I knew visiting the Arlington National Cemetery would cause some emotions to surface. I hadn't even planned on visiting the place. But with a friend by my side, I wanted to be accomodating to his interests as well. After all, we were in the nation's capital. It was my home as a child. It was Merrman Smith's, my father's home, as Dean of the White House Press Corps for U.P.I. (United Press International). It was my mother's home too. But now, both my mother and father's home was the Arlington National Cemetery.
Driving up to the main entrance, I noticed the throngs of people walking toward the entrance and alongside the roads winding through the cemetery itself. It had changed since the last time I had visited, almost 30 years ago, to attend my mother's funeral. Instead of a guard house and a soldier waiting to assist you, it was more like an everyday tourist attraction.
I was ushered in, like everyone else to park my car in a paid parking lot and make my way to the "visitor's center" for more information. I was upset the moment the man directing traffic kept pointing that I turn in and park my car in a paid parking lot. Had he lost his mind? Was our country in such a state that I would have to pay to visit my parents?
I knew my friend felt my anger and it caused him stress. But I couldn't have been more upset at the thought of paying to sit beside my parent's headstone. I was steaming, sure that my face was blood red, as I briskly walked into the "visitor's center." Even the name, "visitor" made me sick. There were people everywhere. It was as if hundreds of people were at the zoo, with children of all ages and even babies in strollers by their side. People were taking pictures. Some were pointing and showing others where to look, as if there were circus elephants performing with a clown car circling around the animals. I couldn't help but feel my stomach turn.
I was letting my anger take over all rational thinking. Of course all of the people at Arlington National Cemetery were visiting a national landmark. This was where the Kennedys were buried. This was, most importantly home to the men and women who sacrificed their lives to keep America free. But at the moment, I could only see people wanting something that wasn't theirs to have.
The tour buses, filled with people looking out both sides of the bus windows made the Arlington National Cemetery seem like a Hollywood Tour of the Stars, with tourists gawking at famous people's homes rather than at so many hundreds of our national heroes' resting places. The biggest problem of all was that I felt as if I were trapped in their world of entertainment instead of awe and respect, and quite frankly, sorrow. And I didn't like it. I didn't like it one little bit.
My first words to the woman standing in front of a sign that read, 'Information,' were, "do I have to pay to visit my parents?"
"No, you don't," she told me. "Go over there (she pointed to another line, with only two people waiting) and they will help you."
I got in line and waited my turn to ask another woman a question that would probably sound odd anywhere else except the Arlington National Cemetery.
"I am here to visit my parents. Can you help me find them," I asked.
The woman showed no emotions as she asked for my father's and mother's names and dates they were buried. As I had just been trying to get a hold of my own emotions, with little to no success, the lack of emotions from the woman behind yet another counter, was not helping.
The woman took my information and began to look through her computer database to find my parents. I didn't have the exact date my mother or father were buried. So, the woman seemed less than pleased. I felt that I could remedy her issue with displeasure with a swift smack in the face. It was just a stupid, childish thought from a 43 year-old woman who was suddenly 16 again and remembering the phone call she received to find out her mother was dead. A few weeks later, that teenager would be at this same place, with the same emotions.
Back to reality.
The woman gave me a yellow 8 1/2 X 11 card with the day's date on it. It read, "No Touring." She then proceeded to give me a black and white copy of a map of the cemetery and highlighted the route to my parent's grave. Was she completely mad? Or was I? What possible knowledge would two pieces of paper do me when I was attempting to visit my parent's grave at one of the largest cemeteries in existence? I looked at her questioningly. She repeated the route once again.
"Am I supposed to walk there," I asked.
"No," she replied, a bit annoyed. "You can drive through the main entrance and follow this map to where it is marked."
I thought I had driven through the main entrance. Let's just say there were going to be no plans to include this woman on my annual Christmas letter list. (Pow! To the moon!)