Washington. DC Arlington National Cemetery
13 September 1971
Indian Summer was by far the prettiest time of the year for Pamela Elsen. With the changing leaves, the yellow browns of the oak and the few leaves remaining on butternut and chestnuts, melding into the landscape of flaming maples, the autumn gave her a feeling of contentment. The first frost had come earlier than expected, but Mother Nature has her own timetable. Yes, it was a quiet and beautiful place. Looking out at the scene below and to the horizon Pamela could see the Washington monument. There was history at each step. In the Arlington National Cemetery lay the victims of many wars, some recent and some not. But she was not here to study the history of the war dead. She was here to study another element that few people knew was here among the bodies of the sons and daughters who died in battles and were now part of the psyche of America. She was here to study the "Contraband", those former slaves who escaped from a life in the South where their lives were subject to the whims of slave owners. The chance to gain freedom often resulted in terrible mutilation and torture if slaves were recaptured. It was the horror of slavery that helped cause a Civil War.
Her work on the "Contraband" and their home Freedman's Village was for her Master's degree and she knew that she might even turn it into a book once she had completed and defended her thesis. There wasn't anything written in depth about those people who seemed out of place in a cemetery that catered to the military dead. Yet you couldn't walk through the various sections and look at the markers that held the remains of men and sometimes mere boys without wondering what their lives could have been if it weren't for fate in her strange wisdom who snatched them from life.
Arlington had over 200,000 residents, a city of the dead. Yet it was a sacred place, open all year round. Each year thousands of people visited. Some came to see where a loved one or distant relative was buried. Others came to stand and look at the grave of John F. Kennedy, or came because this was a place of peace and beauty where people were no longer at risk. Yet this wasn't the largest military cemetery. Calverton held that honor. It didn't really matter. People, who made the nation, like George Washington, to Robert E. Lee and those who fought in the American Civil War and the heroes of other wars had a history here, and strangely interwoven was the history of Arlington.
She knew this place was receiving new guests still, with up to 5,000 burials each year. It could be remains from an earlier war, a newly discovered person long ago reported missing, or a recent fatality in some other place where the United States had men in uniform. There was a protocol that was followed right down to the time allotted at the gravesite and the time in the chapel. Perhaps one day her father would come here.
She looked down. Perhaps her father was here already. She never knew her father or even much about her mother. Her mother had died about six months after bringing her into this world, and from that time she had no one of her own. She had lived in several group homes that tried to shelter orphans, but if it weren't for the Williams family she might not have survived. They adopted her when she was six years old and this saved her by giving her a home when no real home for her existed. Her adopted father was a dye and toolmaker and had emigrated from England to Detroit when the center of car manufacturing had need of highly skilled tradesmen. She wondered what her life would have been like if she had remained in England. The move to America allowed her to grow and get to where she was now.
She zippered up her jacket as a wind came up at her back, cooling and chilling. Someday she'd find out more about her birth parents. All she had was a diary left by her mother. It wasn't much of a diary, but it did tell some facts and about the thrill of falling in love with an American soldier. Her mother was English and she met an American soldier in May 1944. What happened must have happened to thousands of girls. It was a time where life was often short and lives were intense because fighting men knew they might not survive and sought peace and perhaps sanctuary in the arms of young women. These moments described in her mother's diary told her that it was more than lust; there was affection and perhaps love too. Yet by the time she discovered she was pregnant, her man had disappeared. The only thing she had from him besides a child was a tie tack, with a floral emblem, which he said was an heirloom and good luck piece from his family. That's all she knew. He might have been killed on D-Day or the days that followed. Her mother never heard from him again.
Unknown to Pamela Elsen or most of the visitors; caring for the interred was a 365-day job that sometimes had its macabre element. The military as well as hundreds of gardeners, arborists, caretakers, administrators and many others who were responsible for military records cared for it all. To look around it was a pleasant place, and if all was said and done it was a good place to rest until perhaps resurrection were possible.
"Damn, we better do something about those varmints!" Joshua Jones said, as he placed five or six sealed packages in the storage closet.
His colleague looked up. "The exterminator is supposed to visit tomorrow. I see that you have done your morning cleanup."
Each morning before the cemetery was open for visitors cemetery personnel walked between the graves, section by section looking for something that might ruin a visitor's day. Often they found odd pieces removed from the graves by industrious groundhogs or some other animal and it wouldn't be a good idea to find a bone, a jaw or something chosen by a rodent and carried to the surface to be discovered by a visitor. No, each day several plastic bags were sealed, containing part of the remains of someone. The gravesite was marked and in time the discoveries would be returned to their owners.
* * *
Freedman's Village was given to more than 1,100 freed slaves as a gesture and was to be the model community that showed the world there were no slaves in the Union but just citizens. Yet it soon became a concern for other citizens, and in 1890 the government complied when they repurchased the estate and Freedman's Village ceased to exist.
John Parker Custis purchased the land that eventually became known as Arlington in 1778. Upon his death, George Washington adopted his son George Washington Parker Custis. He was more than a father to the boy. When the first president of the US died in 1799 George Custis wanted to create a monument to this man who had sheltered him and loved him, and original wanted to call it Mount Washington. It took him 16 years to complete the monument and last home to his adopted father. His only surviving daughter, Mary, married a young lieutenant, Robert E. Lee, in 1831, and on the death of her father in 1857 inherited the estate and her father's memorabilia of George Washington. But this monument, Robert Lee's home soon was believed an eyesore because of the man who had abandoned the North and become the South's leading general in the Civil War. The rising body count of those who died in battle soon filled up the existing cemeteries and the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, directed his quartermaster, General Montgomery C. Meigs, to find a new spot. In mid 1864 the first soldiers were buried here, after the terrible campaign known as the Wilderness. Arlington grew from there.
Copyright © 2004 by George W. J. Laidlaw