September 2007


Respect and Honor

Arlington National CemeteryOn the other side of the Potomac River from The Mall is Arlington National Cemetery, and it was my destination for the day. And now I don’t know where to begin because Arlington National Cemetery single handedly brings up a myriad of topics to consider, both personal and political.

I guess I’ll start with the personal: My Uncle is interred at Arlington National Cemetery. He died in 1997. Both times that I’d visited DC, I did not call my uncle.

I first visited in either 1990 or 1991 as a part of a Close-Up tour of Washington DC. What I remember about that trip was (besides buying my first illicit porn from a newsstand in the Metro), was that we stayed out in Virginia and that the hotel ran a shuttle to and from the Pentagon City Metro Stop. We spent a lot of time in buses that roamed the city.

The second time, I’d won a place on a trip to DC, and trundled out here and stayed at a hotel with a really excellent fire alarm system; I know this because it went off at 1 or 2 am and scared the living daylights out of me and my roommate.

Dominating both trips, emotionally and spiritually, was the Viet Nam War Memorial—it truly is a perfect memorial that honors those who need to be honored; yet on both trips when I could have made the time to do so, I did not look up my Uncle’s number and call him. I was a fool because now I cannot ask him a million questions that I want to ask him, such as, asking him if he was gay. My mother presumes that he was, and I’m inclined to agree; he never married and was distant from his sister, my mother; and he died of HIV related illnesses.

I hadn’t expected to be so overwhelmed with emotions when I went to the cemetery, but I was—I went to the visitor’s center and got the information about where he was buried—heading out on foot to the Columbarium Courts. I think the fact that I was searching for his marker meant that I escaped the more beaten paths of the cemetery; I walked past fresh graves with freshly laid sod, and, in a couple of cases, families remembering their lost ones—with young children who looked like they wouldn’t ever be able to remember their lost fathers. It was painful when I paused to look at graves where the people buried were so young; it is one thing to be buried at 50, 60 or older, it is tragic when you are buried at 25. It is awful and awesome to see a young woman lying on a grave reading a book. I wanted to stop and say something but I didn’t want to intrude and I had no idea what I could have possibly said, so I stuck to the street and quietly walked past.

Columbarium Court No. 2The Columbarium Court Number 2 was quiet when I arrived, and I was able to locate my Uncle’s marker in no time and I was quite surprised to be emotionally overwhelmed at seeing it. The most distinct memories I have of my Uncle were from when I was elementary aged; he came to Denver, picked me up and we flew off to Durango, Colorado, together where we took the Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and explored both small towns. We stayed at the Strater Hotel, the most luxurious hotel I had ever stayed in, having been raised by a family that considered Motel 6 the top of the line. I distinctly remember the beds and somewhere, in one of the family photo albums, there’s a photo of my in my bed at that hotel. (And should this photo ever come to light, it will not be put on this blog.)

Section III have no idea what possessed him to take me on that trip; when I recently asked my mother about it, she too had no idea why he took me on that trip, but regardless, it created a significant number of memories for me that I hope help me honor my Uncle appropriately today as I sat on the bench, surrounded by hundreds of veterans.

Eventually, after I collected my thoughts, I headed elsewhere in the cemetery, again passing the freshly laid sod over graves—some without proper headstones yet—toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and its ever present guard. It was a bit surreal making this transition, for although this area is as sacred and hallow as the grounds where my Uncle is interred, it is, without a doubt, more Disney-esque: the crowds were larger and it seemed to me that people were there as tourists not as relatives.

That dissonant feeling resonated with me as I wandered from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier through Arlington House and then onto John F. Kennedy’s tomb. It was most acute when an open-air bus passed me with a guide talking to tourists with a microphone—if lucky, the tourists could spot the graves of famous people at 10-15 miles per hour, all while sitting down.

WWII Soviet Cemetary in WeimarSomehow the most famous and well traveled parts of the cemetery seemed the most false and touristy to me. The most real parts were the most anguishing. I was left feeling ill seeing young men buried under fresh sod; a feeling I have each time I see young men buried at the Soviet Military Cemetery in Weimar.

War is brutal, awful, and often pointless. There are good wars where brutal enemies are appropriately vanquished, and then there are the rest, and it is incumbent upon we, the people, to ask ourselves, what kind of wars we are fighting; and, at the same time, to always honor the soldiers who serve to implement policy, not forge it—which was of course the greatest mistake of the people with respect to Viet Nam and its veterans.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

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