No sooner did my train pull into Penn Station two days ago than I jumped back on the merry-go-round of my New York routine, discovering to my dismay that some prankster had sped it up while I was out of town. I barely had time to pry open my suitcases before I found myself in a cab again, racing downtown to see Neil LaBute’s This Is How It Goes with Galley Cat. On Sunday afternoon I took an actress friend to a matinee of Moonlight and Magnolias, and now I have five more shows and three deadlines gurgling down the pipeline, not to mention a chapter of Hotter Than That: A Life of Louis Armstrong that’s crying out to be finished. I’m not going to blog at all for the rest of the week, so don’t ask me.
Before I vanish into the not-so-distant future, though, I want to record some fugitive impressions of the time I spent playing tourist in the nation’s capital. I go to Washington, D.C., mainly to spend time with friends and look at paintings and plays. It had been twenty years since I’d last seen the sights of the city other than through the window of a cab. For that reason, I thought it might be interesting to accompany my brother on his first visit to Washington, seeing whatever he cared to see. So instead of going to the National Gallery and the Phillips Collection, we rode a Tourmobile to Arlington National Cemetery, the National Air and Space Museum, the National Archives, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History, with brief side trips along the way to the White House, the Washington Monument, and the Lincoln, World War II, Korea, and Vietnam Memorials. We didn’t actually go to the Capitol, but since we were staying in a hotel only a few blocks away from Capitol Hill, we didn’t have to. The great dome was omnipresent, visible from wherever we happened to be at any given moment.
That’s a lot of stuff to cram into two days, and I was in grave need of sleep by the time I boarded the Acela Express on Saturday afternoon. Still, I wouldn’t have willingly passed up a single sight. Like all small-town boys, I’m a gawker at heart, and Washington offers endless opportunities for high-class gawking. Among other things, I saw the Wright Flyer that took to the skies at Kitty Hawk in 1903 and the American flag that flew over Fort McHenry in 1812, the same one that inspired Francis Scott Key to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” I saw a uniform that was worn by George Washington. I saw the stovepipe hat Abraham Lincoln wore to Ford’s Theatre the night he was assassinated–and, a few steps away, the nuclear “football” carried by Bill Clinton’s military aide.
Best of all, I saw the Declaration of Independence (not to mention the portable wooden desk on which Thomas Jefferson drafted it), the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. If the Museum of American History is the national attic, then the rotunda of the National Archives is the reliquary of our civic religion. It’s fun to see little Judy Garland’s ruby-red shoes, but it’s something altogether different to look upon the original founding documents, faded to near-illegibility but still recognizable at a glance. To have beheld these fragile pieces of parchment mere hours after having taken an oath administered by a Supreme Court justice was…well, awesome.
As for Arlington National Cemetery, my brother and I spent a whole morning there, and could easily have spent a whole day if we’d had more time to spare. It’s no place for the flippant–Arlington has a way of making the overheard remarks of ironically inclined visitors sound shameful–but it has much to offer the aesthete, even the soul-deadened kind to whom patriotism is no more than gold-braided bigotry. The simple marble headstones that mark most of the graves are at once ruthlessly functional and timelessly handsome, both individually and en masse, just as the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns is all but balletic in its poised, precise clarity. Next to such pure classicism, the bronze plaque that honors the astronauts who died in the Challenger explosion seems almost sentimental, as much a symbol of its times as the marble tablets are of theirs.
For the most part, though, Arlington is a place of sobering beauty, which is one of the reasons why so few visitors require the reminders provided by the discreet circular signs placed at strategic points along its paths: ARLINGTON NATIONAL CEMETERY. SILENCE AND RESPECT. Of course you hear the occasional idiot twitter of a ringing cell phone, or the shouts of children too young to understand what it means to be surrounded by the corpses of a quarter-million of their fellow Americans. Airplanes are constantly roaring overhead, and the lawnmowers pause for no man, dead or alive. Arlington isn’t exactly quiet, just serious. Some of its permanent residents are well known, including two presidents, eleven Supreme Court justices, and a couple of movie stars (Lee Marvin and Audie Murphy, both of whom fought in World War II, are buried there), but most were and are obscure, while thousands more are, as their headstones explain, known but to God. All served their country in one way or another, and tens of thousands of them died violent deaths while doing so.
Most tourists go out of their way to visit the graves of John and Jackie Kennedy. I did, too, but once I’d paid my respects, I wandered down the hill where the Kennedys lie, looking for a white headstone that says HOLMES. It’s not hard to find, though I doubt that many people seek it out, the name of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., now being known for the most part only to students of American constitutional law. Once upon a time, though, Mr. Justice Holmes was famous enough that Hollywood made a movie about him, a foolish film about a remarkable man. A friend of Henry and William James, Holmes fought for the Union in the Civil War, was wounded in battle three times, became a lawyer and then a judge, was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court by Theodore Roosevelt in 1903, and served as an associate justice for nearly three decades, retiring in 1932 at the age of ninety-one, three years before his death.
An eminent Victorian who lived long enough to read and comment on Proust and Hemingway, Holmes looked upon the world with an ice-cold eye, unconsoled by faith and certain only that “[o]ur business is to commit ourselves to life, to accept at once our functions and our ignorance and to offer our heart to fate.” I’m not sure how great a jurist he was, and there are any number of things about which I disagree with him passionately, but he was beyond doubt the high court’s greatest writer, both of judicial opinions and personal letters (Edmund Wilson wrote an admiring New Yorker essay about his correspondence), and he was by way of being a great man as well.
As a Civil War veteran, Holmes was entitled to burial in Arlington National Cemetery, and when his beloved wife Fanny died in 1929, she was laid to rest there. A month later he wrote to a friend:
I have a lovely spot in Arlington toward the bottom of the hill where the house is, with pine trees, oak, and tulip all about, and where one looks to see a deer trot out (although of course there are no deer). I have ordered a stone of the form conventional for officers which will bear my name, Bvt. Col. And Capt. 20th Mass. Vol. Inf. Civil War–Justice Supreme Court, U.S.–March, 1841–His wife Fanny B. Holmes and the dates. It seemed queer to [be] putting up my own tombstone–but these things are under military direction and I suppose it was necessary to show a soldier’s name to account for my wife.
Six years later he joined her beneath the pine trees, and seventy years after that I stood by their graves, silent and respectful, hearing the words of the psalmist in my mind’s ear: Lord, make me to know mine end, and the measure of my days, what it is: that I may know how frail I am. Somewhere in the middle distance I overheard a young boy saying, “I wanna be buried here!” All at once I recalled something else that Holmes wrote: “I believe that force, mitigated so far as may be by good manners, is the ultima ratio, and between two groups that want to make inconsistent kinds of world I see no remedy except force. I may add what I no doubt have said often enough, that it seems to me that every society rests on the death of men…”
With both quotations uneasily commingled in my head, I boarded the Tourmobile that would return me to the land of the living. For all its myriad beauties, Arlington National Cemetery is not a place where one can comfortably tarry, at least not for very long. The next day I was back in New York, sworn in, worn out, and grateful above all things merely to be alive.
“You look really happy,” Galley Cat told me at dinner that night.
“I am really happy,” I replied.
So I was, and still am. My life is far from perfect, and there are many things about it that I would gladly change, but nobody could hope for a better or more blessed one. May you all have such good fortune, and know it for what it is while it lasts.
See you next week.