I’ve been mulling this over for a few days. We toured Arlington National Cemetary last week and I got to see the changing of the guard at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. As a piece of theatre it delivered a most eerie feeling–doubly so because it caught me unawares.
The Honor Guard is a voluntary unit in which each member trains 8 months before they take their first post. Each guard, when on duty and on the line, takes 21 steps to the other end of the line, waits 21 seconds, and returns 21 steps to his first position on the line. This is an echo of the military’s 21 gun salute.
Every half hour, every day, every year, the guard is changed. The sight of 3 of the honor guard is so different from the time you spent watching the one guard, but for the click of his boots, on silent vigil. For 10 minutes all that you can focus on is the unnatural, but purposeful, noise created in an otherwise peaceful cemetary.
Then, without really being able to pick out the precise moment, there’s just the guard. The other 2, as if made of smoke, have disappeared–leaving us to wonder if they were really ever there in the first place.
He paces out his 21 steps, stands silently his 21 seconds, and continues until relieved. The strange thing is that if you don’t look closely, he may not ever be relieved of his vigil.