IF EARTHQUAKES can't break the peace of Arlington National Cemetery, it's hard to see how the gentle padding of joggers could. And yet the authorities say runners are now forbidden in that last resting place of heroes.
"Does the idea of joggers in Arlington bother you?" I asked an old buddy who who went to West Point, and is now a sober civilian.
"No," said John Bodley. "Except this-the formations they have there for ceremonies start way the hell up the hill, the formations are pretty long and slow-they're meant to be solemn, and I can see that joggers trotting around during a burial might seem disrespectful. But the idea of joggers is okay.
"Maybe they could lay out some special routes for them."
As an antiquated cross-country runner, most of whose athletic career was spent panting past reservoirs, bird sanctuaries and cemeteries, I feel somewhat qualified to speak to this matter.
And first, I acknowledge that on a superficial and conventional level, runners do not add to the decorum of grief.
Once our school team was running against Navy at Annapolis. There, as in most other cross-country courses, the route is through the graveyard. It was a lovely fall day, I remember it well, and the course was well marked, for the Navy is efficient.
There was a great yew bush and an arrow where you turned.
And when you turned you found yourself on a nice grassy path, with an open grave and a priest on one side and a group of mourners, sitting on chairs under a tent, on the other.
There was no turning back. You were in the middle of it, the minute you turned.
Unfortunately, perhaps, the runners of cross-country teams are somewhat spaced out-that is, there may be some few minutes between the first runner and the last.
On this day (or any other) I was not the first, and I gathered from the resigned expressions of both clergy and mourners that they had been waiting some smart while, until we all got past.
That was very bad, I always thought in those years.
But since then bad, I always thought in those years.
But since then I have been to some funerals (as a tenn-ager I had not) and now can say:
I have never attended a family funeral or any other at which the presence of runners popping over the hill or around the yew tree would have been a bad thing.
In dealing with the reality of loss, in fact, it seems to me cheerful to see a few runners who are not, as a group, noisy or profane.
Of course like everbody else I believe propriety should be observed at the great moments of birth, marriage, death and the annual bath of the family hound.
A friend of mine was a member of the honor guard at Arlington, and it was his duty to march backward solemnly. With his hands he indicated to the approaching funeral party how far to come and at what speed. He is a handsome man, and was suited to this grim task.
One day he misjudged thins, for who among us has not erred, and while marching backwards fell into the open grave.
Now that, I think, should be avoided. It is difficult to climb out with dignity, and yet one hesitates to just stay there.
I am sure my friend handled this as well as anybody could, and Americans, surely, are sophisticated enough to take no offense from a mishap that could befall anyone.
What bothers us and causes such embarrassment is the unintended breach of the private space of mourners. But mourners are not mourners always, thank God, and bring with them even to the funeral tent a fine sense of proportion.
They do not become unhinged if runners appear or a guard falls on his dignity.
Speaking of trespass into the space of others, my friend Kurt Stehling was speaking at supper only this week how difficult it can sometimes be to land his balloon.
Stehling spends half his time up in balloons-he is a scientist of the air and that sort of thing-and half in bathyspheres beneath the sea. As a friend said of him once, he likes every place except the earth.
When his balloon landed once in a wheatfield in the Midwest, a farmer greeted him with a shotgun and asked who the hell was going to pay for all that winter wheat trompled down by the people that came to see the landing? No need to go into details-they are not especially pleasant, in fact-but it shows you how uneasy everone feels at accidental intrusions.
Once in Minnesota he landed his balloon with a very courageous colleague-one who could face the jaws of hell without flinching. Just the sort of man you want with you in balloons.
Well, the balloon dragged a path through the field.
And flung the two balloonists, still in their little basket, into a haymow.
The pile of hay split open and the men got out, and so did "trillions" of field mice who had been living in the hay, undisturbed for generations.
"Mice," screamed the courageous colleague. "Mice are coming out."
Stehling was trying to extricate himself from the basket and cables and was surprised his brave friend seemed ao alarmed at field mice.
"Oh, God," the fellow cried, "the mice are still coming at us. Mice-"
"Well, what did you expect in a haymow?" Stehling roared back at him (for one does not appreciate a friend screaming and carrying on while one is getting out of a balloon basket. "What the hell did you expect to come out-dinosaurs?"
In the same way, if folk get unduly upset at seeing a runner coming through the tress of Arlington, we might ask them what they expected. Angels?
We should be able to take a reasonable assortment of surprises in our stride-mice, joggers, angels-without losing balance or proportion.
Nobody would approve of javelin throwing or bowling in that hallowed ground, because they lack noble overtones.
Down the alley and BANG, down go the pins. Or GRUNT, and the sharp weapon flies through the air. Obviously these activities are off-limits, and nobody with a natual sense of fitness would permit them at Arlington.
But runners are something else. They are more like gurus than like jocks. Their course is hardly a "sport," but more a sacrifice, or even a purlifiation.
As we sometimes get weary of hearing them say.
Still, there is ground for the runner's boasts. He, first of all, brought news of victory, and I would as soon turn out an albatross or the first robin of spring as a runner. Runners are good luck for any republic, and you should not be mean to them.
Whether sprinters or distance types, it's astonishing they get as far as they do. Oval track, then back to where they had begun.
The lungs protesting but the tendons working, till the course is finished and it's time to shower and work the charley-horses out.
I never see a runner with his tongue hanging out and clearly not going to make it till breakfast but I wish him well.
Breathe on him, breath.