People wonder sometimes if writers who enunciate such vivid details of past events, relive those events when they write about them, and have the same gut-wrenching emotions people had when the events first occurred.
I remember on one of my trips to D. C. several years ago, I arrived just after noon for a meeting the next day. With free time, I decided to take the commuter out to Arlington National Cemetery.
There might be more than one entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. The one closest to the commuter exit was inauspicious, but that ended as soon as I walked past the gate, and looked up toward a slight hill at JFK’s eternal flame.
This was at a time when my legs and knees allowed me to walk unhindered, and I always took advantage of that when the occasion allowed. I stood for several minutes reading the inscription, awestruck as everyone around me was.
A noise behind me broke my attention. I looked to see a guided tour gathering. Always searching for that story off the beaten path, I decided to walk around alone, and discover unannounced what was there. I knew every niche of Arlington had been written about, and there would be nothing astonishing I could see. Sometimes the eye of the beholder tells a different story.
I took a measured gait through the marbled amphitheater to the street just behind it. To my right a block away was a gigantic statue of General Pershing on his horse. Directly in front of me was a small section of graves with similar grave markers, maybe three feet tall by two feet wide, and perhaps a foot and a half underground for stability.
I decided to read some of the markers, not that I would know any of them, but there is a reverence in Arlington that calls your pride to the forefront, insisting you owe those who are there. I must have read twenty when I came to the one in the upper right hand corner as I was looking. Another I would not know.
I casually read the name, paused, because it didn’t fully register, then read it again. Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of WWII. I recalled the movie based on his book “To Hell and Back”. Hollywood decided to title the movie the same as the book, which was not an everyday occurrence. Audie Murphy, turned actor, recreated some of his WWII exploits.
I always wish for our heroes to live heroes’ lives their entire lives. I’m not sure that happened to Audie later on in life, but we all live our lives as they come along, not always as we plan them.
Here in front of me was what remained of Audie Murphy. I’m not sure if the person who engraved the grave marker knew how much room he had to list all the medals Audie won. As the marker entered the ground, there was one of them only half showing above ground. Standing there without benefit of written material or a voice explaining to me, I wanted to assume the engraving actually went the full length of the marker, and there was a foot and a half of the listing of medals below ground I could not read. It was mind-boggling.
I drew to attention and stood there, a minute, maybe two. I hoped I had shown my proper respect to such a magnificent individual. None of us wish for wars, but there comes a time when we must decide who the good guys and who the bad guys are, and at that time Audie was killing the bad guys, although today the descendants of those bad guys are no longer considered to be bad guys.
The aura of Audie and all those in Arlington followed me out of Arlington as I rode the commuter back to the hotel. In fact it is always on recall when something happens to bring it to the fore.
That fore happened only a few years ago.
A good friend of mine had copious notes about a brother, an Army veteran, who had been killed in the Pentagon on 9/11. I told my friend we should write a TV movie script. I had co-written one, and a portion of another. I’ve never had success on a grand scale, but various forms of writing teach me how to write better for whatever form I prefer.
My friend was a writer, but had no experience in script writing. Considering the circumstances, I gladly shouldered most of the load. We both knew one scene had to be in there. The brother’s burial at Arlington.
The atmosphere of Arlington I had absorbed in my previous visit, prepared me to get through most of it somehow, the caisson drawn by horses with the family walking behind, the precision of the funeral as had been so many funerals before this one, the folding of the flag and presentation to the mother. And then.
A single, soulful soldier separated sufficiently from all others, standing there with his emotional musical instrument. As the first strains of Taps echoed throughout, I tried to imagine a possible closure with each succeeding note. That was unrealistic for such a torrential flow of tears from a grieving family.
A writer always rewrites, sometimes several times. I’m not sure how many I did on that scene, and whether I got it right.
Sometimes that thought comes to me in the middle of the night when I can’t sleep. It lingers.
Yes, writers do relive what they write, but heroes deserve that.