Like most people my age, I remember precisely where I was (on campus, sipping coffee in the UWO cafeteria) the moment John Fitzgerald Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas. Today, many decades later, I visit his gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery. I'm with bus-loads of tourists and veterans; the mood is sombre as befits a cemetery, little talk exchanged throughout the tour. The three Kennedy brothers, John, Robert and now Ted are interred here.
Shortly before his death, JFK stood at the hillside location overlooking the cemetery toward the Lincoln Memorial and ironically commented, "I could stay here forever." His gravesite marker (John Fitzgerald Kennedy 1917-1963) is accented by an eternal flame requested by his wife. On his right is their infant son, Patrick Bouvier Kennedy (7 August 1963 - 9 August 1963) On his left are Jaqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994) and daughter Arabella, the stillborn child born in August of 1956.
Veterans and military casualties from each of the nation's wars are interred in the cemetery, from the American Civil War to the military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq. Pre-Civil War dead were reinterred after 1900.
Above the Kennedy graves at the top of the hill sits Arlington House, the Robert E. Lee Memorial. People take photos and stare at the four grey slate markers. The flame was once inadvertently extinguished by a Catholic school contingent that applied too much "holy water," but a quick-thinking employee re-lit the flame with his lighter.
Our open-air bus is quite slow, many vets in wheel chairs. Remarkably, each is systematically assisted into the bus, wheelchairs stacked at the back and we wind our way through memorials to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guard ceremony.
Over four million people visit the cemetery annually, many to pay final respects at graveside services, 100 each week. I'm told that 25 graves are dug daily and this staggering factoid helps me realize the historical depth and breadth of U.S. military action throughout the world.
Only two presidents are buried here, JFK and William H. Taft. There are military and political notables (Generals Sheridan, Pershing, Dolittle, Bradley, Taylor, Admirals Rickover, Halsey, statesmen (John Foster Dulles, William Jennings Bryan), Supreme Court members (Holmes, Warren, Douglas, Marshall, Burger) exploration and space pioneers (Perry, Byrd, Chaffee, Grissom, Irwin) medical personnel (Hopkins, Reed) science and engineering (L'Enfant, the architect who designed Washington) and sports figures (Abner Doubleday and Joe Louis).
With more than 300,000 people buried here, the cemetery is involved with expansion projects. The Secretary of the Army approved a new policy, effective January 1, 2009, that authorizes all soldiers killed in action by the enemy and who are being interred, inurned or memorialized at Arlington National Cemetery the option to receive full military funeral honors. These honors can include a caisson, band and a military escort.
Arlington National Cemetery has the second-largest number of people buried of any national cemetery in the United States, conducting 6,400 burials yearly. Largest of the 130 national cemeteries is the Calverton National Cemetery, on Long Island, near Riverhead, N.Y. which conducts more than 7,000 burials each year.
In Section 27, I notice there are 3,800 former slaves interred, called "Contrabands" during the Civil War. Their headstones are designated with the word "Civilian" or "Citizen."
We reach The Tomb of the Unknowns, made from Yule marble quarried in Colorado. It consists of seven pieces, with a total weight of 79 tons. The Tomb was completed and opened to the public April 9, 1932, at a cost of $48,000.
I watch several young mid-shipmen in white uniforms and caps visit The Memorial Amphitheater where 5,000 visitors attend each of three major annual memorial services held on Easter, Memorial Day and Veterans Day. The cornerstone, laid Oct. 15, 1915 contains: a copy of the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the U.S. Flag (1915), designs and plans for the amphitheater, L'Enfant's map design of the city of Washington, D.C., an autograph of the amphitheater commission, one of each U.S. coin in use in 1915, one of each U.S. postage stamp in use in 1915, a 1914 map of Washington, D.C., the Congressional Directory, Boyd's City Directory for the District of Columbia, an autographed photo of President Woodrow Wilson, the cornerstone dedication program, and the Evening Star newspaper account of the ceremonies, and the campaign to build the Amphitheater, constructed mainly of Vermont-quarried Danby marble. The marble in the Memorial Display Room is imported Botticino, a stone mined in Italy.
The names of 44 U.S. battles from the American Revolution to the Spanish-American War are inscribed around the frieze above the colonnade. "DULCE ET DECORUM EST PRO PATRIA MORI," (It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country.) a quote from Horace is etched above the west entrance of the Memorial Amphitheater. I don't know about "sweet," but the "fitting" certainly applies to this remarkable cemetery.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
Where to stay
Crystal Gateway Marriott: 1700 Jefferson Davis Hwy 22202, 703-920-3230. If a senior, obtain a metro ticket at the Crystal City stop for a great discount. Use the Metro to travel. It's efficient and cheap. It's also smarter to stay in Arlington and use the Metro to visit Washington.
Marriott Key Bridge: 1401 Lee Hwy 703-524-6400.
Hotel Palomar: 1121 N. 19th Street, 22209, 703-351-9170.
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