I would say that I’d never forget my first visit to Washington, D.C. except that I totally forgot all of it. Well, I do have one memory: a dead fish floating in a river (that I tell people was the Potomac, but who knows). I really won’t forget my second trip to D.C. which I made as a middle schooler. It was a P.A.S.S. trip and designed for educational purposes, but I learned much more outside our curriculum. From the entire week, three things still stand out 25 years later.
One is that Magnus, foreign exchange student in high school, came along as well and he and I ended up hanging out most of the week (possibly because we both felt slightly out of step with those around us). It was a good experience because not only was I old enough to better appreciate the memorials, but because I also got to experience it all through a true outsider’s eyes and perspective. It helped focus many things I probably wouldn’t have noticed on my own.
Another stand out memory is of waiting in line for the Washington Monument. It was a long line and Magnus and I made jokes to pass the time. One running joe we had was to call where they were going to cut off the line for each group of visitors.
“See that guy in the red shirt with the black socks?” asked Ma
"He's going to be the last one in."
"Sure," I laughed, "Because you can see the future."
"I can!" He insisted, though not with much conviction and we both had a good laugh.
We laughed harder when the rope snapped back in to place right behind the guy in the red shirt with black socks.
I made the next prediction. We laughed some more when I got it right as well.We should have stopped the jokes since we were close to the front, but we didn't.
"Hey," I said, "Even though it looks like we'll get in with the next bunch, they are going to stop the line right in front of us."
"Yeah," he agreed, "And we'll have to wait here with everyone glaring at us."
They cut off the line right in front of us. That was three predictions that came true. In a row.
Magnus looked at me nervously and said, "There will be absolutely no problems with the elevator while we're on it."
"Yes, our tour will complete without incident," I agreed.
I know we probably should have used our strangely granted power to cure hunger or something, but we were just foolish kids. Fortunately though, I didn't make quite as foolish a mistake as some others made when we were in Arlington Cemetery.
The beautiful sunlight seemed out of place as we walked among the endless rows of simple stone markers. Sound slowly muted as we approached the Tomb of the Unknowns. Like many, I was awed by the precision, the perfectness, of the Marine guards and their solemn duty. We of course timed our visit to witness the Changing of the Guard.
We were asked to stand (and remain standing) for the ceremony. We all rose and those wearing hats removed them. The ceremony proceeded and even though I was too young to understand many things, I understood the dedication these men brought to their task. Then something unusual happened.
One of the guards suddenly stopped. He stood ramrod straight and deathly still. With a fire in his eyes that greatly frightened me, he spoke in a loud, clear, booming, and authoritative voice. I remember his words exactly.
"It was requested that you remain standing for the entire ceremony!"
It must have been someone behind me, but I certainly wasn't going to turn and look. I know the rifles were unloaded, but I found myself wondering just how quickly they could be. After a brief pause (in which I'm sure the offending parties stood back up), the ceremony continued without incident.
After the ceremony, we all slowly filed out of the small stands (except for the couple I assumed sat down who raced out). It took a moment for Magnus and I to speak. I'm not sure if we wanted a moment to process the events, wanted to get a respectful distance away, or just wanted to be out of sight and earshot of the guards. It was probably a combination of the three.
"Wow," Magnus said when we finally did speak, "I guess they really take this seriously."
"Yes, they do," I agreed.
Over the years I've come to a better understanding of that day. I now more fully understand the dedication with which we must honor those who've sacrificed, especially those whose names we do not know.
As I think about those who serve and have served in our country's military, I also find myself considering other unknown soldiers.
The single mom desperately working multiple jobs to provide for her children. The father working second shift in a job he hates because his family is more important than his dreams. The child who puts plans on hold to help care for an aging parent or sibling. The families that foster children taken from their parents. Even those who perform the jobs most of us do not want: those who clean our toilets, empty our trash, and make sure our memos go out on time.
Take a moment with me to honor all those who sacrifice. The unknown soldiers who have decided their lives are worth less than others and give them freely.