Crraaacckkk….”Dad what was that!??” Emma Grace asked with a trembling voice. Crrraaacckkk… “Daddy were those gunshots?!” “Yes Emma Grace” I replied. Pooowwww…”Daddy I’m scared…Let’s get out of here!” my 9 year old daughter exclaimed. She gripped my hand and walked in a crouching position like a scared puppy who had just been caught chewing a $40 pair of flip-flops. “Emma Grace stop! Be quiet!” her brother Aleck urged. The truth is….I was overwhelmed because I had never been surrounded by so many soldiers in my life…pooow…craaaccck…pooow. Three distinct gunshots…followed by…three whimpers, hand squeezes, and tugs from Emma Grace. “Cooommme on Emma Grace!” shouted Ella. We paused for a moment as Amy unfolded and looked down at a wrinkled map. Our family had been combing Arlington National Cemetery in Washington DC looking for my Uncle Cecil’s headstone. I was excited to be starting our children’s spring break on a perfect day surrounded by the beauty of the rolling hills. I was also in awe of the number of markers displaying the final resting place of heroes responsible for the freedoms so many of us take for granted. Just a few weeks before our trip I had attended a dinner with my favorite client and good friend Jeannette. Congressman Trey Gowdy gave an address that night…and it was affecting my day in Arlington National Cemetery in a profound way. Congressman Gowdy described his flight into Washington DC from Spartanburg SC, a flight he makes quite often. He described flying over Arlington National Cemetery and seeing the green grass, the trees, the headstones, the symmetry, congruence, alignment…the perfect design and layout of the entire cemetery and everything in it. As I looked all around me, I saw and felt exactly what Mr. Gowdy described and I was amazed.
“This way!” Amy ordered…like a wise expedition leader…”This way!” Ella repeated…like a bossy little assistant. We turned and made our way down a gradual hill…no one else around us. As we passed a giant tree that was surely hundreds of years old, Amy and I both looked to our left. On the other side of the big tree a woman sat in the freshly cut green grass. She sat in perfect posture. Her legs were crossed. Her back was as straight as the Washington Monument off in the distance. She sat and stared at the headstone which was about 12 inches in front of her face. We slowed our pace. Our kids softened their voices and then they went silent. I looked at Amy and she had tears streaming down her face. My own eyes became teary and the road ahead of me became blurry. I wiped my eyes and looked at the woman again. She didn’t acknowledge us. She didn’t even glance over at us. She wore big sunglasses and her hair was in a tightly fixed bun except for the few pieces that had escaped the formation and were now rebelliously blowing in the slight breeze. The woman sat rigidly like a stone statue of a little girl sitting at a fountain…except she was not at a fountain. Her black dress stood out brilliantly against all the white headstones surrounding her like a thousand bodyguards…a thousand angels. Her big sunglasses hid the eyes that stared straight ahead only revealing a reflection of the marker symbolizing what must have been a tremendous loss. Amy grabbed my hand and we continued to walk. The woman sat…and she continued…just…being.
“This it. This is the section” Amy said. She called out the row and headstone number. Aleck, Emma Grace, and Ella scurried like excited kids looking for Easter eggs. “We found it!” the three of them exclaimed. As I walked up to the marker I felt my steps become heavier and my breathing more shallow. Honestly, I hadn’t thought much about my Uncle Cecil over the years since I had had my own kids. But, now that I was trying to explain to my children who he was, I became emotional about all the memories and stories that resurfaced in that moment. My Uncle Cecil was in three wars…three…World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. When I was a boy, my family would visit Uncle Cecil and Aunt Kitty(who is also buried in Arlington National Cemetery) almost every week. Uncle Cecil was a funny man. His bald head and big glasses perfectly fit his commanding voice and pudgy belly. He would often sit in his big chair and bark out things to my Aunt Kitty that were designed to make the men(and the boy playing with his matchbox cars in the floor) laugh while causing the women in the kitchen preparing lunch to roll their eyes. Occasionally the women would come back at him with a pointed response. He had a room just down the hallway on the right that always called my name…prompting me to work up the courage to finally ask him “Uncle Cecil…um…can I…um…look in your war room?” “Sure” he would always say. I would dash into the room and not exit until my mother physically pulled me out so the rest of the family could say grace and start eating. You see…in that room was a miniature Smithsonian Institute…floor to ceiling… awards, medals, newspaper articles, swords, knives, piles of pictures, German and American helmets, other weapons, Korean things, Vietnam things…things…stuff…more things…it was unbelievable. After we ate, I would quickly disappear back into the “war room” and the women would start cleaning. I would read and touch and flip through different items…sporadically hearing “Kiiittty!!!!”…followed by some smart remark from my Uncle Cecil who had made is way back to his big chair with a full belly. I stayed in the room, again until my mother… father… or sisters sent by my parents came to lure me out. We would make our way out to our car where my Uncle Cecil would stop each kid and say “What’s this?” as he grabbed our ear. He would pull his hand from the side of our head and flash a quarter and sometimes a fifty cent piece. “There you go. That was sticking out of your ear.” he would say…EVERY time. Even at my young age, I knew when I walked in his room, I was in a special place…in the middle of history…almost like a time traveler…and it was amazing. I also knew my Uncle Cecil was a hero…a good man. I knew it then and I quickly remembered it as I talked to my children beside his headstone in Arlington National Cemetery.
As we walked away, we heard more gunfire. The 21 gun salute…the firing of three shots by seven soldiers. We had been hearing it all day and seeing horses pulling the fallen through the cemetery. Arlington National Cemetery holds 27-30 funerals per day…27-30. As I read and thought about that number and those people, I remembered something else Congressman Gowdy said. He said as he sits in his plane seat looking down on the cemetery, he often thinks “If I had a chance to meet these men and women and ask them a few questions, I would ask “Was it worth it? Was what you fought and died for worth it?” He said he wonders also if they could answer whether or not we are the country…the people…the society they thought we would be. He would ask “Would you do it all over again? Would you be proud of what our country is today?”
We started walking up a hill and on the right the hillside stood out. It stood out not for what was on it, but instead for what was not there. It had the familiar freshly cut grass but nothing else. It was an empty field and it amazed me. It amazed me because I began to think about what it represents. It is a field waiting for the 100% guaranteed arrival of more men and women who will sacrifice for our country…for us…for our freedom. Suddenly I began to feel…small. I began to feel…insignificant. I thought about how great these people were…how great they are…and I thought…”I can never be them…I can never be Uncle Cecil.” I have never fought in a war let alone three. I haven’t made this kind of sacrifice. Sure, I say I would sacrifice ANYTHING for my family. I say I would fight for my country if it came down to it. I say I would die for the people I love…but these people ACTUALLY DID die for something they believed in…something bigger than themselves. “What am I supposed to do with this feeling?” I asked myself. Then I remembered a story Congressman Gowdy told before he closed.
On January 13, 1982 in Washington DC, passenger flight Air Florida Flight 90 struck the 14th street bridge, crushed seven vehicles, and plunged into the icy Potomac River. Four motorists were killed on the bridge. The aircraft was carrying 74 passengers and five crew members. Four passengers and one flight attendant survived the crash. Many of you remember the footage of the icy rescue using a helicopter. Many of you remember Lenny Skutnik stripping his coat and boots and jumping into the ice water helping to save a lady who had become too weak to swim after falling from the rescue rope(this is a fascinating rescue story…and if you get a chance read it….and/or pull up actual rescue footage on YouTube)…but as Trey Gowdy said…few of us know a man named Arland Williams.
Arland Williams is often referred to as “the sixth passenger”. He was floating on the wreckage with the other five survivors, unable to unstrap himself. As the helicopter dropped the rescue line, Arland Williams caught it, and passed it to another survivor. The helicopter returned…Arland Williams caught…and selflessly passed the line again. Everyone was towed to shore…and when the helicopter returned for Williams, the wreckage he was stuck in rolled, submerging him. He was the only passenger to die by drowning. Then I realized the answer to my question about what to do with feeling small and insignificant when compared to heroes…lies in this story. These heroes didn’t set out to be heroes. Arland Williams wasn’t trying to be a hero. They simply believed in something bigger than themselves…they believed enough to die. Their legacy lives on because of how they did things…how they faced adversity…how they loved…fought…sacrificed…how they treated others. If I could have the day we spent in Arlington National Cemetery back, I would do one thing differently. I would walk my family right up to the woman sitting so perfectly in front of her loved one’s headstone and I would ask her to please tell my family all about the person she was spending time with on such a beautiful day. I want to know because I wonder what in the world “it” is that is so special about a person that would make a loved one come and sit…for hours…just to be with them…when they can’t speak, hug, kiss, hold, or laugh anymore. I want to know and I want to live “it”.
The truth is we don’t have to be famous. We don’t have to be heroes…like I said, I will never be my Uncle Cecil, Arland Williams, Lee Haney, Jesus…I will never be my heroes…BUT I can be LIKE them. I can be driven like my Uncle Cecil. I can be selfless like Arland Williams. I can be persistent and full of work ethic like Lee Haney. And Jesus…think about this…think if we could ask God the questions Trey Gowdy wanted to ask the soldiers. If we asked “God…is this world what you want it to be? Is this what you gave your only Son for? Was it worth it?” Though God would never say he wants us to be perfect…I’m sure he would say…we could be doing better…much better. I’m also sure he would say “YES…it’s worth it…because I love you.” …….And that is the answer my friends…We are to BE the love…the compassion…the empathy…BE IT…LIVE IT. BE WHO God designed us to be while never forgetting He DOES NOT make small…insignificant people. This is how we make a difference…how we pass the rescue rope. We become aware, purposeful, intentional, and unselfish. We do the little things in this life because the little things matter. We say good morning, smile, pray with and for our children, encourage, forgive, volunteer, send notes, say thank you, make phone calls, make visits, teach, listen, eat with our family, spend time with friends, be unselfish, and love each other. Annnnd then…we go to sleep…and wake up…and do it ALL over again…and again…and again…and again…EVERY day….day after day…there are a million things…but it is the consistency in doing those million things that really matters. Consistency changes lives. It is the selfless, courageous, urgent, driven, purposeful consistency in the little things that adds value to people and to this world. These things are the “it” that make a big enough difference in someone’s life to make it a blessing…an honor… for that person to sit perfectly still in a cemetery with a loved one no longer physically here…no words to be spoken…just…gratefully sitting…and being…and you know what? It is worth it…and it is perfect…just perfect.
“Carve your name on hearts, not tombstones. A legacy is etched into the minds of others and the stories they share about you.” – Shannon L. Alder
“The things you do for yourself are gone when you are gone, but the things you do for others remain as your legacy.”
“For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that Day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved His appearing.” – 2 Timothy 4:6-8
“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.” – Benjamin Franklin
“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” – Deuteronomy 6:5-7