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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Civil War Virginia

Our children had gone to Virginia to spend Spring break with their grandparents, who had flown over from England. On the Tuesday, Mr Pict and I were able to travel south to join them.  As regular readers of this blog will know, my husband is a Civil War nerd.  He was, therefore, relishing the prospect of spending some time mooching around Civil War sites in Virginia, though he agreed to restrict himself to the Peninsula Campaign of 1862 for this trip.  On our journey south, needing a comfort break, he selected the National Park visitor centre at the Tredegar Iron Works.  While I availed myself of the restroom, Mr Pict undertook a warp speed visit of the visitor centre and determined that we should return some time with the kids.  It was largely determined that Richmond should serve as the capital of the Confederacy because of these iron works so it is a significant site.  I did like that the visitor centre was housed within such a historic building.

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The next morning, with the four boys and my in-laws in tow, Mr Pict took us on a tour of Civil War sites.  We started at Yorktown.  Yorktown is more strongly associated with the War of Independence and so it proved to be at the National Park.  The focus was very much on Revolutionary history with just a slight nod to its place in the Civil War.  At the risk of muddying the waters of the boys’ learning for the day, we subjected them to the film about the history of Yorktown.  I write “subjected” because it had not been updated since probably the 1980s and the quality of performances and production values were pretty tragic.  I am not sure, therefore, that the boys engaged much with the film but hopefully some learning stuck and they at least took away from it that it was the place where Cornwallis surrendered.  They did, however, enjoy the various canons outside the visitor centre.  There was to be a lot of clambering on canons that day.

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Our next stop was the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond.  As regular readers will know, I absolutely love cemeteries.  While I personally enjoy just wandering around and appreciating the memorial architecture and funerary sculpture, it is always useful to have some famous burials to search out and provide focus to the wanderings.  Turning a cemetery visit into a “treasure hunt” also helps engage the kids.  The reason for our visit was because the cemetery, while a public cemetery rather than a military one, is chock full of confederate graves.  It, therefore, formed part of Mr Pict’s Civil War tour.  We started with a massive granite pyramid erected to commemorate the confederate dead.  It was in an area where the confederate dead of Gettysburg had been interred following their recovery from the Pennsylvania battlefield.  Can you imagine the grim task of locating all of the remains on the battlefield and preparing them for transportation to Virginia?  Nearby was the grave of George Pickett, he of Pickett’s Charge.  We also saw the grave of JEB Stuart.

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I have no political, ideological difficulty with the commemoration of the confederate dead within the context of a cemetery.  The confines of a cemetery’s walls makes it about the living processing the grief of lost loved ones.  I can think that these are people who chose to fight on the wrong side of history, who were fighting to uphold an appallingly horrific system, who may even, particularly in the case of the military leaders, have been loathome, morally bankrupt individuals.  But I can square that against them being someone’s father, someone’s son, someone’s brother, and therefore deserving of being buried with dignity and not left on a battlefield to moulder.  What I have real difficulty with is when commemoration moves into the realm of celebration.  That is why I support the removal of confederate statues from public spaces.  Again, while tricky in the context of a cemetery, there was definitely something that troubled me about the grave of Jefferson Davis.  The fact that some workers were placing new cobbles around Davis’ statue, in order to make the whole area look polished and smart, seemed to me to underscore the fact that this was a site that was being venerated.  Then there were all the flags.  Those flags always make me feel uncomfortable.  This was not simply a place where family members could come and pay their respects to a departed love one, gather their thoughts about their experience of loss; this was a space that was bigger than that and was imbued with more political meaning than that.  It was weird.  Just weird.

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Hollywood is also the final resting place of two American Presidents.  They are buried within the same attractive circle in an area of the cemetery that is elevated and provides a striking view over the river.  James Monroe, fifth President, had a very unusual tomb, an elaborate and fancy cast iron structure, reminiscent of a gothic church, surrounding his granite coffin.  I read that it was known as the “birdcage” which is entirely apt.  Just a hop, skip, and a jump from Monroe’s grave was the monument to John Tyler, tenth President.  Tyler famously became President when William Henry Harrison died just one month into his presidency.  He also has two grandsons still living.  Imagine having a grandfather who was born in 1790?  His grave was marked by an obelisk with a bust built into its front facade.

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After Hollywood Cemetery, Mr Pict took us to visit battlefield after battlefield.  The first was Gaines Mill and it was only slightly more interesting than the sites that followed because of the presence of a house.  Mr Pict and his father were very interested in a creek that ran through some woods that flanked the fields and went off for a wander there but to my mind the site was pretty featureless except for that house.  I read that the house was home to an elderly widow whose slaves carried her out of the house on the day of the battle.  She was never able to return home because the house was all but destroyed during the conflict.  I think the next stop was named Glendale Crossroad or Frayer’s Farm but I didn’t even bother to get out of the car for that stop and cannot remember what my husband told me about it.  As far as I was concerned, it was literally a crossroad and there was nothing to see.  The last stop was at a spot named Malvern Mill.  Mr Pict was very keen on this spot and explained why but I did not absorb the information.  To me, these were literally just fields filled with scrub or the stubble of old crops.  The only thing that indicated it was a place of historic significance was the presence of canons lining the field.  The boys enjoyed clambering on the canon and seeing a whole car lot filled with fire trucks as firefighters were running a controlled fire nearby.

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I would like to claim that I learned something new or interesting about the Civil War that day but honestly I did not.  I am none the wiser about the Peninsula Campaign than I was before because I just could not absorb the information my husband was sharing with us.  My brain just is not that keen on military history, what can I say.  Still, the cemetery was attractive and Mr Pict was very happy so it was a day well spent.

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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.

Ink Lincoln

This week’s Documented Life Project challenge was to use inks and the phrase was “before the ink was dry”.  I love working with ink, it’s my preferred medium, so I was happy with the prompt.  The trouble was deciding what to do with it.

In the end I decided to draw a portrait so that I could experience the personal challenge of improving my ability to draw faces.  I settled on a portrait of Abraham Lincoln because this month was the 150th anniversary of the end of the American Civil War and of Lincoln’s assassination.  I chose to base my drawing on Alexander Gardner’s 1865 portrait of the President, when he looks careworn, weathered and exhausted, sinking under the weight of the War that defined his presidency.  My drawing makes him look more alert and assured than the photograph but I think I captured Lincoln’s features.  I enjoyed drawing it because the proportions of Lincoln’s face are so interesting.

Week 18 - Ink

I drew the portrait onto watercolour paper and I have not yet decided how to incorporate it into my art journal, whether to simply fix it in or whether to create some sort of background or border.  I will have to ponder that a little more.