Chris Demarest isn’t your typical children’s book author. His work as an official artist for the Coast Guard has sent him as far as the Persian Gulf to document life on patrol boats, producing nine paintings that are now part of their permanent collection. However, it’s Arlington that has a special place in his heart. As the son of a veteran who’s interred there, Demarest’s latest book, Arlington, traces the history of the nation’s cemetery, giving young readers an insider’s view.
What inspired you to write Arlington?
I’d been in touch with Simon Boughton, the editor at Roaring Brook, about doing a book on the troops. I said I wanted to do a book on Arlington, stemming from the fact that when I was working on a book on the Coast Guard, I found out about their art program and was accepted into that. I became an official artist for the Coast Guard and one of the assignments I had was to cover a funeral at Arlington.
Once I started researching the history, it was absolutely fascinating. I went with that information to Simon and said, “What do you think?” He basically said, “My head says no, but my gut says yes. So let’s do it.” It was great. If you just propose the idea, “I want to do a book about dead people,” it usually doesn’t fly unless it’s a Halloween story.
You cover the history of Arlington, from the life of its first owner, George Washington Parke Custis, until the present. What was your research process like?
I had been a volunteer firefighter for many years, so the first book I did was on that. Then I went off and researched smokejumpers (Smokejumpers One to Ten, 2002) out West and Hotshots (Hotshots!, 2003) [experienced firefighters] and flew with the Hurricane Hunters (Hurricane Hunters!, 2006), so when it came to Arlington I had special permission to hang out with the tomb guards. Under the plaza, where the Tomb of the Unknowns is, is what they call the “Catacombs,” and those are the offices where the guards on duty will rotate and get dressed. I was allowed into that inner sanctum and could talk with them and hear stories.
Did you learn anything that surprised or shocked you about Arlington from the people you talked to?
One thing was the Changing of the Guard and how they do the rifle inspection. One of my questions to this sergeant I was talking to was, “Are the guns loaded?” and he said they’re not, it’s all decorative. So I asked “how sharp are the bayonets?” And he says, “Let me tell you a story. Last April, I was part of the last change of watch for that day, with another sergeant. The sergeant is inspecting my rifle and at one point he lowers it to the ground and then raises it.”
The bayonet went up through his nose, knocked his sunglasses off and knocked the cover off his hat. I’m standing there, jaw-dropped, and asked, “What did you do?” He said, “I finished the ceremony.” In front of this crowd of people he walked back in step to the door, was buzzed in and fell over. They rushed him to Walter Reed Hospital. You would not know, except for this very fine scar on the side of his nose, that he had had that accident. He’s still a Tomb Guard.
What was your first experience visiting Arlington like?
The first time may have actually been my father’s funeral. Even though he’s buried in the Columbarium, which is where they keep all the ashes, he still received the full military honors. They had the caissons and the buglers and the rifles. I remember it was an April day, and the weather was gorgeous and the leaves were coming out, and just thinking what an amazing place this is, and, of course, fighting back all the emotions.
I knew I wanted to go back afterward. It wasn’t to go back to visit my father, although I have, it was more that I wanted to explore the place itself. It’s like rolling through a small town where you have chapels and huge oak trees, and of course, it’s dotted with headstones. It’s like a village unto itself.
It sounds like a fascinating place.
You hear the cannons booming and the crack of the rifles and you’re looking at squirrels running around. And then you hear the faint clip-clop, clip-clop, and somewhere through the trees there’s a caisson rolling by. You wonder what’s going for the people who have a loved one being buried that day, what are their emotions? Because I remember that.
Arlington: The Story of Our Nation’s Cemetery
Flash Point / Oct. 26, 2010 / 9781596435179 / $17.99