For many visitors, a pilgrimage to Arlington is a devotional act— to seek out a buried relative, to pay respects to a trea sured friend, to leave a promised beer or cigarette at the tomb of an Army buddy, to brush off a wife’s grave and bring her up to date on the latest headlines. Sisters come to Arlington with photographs of brothers now gone forever; girlfriends bring bouquets and balloons; someone hangs wind chimes in a dogwood, which ring with music when the limbs shiver. A marine’s parents drive down from Pennsylvania, unpack their lawn chairs, set them up in Section 60, and pass a spring afternoon with their son, recently killed in Iraq. They speak to his tombstone as if it is the most natural thing in the world. It is at Arlington, where other pilgrims do the same thing every day.
Do the tombstones speak back? Of course they do. Each one tells a story. The marker on James Parks’s grave, up in Section 15, speaks for a slave born at Arlington who found his freedom there, stayed on, and saw the world around him utterly transformed. In Section 3, a tombstone marks the resting place of Lt. Thomas Selfridge, a twenty- six- year-old Army pilot who fell to earth at nearby Fort Myer, where he helped inaugurate the age of aerial warfare. Just across the way in Section 8 lies Rear Adm. Robert E. Peary, the explorer who claimed the North Pole in 1909 but failed to credit his associate, Matthew Henson, the African American guide who got him there. Henson finally won recognition in 1988, when he was disinterred, conveyed to Arlington, and buried with high ceremony.