The small ship approaches, rolling over the choppy waves. Gray skies contrast with the steel blue of the sea. "Tie it up tight. No slack." The command given by the Navy official is nearly swallowed up by a gust of wind. My hair whips across my face as I join the line to step off of the boat.
I feel myself tipping from side to side as I follow my fellow passengers up the ramp. I clutch my rain jacket close to myself, struggling to find purchase on the mist-soaked ground. I alternate my glance from my feet to the memorial we approach: the site of the USS Arizona's final resting place, one of the battleships destroyed in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
The monument is pure, blinding white, the sort of color that takes on the light around you, forcing your eyes towards it. It is narrow, a sort of tube, with open-air windows that are concentrated wind tunnels in today's dismal conditions. I feel exposed to the elements. Unable to hide from the truth of what I am standing on. A grave.
The entire structure is curved, higher at both sides and lower in the middle. It's symbolic, of course, an intentional choice by the monument's designer to represent World War 2 for the US, the nadir being Pearl Harbor itself. I walk forward, silent, listening to nothing but the wind and the hushed murmurs of my fellow visitors. The end of the monument opens up into a windowless room, quiet and somber. Granite walls stretch up to the ceiling, covered with names.
Two first initials. One last name. Repeat 1,102 times. Bodies interred here, soldiers caught unawares. Living life until the last moment: playing cards, smoking, writing a letter to a girl back home. Snatched in a second at 07:48 on December 7th, 1941.
I think I know the meaning of the word sacrifice, but not really. Standing here, watching the fish innocuously swim around the orange-red shell of the fallen ship, I realize something. Sacrifice doesn't always mean knowingly plunging into the breach, fighter guns blazing and American flag held aloft.
It means going about your day, living below decks, joking with your buddy and donning the dress whites. It means that, despite this semblance of regularity, every moment has that undertow of potential sacrifice. You have the knowledge that this normalcy is anything but, and it could all be gone in a moment. And when it is gone, you're a hero. You go down with the ship. You stay there, entombed in a rusting behemoth that represents the nadir but also the sacrifice.
Years pass. People walk above you, they read your name, they stay silent while they try desperately to understand what this all means. They use the word sacrifice, but do they understand it anymore? Can they?
I turn away from the endless list of names, troublingly unfamiliar. I watch the ocean crest over the remains of the USS Arizona. I think about time, and how it changes things but never erases. I imagine this memorial 50 years from now, 100. Who will stand here? What will they think?
I walk out of the monument. The gales are stronger now, as if to match my emotions. As the crewman unties our boat and we move away, I watch the American flag, raised above the white curvature, struggling against the wind.