A few weeks ago, my wife Andree and I – and of course her guide dog Titan – visited my nephew who has just relocated from Connecticut to North Carolina. We had decided to make our 20 year pilgrimage to Washington D.C. and spent a full day there before pressing on to see David and his wife Corin.
The very first time I had visited the nation’s capital was on November 24, 1963, two days after President John Kennedy had been assassinated. Four of us in Danbury, where I was attending college, had decided to hitch to Washington to attend the funeral and show our respect to a president we all loved.
The years do roll by. The joke between Andree and I was that we would try NOT to make these trips to Washington a habit, a promise easily kept.
On this occasion, our mission was to visit the war memorials: The Second World War, the Korean and the Vietnam wars. All three memorials are clustered near the Lincoln Memorial, which honors the president who presided over the Civil War. We have a special affection for that memorial and had visited the studio of Daniel Chester French many years ago. Mr. French used Lincoln life-masks in creating the face and hands of his seated Lincoln. Of the memorials we visited, only this one was familiar to us.
The World War II memorial captured perfectly the vast scope of a war that left so many bloody footprints on the desolate ground of a shattered Europe. The Korean War memorial, life sized soldiers in ponchos walking warily through the greenery, was shockingly real. And the Vietnam memorial, names etched on a black wall caressingly fingered by passers-by, recalled the silence enshrouding sacrifices that can be redeemed only through a hallowed silence.
Across the Potomac lies Arlington, its stones on our visit, when no sign of a cloud marred the inscrutable blue sky, white as bleached bones, pure as the purest unstained thought, awakening “the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land” and swelling “the chorus of the Union…”
The words, of course, are from Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address. No one has ever improved on Lincoln, who knew he was writing for the ages.
We came home chastened. And on this Memorial Day, once again the sheer immensity of the sacrifices of those “who gave the last full measure of their devotion” fills us with a steely resolve that these honored dead “shall not have died in vain - that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom - and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
To remember is a prayer.