Photograph by Frank Murtaugh
How often are we in the right place at the right time? Human nature is such that we gripe about the “wrong place, wrong time” if we so much as get pulled over for speeding. As though the decisions we make — and the pressure we put on a gas pedal — have nothing to do with making a situation “wrong.” But how often do we pause long enough to recognize that we’re in precisely the right place, and at precisely the right time?
Wearing my sportswriter’s hat, I’ve had this feeling a few times over my career. The first NBA game hosted by the Memphis Grizzlies (November 1, 2001) was one such occasion. Any of the five 200-yard outbursts by the Memphis Tigers’ DeAngelo Williams at the Liberty Bowl made me feel as though I was seeing something I’d never see again (he kept surprising me). And attending the 2004 World Series in St. Louis with my dad — I left my sportswriter’s hat at home for this one — was the right place and the right time, and profoundly so.
But sporting events, by necessity, are scripted. We may not know the outcome or who the next hero will be, but we know when the game will be played, and where. (Ticket sales are important.) Forgettable games, alas, are more common than the 2000 Pacific Coast League championship at AutoZone Park.
I traveled to Washington, D.C., in March with my family, an essential pilgrimage for parents with children of a certain age. The visit was my daughters’ first chance to walk in the footsteps of George Washington (at Mount Vernon), Barack Obama (we arranged a tour of the rooms the Secret Service still allows the public to see), and even Robert E. Lee (at Arlington House). From the viewing room atop the Washington Monument to the balcony of Ford’s Theatre, our nation’s capitol provides the most “I’m really here” settings per square mile in the entire country. Right place, easy. But right time?
On March 15th, during a convenient window of our five-day tour, we took the D.C. subway to Arlington Cemetery. The objective was to see Arlington House, the resting places of the Kennedy brothers, and a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns, one of the more goose-bump-inducing ceremonies on American soil.
Upon being seated in our shuttle, though, a guide informed us that the Tomb of the Unknowns would be closed to the public for the remainder of the day. He reminded my family and our fellow travelers that Arlington remains an active cemetery, and that a funeral was taking place that afternoon. We were asked to kindly respect the family of the deceased, however inconvenient the altered plans may seem. We appeared to be in the right place, only the wrong time.
And that’s when my family became a part of history. The funeral, it turns out, was for Mr. Frank Buckles, a gentleman who had died 16 days earlier, not quite four weeks after his 110th birthday. You probably know the name by now: Frank Buckles was the last living American veteran of World War I.
While the ceremony for Mr. Buckles was private, the public was invited to gather quietly across a narrow paved road that runs alongside the Tomb of the Unknowns. Not far from the markers that honor the astronauts lost in the two space shuttle explosions, my family and I were able to say a personal good-bye to a man who was first discharged from the Army two years after John F. Kennedy was born. With a military band standing at attention, Buckles’ flag-draped casket was carefully placed on a horse-drawn caisson. Rarely in my life has silence seemed so heavy. This was the right place and precisely the right time.
If the fates allow, my daughter, Elena — born 101 years after Frank Buckles arrived on this earth — will someday tell her grandchildren that she witnessed the funeral of a World War I veteran. Her grandchildren in, let’s say, 2060 will have a difficult time with the math, the first Great War having been over for more than 140 years. The span of a normal lifetime and the basics of chronology will seem to contradict the confluence of this posthumous crossing of paths. It just doesn’t seem possible to reach back and touch history from such enormous distance.It will be up to Elena, then, to remind my great-grandchildren that time and place do in fact grab us when we least expect it. We’d better be paying attention.