Thursday, January 17, 2008

A D.C. event I would have preferred not to attend

As I've pointed out here, being in Washington and having a wife that works in the Senate affords me some interesting opportunities.

Thursday was not one of them.

One of Lindsay's former co-workers - D'Arcy Grisier, Colonel "D" as many knew him - was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. D had spent most of his life as a member of the United States Marine Corps; he was diagnosed with cancer and beat it, only to have it return and force his retirement. He joined the office of Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), where he worked with my wife.

I had met D a few times; what a cool, cool guy. He was unafraid to help a small-fry sportswriter who had the grandiose dream of writing about the biggest passenger plane on the planet. He's not credited in the story, but it was contact with him that brought about the reaction from one of Ensign's staff members, John Lopez, and made the story what it was.

So it was on Thursday that we came to celebrate D's life one final time.

He actually passed away on Nov. 2, 2007; his viewing was shortly thereafter, though his burial took more than two months. Not that it made it any easier.

Just as Thursday's snow was starting, I made the drive from our apartment to Arlington. As instructed, I informed the parking guide that I was there for a funeral; he directed me to the correct road.

Simply driving around was a surreal experience. My car has been some cool places - the infield at Richmond International Raceway, for example - but never any place like this. I have been, and I can't help but come away in awe each time.

I arrived at the Old Post Chapel well within the range that we had been told to arrive. I waited for my wife out front; yet when we walked in, nearly every pew was at capacity. We were two of many to stand throughout the service.

Upon walking in, a young Honor Guard member named Hamilton handed us a business card, or so it seemed. It was a caricature of D, his birthday and the day he died.

But what dominated the card was one of his favorite sayings, one that was frequently visible at the viewing as well: My, my, how the time flies...

I cannot look at the phrase now without choking up, a reminder of how D's 53 years did not seem nearly enough.

There were three eulogies. The first was a retired general who had worked with D; the second was his best friend since college; the final was D's father, whose voice raised and lowered with seemingly every phrase.

"You honor D with your presence," he said, and I like to think that we did. Nearly all of my adopted friends from the Ensign office were there: Scott, the former chief of staff; Jack, the former PR guy now in Vegas; Aaron, now a good cigar buddy; and Valerie, who remains good friends. Sen. Ensign was there as well; he got to sit with the family in the front.

At the end of the eulogies, two Marines entered from the back and pushed the casket out to the caisson not differently than how they brought the casket in from the hearse.
We filed out of the chapel, row by row. We were among the last.

Outside we were greeted by the sight of a Marine honor guard; my sudden realization - that I had never seen so many soldiers in one place at one time in my life - seemed absurd. They stood at attention, ignoring the now-heavy snow, even as it piled up on the brims of their hats.

We briefly discussed taking a car; Jack, Scott and Lindsay were to ride with me. Then we discovered a bus, replete with a representative from the Marine Corps, was ready to take Ensign's staff to the graveside service. Well, we were once staff, so that was close enough. We hopped on the bus.

Our driver tried to take a back road, but wound up waiting for the procession that we were actually a part of. We were the last to arrive.

Lindsay and I were near the back of the bus, so it wasn't surprising that we were among the last people to the graveside service. We were still several hundred feet away when we heard the traditional gun salute and the playing of Taps.

The snow was still heavy as we walked - past all of the parked cars clogging the narrow roads, underneath an archway that had an inspirational saying for all of armed forces. Then it was a right-hand turn through an opening between the rows of buried heroes.

We made it just in time to see the honor guard and band leaving. Their precision struck me; I compared it to seeing a NASCAR race - no matter how many times you've seen it on TV, seeing it in person brings it to a different level. The guard commander ordered his unit out through a choreographed movement to the front of the group.

The guard walked parallel to the path we had taken after the right turn (to the right of the photo at the top). Trailing the group was a barrel-chested officer who walked alone, several feet behind the band, which marched to a "left, left, left-right-left" beat on the old-style snare drum. At each drumstrike, the group's march was perfectly in alignment.

We stood around, unsure if the service had been completed; we knew for sure when several people began turning around and heading the way we had just come from.

The snow cast an eerie pall on the cemetery. Small trees were barely visible in the distance; the clouds were low and, despite the short distance to Reagan National Airport, commercial aircraft was occasionally heard but never seen. The snow provided a blanket, giving the whole cemetery a sense of calmness and serenity.

We milled around to say hello to people from the office. I got to say hello to John Lopez and other folks I hadn't seen. Sen. Ensign came through as well, and I was able to say hello to him too.

From there, we made our way back to the bus, which had moved strategically closer than it had been when it dropped us off. We were left to make sense of what had happened, thinking that our co-worker and friend was now one for the ages; that D was now one of the thousands of heroes that Arlington pays tribute to.

Me? I couldn't help but once again pray for the sacrifice that all there, living and dead, had given.

I discovered my one hope was this: that long after you and I had left this earth, that Arlington - now with D - would stand as a reminder of the courage and heroism of our country's bravest.

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