Monday, January 2, 2017

A Funeral at Arlington (and more!)

Just letting you know that my father’s service at Arlington Cemetery will be Dec 16 at 10:30 am at the Chapel, followed by procession to the cemetery.  Not that you have to attend, but you might find it interesting——The R’s have given the service rave reviews!  Pops is going out with horses, caissons and all the bells and whistles….I thought we might be able to work out a Vicenza reunion sometime that weekend.

That was the substance of a mid-August email from my college friend Di. She and her husband Bill are two of my favorite people, lots of fun to be around and always up for an adventure.

As you know, I love a good funeral and emailed back right away to say that I wouldn’t miss it. I made a reservation right away at my usual DC hotel.

That's me as an Italian sailor, with a banana in my pants, at an extremely culturally sensitive "Come as your favorite Italian" party.
The plan was for the funeral on Friday followed the next evening with a reunion of classmates from a summer of 1978 program in Vicenza, Italy.

The weather report was for dismal stuff—we were in the midst of a Polar Express, so I packed enough winter clothes for a polar expedition. And funeral clothes too. Can you imagine how the photos of JFK’s funeral would have looked if Jackie Kennedy had worn a red ski parka? I dug out my old Chesterfield coat.

The morning of the event I walked over to my friends the R’s in Georgetown, the folks who’d given services at Arlington rave reviews. We always have lots to catch up on--I've always thought Sally Quinn should call them to find out what's going on. Since they’re DC locals, they're the best tour guides. They can tell you who lived there, who designed what, what it used to be, and spot a Georgetown parking space from blocks away. Her parents were interred at Arlington too, so we were going to visit them after the ceremony.

Gone are the days when you could just walk up to Arlington and roast some weenies over JFK’s eternal flame.  Now there’s security on top of security.

We pulled up to our assigned gate and handed over our IDs. We told the guard that we were there for Captain Pardee’s funeral service. The guard directed us to the next gate, not even a city block ahead, but around a sharp turn, presumably intended to slow terrorist traffic.  At that stop we had to hand over our IDs again, and after telling this guard that we were there for Captain Pardee’s service, we had to open all the car doors, as well as the hood and the trunk, and stand on the curb while the security guys checked out the vehicle. While they had the giant dental mirror on a stick for looking under the car we didn’t rate that kind of scrutiny.

After we were given the OK by the guards, we drove over to the chapel. It’s a charming piece of Colonial Revival architecture, modeled on James Gibbs’ St. Martin-in-the-Fields. The chapel was built at the suggestion of George Patton (yes, that George Patton) in the 1935. It reminded me of the Plasticville chapel that my brother and I would set up next to our Lionel train set.

Upon entering the chapel, we were greeted by two uniformed members of the 3rd US Infantry, the Old Guard. They were the epitome of military looks and bearing, which is another way of saying that there’s something about a man in uniform. Even at a funeral. They had spit and polish out the ying-yang and couldn’t have been more polite; it was if Emily Post had programmed the Six Million Dollar man.

When Di and Bill and the family arrived, there wasn’t too much time for hugs and chatting before our military hosts escorted them to another room in the chapel where they presumably had a private moment. Captain Pardee had been dead since March 13 so, for the most part, everyone was past the teary stage of grieving.

Pat, and old friend from State College, arrived. She’s new to the DC area and we planned an afternoon of museum hopping after the funeral. And yes, I told her that the R’s had given the service rave reviews.

After the family was escorted to their reserved pews, I looked around and noted the good crowd—perhaps 50 people, not a bad showing at all for someone who died at age 96 in California. As anyone who’s watched a lot of The Funeral Channel can tell you, when you outlive your friends there is no one left to attend your funeral.

It wasn’t long until a draft of cold air signaled that the chapel doors had been opened. I turned around and saw a squad of sailors standing at attention outside the chapel. As we could faintly hear the NCO shouting commands, the chaplain entered the chapel. We rose, and the organist blasted Holy, Holy, Holy as the earthly remains of William McKnight Pardee (Captain, USN, retired) and a folded American flag were carried in a procession to the front of the chapel.

The service was brief: Arlington’s instructions are to keep it under 20 minutes. The chaplain had piercing eyes and a clear voice that resolutely projected his Christian faith. I never would have cast him as friendly neighborhood pastor, instead he would have been the hot Marine dad who lives down the street and doesn’t wear a shirt when he washes his Corvette.

There was short eulogy but no singing, no Lord’s Prayer, or congregational participation. At the end of the service, the chaplain led the procession out of the chapel as the organist played the Navy hymn, Eternal Father Strong to Save. It was quite a moving tableau.

Yes, I got a little teary.

The family walked behind the caisson to the grave, but Pat, the R's and I drove. That gave me time to read Capt. Pardee’s obit. He was an Annapolis grad, class of 1942, commanded the USS Hornet, and believed in physical fitness—he installed a chin up bar in his office on the Hornet you can see today when you visit the carrier in its new life as a floating museum in Alameda, California. He visited the museum at age 93 and could still do a chin up.

After quite a trek through Arlington, we finally made it to the place where the interment was to take place.

There was a brief graveside service, complete with the folding of the American flag and presenting it to the next of kin. As the officer in charge handed the flag he said:

On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy, and a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation for your loved one's honorable and faithful service.

A squad of riflemen fired three shots in salute, a bugler in the distance played Taps. It was like something out of a movie, only better.

And yes, even though I didn’t know Captain Pardee, I cried.

The Rs, Pat, and I passed on the luncheon at the officer’s club and instead went to see the R’s parents in another part of the cemetery.  A walk through the graves shows what a melting pot America is. There are familiar names and unpronounceable names, names with seemingly no vowels, and names with all vowels. Some of the tombs are marked with familiar religious symbols—who knew that there were that many varieties of crosses? Others were marked but with something signifying, well I don’t know what.

After some discussion of parking in Georgetown—a problem only slightly less difficult than Peace in the Middle East, we left Arlington for a delicious French lunch at Chez Billy Sud in Georgetown. If food is like that in France, I am surprised that the French would take time away from eating to give Jerry Lewis the time of day.

After the lunch and more discussion of parking, Pat and I headed to Tudor Place, a house museum in Georgetown. I’d been there once—sometime in the late 1970s, when it was still a private home.

Tudor Place was designed by Dr. William Thornton, the architect of the first U.S. Capitol, for Thomas and Martha Custis Peter. It was completed in 1816. Martha was a granddaughter of Martha Washington and had eight children, three of whom were named Columbia, America, and Britannia.

No, I don’t know what she was smoking.

Watch your mailbox for a Tudor Place Christmas card
Thomas Peter was an executor of Martha Washington’s estate and so had first crack at the stuff that was to be offered for sale after Martha’s death. Consequently there are lots of things from Mt. Vernon in the house, in addition to stuff that the succeeding five generations of the Peter family collected before the house became a museum in the 1980s.

The house was decorated for Christmas as it might have been in the 1940s.
I made a reservation for the 3 pm tour--it turned out that we were the only folks on the tour. (House museums are so passé.) Our very gracious guide was everything you’d want in a museum docent, enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and fun. She wasn’t embarrassed to have us backtrack a bit if she’d forgotten to point out some choice bit. I wish I’d written down her name, she was one of the best docents I’d had in a long time. The tour takes you all through the house, including service spaces like the kitchen and pantries. While we talked briefly about the Cold War era bomb shelter, unfortunately, it wasn’t on the tour.

We were exploring the garden post tour when a TP staffer sought us out to tell us (politely) that if we didn’t skedaddle we’d be locked in. We skedaddled even though it meant giving up our A-list Georgetown parking spot.

Pat suggested that we head over to the Hirshhorn Museum since there was an interesting looking show of the work of Icelandic performance artist Ragnar Kjartansson.  There are three words that make me run instead of walk to a museum. Icelandic. Performance. Artist.

We drove across the District using Pat’s Waze app, which I hated. I did not need to know that Generael Tso’s chicken (along with two items from Column B) was the special at the Yangtze Garden. Or that the headliner was about to speak at the Mexican-American Friendship Society’s Symposium on the Gadsden Purchase. Or that by cutting across six lanes of traffic to get to the far right lane to turn in approximately 23 feet, I would save 30 seconds.

Even though we did not stop for General Tso’s, or to celebrate the Gadsden Purchase, we did cut across traffic here and there as I tried (unsuccessfully) to separate the wheat from the chaff on Waze. Nevertheless we managed to get to the museum and even found Pope-worthy parking just steps away from its front door…without using a smartphone app. Presumably my partially Native American incredible homing penis is no longer on the blink after its recent California misadventure.

So Ragnar Kjartansson.  Except for the lack of chocolate sauce and fire, he’s everything you want in a performance artist  1) unpronounceable name  2) from a slightly exotic foreign land 3) batshit crazy
From the museum’s very own website:

Hailed by The New York Times as “one of the most celebrated performance artists anywhere,” Ragnar Kjartansson…comes to the Hirshhorn Museum…with an unprecedented solo exhibition—the first U.S. survey of this internationally acclaimed artist.

Iceland is a pretty small place, so just about anyone who said anything nice about the guy would come under the heading of “international acclaim”.

Spellbinding, poignant, and frequently humorous, Kjartansson’s work is at the cutting edge of performance art. Bringing together live endurance theater, large-scale projection, popular music, photography, painting, and drawing, this exhibition will introduce American audiences to the collected output of one of today’s most exciting and evolving artists.

Spellbinding…well, I wouldn’t go that far. I didn’t have any problem tearing myself away from it.

Poignant…The last time I used the word poignant to describe anything was never. I’ve always wondered, do people who hate the word “moist” hate the word “poignant”? The latter has way more of that um, I can't believe he did that in my mouth quality about it.

Frequently humorous…Very true. I did laugh. Not in the "Alec Baldwin is hilarious as The Donald" way but in the "Holy Crap this guy is batshit crazy and here he is in the Hirshhorn Museum" way.

Live endurance theatre... Of course, we all know what dead endurance theatre is: spending lots of time at a viewing of a relative you don’t like.

Yes, there was large scale projection, however, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the exhibit included popular music. It was more populist music--no skill at singing or playing an instrument required.

One of my favorite pieces was Called Woman in E, something that I would put in the category of “live endurance theatre”. It featured a woman in a gold lame dress, standing on a round, rotating, two-tiered pedestal (think wedding cake) within a circle of gold tinsel hung from the ceiling.

She played an E-minor chord (the "universal symbol of melancholy", according to the label) on a guitar. Over and over and over again. The guard quickly stopped me from shooting a video with my phone. Presumably she didn’t want me subjecting my friends to recorded formerly live endurance theatre.  The guard also told us that the woman stands there for 2 hours and 20 minutes before she’s replaced by the next performer. Crazy.

I enjoyed the guitarist in the gold lame gown along with an older couple (as in older than I am) from one of the better suburbs. They thought it was one of the wackiest things they had seen in a long while.

They liked the next piece, which looked prop Alps for an 8th grade school play even more. They took their photos with it, I took some of them together with it, and I even shot of them taking each others picture. They made lots of noise when they tripped over one of the Alps as they were leaving the room. We had a good laugh. The guards, however, not think tripping and then laughing about it was very funny. I didn’t know museum guards could run that fast.

Apparently those plywood Alps are worth something.

According to “didactic materials”, aka the label, one of the artist's videoes contained mature subject matter and so parents were warned to preview it before allowing their children to see it. The video was over 20 hours long. I can’t imagine spending 20 minutes watching it, let alone 20 hours. If my kid turned into a serial killer after watching that video I can’t say I would blame him.

In another piece, called The End-Venezia the artist (and I use the term loosely) holed up in a palazzo in on the Grand Canal (even in Venice, it’s location, location, location) for six months painting a portrait a day of his friend who drank beer, smoked cigs, and wore a black Speedo. This wasn’t just trashy guys hanging out, it’s art: “as the performance continued day after day, beer bottles, cigarette butts and paintings gradually accumulated to create a mise en scene, presenting a good humored pastiche of the artist as obsessive bohemian.

Took the words right out of my mouth.

The paintings were fine, but I’m not sure any of them would have won top prize in a show at your friendly neighborhood art school.

I’m not sold on the idea that overflowing ashtrays and several cases of empty beer bottles contributed to the artistic merit of the project.

Diana Vreeland would have thought the black Speedo impossibly chic. However, it made me wonder if there is Amish-themed gay porn.

We were just finished walking through the end of the show when the guards signaled that the museum was closing. So the idea of going back to preview that 20 hour plus video so that my children could watch it went right out the window.

I did a little Christmas shopping after the museum but resisted the urge to buy the Donald Chump inflatable love doll.

I likewise passed on the slutty Santa’s helper outfit too. I just don’t think I’d do it justice, seeing that I rarely wear packing tape on my right wrist.

Saturday morning I was up bright and early to volunteer at Wreaths Across America. Wreaths Across America is a non-profit that aims, at Christmas time, to place wreaths on veterans’ graves in national cemeteries across the country. In 2014, WAA volunteers placed over 700,000 wreaths at 1,000 different locations including both cemeteries and battlefield monuments.

I thought it would be interesting to see how a huge undertaking like this worked.

When I walked out of the hotel to grab a bite of breakfast I learned why there wasn’t much traffic. An ice storm was keeping everyone at home, and the follow up weather of freezing rain was pretty ugly as well. The bad weather didn’t keep Wreaths Across America volunteers home; I waited with a zillion other volunteers on the on the Metro platform for thirty minutes. Since the Metro was so late, I got to Arlington about 10 minutes after the event started.
I walked to the distant reaches of the cemetery—it’s a big place.
Almost every grave I walked by was decorated with a wreath already. I don’t know when they started handing out wreaths, but I don’t see how they could have started at the advertised hour and done 95% of the cemetery in ten minutes.

I waited in line behind a wreath truck but the W-A-A staff members, led by a Captain in the Civil Air Patrol (I had no idea that they wore uniforms), were not handing any of their stash of wreaths out. They were trying to report to HQ via walkie-talkie, and that wasn’t going well. I knew about the fog of war; this was the fog of Christmas.  Units trying to report in kept talking over each other, the truck numbers were sounding alike (Is that twenty-one or thirty-one? Over.)

It was a slow moving mess, like a red tide ruining a beach vacation. 99% of the volunteers were understanding about it, except for one woman. She acted as if our Civil Air Patrol captain, who probably works in a cube farm in real life, was trying to keep lepers from touching the Shroud of Turin. After a while, I came to the conclusion that the situation was not going to change and there wasn’t any point in waiting around.

At this point, every grave—with the exception of those featuring a Star of David—that I could see had a wreath. Some folks had done a great job, I just wasn’t one of them.

I stopped by Capt. Pardee’s grave to see how it looked and to take some photos to share w Di and her family.

Arlington House
I walked around the cemetery and through Arlington House, and was admonished by a guard from walking on the grass too near Joseph P.  Kennedy Jr.’s grave. Perhaps the guard sensed that I wasn’t a big D democrat. The public wasn’t allowed near JFK’s Eternal Flame so for all I know, the folks at Arlington had turned it off for a few hours to save on energy costs.

Wreaths Across America was neat, but presumably due to the weather, it was not a warm and fuzzy volunteer experience. Actually, it was downright bad. There was a lot of waiting, and then when it was all said and done, I asked myself Peggy Lee’s famous question, Is That All There Is? Perhaps we were all being filmed by the famous Icelandic performance artist for some new multi-media tour-de-force that I wouldn’t understand. Dammit, I should have worn a black Speedo.

That night, I got together in Arlington with college friends. We’d gone to Vicenza, Italy in the summer of 1978 on an architecture school program. We tried to contact all of our living classmates and did pretty well, finding over half, from as close as Alexandria, Virginia and as far away as Freemantle, Australia.

Our hosts Rob and Sharon were unfailingly gracious and so we ate heartily, drank immoderately, and laughed uproariously; it was practically Icelandic performance art.

We looked at a carousel or two of faded slides, enjoying the memories and marveling at how young we were all those years ago.

We tried to take a group photo, holding photos of our absent classmates, but well, we probably should have done that at the beginning of the evening rather than toward its end. As a group, our photography skills haven't progressed too much in thirty-eight years.

It was a great weekend. A bit of patriotism, some history, some art, community service, great food and drink, and best of all, extraordinary old friends.  Thank you Captain Pardee for your honorable and faithful service and for doing your part to introduce me to Ragnar Kjartansson. I'm going shopping for my own black Speedo today.