Continued Reflections on Arlington
Note: In April, I wrote an article detailing an experience I had when I visited Arlington National Cemetery last spring. This piece stems from the same day. Very few times in my life, if ever, have I been struck so profoundly by a location. Here I write about an additional sentiment that the place inspired.
Spring Break had been glorious. I had been able to spend it in my favorite city, Washington D.C., and I had the luxury of staying eleven days there this time. The weather was simply beautiful during entire the entire stay, with perfectly blue skies and the kind of afternoon that only occurs in early spring. I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it. I love the city because it allows for observance of stark symbols of ideals juxtaposed with everyday life. The Washington Monument (for example), though situated on the National Mall, can be seen from the most stuffy of bureaucratic offices. It is surreal being able to buy hot dogs from a street-vendor while Abraham Lincoln solemnly looks on.
There were a few times, however, where one could simply be lost in reverie without the distraction of the bustling masses of people constantly following along. The National Archives, which keep a strict quota of people in the main display room with the Constitution and the Magna Carta, allows for this effect. If I wished, I could gaze relatively undisturbed for hours at historical documents rivaling Scripture in their material effect. As a student at a college which owes its entire mission to what was contained in that room, it was an experience rarely paralleled.
Arlington National Cemetery also provided a similar occurrence. I had never been to the place before and I was excited to finally go. Relatively soon after entering the cemetery, I read the details on one of the headstones. I forget the man’s particular name, but I distinctly remember two things: the first being that he had been killed in Vietnam and the second that this event had occurred when he was eighteen. At the time of my visit, I had very recently turned nineteen. I can’t point to the particular reason, but as soon as I read the marker I began to silently weep.
This man, in a life shorter than my own (which isn’t exactly that long), had known in a far deeper manner the things most of us rarely come into contact with. I have no idea what his occupation in the military was, but to a certain extent it is immaterial. There was at least one day where he had taken up arms against other men. Shots were fired. He had been hit. Killed instantly? Perhaps. Or maybe he lingered on, mortally wounded on the battlefield. When he jumped out of that helicopter, did he imagine that he would return home? Or did he feel the unmistakable hand of fate on his soul?
I simply cannot imagine in a literal sense everything that this soldier went through. My interpretation of his life can only exist in the verbal realm. I am denied a visceral idea of what his life must have felt like. But the words themselves are chilling and frightening. If he was not dead by the time he left the battlefield, I can only wonder what his last moments must have been like. Maybe he died while lying on the floor of a medevac helicopter. Maybe it happened while at a hospital. In a very real sense, he knew Fear. In this world, there is fright and there is fear. Fright happens when you miss the last step at the bottom of the stairs at night. Fear is helplessly fading out of last your consciousness, wondering what on earth is going to happen next.
Did he have close friends who wept for their fallen comrade? Did he die alone, with nothing but a small white cross to be remembered by? I wonder how his family reacted. I cannot imagine any member of my family going off to war and never returning. What sorts of things did his parents regret never having told him? Did he think of them shortly before he died? Did he love them, or did he want to escape home and see another part of the world?
There are so many questions surrounding this one simple marker. I can be certain that this one man, at an age that today is symbolic of all the excess and privilege of the teen years, knew far more of life than I do, though already older than him. My days outnumber his, but his experience with the heights and depths of the human experience vastly exceed my own. At my college, we pride ourselves on adapting our minds to the philosophic ideal of dwelling in the intelligible realm as much as possible without stooping to the base material world. But perhaps there is something sacred to the secular, or something eternal in the temporal. This man was a soldier, and gave his life for a purely earthly cause, but that in and of itself is worth remembering.