show you the way. They’ll be happy to help you.”
“Ok,” she said with a bit of skepticism. But she went on. “There’s one other thing. My husband has a dear friend who he served with in a Vietnam who was killed there and buried in Arlington National Cemetery.” She leaned in closer, whispering now. “They were very close. He talks about him all the time. But we have no idea where to start.”
That hit me. The nice lady my mother’s age was in that instant turned into the wife of a man who had served his country — and survived — during the most unpopular war in our nation’s two-hundred, forty-one year history. I cared about helping her from the moment she spoke to me; that’s how I was raised. But now I cared a lot more.
“Here’s what you do ma’am. Go to the visitors’ center at the cemetery. They have a directory. All you have to do is tell them the name of your husband’s friend and they can tell you exactly where the resting place is and even give you directions.” Her eyes lit up at the realization they would not have to search aimlessly. “Really?” “Yes ma’am.” “Can we get there on the metro?” “You sure can. In fact, we are heading there right now. It’s about three stops from here.”
She tells her husband all of this. He now appears lost in thought. I think the immediacy of the situation just hit him. He didn’t look like he was ready yet. They both seemed reluctant.
“Ma’am, I’m happy to take you there. I’ve been more times than I can recall myself. I have friends of my own there, and I can take you right where you need to go.” The man finally looked at me for the first time. They both look a bit shocked.
“Oh, I’m sure you have better things to do,” she says. “No ma’am not really. I’m just on my way home from work, I don’t have any plans, and if I told my wife about this she would probably order me to help y’all.” They both laugh. “And come to think of it, I can’t think of anything that would please me more at this very moment.”
They ponder it. I suddenly feel like I am pushing them. Maybe I should just back off. But I know from personal experience that the longer you put this off, the longer you wonder, the longer you suffer, the longer you feel guilty for not going down there. And if this man served in Vietnam, he has been carrying it around for decades now. And time might be running out for him to get closure. In fact, time is running out for every one of us.
“If it’s not too much trouble,” the man says, speaking for the first time. “Sir, it would be an honor to help you go pay your respects to your friend.”
We get off the train. It’s pretty late in the day actually; the cemetery officially closes at 5:00 p.m. The mid-Atlantic sunset that I — a Texan — have begrudgingly fallen slightly in love with over the years is starting to take its familiar shape. But I have a plan. I’m banking on the man’s status and my reserve military rank to gain our little group access not available to the general public. We will see very soon if this works.
We slowly make our way up to the visitors’ center. We go in and find the electronic directory. “What’s his name, Sir?” I ask the man. He tells me. I type in the last name first, then the first name. The system searches for a few seconds. I think silently to myself that I don’t like a lot of what my tax dollars go to pay for, but I like this. “Here we go, Sir.” I show them the result. We have the exact location. I print out directions for all three of us. We turn to walk out the west exit and we are met by one of the guards.
“Gentlemen, the cemetery closes in fifteen minutes. Everyone has to be off the premises by the time we close the gates,” he says with the utmost professionalism. I look at the man and his wife. I ask the guard if we can have a minute. We step away.
“Officer, this man served in Vietnam. He has a very good friend that was killed there, and this is his first attempt to pay his respects. I’ve pulled the location of the grave. I told them I would walk them out there. I’m also a war veteran myself from post-9–11.” I show the guard my military ID. “I promise I will walk them straight out to the grave site and walk them directly back over here to the gate and make sure they get to where they are going afterward. Is there any way you make an exception this time?”
The officer looks at my ID, looks me over, and then casts a look over at the couple. “Damn,” he says. “You know what’s going to happen when he sees the grave, right?” Our eyes meet steadily for several seconds, and then we both glance over to the couple. “Yeah. I do. I know exactly what it’s like.” He looks at them again. He considers it. “Ok, Colonel. You got it. It’s the least we can do for him. You need any help?” “No, thank you officer. I think I’ve got it.” He nods at me and walks over to the man and his wife.
“Ma’am, Sir. The Colonel is going to take you out to the grave site and then escort you back to the exit. We are closing, but he will make sure you don’t get lost. I will be at the exit and I will let you out. Take all the time you need.” “Thank you Sir,” they tell him. “You’re most welcome.”
I think to myself that the government does not always do a good job with whom they entrust with every important position — we read about this fact every day in the news — but in this instance I am once again reminded that they do an outstanding job here at the cemetery. The man and his wife join me and we begin our walk.
The sun was now dropping low in the western sky.
As a Texan who grew up and went to school in an adjoining state, I grew up in the central time zone. The sunrises and sunsets there struck me as pretty pedestrian. Then the military sent me out to the west coast, and I first experienced the awe-inspiring scene of the sun setting slowly into the Pacific at the end of the day, something that if you’ve never witnessed it, you must put on your proverbial bucket list. I then got to observe the opposite when we went to the Crystal Coast of North Carolina, where we lived a mile from the beach and regularly watched that same sun appear mesmerizingly and mysteriously from out of the depths of the Atlantic. They were both different, but they had one thing in common: that strange twilight that existed right after the sun finally passed out of sight over the Pacific horizon and right before it rose out of the Atlantic, like some beautiful yellow-orange-purple pale vision, ambient yet so clear, almost hypnotic in its peacefulness; on one coast it marked a day’s beginning, on the other, it announced its end.
That very light now slowly crept out of the west over Arlington, as we slowly and methodically made our way to the sought-after marker. I didn’t know if we would make it before it got dark, but I was ceratinly going to try.
We walked in silence except for me to tell them when we needed to turn. There was no discussion. I had quickly done some math in my head at the directory and I figured it wasn’t that far. But they never asked. I concluded this was now a mission for the man, and I would help him accomplish it.
Finally, we reached the section where his friend rested. I looked at the markings and found the row. We then carefully negotiated the walk down the plot line, doing that hallowed march I had done too many times to recall, making sure we didn’t disrespect anyone else by stepping on or walking directly across a grave. At last, we found the name.
“Sir, Ma’am. Here he is.” I softly read out the name, rank, and service branch. I looked at them as they held tightly to each other. The man looked from the stone, then to me and said, “Thank you son,” as his eyes started to glisten. “Would you like me to wait?” “Please, would you?” asked the wife. “Of course, ma’am,” I nodded. “I’ll give you some privacy and wait out at the road.”
Not wanting to intrude any further into what I knew was a private, sacred moment, I walked back away in the direction we had come. I didn’t turn back. I got to a distance far enough away that I felt they could find me when they were ready to leave, and sat down on a bench.
I could hear, but I never looked; it wasn’t my moment, although I was acutely aware that they had trusted me — a perfect stranger — to somehow be a part of it. In that instant I felt a kindredness with both of them. And I was again reminded that we are all tied together in this family; this family of those who have served this nation and everyone who loves and cares about them. It’s an extremely insular family and one that society at large just doesn’t know enough about, identify with, or care about. It’s not their fault; how could they? Like so many things in life, unless you as an individual person have been touched by something, there is no way on Earth you can ever identify with it. So don’t try. But don’t judge either.
It was almost completely dark now, and the lights had come on. It gave everything a strange, ethereal glow. I had never been there that late. Something made me want to stay. Just this once. But just as I started to go down my own emotional lane, I heard the woman’s voice. I turned and saw them walking toward me, hand in hand. I wondered if that would perhaps be me and my wife someday in the not too distant future, and I hoped we’d get the chance.
“We’re ready,” she said softly. “Okay.” I got up and we started the walk back to the gate where the officer had told me to exit. As was the case on the way out, no one spoke. We made the walk in silence, looking at the monuments now lit up in the distance, and seeing the planes come in on the river approach to Reagan National Airport.
I wondered what it had been like for the man, enlisting or perhaps even being drafted to fight in a war in a place few people had ever heard of before. This contrasted sharply with my generation of all volunteers, who had willingly joined the military before the wars of the twentieth century. At least my group had signed up for it. I admired him. I admired that he had gone, I admired that he had somehow survived. And now, I admired that he had made this pilgrimage all these years later to face and see his friend, lost in some foreign land so many years ago. And I admired his wife for standing beside him and supporting him.
We finally arrived back at the gate, and the guard let us through. “Thank you officer,” said the man. “You’re welcome Sir.” I walked them on down to the metro station from whence we had come and made sure they were headed in the right direction.
“Thank you again,” the man said. “You’re absolutely welcome Sir. This has been an honor for me.” The woman reached up and hugged me around the neck, surprising me. I felt the unmistakable sting of tears forming in my eyes, but quickly pushed it down, somehow. “Thank you young man,” she said once more, as their train arrived. “God bless you.”
“You’re welcome Ma’am. Y’all take care.” They turned and got on the Metro, and the doors shut. As the train pulled away, they looked out and waved goodbye to me as I waved back. Within seconds, their train was out of sight, disappearing into the cool, northern Virginia night.
I turned away and walked back over to the other side of the Arlington National Cemetery metro station tracks, caught my own train in the other direction, and went home.