Generally, I write an introduction here which shares my connection with my Friend Friday guest. Today that is Jeff Gottesfeld, the author of TWENTY-ONE STEPS: GUARDING THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER, illustrated by Matt Tavares (Candlewick). His piece below is so moving, I just want to let it speak for itself.

Jeff Gottesfeld

Until exactly three minutes before writing this sentence, I had never heard of the American philosopher Aldo Leopold (1887-1948). He is very much not the subject of TWENTY-ONE STEPS: GUARDING THE TOMB OF THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER (Candlewick, March, 2021), with breathtaking illustrations by Matt Tavares. But he is relevant as heck. 

I learned five minutes ago that Leopold was one of our first ecologists who called for a “land ethic” that made environmental responsibility a matter of morality. Note to self: He could be a great subject for a picture book. 

What led me to Leopold was a search for the origin of a concept. The concept is, morality is best judged not just by what is done in public, but also in private. And what got me thinking about that subject was wondering what the last twelve months must have been like at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and for the Tomb Guards who keep faithful watch at that hallowed monument every minute of every day. They’ve been doing it since July 2, 1937. 

 Just like so many other public facilities, Arlington closed to the general public with the advent of Covid-19 in America. It and the Tomb only reopened to visitors – no more than 150 at a time, at the Tomb – a few weeks ago. Pre-Covid-19, there might be thousands of people at the Tomb, on a nice day. They come to watch the famed change of the guard, and ruminate on the meaning of Unknowns from two World Wars and Korea, who gave everything for their country. 

During Covid-19, the plaza was empty.

Nothing changed for the Tomb Guards. Not one thing. They dressed as meticulously as ever, still shined their shoes for five hours, and spaced their medals to 1/64th of an inch. They walked their 21 steps, clicked their metallic heels, and took their 21 seconds of silence.  

The Sentinels were as steadfast when no one was looking as when the plaza is crowded with visitors. The Unknowns were never alone.

It was that reality –being as responsible, rigorous, focused, and disciplined in private as in public – which prompted the search that led to a quote from Leopold: 

“Ethical behavior is doing the right thing when no one else is watching.” 

Leopold was referring to our relationship with the planet – how it is unethical to be a sustainability advocate in public, but wasteful in private. I think it It applies to everything, and especially being a soldier, responsible for the lives of others. 

Jeff Gottesfeld at the tomb of the unknown solider

I expected to learn a lot when I embarked on TWENTY-ONE STEPS. To gain knowledge of World War I, a subject I knew poorly. To understand the American armed services in a way that would have been inconceivable to me when I was younger. And with any luck at all, to talk with Tomb Guards, and grasp what had to be their complex psychology of service and selflessness.

All those things happened. But nothing landed as powerfully as comprehending how Tomb Guards carry out their duties to the highest standard, before many, few, or none. That unwavering standard, immortalized in the Sentinel Creed’s famed line 6, is perfection. 

Not just excellence. Perfection. 

Perfection is of course unachievable. But striving for it, even in a single undertaking, produces unfathomable improvement. It’s the same whether the subject is brushing one’s teeth, cleaning a toilet, writing a good paragraph, or acting ethically and morally when alone. 

I’m a long, long way from where I want to be. But I’m better for having learned the history, engaged with the military, talked with Tomb Guards, and considering what it means to give all you have to your country and for freedom. I am better with others, and better alone.

 May I, and we all, be better still. 

Twenty-One Steps Written by Jeff Gottesfeld and Illustrated by Matt Tavares