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Column: A forever moment

Posted: April 30, 2018 2:43 p.m.
Updated: May 1, 2018 1:00 a.m.

(I wrote this column, “Reflections from the long black wall,” nearly 20 years ago, shortly after I visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. I believe what I had to say then remains true today. That is, one cannot visit it without being profoundly moved. With The Wall That Heals replica of the memorial coming to Camden this week, I hope everyone will take a moment to go pay your respects. Trust me; you will be moved in ways you cannot begin to imagine.)

I’ve never been to Vietnam. I’ve never even served in the armed forces. The son, and scion of veterans, I found it much too inconvenient to engage in something as abstract and onerous as serving my country.

I never had anything against the military, mind you. After all, it fed, clothed and educated me. But when I came of age, it just wasn’t for me. I didn’t really have to, so I didn’t. End of story.

Or was it?

You see, funny things happen to you as you get older. They’re called realizations.

I realize that the man I was is not someone I am particularly proud of and I’ll probably spend the rest of my life trying to make amends for that guy’s shortcomings. I can’t say I’m a particularly good man now, and I don’t see a whole lot of hope for the future of my character, but I’m a lot better than who I was.

Or maybe not. Maybe I just got used to that guy.

Whatever, but I realize with each passing day that I owe much, in fact, everything, to a lot of people, many of whom I don’t know, nor will I ever have the chance to know. Recently, this and many other realizations were hammered home for me, in cold, stark clarity, when I finally got to see the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I realize the monument has been there for some time now but as usual, I’m late, this time in paying my respects.

Washington is full of memorials. There are memorials to everything and everyone. But that doesn’t mean the honorees don’t deserve them; they do. But even if one never served, or never knew anyone who did, either in Vietnam or elsewhere, I can’t imagine anyone leaving this place without feeling profoundly moved.

It was late in the afternoon and the wind was picking up as it blew across the Potomac tidal basin. Abraham Lincoln, forever frozen in a moment of deep, pensive melancholy, looked across the river toward Arlington. Farther down the basin, Thomas Jefferson pondered the future of a young nation. City lights were starting to wink on, much like stars will gradually appear in a darkening winter sky.

I hate being cold, to the point where I sometimes think that, weather-wise, hell wouldn’t be such a terrible place to go if the neighborhood wasn’t so bad.

But I had mentioned to my uncle earlier that day that I wanted to see this place. Now, shivering with the icy wind, eyes watering from the cold, we trudged down a dirt path until we suddenly came upon it, this shrine to a national fool’s errand, this monument to the honor of a generation lost.

I turned my collar up to the wind, cursed my stupidity at being out in such unpleasant elements and followed my uncle -- whose arthritic foot is even more painful in cold weather and who had walked with a slight limp with nary a grumble -- the entrance of the park.

They say first impressions are the most important. I don’t know about that, but I do know that I have never seen a memorial which so aptly mirrors that which it honors. It sneaks up on you. The memorial wall starts at the top of an incline, then as you descend down a gentle granite slope, it grows. About halfway down, the wall is head high and for the first time you really begin to notice the names.

Get to the bottom of the slope, make that turn and, suddenly, like the war itself, it’s bigger than everything. It’s in your face. It overwhelms. You forget the elements, the people around you, the fact that it is nightfall and 20 degrees and a biting wind is chapping your face. You’re focused only on that wall, engulfed by all the names.

Those names! So many of them! What are they saying? Why are they calling out to you?

Then you step out of the plaza and encounter three soldiers on patrol in the jungle, young in mere years but aged beyond belief, war weary, hoping only to get through this hour and make it back home. Farther down the path, you meet the nurses. They’re tending a wounded soldier, their young faces lined with pity and purpose and care and a powerful courage borne of the horror to which they bear witness.

They are the names; they are the voices, these men and women of bronze and stone. They are each of us, the very embodiment of the phrase “there but for the grace of God go I.” Their eyes mirror the lessons of the years, learned under fire, paid in blood.

They reach out to you. They are not beseeching, though; they are just introducing themselves. They want you to know their story. They want to tell you why they are so much a part of each of us.

And why not? They deserve that. Anyone who ever paid for our soil with their blood does. They’re the ones, willingly or no, who did what they had to do. They won’t get to roll in the sand with their lovers on a balmy summer night at the beach; they won’t get to see their kids play little league ball or lose a first tooth; they won’t get to be Santa Claus on a noisy Christmas morning; they won’t be complaining about mowing the lawn or cleaning the garage next Sunday afternoon.

They won’t ever have the chance to take a leisurely stroll in the sunset of a chill afternoon. But, somehow, you just know they want you to.

Suddenly, it’s not so cold anymore.

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