Richard D. Preston
FROM A DISTANCE…
At the edge of Arlington cemetery lying upon a bench under the trees was a man, semi-conscious with all his worldly possessions heaped around him. It was gray and the rain was drizzling down softly, almost floating to earth. A small number of white crumpled plastic bags were piled around him for support and warmth. From a distance this soul was being watched by this Marine. I thought to myself, “But for the grace of God, go I.” I could not determine his age nor could I see his face very clearly, as it was buried into the bags he held onto, much like clinging to a lifeline. It was sad to see such a disheveled human being lying in the shadows of a monument that emitted such strength and determination. Nonetheless I said or did nothing nor did I point this man out to anyone at that time.
Across the way just yards away from him was a stone wall that encircled the Cemetery. A large steel gate with a chain on it loomed into the sky. Beyond the gate standing upright there were thousands of white grave markers, which represented our nation’s heroes. The grass was as green as emeralds, the snow-white markers almost glowed, and the trees were lush and glistened with the gently falling rain. Deep within the cemetery shadowy forms slowly walked among the graves paying their respects. Serenity as well a deep feeling of loss overwhelmed me for a moment. I took a picture and walked away from the gray wall with a feeling of emptiness and loss. This could in no way compare to the feeling of peace I had after walking away from the Vietnam Memorial Wall: This was entirely different. This was grim.
I wonder now if the man lying on the park bench was a veteran. I wonder if he was lying in wait with his white bags. Longing for the day he could enter the emerald fields of Arlington. Similarities abound in the sad reality of this scene. The rain fell on both the living and the dead, they both slept under the same trees. The future of the heroes though honorable was hopeless in the sense of future. And so goes the hopelessness, which engulfed this poor soul whose whole life was dependent on the bags he carried. Life’s possessions piled haphazardly upon a lonely park bench that he called home. The white markers of Arlington marked the end of life as these heroes knew. The white bags marked the end of a normal life for this one of the millions of outcasts of this society. It’s a shame, for in a country as great as this all should have hope in the future. Unfortunately this is not so and many dreams are buried in the system and lost in the shuffle of life.
I am with shame; I should have done more than just look upon this man. I should have cared enough to talk to him, share his burden and, if nothing else, make sure he was fed – even if it was only temporary.
We support our brothers at the Wall, we hug them, welcome them home Shake their hand and go on about our business. But this day at Arlington was not business as usual. This was a day that this veteran realized his shortcomings. This was a day I will remember vividly for the rest of my life. From this I have gained the knowledge of compassion without practice.
©Copyright June 17, 2004 by Richard D. Preston