I didn’t think 200 teenagers could be so quiet.
Not a peep, not a whisper for 15 minutes. Completely, utterly silent. I stood among them this week and watched what they were watching.
What caused this unexpected display of inner discipline? They stood as if they were soldiers, which, under the circumstances, was highly appropriate. In front of them was a man, who, in truth, was doing very little. He simply walked back and forth, with extraordinary precision, in a straight line. He walked from right to left, then he turned and walked from left to right. That was it. In a world of dazzling and dizzying teen entertainment, you wouldn’t think they’d find the slowly marching man so completely absorbing.
But absorbed they were. In the distance stood the skyline of Washington, D.C. Around them there was only the sound of the birds chattering in the trees, and the slow, rhythmic click, click, click of the boots walking back and forth.
The man was carefully, precisely, marching. He wore a dress uniform that no doubt looked very handsome to the young girls — and to the older ones as well. He carried an M-14 rifle. You got the feeling watching him that things wouldn’t go well for you if you attempted to get in his way.
He walked back and forth in front of a large marble tomb. On the wall of the tomb facing us all were the words:
HERE RESTS IN HONORED GLORY AN AMERICAN SOLDIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier sits on the top of a hill in the Arlington National Cemetery, a mile or so from the Lincoln Memorial. Within the tomb are the remains of an unidentified World War I soldier, who, in his anonymity, represents all who have died in service to their country. Many of us have ancestors who similarly died. Our memories of them remain sharp for a generation or two, but over time necessarily fade.
But the memory of the Unknown Soldier never fades. He is rediscovered in each generation, by each young person watching the dramatic ceremony that plays out every day in every weather. His very anonymity causes us to fill in our own stories to make the grand but stark tomb in front of us relevant in our own lives.
In this way, the tomb honors your specific ancestor who died during one of the world wars, or in Korea, or Vietnam, or in the Middle East.
Or perhaps they died later. As I looked at the tomb, I saw in it a worthy memorial for my older brother who spent time in Vietnam handling Agent Orange behind the scenes for the pilots who later rained literal fire from the skies on enemy villages. He died 15 years after coming home from a brain cancer completely inappropriate for someone so young, especially in a family with no cancer history.
Not all who give their lives in service to their country die while in uniform.
Spread out in ever-widening circles around the Tomb are a sea of smaller grave markers. When you’re walking up the hill to the tomb, it’s impossible for your abstract ideas about the true cost of freedom not to find final understanding of what’s actually at stake in our great American experiment.
Every day, and every night, rain, snow or shine, the tomb is guarded by a precisely marching soldier. The guard changes regularly, and the ceremony involved when it happens is rich in meaning and symbolism — too much to mention here.
Nevertheless, the profound respect I saw exhibited by each and every one of these young people, and each and every one of those who brought them, as they stood in the presence of the greatness of honor, and the cost it extracts from us as a nation, and as individuals, gave me more hope for the future than I’ve felt in months.
I walked down the hill, wading through the sea of graves, back into the blaring, unfocused world. I found myself struggling to maintain the clarity of my vision on the hill, so beautifully orchestrated by silence, a few birds and a slow, tender, mournful bugle.
Chris Huston lives in southern Idaho and has enjoyed a 30-year career in journalism. Connect with Chris at www.chrishuston-modernlife.com.