Arlington National Cemetery

This Spring Break, my in-laws flew over from England and rented a house in Vienna, Virginia.  We, therefore, travelled down to spend a few days with them in Northern Virginia.

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As you know, I love to visit cemeteries.  I had not been to Arlington National Cemetery since the summer of 1995 and, as such, my kids had never been.  I, therefore, decided that we should go visit Arlington National Cemetery given its significance.  I drew up a list of 40 graves that I thought we should aim to visit, 20 of which were prioritized, and I plotted them on a map according to the section and grave numbers.  Some of these were family graves but most were the final resting places of people of historic significance.  Despite all of my preparation work, however, my missions were largely not to be accomplished.  Mostly this was simply because of the vast scale of Arlington Cemetery.  It was created on land that had been the estate of Robert E Lee’s wife and covers over 600 acres.  There was simply no way we could ever hope to cover every section of the cemetery.  I, therefore, culled from my list any of the graves that were not plotted in the centre of the map.  The other factor that complicated my search for individual graves was the peculiar numbering system.  Sometimes it was easy to follow because the numbers were in clear consecutive order but, in other sections, the numbering system was erratic with graves in the 4000s being sited adjacent to graves in the 8000s and the 3000s nowhere to be found.  There absolutely has to be some logic to it but the puzzle confounded and defied me.  As such, we did not find a single one of the graves of Mr Pict’s family members, not even the one who is famous enough to have a Wikipedia entry.  Oddly enough, however, we did find the only one of my family members who is interred in the cemetery, Elizabeth Brown Levy, nee Stout.

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Arlington contains only two equestrian memorial statues and we happened to visit both of them.  One of them is for Field Marshall Sir John Dill, who was the first non-American to be buried in the cemetery.  The other is for Philip Kearny, a Major General killed during the Civil War.

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On the subject of the Civil War, of course we had to visit a number of the graves of prominent Civil War Generals because that is where the Venn diagram of my love of cemeteries intersects with Mr Pict’s interest in the Civil War.  These included George Crook, John Gibbon, William Starke Rosencrans.  We had hoped to locate Frederick William Benteen, since we had visited the Little Bighorn last summer, but we were unsuccessful.  My 9 year old, however, did find the grave of Dan Sickles.  He served in the Civil War, was a Member of Congress, and a Diplomat, but what the kids and I know him for is his murder of Philip Barton Key and his successful use of the temporary insanity plea, its first use in American judicial history.  We had visited the grave of his victim in Baltimore in 2017.  We also stopped by the grave of John Lincoln Clem, a drummer boy in the Union Army who holds the record as the youngest noncommissioned army officer in US history.  I asked my kids to imagine what it must have been like to experience war as a 10 year old, though I don’t think it is possible to really grasp it.

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We took the kids to pay their respects at the Tomb of the Unknowns.  We felt it was extremely important that the boys visit that site to appreciate the sacrifice these unidentified people represent, the symbolism, the poignancy, the tragedy of it all.

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We also visited the grave of Thurgood Marshall, Civil Rights lawyer and Supreme Court Justice.  I had hoped to make it to Medgar Evers’ but I was thwarted.  We also saw the grave of John Glenn, Senator and astronaut – the first American to orbit the earth and the oldest person to fly in space.  The connection for the kids was having been to Grand Turk in December since that was where John Glenn arrived back on earth following his orbit in 1962.  As someone who has an interest in pandemics and the history of disease, I was pleased to find the grave of Albert Sabin, the medical pioneer who developed the oral polio vaccine.  We also visited the oldest grave in the cemetery, that of Mary Randolph who died in 1828 and was buried long before Arlington was established as a National Cemetery.

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For most of our time in the Cemetery – with the noted exception of the Tomb of the Unknowns – we barely encountered other people.  Such a massive space can, of course, absorb masses of people.  The area that was most crowded, much more so even than the Tomb of the Unknowns, was the grave of President John F Kennedy.  It was packed with people and I had the distinct impression that many people clamber off of tour buses just to come see this grave site and then they return to their buses and move on.  Kennedy, however, is not the only President buried in Arlington: the last grave we searched for was that of President William Howard Taft.  Somewhat surprisingly, his memorial obelisk was more challenging to locate than one would imagine.  I persevered, however, because I have decided that one of my side travel missions will be to see the presidential graves.  The kids, however, were beyond flagging by this stage (my father-in-laws fitbit informed us we had walked 11,000 steps) so they were doner-than-done with our explorations of Arlington National Cemetery and ready to go back to the rental house to soak in the hot tub and not remotely receptive to the notion of visiting a whole load more presidential graves.

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Road Trip #3 – Cuyahoga National Park & Lake View Cemetery

Having started off the second day of our road trip in Evans City Cemetery, we began the afternoon by crossing the border from Pennsylvania into Ohio.  Ohio was not only the second state of our travels but was also my 26th state visited.  As I am sure I have shared before, I have a rule for claiming states in that I have to do two of three things in that state in order to be able to “bag” it: pee, eat, sleep.  I have been stuck on 25 states – the halfway mark – since 2002 since every state I have visited since then was one I had already claimed.  I had, however, never been to Ohio before so I was pleased to snag a new state and shift off the halfway mark on just the second day of our road trip.

First stop was Cuyahoga National Park, which is Ohio’s only National Park.  We stopped in at the Boston Store to get our National Parks passport stamped.  Now the park’s visitor centre, it was once a store (as in warehouse rather than shop) with boarding rooms for workers and dates from the 1830s.

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The park is essentially a large recreation area with a focus on the history of the Ohio and Erie Canal, which runs through the land.  We, therefore, popped over but not into the Canal Exploration Center which sits on the bank of the canal at a point where there is a lock.  My oldest son and I went to have a brief wander while the other three continued filming their zombie movie under the supervision of Mr Pict.  In addition to us having lived beside the Crinan Canal for over ten years, my in-laws owned a canal boat for a decade, so there was really nothing new or diverting to see at least with that particular stretch of canal.  To be honest I was much more engaged in watching the insect life in the adjacent meadows, including some glorious dragonflies.

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We did not malinger very long in Cuyahoga National Park because we had plans for Cleveland.  Alas, so did the Republican Party since, of course, the Republican National Committee was being held in Cleveland that very week.  Our plans were, therefore, thwarted since the entire city centre was on lockdown for security reasons.  I, however, was able to quickly come up with an alternative plan – another cemetery.  We began the day with one cemetery so why not bookend with another?

The cemetery in question was Lake View Cemetery, an absolutely massive cemetery dating from the 1860s and containing over a hundred thousand graves.  With a site that vast, we had to give our visit some focus so we decided to concentrate on searching for some “celebrity internments”.   Mr Pict and I noted that this cemetery was much busier, seemingly much more popular, than any other cemetery we have visited in the past – and we have visited loads.  Then we observed that almost all of the other visitors were staring at their phone screens.  The penny dropped: people were playing Pokemon Go and were searching for animated characters throughout the cemetery grounds.  Funny.  It made it quite a different experience than our usual explorations in cemeteries.

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Most prominent among these was President James Garfield.  I am pretty sure Garfield is not one of the first names anyone thinks of when asked to name a US president.  However, because he likes to be obscure, my 10 year old had elected to present a research paper on Garfield when studying presidents in second grade.  He, therefore, was pretty chuffed to be getting to visit Garfield.  Garfield is, in fact, probably most notable precisely because of his death, having been assassinated.  He died, after suffering for several weeks, just 200 days into his presidency.  He was also notable for being an authentic “log cabin president” having had a very humble start in life.  The monument is an imposing building not too far into the cemetery.  A rotunda just inside the door contains a statue of the president.  We then descended into the crypt where we viewed the coffins of the president and his wife, Lucretia.  We then ascended a spiral staircase to an exterior balcony that afforded us wonderful views over the cemetery and to the skyscrapers of Cleveland’s city centre.

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A mere hop, skip and a jump away, we found the obelisk marking the grave of billionaire oil tycoon John D Rockefeller and, on the way to it, I passed the grave of a man who had been born in Inverness, a fellow Scot.  We also saw the graves of Eliot Ness – and someone had plonked a bottle of beer beside it – and graphic novelist Harvey Pekar which was studded with pens.  Having just finished reading Bill Bryson’s book about the summer of 1927, I was eager to find the graves of railrood tycoon brothers Oris and Mantis Van Sweringen and US Ambassador to France Myron Herrick (fantastic names all).  I was also very keen to locate the grave of Charles Chesnutt, one of my favourite American authors, but between the sweltering heat and the tired children, I had to abandon my quest.

A favourite grave, however, was that of an individual named Haserot (who a bit of googling tells me was a big deal in canned foods).  The grave is marked by an arresting sculpture of an angel with spread wings, hands resting on an upside down torch to symbolise a life that has been extinguished.  The sculpture is quite spectacular enough but what adds to its charm is that the bronze has discoloured so much over time that the angel appears to be weeping black tears.  It really is very striking.  It was also a great way to end our explorations of the cemetery.

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Our rest for the night was in a motel in a town in Cleveland’s orbit.  Booking non-chain accommodation can always be a bit of a lottery.  As we pulled up and noticed that this was one of those motels where the room doors open up onto the road, the kids started muttering about being terrorised and murdered in their sleep despite having never seen Psycho or any other slasher movie.  We parents were more concerned about the fact it was right on top of a building site and the car park was strewn with loads of beat up vans and utility vehicles.  Our rooms – we needed two – were very basic, spartan even, but were clean and tidy and the beds were adequately comfy.  Asbolutely no frills but that reflected the budget price.  The kids, however, did enjoy the outdoor pool and the fact that the motel was next door to a 7-11.  Despite having lived in America for almost three years, this was the first time they had ever been to a 7-11.  They each picked a gigantic slurpee.  I guess that was another American cultural institution checked off the list.

Montgomery Cemetery

Having gone to the beach on Friday – very much not my cup of tea – on Monday we decided to go and explore a cemetery – graveyards being very much my cup of tea.  Since Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd, we elected for Montgomery Cemetery in Norristown since it contains a few graves of notable Civil War soldiers.

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Dating from 1848, the Cemetery covers a fair amount of land and was enjoyable to amble around with clear paths carved out in the long grass even when there were no surfaced tracks to follow.  It was nowhere near the scale of the sprawling urban cemeteries we have visited in the past, however, so the idea of finding particular graves without a site map was not a ridiculous notion.

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In no time at all, we found the grave of the wonderfully named Samuel Kosciuszko Zook.  He had changed his middle name from Kurtz at some point because clearly Zook was not a conspicuous enough name without that more exotic middle name.  A professional military man before the outbreak of the Civil War, he was present at several notable battles.  It was at Gettysburg, however, that he met his end.  He was shot by rifle fire as he advanced his troops towards the Wheatfield.  He died of his wounds the next day aged just 42.

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The most notable Civil War General buried in the cemetery, however, was Winfield Scott Hancock.  He has a tomb tucked in a corner of the cemetery.  Another career soldier, Hancock was a veteran of both the Mexican-American War and the Civil War.  He is most celebrated for his leadership during the Battle of Gettysburg where he made controversial decisions that ultimately assured Union victory.  Immediately after the war, Hancock was tasked with supervising the executions of the conspirators in Lincoln’s assassination.  Later he ran for President but lost out to James Garfield.  Hancock died at the age of 61 of an infected carbuncle, a pretty mundane way to die after a fairly dramatic life.

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We also found the grave of John Hartranft, which is marked by a towering obelisk.  Another Civil War general, he was a Medal of Honor recipient for his part in the First Battle of Bull Run.  Coincidentally, it was Hartranft who had led the Lincoln conspirators to the gallows and read them their last rites.  In the 1870s, he served two terms as Pennsylvania’s Governor, overseeing a period of economic instability and related civil disobedience in the state.  He died of kidney disease aged just 58.

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Wandering around graveyards and cemeteries is something that I enjoy and history – especially the Civil War – is something that Mr Pict enjoys so we were very happy with the choice of excursion for the day.  Our children, not so much.  It is, therefore, necessary to find ways to engage them in the activity of strolling around a cemetery. The easiest way I have found to do so is to set them a couple of competitive challenges: who can find the earliest burial or oldest extant grave marker and who can find the person who died at the oldest age.  The earliest grave marker we found was for someone who died in 1855, though obviously there must have been earlier burials than that.  The oldest person, however, turned out to be a good contest.  We had an early contender at the Zook plot with a woman who was born in 1802 and died in 1902.  We then found several more centenarians.  The winner, however, turned out to be someone who died at the grand age of 104, having been a child when the first aeroplane flew and lived long enough to witness the internet age.

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These challenges still did not engage my ten year old, however.  He stubbornly clung to boredom and was very vocal about his resentment at being dragged around a cemetery.  He even threw in a side moan about wearing a black t-shirt on a hot day – despite the fact he had chosen to wear said t-shirt.  Nothing could persuade him to drop the griping and attitude and just find something of interest.  He was our own little thunderclap.  Then we happened upon a miracle that raised his spirits and led him to rally: I found a turtle.  The turtle was just wandering among the graves, presumably basking in the sunshine to warm up before heading back to the water for the evening.  He was a pretty sturdy fellow so we felt confident in picking him up to inspect him closer and briefly grab a few photos of our close encounter before setting him back down where we found him and letting him go on his way. The kids were thrilled.  My 9 year old wanted to adopt him and name him Porky.   I later identified him (or her because I didn’t take time to ascertain gender) as a Midland Painted Turtle.  And that is how a turtle saved the day.

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