I don’t remember all of my past birthdays, but I’m pretty sure this is the first one that started out in a cemetery. Each December the organization Wreaths Across America lays wreaths on the graves of veterans. In 2013 at Arlington National Cemetery, they laid 143,000 wreaths and in 2014 (the 150th anniversary of Arlington) the goal was 227,000. I’m not sure if they reached the goal, but regardless there were literally tons of wreaths that needed to be disposed of in January and, due to the logistics involved, it had to be done in a single morning.
About the only time I find myself riding the Metro before 08:00 on a weekend is when I run the Army Ten Miler. It’s always comforting on race day to enter a car and see a bunch of race bibs (translation: I’m on time and headed in the right direction). Boarding the car on Saturday what I saw instead was an assortment of poles, some attached to brooms or rakes and some disconnected from their original purpose. The poles, per organization guidance, would be helpful in piling on the wreaths for their trip to the dumpster. I was carrying two busted umbrellas for that purpose.
Since this was my first time volunteering, I didn’t know how many people to expect and, thus, how long the project would last and how sore I’d be the next day. When my train arrived at the Arlington stop, at least 100 people disembarked, a good sign. Along the 1/2 mile walk to the meeting point, I could see that hundreds more people were already at work, ahead of the official 08:30 start time. After some brief instructions, the group who arrived with me was pointed towards a nearby section to join in.
The reason I had two umbrellas is that I envisioned carrying one in each arm, both loaded up with wreaths. That vision did not recognize the need for a third arm to load up the other two, which dawned on me as soon as I reached the first wreath. So, the two umbrellas stuck together in one hand while the other hand loaded them up. On each trip to the closest dumpster I managed 10 – 16 wreaths, which I’m guessing weighed 30 – 60 pounds. The umbrellas worked out pretty well since I was working as an individual. Others teamed up and were able to use longer poles held between them. In addition to the household items mentioned before, the variety of carriers included hockey sticks and tree branches, but the smart people (veterans of previous operations, I imagine) used ropes so that they could drag a line of wreaths along the ground.
I ignored the organization’s advice about wearing waterproof shoes – the trail races I do often involve running across streams in cold weather, so my running shoes were sufficient for the day. I wish they had mentioned waterproof pants, though. It wasn’t until I wanted to take a picture and reached into my pocket to pull out a dripping wet phone that I realized how thoroughly soaked my jeans had become from the wreaths.
With hundreds of volunteers working, everyone was constantly on the move, swarming over a section like ants, then seeking out new areas that hadn’t yet been picked clean. En route, I instinctively tidied up personal wreaths and other mementos that had been disturbed by the passing throngs, partially out of respect and partially out of OCD. Given the surroundings it was a strangely festive atmosphere, helped by the fact that many volunteers were there with family and friends. It was also an operation whose demographics were such that I was likely below the median age, something I appreciated on a day the odometer had rolled over once again.
By 09:45, I was scanning the horizon in all directions and not finding anything left to do. The general ambling of the throng towards the exit backed up that impression. As I walked back I read random headstones in passing, stopping at a number to see the mementos and notes left by loved ones, some of which were quite moving. The sections I had worked in were relatively new, with end dates in the last ten years and occupants ranging from way-too-young to centenarians.
The efficiency of the operation got me back home much sooner than expected. It was definitely good to have a chance to dry off before heading back out into the cold and mud to walk the dog (A pile of poo for my birthday? How thoughtful!). I wrapped up the day’s festivities with a blood donation where I was just glad to be horizontal for a while and once again below median age.