Washington life swirls around him — crowds gather and disperse, jets climb into the clouds, the cemetery’s infernal lawn mowers roar. The weather may bake or freeze him — the high, marble mesa on which the tomb rests, at the top of a hill affording one of the loveliest views of the city, can feel like the hottest spot on Earth, even in May. It can also approach the coldest, as when blizzards covered the city two winters ago, and snow buried the plaza as fast as soldiers could shovel it. They replaced their shiny black shoes with combat boots. But the vigil and guard changes went on around the clock, as they do now and have since 1937.
The world doesn’t matter here, in this outdoor theater where the show always goes on. This guard posting is a marathon of purity, a spectacle of the finest abstraction and strictest minimalism, where precise, unthinking repetition blots out just about everything else.
The commander strides across the plaza, past the sarcophagus containing the remains of service members from World Wars I and II and Korea. (An unknown from the Vietnam War had joined them, but his remains were removed and returned to his family when DNA testing revealed his name.) He takes slow, measured steps, rolling his shoes on their outer edges so there’s no hint of a bounce in his body.
It’s the most luxurious legato. The man is a play of contrasts: loose in the knees, square in the chest, all business in the eyes. You know this even though you can’t actually see his eyes because of his sunglasses, so tightly fused to his skull they must be giving him a migraine. But there’s enough expression in his granite jaw to suggest that those hidden eyes are cold. Still, that delicious walk goes on, 18 steps, 20, 21 . . . clack! It’s brought up short, punctuated by a sharp clap of the heels. The metal plates on the inner edges of the shoes are one of many modifications to the basic dress-blues uniform.
The changing of the guard ceremony is like that, a precise, stop-start ballet performed by three men — commander, relief sentinel and the retiring sentinel— alternating between smooth and sharp, silence and staccato pops. With that same liquid gait, the relief sentinel makes his entrance, brandishing the most beautiful, sparkling M-14 you’ve ever seen.
There is a brief, intense inspection, every action crisp and decisive. The commander snatches the relief sentinel’s weapon, swipes its surfaces with an exaggerated sweep of a white-gloved hand. He scrutinizes the uniform — hat, shoulders, belt, shoes, moving his head with such deliberate isolation that if you watch closely you can see the motor impulse travel through each vertebra of his neck. Inspection completed, the ceremony is all about walking and stillness. The men salute the tomb, they fall into step, the two sentinels switch positions, the outgoing one leaving with the commander as the new one takes up his slow pacing along the black rubber mat in front of the tomb.