Sunday morning Betty and I drove into Washington DC and visited The Wall. The weather dawned rainy and cool and most of the people around this center of world power still snuggled in their beds. Down at The Mall, the Potomac looked like a mirror that needed to be re-silvered. Big white and blue cabin cruisers cut wakes in the flat gray water.
Most of the people out were sweaty joggers, their hair matted with the humidity. The Washington Mall has a lot of wide, flat, sandy trails and lots of trees, and the view from Lincoln’s seat in his big white Acropolis-looking shrine on down to the obelisk-y Washington Monument can be quite stunning with the reflections of the morning cumulus mixed with cirrus clouds in the long pools. When we got there a faint sheet of virago draped the eastern sky, as if stranded above the Washington Monument’s apex.
As we approached The Wall on foot, bus loads of Asians showed up and people piled out and began to photograph everything in sight: Lincoln, the Korean War Monument, the sky, the street. And why not, Betty and I were downtown this morning to do some photography ourselves. We checked the books at the Vietnam War Memorial monument and found names of men I knew back in the 1960s. We shot some pictures of the names: Aldrich, Claire, Jacques, McRae, Norman, Rivera, Ryan. The names I knew or served with came in groups on the panels—batched alphabetically by dates they died. Twenty-some-odd men on Jun 7, 1967, twenty-some-odd on February 25, 1968, twelve or so on March 6, 1968, twelve or so on March 30, 1968. There are about eighty names on that wall that I served with in Bravo Company and there are another twelve or so names of men I knew from my home town. And that doesn’t count the men I trained with before Nam who died there without my knowledge and I won’t go into the non-lethal casualties of both then and now that are not on the wall and so remain anonymous.
Betty and I first went to the wall on a sweltering July 2 night in 1993. There were busloads of us and a piper in a plaid kilt played bagpipes on the lawn just above the wall. My old comrades stood around and made speeches about loss and sacrifice. They pointed to the etched names and let tears drip from their tough old eyes. But not me, not me, not me. None of that stuff bothered me.
Years later, in 1999 Betty and I went again. I stood down there by myself while Betty looked for a name in the books, and I was engulfed by the high walls of the monument. It’s like a canyon sometimes, remembering all those men, or boys as they were at the time. I remember on that particular visit I was looking for a Marine named John Armstrong, a black guy I went to high school with who was killed in March 1967, the week I got to Nam. Something about the May sunlight glancing off the smooth black surface burned my eyes and tears leaked out of the corners. I looked around to see who was watching me as I pulled my red kerchief out of my back pocket and wiped my eyes and cleaned my glasses, sighing in relief that no one I knew saw me at that moment, weak and exposed, remembering his big black frame smacking me into the turf of the football field the year I was a junior. I can’t really visualize him well in my mind after forty-six years, but something about the way he moved, the way he was built, reminds me of a razor blade, and his big smile, and how aloof he was to all us loud-mouthed white guys.
We went to The Wall in 2001, too, but I don’t recall much, except the reds, golds and oranges in the late October trees along the mall, the nip in the air, and the smell of wood smoke floating over the river from Arlington, Virginia. We went to the Iwo Jima Memorial that time, too, and stood up above the sculptures of that monument and looked through and over the power lines at all the monuments on the other side. Yes, monuments, monuments—a lot of monuments. Smoke still rose from the wound in The Pentagon caused by the September 11 attack. As I stood there looking at the replica of the photograph taken of the staged flag-raising on Iwo, I felt a great sense of fear and a great sense of sadness smothering us, our country. One of the things that bothers me now is that this sense of fear is still with us and I want to grab the lapels of my accumulated countrymen (metaphorically speaking) and scream out FDR’s words, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself,” but we are frightened and cower behind our PCs and Wii games, and fail to see the world as something that spins on whether we are frightened or not. The world, history, time, physics, nor the universe give a damn whether we are frightened or secure.
This Sunday’s visit quickly saw throngs of people troop past the panels we photographed. The sun got out and glared down and all the Asians left off photographing Abe Lincoln and started walking down the mall. They passed us by with a certain reserve, maybe a reverence or so I’d like to think, the lilting music of their voices toned down to almost whispers. Although none of them stopped to look at any of those fifty-eight thousand names. I wondered what they thought as they walked past chatting in their languages that sounded so much like the ones spoken by the men we killed, and who in turn killed all those men on that black marble wall.
When I got back from our Sunday visit I swore I wouldn’t write about any of this, but here I am doing it. We returned to where we are staying via Arlington and Alexandria and Annandale and when we arrived I wrote down the names of all the men I know who died at Khe Sanh when we were besieged. I wrote down their ranks—Private First Class, Lance Corporal, Corporal, Sergeant, Staff Sergeant, Lieutenant–and the panels where their names are memorialized and the row numbers so Betty and I can go back with cameras and tripods and movie camera and shoot all of them, all of them, all of them.
I swore to myself I wouldn’t write about this. I said it to myself as I sat there and wrote those names and their locations on The Wall on the lined yellow sheet on the yellow pad. I will not write about this. And outside, the Carolina wrens picabooed their music, and the cicadas scratched out their claims to the big-leafed trees in the back yard. Some newly spotted fawns fed on the ferns. Somewhere lightning shattered. It thundered and showered.