Stories Told

Remembering my patriotism at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Arlington National Cemetery

My dad was in the Navy, as was his dad before him. At enlistment age I was college bound, but Dad asked if I’d at least consider Navy ROTC. I said no.

That had to be hard for my Dad to hear. In his family, men served their country, period. Looking back, I’m surprised now that he didn’t insist.

I was excited about building a future in software engineering. I didn’t want military service to stand in my way.

Also, I was afraid I couldn’t cut it. I was not sure I had, and I felt sure I could not build, the physical toughness to serve. I have always been far more of my mind than my body. I remain unathletic, even clumsy.

I have also always had a hard time blindly following orders. In my younger years I needed to internalize the logic behind an order to execute it wholeheartedly. Even today, unless I am all-in on something I struggle to do it well.

I was sure these barriers would lead to military misery for me. Middle-aged hindsight tells me that ROTC could have helped me overcome these physical and intellectual challenges. If nothing else, it certainly would have paid for engineering school.

Yet refusing to serve my country led me to question my own patriotism. Did I love my country? To what lengths would I go to support it in a time of need? Could I fight and die if necessary?

I had a long conversation with my uncle Jack about it. He was always easy to talk to at a time when Dad often wasn’t. I could fight and die, I allowed, in a war where our very nation was threatened. I could not fight and die in the only kind of war fought during my lifetime, which I judged to be about policing foreign interests. Jack listened carefully and affirmed my concern. He then reminded me that whether I had already enlisted or if I were drafted, Uncle Sam would not care about my feelings if he needed me to fight. He also said that if I skipped to Canada as some had in that last conflict, that I would be turning my back on my country and I should never return. I left that discussion grateful to have been fully heard. But I had no better answer than before.

When the first Gulf War began I was out of college and working in software engineering. My anxiety spiked — I was draftable and this conflict looked serious.

By then I’d grown up enough, and Dad had mellowed enough, that we could talk about the most serious matters. So I called him. I could hear it in his voice: he, too, was deeply worried that his sons might be called up. He wouldn’t fully admit it, but I caught a whiff in his words that he wasn’t sure he liked his sons being drafted to a conflict that wasn’t clearly about protecting our nation. His patriotism remained firm, however. He gently reminded me that when your country calls, you simply go. On that call I reconciled it in my mind and, finally, agreed with him. It gave me a sort of peace.

But then no civilians were called. Since then, no other conflicts grew serious enough that the draft was a possibility. And now I’m well past the age when my country would require me to fight.

Lately I’ve become deeply interested in 20th-century history, and as our family trip to Washington approached I had coincidentally been watching a Ken Burns documentary about World War II. It told the war’s story through the memories of several soldiers and some of their family members. I came away from it feeling hell yes, that was a war worth fighting and  a cause worth dying for. And so, so many men died.

Those thoughts and feelings still filled my mind when Margaret said she wanted to go across the river to the National Cemetery. Exiting the subway we realized we had to rush to make the next changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We hurried up that hill, arriving seconds after the ceremony began. And what a ceremony, filled with every ounce of somber precision a soldier can muster.

Until then I had thought high military ceremony to be cartoonishly ridiculous. But as I watched the changing of the guard I realized how much training and practice are needed to achieve that polish and perfection. And I saw how it was this very effort that made the ceremony an appropriate honor. That unknown soldier had given his all, and so we offer our utmost in tribute. A long-lasting tribute, as a guard has been posted continuously since 1937.

It brought fully back to me what I had been taught from the time I was a boy: the good life we enjoyed in the United States existed not just through our natural resources, hard work, and ingenuity, but also because many people stepped up to protect it when it was threatened. It was good to be reminded, and to remember those that died in that protective service.

One more changing of the guard remained that day, and we lingered to see it begin. I had moved into a position directly across from the tomb, where I saw how all of America stretched out before it.

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History, Photography, Preservation

Touring Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

It stands like a monument, this Art Moderne building on Indianapolis’s Northwestside.

Heslar Naval Armory

The first time I saw the Heslar Naval Armory was 20 years ago. I had a job Downtown and I drove I-65 every day to my suburban home. But a major project closed the highway for a couple months, and the detour led drivers west along 30th Street. At the White River, 29th and 30th Streets share a bridge. The Armory is nestled where the street curves to meet the bridge.

heslarmap

Imagery and map data © 2017 Google.

From a distance, it appears to stand right in the middle of 30th Street. As I approached it for the first time I couldn’t believe not only that it existed, but also that it was in this rough neighborhood of factories and low houses in ill repair. (It wasn’t always this way. The neighborhood used to be solidly middle class. And at one time, the region east of the armory and north of 30th St. was a popular amusement park!)

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

The armory was built in 1936 as a project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which was one of President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs. It was designed by architects Ben Bacon and John Parrish to serve as a naval training facility, offering everything a sailor would find on a ship. Walking through, every detail affirms the building’s naval purposes.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

Perhaps the armory’s most important days came during World War II, when its inland location away from high surveillance on the coasts made it an attractive place for generals and admirals to plan their campaigns. Key portions of the Battle of Normandy were planned here.

We toured the armory late last year thanks to Indiana Landmarks, which became involved with the building after the Navy (and the Marines, who in later years shared the space) decommissioned the building and moved out. Our tour took us through the mess hall. Tables and chairs had been removed, but the nautical decorative details were still in place.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

Even the mess hall’s light fixtures were cool: little globes.

Globe Light

One more shot of the lights, because they’re so interesting.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

The third floor includes this little bar, a space for officers only back in the day. Notice the porthole windows in the doors. This was a feature throughout the building.

Heslar Naval Armory

Even the bar carried strong naval themes.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

Much of the armory is given over to offices, but it does also include a gymnasium. The deck on which I stood to take this photograph is an open bridge that was used in training exercises. I wish I thought to photograph it from below!

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

The armory’s most remarkable feature was its submarine simulation area. It can be flooded! A training exercise apparently involved sailors trying to figure out how to stop water from coming in.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

It was a pretty cramped space, but our tour guide assured us that a submarine is even more cramped.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

This first-floor space even had steps and a hatch up to the second floor. It was cordoned off for us tourists, but I’m sure that sailors who didn’t figure out how to stop the water from coming in were grateful to have it.

Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

The armory is named for Ola Fred Heslar, born in Brazil, Indiana in 1891. His tour of duty with the Navy began in 1907 and continued into the Naval Reserves in 1922, where he was named Chief of Naval Affairs for Indiana. He oversaw the construction of this armory. Heslar returned to active duty during World War II and took command of the armory. He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1944. He died in 1970.

Indiana Landmarks brokered a deal for Herron High School, a classical liberal-arts college-preparatory charter school on Indianapolis’s Old Northside, to buy the building. Herron’s building has long been at capacity, and they wanted a second campus to carry on their mission. They’re renovating it now, including tearing out some interior walls, to open it as Riverside High School. Because Indiana Landmarks is involved, all construction will keep the building’s outstanding architectural features. Riverside High School hopes to take in its first students in the fall of 2017.

iPhone 6s and Canon A2e, 50mm f/1.8 Canon EF, Kodak Tri-X.

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Heslar Naval Armory, Indianapolis

Heslar Naval Armory
Canon A2e, 50mm f/1.8 Canon EF
Kodak Tri-X
2016

This is actually a teaser for a forthcoming post: I got to tour this place, a remarkable building in Indianapolis.

Photography, Preservation
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