On Memorial Day, the president visits Arlington. Pratueng Taylor, 65, retreats to the tranquil banks of the muddy Anacostia River. And Keyah Metts, 17, turns on the fire hydrant for the children in her Southeast Washington neighborhood.
So yesterday, President Clinton touched a wreath and bowed his head. Taylor cast her fishhook into the river. And small children in Metts's neighborhood frolicked barefoot in the raging white water that spouted from a dark green hydrant and gushed down the street like a stream, even glistening some. In the afternoon sun. On this day.
It was sun-drenched and muggy, with an occasional breeze that whipped the star-spangled flags draped at the Tomb of the Unknowns. That blew beneath the shade tree on the east side of the Anacostia River, where Taylor sat in a folding chair, staring out at the ripples in the water. That carried the scent of summer to Metts's corner of the world.
A day of reflection. A time to honor. A time, for some, to cry. A time to treasure simple things like water, wind, sun, life and memories. For laying wreaths and roses. And the time for feeling whole again.
The Memorial Day celebrations across the Washington area yesterday were as different as the people themselves. But there was uniformity in purpose. Oneness in heart. A kindred spirit.
At Arlington National Cemetery, Clinton's words echoed above a sea of white headstones. There was the "Hymn to the Fallen," "The Star-Spangled Banner," "The Last Full Measure of Devotion." The guns had sounded earlier in salute to the fallen soldiers. The honor guards held their mannequin-like poses through the unrelenting heat, beads of sweat. The U. S. Air Force Band and the Singing Sergeants were heavenly. The ceremony, breathlessly patriotic.
"So, my fellow Americans, if today is a day for history, it is also a day to honor those who lie here and in countless other places all across the world in marked and unmarked graves," Clinton said.
Then taps. The retiring of the colors. "Amazing Grace."
It was grace that saved Byron Schlag, and a good parachute, the World War II veteran remembered after the ceremony. The B-17 Flying Fortress had been hit in midair, severed at the tail by another B17 on the way back from a bombing run over Germany. A crew of nine men was on board. Schlag, a young tail gunner, plummeted 23,000 feet but managed to leap out at 1,000 feet. He was one of only two survivors. Schlag, 74, and Jim Frankosky, 80, were flag bearers at the ceremony.
"This day has a special memory," Schlag said, fighting back tears, his voice cracking, while his friend searched under a green canopy where wreaths had been laid. "I lost my crew."
A few minutes later, Frankosky strolled over with heartening news.
"I found our wreath," he said. "It's beautiful."
The river glistened, despite the mud.
Surrounded by wild grass and sitting under a shade tree, Taylor passed the afternoon with a couple fishhooks in the water. A native of Thailand, she came to the United States on Nov. 18, 1972.
"I'll never forget," she said, wearing blue cutoff shorts and a blue print blouse that ever so often fluttered in the wind. "I came to the U.S. because I loved my husband."
As a young woman in Thailand, she met Clyde Taylor, then a member of the U.S. Air Force. Nov. 18, 1972. But there is another date that Taylor can't forget. One that weighed on her mind yesterday, especially yesterday: Aug. 19, 1983. It is the day her husband died of cancer, she said.
Earlier in the day, Taylor visited Arlington Cemetery, where her husband is buried. She laid a heart-shaped wreath at his headstone, then went home to Anacostia, and to the serene shore of the river.
"Every Memorial Day, I come down here and be by myself and think," she said at the bank, relishing memories like the cool breeze.
A few yards from Taylor, two young Marines grilled chicken under a shade tree, the convertible top down on the red sports car, music playing. Lance Cpls. Greg Bolden, 20, and Desmond Onezine, 21, said they will be shipping out by the end of the year, aware that their duty could call for making the ultimate sacrifice.
"If we have to, we'll have to go and handle our business with the enemy," Bolden said. "You can't really think about it, but at the same time, it has to be in the back of your mind."
There was nothing but fun on their minds.
Barefoot and wet, a half-dozen small children splashed in the cold water that shot from the fire hydrant at Horner Place and Upsal Street SE, this Memorial Day fading with each passing hour.
"I love it," said Shambriel Metts, 5. "It's fun." Shambriel's aunt, Keyah Metts, stood nearby, watching the children play, making memories on a hot day at the end of May.
"That's it," Metts said. "That's our Memorial Day."
CAPTION: Salute to Sacrifice: At Arlington National Cemetery, past and present members of the armed forces listen to President Clinton pay homage to the nation's veterans and war dead. (Photo ran on page A01)