As I sit down to write this column it is November 20 and I am reminded that two days from now marks the 50th Anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination. That for me is one of those things that are imbedded in your brain forever, the American tragedy by which all others are measured. I can tell you exactly where I was when the announcement came over the loudspeaker (school lunchroom), what I had for lunch (chili) and what I as wearing (navy skirt with white sweater). The only other things that are even closely burned into my brain to that detail are the Challenger explosion, and 9-11.
I was lucky enough to have visited Kennedy's grave at Arlington Cemetery, which is also one of those signs a person will always remember.
Arlington National Cemetery sits directly across the Potomac River from the Lincoln Memorial. It's the large military cemetery containing the casualties and deceased veterans of our nation's conflicts, beginning with the Civil War. It was established curing the Civil War on the grounds of Arlington House, which had been the estate of Robert E. Lee's wife Mary.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, most military personnel who died in battle near Washington D.C. were buried at the United States Soldiers cemetery in Washington or the Alexandria cemetery in Alexandria, Virginia, but by 1863, both were nearly full. In May 1864, Union forces suffered large numbers of casualties in the Battle of the Wilderness, and the search for land for a new cemetery began, and settled on Arlington. The property was high and free from floods, and was aesthetically pleasing and offered a view of the District of Columbia.
The first military burial at Arlington was a soldier named William Henry Christman, who was buried on May 13, 1864.
There have been numerous expansions of the cemetery due to the increasing addition of graves. The cemetery is currently divided into 70 sections, with Section 60 reserved for military personnel killed in the Global War on Terror since 2001.
More than 3,800 former slaves are buried in section 27. Their headstones are designated with the word Civilian or Citizen. The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stands on top of a hill overlooking Washington D.C. This is one of the most well attended sites of Arlington. It is perpetually guarded and there is a meticulous routine which the guard must follow when watching over the grave: 1. Marches 21 steps down the black mat behind the Tomb. 2. Turns, faces east for 21 seconds. 3. Turns and faces north for 21 seconds. 4. Takes 21 steps down the mat. 5. Repeats the routine until the soldier is relieved of duty at the changing of the guard. After each turn the Guard executes a sharp shoulder-arms movement to place the weapon on the shoulder closes to the visitors to signify that the guard stands between the tomb and any possible threat. The guard is changed every half hour during daylight in summer, and every hour during daylight in winter, and every two hours at night, regardless of weather.
Some other memorials at Arlington include the U.S.S. Maine memorial, the space shuttle Challenger memorial, and the Lockerbie Cairn memorial of the PanAm Flight 103 over Lockerbie Scotland, and of course the Eternal Flame of John F. Kennedy's grave.