I had the good fortune to bring my two eldest daughters to Washington for a long weekend a few years back. They were the perfect ages for an inaugural trip to the nation’s capital, 10 and 12, and they were hopped up and wide-eyed from grammar school civics classes. We went at the exact right time of the year, too, in mid-spring when cherry blossoms still hang from the trees, which made the trip more special still.
We stayed in Virginia at a hotel overlooking Arlington Cemetery. I explained to them, as we peered down at row upon row of gravestones, how the cemetery had once been the property of General Robert E. Lee and his wife, Mary Anna, great-granddaughter of the first first lady Martha Washington — and how its graves were dug into the Lees’ front yard during the Civil War to intern Union dead and infuriate Lee, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia commander.
We at once decided to visit the cemetery on our final day in town, and so we did.
After taking a bus tour of the graves of famous Americans and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, we spent a good hour in the Lee’s old homestead, Arlington House, which is a bit of a wreck these days — but in a good way. Little apparently has been done to it since the family packed up and moved south to Richmond in 1861, which is just what a modern-day visitor should want — authenticity. We spent a solid 10 minutes peering into Lee’s bedroom where he paced the floor for hours while deciding whether to lead the Union Army, as President Abraham Lincoln had requested, or the Confederate Army, as Jefferson Davis wanted. (Early the next morning Lee announced that his first duty was to Virginia, one of the Confederate states.)
We emerged from the house to learn that we were temporarily stranded. Our appointed bus had left. It would be 40 minutes before another would arrive, so we sat on cold stone steps outside Arlington House and found ourselves, once again, peering out at acre upon acre of gravestones.
None of these graves had been a stop on the tour. These were the small, anonymous ones that in some cases probably hadn’t been visited, other than by groundskeepers, in 100 years. Many, presumably, held the remains of young soldiers who had never had children or grandchildren, so there was no one to visit them once their peers passed on. They were the last of bloodlines that had run for thousands of years.
That’s what I was thinking, anyway, while sitting on that stone bench. And, being an overbearing father forever in search of a life lesson to teach, I decided to share my thoughts with my daughters.
“Look out over the fields,” I said to them. “Everywhere — as far as your eye can see — there are graves no one visits anymore, thousands of them. They’re the graves of uncelebrated Americans who gave everything for this country.”
The girls’ eyes followed my pointing. Good, I thought. They get it.
“We have at least 20 more minutes before the bus returns,” I continued, “so I’ll tell you what. Why don’t we visit one of these graves at random — one entirely out of the blue — and remember the name of the soldier buried there for the rest of our lives? We’ll memorize it — his name, where he was from, and when he was born and died. Wherever he is in the universe, I’m sure he will appreciate that.”
This didn’t go over quite as well. We had already walked a lot that day, and I got an if-we-have-to face, but they were graciously willing to comply. So off we went. I had a hop in my step, even if they didn’t. I was feeling good about myself as an American for thinking of this.
We walked for a minute through the stones, and then realizing that neither daughter was going to actually choose one, I pointed a bit yonder and said, “How about that one?”
Single word response in duet: “Fine.”
I took out a pen and a pad of paper as we made our way to the selected grave. “You can research this person when we get back home,” I said encouragingly. “You can be guardians of his memory. Really.”
We got to the grave and looked down at the soldier’s name: Audie Murphy.
*Audie Murphy, who served in World War II, is arguably the most celebrated foot soldier in U.S. history.
William F. B. O’Reilly is a Republican consultant who worked on the Rob Astorino campaign for governor.