“Want to walk the dogs with us?” Meredith asked.
We spent Thanksgiving with my daughter in Washington, D.C. She recently bought a house there in a neighborhood on Capitol Hill. Not far from her place is the Congressional Cemetery, where I was a bit surprised to learn, she walks her dog.
An interesting story that. Founded in 1807 the land for this, our first national cemetery, was a part of L’Enfant’s original plans for the city of Washington. Until the mid 1830s practically every congressman who died in Washington was buried there.
But over the years the cemetery went out of favor as a burial site, was almost forgotten, and fell into neglect. By 1997, the Congressional Cemetery had the dubious distinction of being added to the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of the most endangered historic sites.
Flash forward a few more years, and a group of neighbors nearby were having trouble finding a good spot to walk their dogs. The solution would turn out to be a nonprofit organization that now takes excellent care of the cemetery, and allows dog owners to responsibly walk their dogs (under the watchful eye of a docent on duty) in exchange for funding its care.
Meredith and her boyfriend Damon were anxious to take us there. So with the dogs leading the way, we set out.
It’s a beautiful place. And indeed there are well-known members of congress buried there, including TIp O’Neill, and one with a more checkered legacy, Elbridge Gerry. He’s the politician for whom the political tactic we see all too often employed these days—gerrymandering—was named.
John Phillip Sousa is there as well. Along with J. Edgar Hoover. So too, just a few gravesites away is Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s aide, and the man reputed by many to have been Hoover’s lover.
But the real reason Meredith and Damon were so anxious for us to visit it turns out was just a bit further down that same row of graves, on a corner.
There was the tombstone marking the final resting spot of Vietnam veteran Leonard Matlovich. Winner of a purple heart and bronze star, Matlovich was the first to publicly fight back when he was discharged from the military after he confided to his commanding officer that he was gay.
His tombstone reads: “When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men–and a discharge for loving one.”
Nearby the marker for another grave reads
Warren O’Reilly Ph.D: “During my eventful lifetime the only honest and truthful ending of the Pledge of Allegiance was “…with Liberty and Justice for SOME.”
Elsewhere on the corner the inscription on William Boyce Mueller’s stone reads, “Founder—Forgotten Scouts. Beloved son of Virginia Boyce Lind and grandson of William Dixon Boyce. Founder—Boy Scouts of America.”
It seems that Matlovich’s decision to be buried here convinced many other gay veterans to do the same. There are plans to build a memorial to those here—and all the thousands of others who, since the founding of our country, have served in silence.
But no more.
Thanks Mere and Damon.
We’ve reached the point in our wanderings where things we learn at one stop in our journey have begun to intersect with things we learn at another. Case in point, last year when we visited Valley Forge, we learned that the man recruited by George Washington to train the American revolutionary army, and whose training is widely credited with turning around the course of the war, was most probably gay. Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben is reported to have arrived in Valley Forge accompanied by his greyhound (which went with him everywhere) and an attractive young male “aide” after leaving Prussia under the cloud of charges that he’d engaged in “improper relationships.”
I loved this bit about him from Wikipedia:
“As he could not speak or write English, Steuben originally wrote the drills in French, the military language of Europe at the time. His secretary, Duponceau, then translated the drills from French into English. Colonel Alexander Hamilton and General Nathanael Greene were of great help in assisting Steuben in drafting a training program for the Army. The Baron’s willingness and ability to work with the men, as well as his use of profanity (in several different languages), made him popular among the soldiers. He occasionally recruited Captain Benjamin Walker, his French-speaking aide, to curse at them for him in English.”