Fourteen minutes after the sun rose one day last week over Arlington National Cemetery, Metro Kowalchick began figuring out where to bury 14 more bodies.
In his cemetery office with a panoramic view of the Potomac River and Washington's stone white splendor, Kowalchick, a former coal miner with a seventh-grade education, went over the list of the dead with his friend and interment foreman Sylvester Smith.
Smith has been sad lately. It's not the burying business-he and Kowalchick have buried thousands of soldiers, hundreds of generals-it's Kowalchick. He's retiring, and Sylvester Smith said he has gone home at night these past few weeks and cried.
Kowalchick, 59, who, as deputy superintendent of the cemetery, runs the daily operations of one of the world's most hallowed parks for the dead, is retiring at the end of this month to go back to his home town in the coal country of eastern Pennsylvania.
He'll be leaving 520 acres of cherry and magnolia trees, 170,000 gravestones and guarded privacy for Centralia, Pa., a town noteworthy because for 17 years it has sat atop a seam of burning anthracite coal.
"I am retiring sadly. It is not going to be easy," said Kowalchick, whose voice carries the harsh contours of the Pennsylvania hills and whose wife, Lillian, wants to get out of the Washington area and go home.
Kowalchick who found his profession by reading an advertisement in the Retired Army Bulletin that said "Cemetery Superintendents Wanted," has been with the national cemetery system for 22 years. He has buried the dead in national cemeteries in New Jersey, Kentucky, Kansas, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
He's worked, off and on, for 12 years, and five months at Arlington National Cemetery. He chose the location where Audie L. Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War II, was buried. He pressed the button that lowered John Fitzgerald Kennedy into the ground.
The Kennedy burial, for which Kowalchick received a letter of commendation from the Pentagon, took place on a gray Monday in 1963 when 31 other burials were scheduled. They all were held as scheduled; Kowalchick made sure of it.
Two days before, in a cold November rain, Kowalchick remembers standing in the cemetery near a Monarch oak tree with four wooden stakes in his hand awaiting the decision of Robert S. McNamara, Kennedy family members and the cemetery superintendent about where the assassinated president should be buried.
"After the ceremony on Monday, we worked all night preparing the grace so that people could visit on Tuesday. There was so much pressure and we were all so tired, it has all become a blur now," Kowalchick said.
Kowalchick a GS-14, making $35,800 a year, has buried Supreme Court justices and journalists, astronauts and ambassadors, war heroes and babies. As he did yesterday, he arrives in his office at 6 a.m. every working morning and goes home about 5 p.m., after making sure all the burials, which average about 12 a day, have gone smoothly.
To get home, Kowalchick does not leave the cemetery. He drives about half a mile from his office to a white, two-story residence on a hill surrounded by white marble headstones which are kept clean by regular scrubbings with Clorox bleach.
"My family grew up living in national cemeteries. I love it. It is like living on a big estate. There is all the privacy I would ever ask for," Kowalchick said.
Sometimes, he said, the privacy of Arlington cemetery was too much for his three children. Between 1962 and 1965, when his daughter Diana was in her late teens and dating, Kowalchick said her dates rarely made it past the guards to the house.
"I was a stern father. It didn't bother me at all that the boys could not get through."
Kowalchick, who is the son of a Russian-born coal miner, said that living among the sepulchers of the nation's military dead is not at all depressing. He has escorted presidents, prime ministers, kings and queens past the tombs of Gen. John J. Pershing, President William Howard Taft and Polish pianist and president-in-exile Ignace Jan Paderewski.
"I personally escorted the pope before he was the pope," said Kowalchick, referring to a visit of Polish Cardinal Karol Wojtyla, then the Archbishop of Krakow, and now Pope John Paul II.
The dead and their monuments are not sad, Kowalchick said, but the living who come to mourn them often are. He mentioned white-haired mothers from the Midwest who come each Memorial Day to sit for hours in steel sons killed in World War II.
Kowalchick also knows an Army colonel who drives to the cemetery nearly every day to tend his wife's grave. She died in 1965 and the colonel, who served in the cavalry during World War I, refuses to allow cemetery caretakers near the grave. The colonel has driven stakes in the ground above his wife's coffin and he stares at her headstone for hours, Kowalchick said.
Whatever sadness there is at the cemetery, Kowalchick said, drifts away in the early spring with coming of the cherry blossoms, yellow-green grass and school children. He said he hates the idea of moving away in the spring, but added that he'll be back.
"I got a brother here," said Kowalchick, a veteran of World War II, who retired from the Army on disability and is eligible to be buried in Arlington. "I hope to be buried beside my brother." CAPTION: Picture, Metro Kowalchick, deputy superintendent at Alrington National Cemetery, walks through the first section. By John McDonnell-The Washington Post