I was on a tour bus with a couple of other adult chaperones and 40 sixth-graders. We were headed across the Potomac River toward Arlington National Cemetery. The lady with the umbrella was standing beside the driver, talking into a microphone. The children were listening, for the most part.
The nice lady with the umbrella pointed out the Marine Corps Memorial — that magnificent sculpture of the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima — and then we started seeing the graves. There appeared to be hundreds of them at first. Then we turned a curve and realized that there were thousands and thousands of them — most marked by simple white crosses but others bearing the Star of David. There were a few monuments that were not regular government-issue as well.
As we drove slowly past the eternal flame that marks the grave of President John F. Kennedy the nice tour guide pointed out Arlington House, sitting up at the top of the hill and told the students that “Robert E. Lee’s family donated the grounds for Arlington National Cemetery to the federal government.” I started to let it go, but Herman Talmadge’s granddaughter was on the bus.
I stood in my seat and corrected the nice lady with the umbrella and explained to the children that Arlington had actually been confiscated by the federal government during the War Between the States to use as a burial ground for the casualties being brought into Washington, D.C., from the northern Virginia front. (Later, Lee’s family sued the government for the property, won the suit, and sold the estate back to the country.)
That wasn’t the important part of our visit, though. The important part of the visit was the opportunity to impress upon those 12-year-olds that liberty and freedom are not, have never been and never will be free.
You’ve all received the Internet chain letter containing some version of the poem often attributed to Father Denis Edward O’Brien that reminds us that it was the soldier, not the poet, who gave us freedom of speech and that it was the soldier, not the journalist, who gave us freedom of the press and the soldier, not the campus organizer, who has given us the freedom to demonstrate — and so on and so forth.
You have probably seen it so often that you just click on it, say to yourself, “that’s nice “ or “that’s so true” and then go on about your business. But the reality is that those words are very, very true.
What is the value of one human life? I suppose that would depend on how long the life lasted and what the person chose to do with the days afforded him — or her.
In Arlington National Cemetery lie the remains of more than 300,000 people. Two presidents are interred there, along with four chief justices. Many famous people, such as explorer Robert Byrd, boxer Joe Louis and musician Glenn Miller, were laid to rest in Arlington, as were 10 five-star generals, including George C. Marshall, Hap Arnold and Omar Bradley. Gen. John J. Pershing is buried there, too, but he and George Washington hold ranks above five stars. Audie Murphy, the most decorated hero of World War II, is buried at Arlington.
So are thousands of valiant warriors whose names are known only to God.
There are heroes from every American war from the Revolution to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq entombed at Arlington National Cemetery, as well as thousands of warriors who survived the strife of war and came home to live long and productive lives.
On Monday, which is Memorial Day, each of the 300,000-plus marked graves will be adorned with a small American flag. They will be placed there by every available active duty member of the 3rd U.S. Infantry. I am sure that each member of that honored group will be very aware that, but for the grace of God, it could be their grave that someone else is decorating.
Monday at 11 a.m., there will be a special service at Arlington — one of three that is open to the public each year. There will be a full wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns and a remembrance ceremony in the adjacent amphitheater. The U.S. Navy Band will perform, and Vice President Joe Biden will be in attendance.
This is the 142nd observance of Memorial Day on the hallowed grounds of Arlington. “It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.”
Most of us can’t be there, of course. But wherever you are, whatever you are doing and however you choose to spend the day — whether you are at the lake or at work or having a backyard cookout, or if you are on a family vacation — please take time to remember those brave Americans — some of whom are buried in Virginia, others of whom are buried elsewhere — who have made the supreme sacrifice for our freedom. And please offer a prayer that these honored “dead shall not have died in vain.”
Darrell Huckaby is an author and teacher in Rockdale County. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.