When A Book Comes Along for the Field Trip

January 20, 2022 § 2 Comments

There was no shortage of grumbling when, one morning over winter break, I announced we were going to Arlington National Cemetery, a ten minute drive from our house.

“But we’ve been there a million times,” my son complained.

“You’ve been there exactly once,” I responded. “Plus, my great-grandfather was a Colonel in World War One, and he’s buried there.”

“We know, because you tell us all the time,” my daughter interjected, not to be outdone by her brother.

“Well, we’ve had a Covid Christmas and we need somewhere to go that’s outside, so that’s that,” I issued, like the authoritarian parent I am.

In my 14-year parenting tenure, there has never been an outing I haven’t been able to improve with a children’s book. In this case, I’d had one tucked away for almost a year. I knew the kids would come around. They always come around.

Jeff Gottesfeld’s Twenty-One Steps: Guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, majestically illustrated by Matt Tavares (don’t count him out for a Caldecott), takes us behind the scenes of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier—indisputably the most fascinating part of Arlington Cemetery. No one can help but be awestruck upon beholding the discipline, concentration, and precision of the sentinel guards who keep vigil there, every moment of every day, 365 days a year, in every type of weather.

Especially if you’ve had the chance to read Twenty-One Steps immediately before.

Which our family had, while seated in front of my great-grandparents’ gravestone, under a brilliantly blue December sky, surrounded by thousands of wreaths placed there for the holidays. We read while we waited for the top of the hour, when we headed over to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier to watch the changing of the guard.

Did you know that guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, which began at midnight on July 2, 1937, is the hardest post to earn in the Army? The standard is nothing less than perfection.

Twenty-One Steps begins with The Sentinel’s Creed—99 words encapsulating the dedication of the Tomb Guards (“never will I falter”)—before taking us back to how the Unknowns came to be honored at Arlington in the first place, on the heels of World War One. The book asks us to imagine its narrator as the original of these Unknowns, the first of the WW1 soldiers who “fell a thousand ways” but were “known but to God.” These unidentified soldiers, despite making the ultimate sacrifice for our country, had no way for their loved ones to claim them, “no place for our nation to honor our sacrifice.”

In 1921, this Unknown was given a formal casket at the US Capitol where he could “stand for all,” drawing mourners whose loved ones were similarly lost and unrecovered. And yet, when this casket was permanently entombed at Arlington, its significance was quickly lost among tourists and picnics and games of baseball. That is, until five yeas later, when the Tomb Guards quite literally stepped in. “From that moment, I have never been alone again.”

The rest of the book—the most powerful of its pages—is dedicated to the ritualistic work of these Tomb Guards, whose sharp click of the heels is the only sound you’ll hear as you approach the Tomb, apart from some quiet bird song, the shutter of a camera, and the occasional cough from one who has come to marvel at the guard’s full-body commitment to his post.  

The book’s title refers to the sequence of the guard’s steps, back and forth on a long, skinny black mat in front of the Tomb. Gottesfeld’s text, more poetry than prose in some places, echoes the precision and repetition.

Twenty-one footsteps.


Twenty-one seconds of silence.


Twenty-one seconds of silence.

Twenty-one more steps.

With each step, my war was over.

Taking our seats on the marble steps of the memorial amphitheater facing the Tomb, it was impossible not to notice the myriad of details we’d just read about in Twenty-One Steps. The pant creases pressed “sharp as razors.” The hat brim “two fingers above their eyes.” The forearms at 90 degrees and the head ever level. And, of course, the polished “spits,” with extra metal on the heels for the sharpest click at designated intervals. I looked over at my children and saw their mouths moving silently, as they counted in time with the guard. “Mommy, you can’t even hear his footsteps, they’re so quiet,” my son whispered in my ear. “And that makes the click extra loud, when it comes.”

These details aren’t simply born from the discipline we’d expect from the army. They’re underscored with intention and emotion. “There is admiration in their pants crease. […] Reverence in the angle of their rifles. […] Appreciation in their step. […] And love in their gleaming spits.”

Tomb Guards, the book is careful to point out, are “men and women of every race, religion, and creed.” They are selected from the many who try for this specialized post and fail. But “once on the mat, they are only Americans. Their standard is perfection.” Over time, the Tomb has extended its significance to encompass Unknowns from later wars, too.

They guards aren’t doing their job for the spectators who come. In fact, their work continues long after the people have gone home. It continues all night, through howling wind and stinging sleet. The guards do it for the Unknowns: to honor them, to ensure they never have to be alone. And to give those who do visit a chance to imagine the stories behind the bravery of those “known but to God.”

By day, by night.

Before many, few, or none.

Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one.

Guard our perfect rest,

Give us now your very best,

Twenty-one, twenty-one, twenty-one.

Once again, I have a children’s book to thank for a chance to learn alongside my children.

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Book gifted by Candlewick Press. All opinions are my own. If you’re in the Alexandria area, please consider shopping at the beautiful Old Town Books, where I assist with the kids’ buying!

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§ 2 Responses to When A Book Comes Along for the Field Trip


    Very well done! Love, Nonno

    Sent from my iPhone


  • Susan says:

    Melissa, I love your strategy of reading the story to your kids immediately preceding their viewing of the Changing of the Guard. I’m certain it made the ceremony so much more meaningful to them. Hopefully, your idea will inspire many families to have a similar outing!

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