Wednesday, April 28, 2010
A Walk With a Friend (a short story that I penned)
It was an overcast April day. The rains had not quite made their promised arrival and the clouds were hanging low in seeming anticipation of some silent signal to be given for them to bring forth their showers, but the signal had not yet come. Not yet at least.
I was in Washington on a layover from a business trip before flying home to Charlotte. I had a few hours to kill before my flight home, so I decided to take a taxi over to Arlington where I have always enjoyed just walking the grounds and contemplating the awe and reverence of such a holy place when I was in town and had a little extra time. What better place to spend a few peaceful hours in personal reflection, than by walking through the fields of stone and the time honored memorials to those who have given and sacrificed so much for this nation. I took a taxi from my hotel to the airport and placed my single carry on in a locker, before getting my boarding pass and checking my watch. I had five hours before my flight left and my mind wandered to thoughts of what might have changed since my last visit to Arlington as I flagged another taxi.
I knew that I would recognize the familiarity of having walked those hills on a number of occasions over the years, but many had been included on Arlington’s eternal roster since I had last walked among the fallen heroes resting there, so I was sure that I would encounter more than a few new stones.
There are always certain places that I must revisit and reconnect with each time I come to Arlington. Certain tombstones that hold memories of past visits and particular views of the rolling landscape from certain locations in the cemetery. The Lord has certainly made for many spectacular images in nature, but man in his humble endeavors, has never quite equaled or surpassed the peace and serene nature that is impressed upon the soul, once you set foot on this hallowed ground.
The driver brought me to the gate and told me that he would probably be back in a few hours if I needed a ride back to the airport. As I paid my fare he thanked me and handed me one of his business cards and said…‘or you can just call this number and if I ain’t on call, I’ll be glad to come back by and get you.’ I assured him that I would and strode away through the gates and up the first long drive toward the Custis-Lee hill.
I always tend to follow the terrain and make my way around in a clockwise fashion, ultimately arriving at the top of the Custis-Lee hill to rest and ponder all that lay before me. As I stood before the great house that had once belonged to Robert E. Lee and his wife, my thoughts again began to wander. As always I will go by the amphitheater and the Tomb of the Unknowns and I will always stop and pay my respects at the marker of Audi Murphy and the tribute markers to our fallen astronauts, but it is the approach to that hill and what rests on it and the view looking out over the Potomac that I have always found the most personally moving.
As I walked slowly up the drive toward the house, I glanced over into the area known once as Mrs. Lee’s rose garden. It is here where there lay buried 2,111 souls known only but to God. The original tomb of the unknowns. Men whose bodies were brought here from numerous battlefields around Washington and Virginia during the Civil war. No one knew who they were at the time, only that they died together in their struggle and that their names were lost to the time and decay of that moment in time when brother fought against brother. Now they all rest as brothers together, united for eternity in common ground and on top of one of the most beautiful hills imaginable. And underneath a magnificent granite and stone monument.
It was here that I first saw the man who seemed to be both watching over the grounds and at the same time watching me with a certain interest and curiosity as I approached. As I made my way around the old stone memorializing those 2,111 honored dead and as I stood re-reading the inscription, the old man approached and greeted me with a kindly ‘good afternoon sir, how are you?’ I returned the greeting and we both seemed to just stand there staring at the stone before us in silence for a while.
When the old man next spoke he sort of mumbled, but with a clear sounding sort of rumbling voice. A voice that spoke of age and experience. He said…‘you know, there is a bunch of boys buried beneath that there monument. North and South and all together now and have been for pert near a hunerd and fort five years.’ I remarked that I was familiar with some of the history of the memorial and that I had visited the cemetery and this monument before. The man went on to note that he had visited it often too and that he had seen more than a few folks that looked familiar through the years passing through and stopping by to pay their respects time and again.
On that, I turned to see the old man full on, as his remark had piqued my interest. As I looked at him I found nothing either extraordinary or out of the ordinary about his appearance. He was dressed in clothes that were tailored more for gardening than anything else, but they were neat and crisp and the man presented a well kept appearance. His clothes were not soiled or indicating that they had seen either extensive service or wear, but there was the definite impression that the man was either a gardener or had something to do with grounds keeping. His shirt was a button down forest green and he wore khaki trousers and plain leather shoes, with a weathered old cap. I looked for either an insignia or an emblem on his shirt or cap and seeing none I asked….‘do you work for the park service?’ To wit the old man simply smiled and said no, he didn’t work for anyone not for a while at least. He said he just spent his days now as he could in the cemetery and conversing with folks as he found them.
I asked him if he was a veteran and he kind of tilted his cap and nodded briefly before stating ‘yep, I once was in the service, but that was a long time ago.’ As we talked we began to slowly walk around the grounds and the old man would periodically stop and point in a direction and note something of importance or significance. At one point he stopped and nodded off down one of the slopes to an area under the trees and said, ‘you know who is buried down there?’ I said no….that I did not know, but asked…‘who was it?’
The old man said ‘thars where General Montgomery Cunningham Meigs himself rests.’ As soon as he said it, I recognized the last name, but before I could say anything the old man went on to explain that General Meigs was the man most responsible for establishing what would come to be known as Arlington National cemetery. I was familiar with the history of the cemetery and General Meigs, but I delighted in listening to this old fellow rattle on with his recounting the tale as if he had told it a million times. And there was something about his telling of it that made the story mesmerizing and entertaining. Then just as abruptly as he had begun, the story ended and we were quietly walking again.
I suddenly felt completely awkward and at odds with myself. Here I had spent the better part of the last thirty minutes with this old gentleman and I had not even taken the time to introduce myself. I stopped immediately and apologized to my new acquaintance and offered my hand in introduction and my sincerest apologies for not having introduced myself sooner.
The old man just looked and nodded and smiled. He took my hand and we shook and I introduced myself and he said, my name is ‘ William’ ….”William Christman’….folks around here call me Billy. So we shook and Billy and I began walking the grounds again. Soon we were back at the front of the Custis Lee home and I remarked that they sure knew what they were doing when they chose this piece of ground for their home, as it commanded the best view of Washington and still did all these decades later. I remarked that I had read where General Lee’s son had sued the government in the late 1800’s and the Supreme Court had ruled in his favor. Stating that the government had wrongfully taken the land during the war. They returned ownership to him, but he ultimately sold it back to the government for a sum of $150,000
The old man nodded in agreement and said ‘yep, you are right on them counts.’ but he quickly added, ‘you know they don’t call it the Custis Lee house no more, ceptin when you go on them tours. They call it the Arlington House now and have for as far back as most folks can remember.’
We traveled on and my friend pointed out the graves of the Kennedy’s and the most recent addition to their family plot. Then we walked on around to the area where Joe Louis “The Brown Bomber” was buried and Billy gave me the complete history of every distinguished person and quite a few lesser known souls who are buried there and as far as the eye could see from there. He was a literal walking library of facts and knowledge of the place and the history and the people buried there.
Before I realized it, hours had passed and as I looked at my watch I realized that I only had a little over an hour to get to the airport and catch my flight. I told Billy that I had really enjoyed our walk and the encyclopedic knowledge that he seemed to possess about every aspect of the cemetery and all it’s monuments and memorials and history. Billy just smiled and said, ‘well the next time you are in town, come back by and look me up. I am here most days and I will be happy to walk with you again anytime and tell you all you want to know about Arlington.’
I thanked him and gave him one of my business cards with my cell phone numbers and email on it and told him that when he had time, he could maybe drop me an email or give me a call, as I had thoroughly enjoyed just talking with him today and would enjoy corresponding with him. Billy just smiled and then he laughed a little. He said ‘shucks mister….I never have gotten around to learning any of them new fangled things. I just keep it all up here’ and he pointed to his hat. I said well you’ve got a phone don’t you? He said, ‘nope…never had a need for one and I suppose they wouldn’t want me using one anyway. They get upset every now and then if I spend too long talking to strangers as it is.’
I was running late and needed to catch a cab and get to the airport within the hour, but something Billy had just said stuck in my head and so I asked. I said Billy, you said you are around here most days? And that I could maybe catch you on my next trip? I then asked him ‘are you retired?’ Old Billy just smiled and tilted his cap back and said ‘yes sir, I been retired so to speak for quite some time. You could call it a war injury what ended my occupation and put me here as I am now.
I said, well does the government or the Park Service pay you to come up here everyday? I mean there must be some form of compensation that you get and with your extensive memory and instant recollection of all those facts and people? You are literally a treasure. A treasure that someone should be paying for.
Billy stopped me and thanked me for the compliments, but he said that no one paid him and no one had asked him to do what he did every day. He just felt that it was his duty. He told me….’you asked me a while back if I wus a veteran?’ Well yes sir that I once wus, but not for a long while now. ‘But as such I have a special affection for this place and these hills and all those that is buried here. They are like my kin, my brothers and sisters if you like. I know them all.
And there it was again…just when I felt like I was understanding this old man, he would up and say something that would completely bewilder me. I said ‘Billy, I know that you know a lot about this place and those that are buried here, but know them all? How could that be. Billy turned and looked away and for more than a few moments he said nothing. It was as if time stopped. The wind ceased to be and there was silence where moments before there were sounds of birds and the noise of the city across the river.
When Billy turned to look at me again, he had tears in his eyes. He said ‘mister, I know them all cause I have been here since the first ones were brought here. I was here when General Meigs brought them first 2,111 up there on that hill and no one but me knew who they were and I have been here ever since. I wus here when those that survived the battles of the Spanish war and those that followed in the big war that came to rest here. I wus here when those that fought across Europe and the Pacific came home and came to rest here. And I wus here when them boys that went to Korea and now them from Vietnam came home and are now coming home to rest here. And sadly, I will be here each day as them that have died and will ultimately pass from these wars in the middle east will come to rest here too.
‘You see sir…it’s my duty. I wus the first. So the father looked upon me to be the one to get the rest of em settled in. It’s kinda like my special charge. It ain’t been so bad. When I arrived there weren’t no one here to show me around. Of course there weren’t much of anything here back then but pretty ground and cool breezes. But they have seen to it that I have plenty of company and all these markers to look after each day. These folks here are all my friends now. I have been here for everyone of em when they arrived. And there’s more like me now, those who have been given charge to meet and greet the new comers and help me with getting em situated and such.. Call em my helpers if you like, but they are here like me everyday just the same. Every day as the sun comes up and goes down, there are those here standing guard and waiting, along with those real Army soldiers up there on that hill at that tomb. We kinda look after them up there too.
And with that my friend Billy was transfigured before my eyes. From the old man that I had known for the past several hours, into the young man that he had once been. His green and khaki cotton clothes slowly changed into blue cotton and blue wool and his cap became a blue kepi of the 67th Pennsylvania Infantry. The old man Billy slowly changed before my eyes and became, private William Christman, the first soul ever interred at Arlington and the keeper of the roll there ever since.
And suddenly I knew why this place was so special to Billy, he had been given the sacred charge long ago to insure that all who entered these hallowed grounds, were met and greeted and formally acknowledged for their service to this nation. And as this knowledge seemed to just enter my head without any further words passing between us, it also dawned on me that there had been a purpose behind my meeting this day with Billy.
That purpose was as he revealed it to me, to let me know that one day I too would be reporting for duty here with the rest. That Arlington would one day be my home. So Billy wanted to make sure that I was squared away and up to speed on everything as much as possible before my arrival. But with that simple smile and that now familiar nod he told me, ‘ but it won’t be for quite a while now, so don‘t fret none.’
As I stood pondering what had just occurred, Billy with that now boyish smile of his, once again nodded his head and lifted his cap as if to say ‘see you later my friend, time for me to go.’ And as mysteriously as he had appeared he was suddenly gone. Simply vanished before my eyes into the nothingness of space. As I hurried toward the main gate I saw my taxi had returned and the driver was motioning for me to hurry, alternating between pointing at his watch and pointing at the sky. As I ran toward him and looked up, I saw that those April clouds were about to finally give up their bounty of water and once again drench the grounds of one of America’s most beautiful places.
I jumped in the back of seat of the cab just as the rains arrived. As we sped away toward the airport I turned to look back toward the Custis Lee house and I saw a lone silhouette standing on the hill, as if waiting to greet the next arrival. The driver asked me,,,,’what’d you see back there mister?’ I said nothing…just an old friend.
Author Prime at 5:32 PM