Many feel drawn to visit Arlington

President's gravesite strewn with flowers, cards for his missing son

John F. Kennedy Jr.

July 19, 1999|By Georgia N. Alexakis, | Georgia N. Alexakis,,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- It just seemed like the natural place to go.

Over and over, that is how yesterday's visitors to Arlington National Cemetery explained their decision to brave the afternoon's above-90-degree heat and pay their respects at the gravesite of President John F. Kennedy.

On a weekend when most Americans watched news of the late president's son slowly unfold -- his plane missing, luggage washed up, debris found, the search continues -- many area residents and tourists brought flowers, cards and photographs to the spot where President Kennedy, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis and two of their children are buried.

"Today just seemed appropriate," said Heather Kamps, 23, of St. Louis.

"John F. Kennedy Jr. was the Kennedy of my generation. Some of the shock has to do with his age, but I think a lot more of the grief has to do with who he was. He seemed to be the one in his family who succeeded in life through hard work and dedication. He resembled his father in that way."

Melvin and Valerie Wilson of Fort Meyer, Va., reflected on how different their Saturday was from the Kennedys'. While the Kennedy family assembled in Hyannis Port, Mass., to await news from the Coast Guard, the Wilsons were married.

"His cousin was supposed to have her wedding on Saturday, too," said Valerie Wilson. "It was just so shocking to me -- the idea that what was for us such a joyous day was for them such a tragic one. I had to come and pay my respects."

Although Arlington officials could not estimate the number of people who visited the Kennedy gravesite yesterday, Army spokesman Dov Schwartz said it is one of the most-visited spots in the cemetery and in the nation's capital, attracting 4 million visitors a year.

On Saturday afternoon, a single bouquet of flowers adorned the gravesite. By yesterday afternoon, more than a dozen bouquets were strewn across the tombstones of the former president and first lady, their son Patrick -- who lived for two days -- and a stillborn daughter.

People attached signs reading "God Bless JFK Jr." to wooden crucifixes before laying them near the gravesite's eternal flame. Among the dozen cards left was one note from a Maryland family, asking that "our prince, his wife, and her sister" to be brought home safely.

One Washington woman stood vigil at the gravesite for nearly an hour, praying silently for the younger Kennedy -- as she said she had done when she was a teen-ager, waiting outside the cemetery during his father's funeral procession.

"I prayed for God to bring him to a place of rest and repose," she said, declining to give her name. "I think of him as a martyr. He was so innocent and this terrible thing had to happen to him."

'Whole country watched'

Old newspaper clippings left at the memorial reminded visitors of the boy known as John-John -- the 2-year-old peeking from under his father's Oval Office desk, and the son, on his 3rd birthday, saluting his father's casket.

"He grew up without a daddy, and the whole country watched him become the man he was," said Gwen Cupit of Homer, La. "It's hard for people not to think of him as part of their own family because he was always in the public eye."

Laura Taylor and Stephanie Brombley of Southampton, England, said they could not help but compare the latest tragedy to befall the Kennedy family to the death of Princess Diana in 1997.

"Both were so young and their lives ended in such tragic ways," Brombley said. "There is the same sense of disbelief and shock: How could these young people with so much potential be gone?"

Army officials would not answer questions regarding the possibility of burying John Kennedy Jr. in Arlington National Cemetery. Robert F. Kennedy is buried at a neighboring gravesite at the cemetery, while the family patriarch and matriarch, Joseph and Rose Kennedy, are buried at Holyhood Cemetery in Brookline, Mass.

While most visitors to the Kennedy gravesite yesterday spoke of Kennedy and his wife, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, in the past tense, a few maintained that the son of the late president could be found alive.

'Not fair to give up'

"It's not fair to give up on him like this," said Derrick Ward, 13, of Garland, Texas. "It's terrible that nobody knows where he is. We need to make sure he is OK."

Yesterday afternoon, Ward was not the only visitor to Arlington Cemetery who was optimistic.

A visitor to the gravesite left a bouquet of flowers with a white envelope attached. The card was addressed to "Hope."

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