The Wall That Heals
Yesterday I went to Chillicothe, Illinois with my friend Judy to check on her cottage on the Illinois River and to help her with some gardening. We arrived mid-afternoon, a beautiful fall day, and as we pulled up we were wondering what all the cars were doing in the nearby park. Soon we learned that a very special thing indeed was going on right there in that sleepy little town...the traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial was set up there for four days and folks were coming from far and wide to see "The Wall that Heals" and pay their respects to the memories of all those men and women who died in Vietnam.
I never knew anyone who died in Vietnam. But probably we all know someone who lost a loved one there. When we learned that the wall was illuminated at night so we could go there anytime during the evening, we elected to go on with our gardening, enjoy a Mexican dinner at Tequila's, and then stroll over in the darkness to give the memorial the time and attention it merited.
There were several illuminated displays to see, and a helicopter that was used in Vietnam, and lots of human interest stories about specific folks who died in Vietnam. We took our time reading every word, all in utter silence. Now those of you who know me are thinking, "wow, I can't imagine MaryE being still for an hour"...but our silence lasted throughout our visit and even on the walk back to the cottage. The deep silence felt like some sombre, heavy cloak that engulfed us in the night as we made our way around the exhibits and finally to the wall.
Earlier Judy told me about visiting the "original" wall in Washington DC, what a powerful and unforgettable expereience it was to follow that wall, looking at all the names, as it made its descent down into the very ground, and how strange that all felt. In Chillicothe, though, the replica wall was above ground and about spanned 123 feet on each of two matching sides, each side starting low and rising to a height of about 5 feet in the middle. A row of American flags stood guard, illuminated by spotlights, at the low end of each side. It was maybe 10 pm when we walked over to the wall and just a few folks, mostly over 50 years old, folks who would at least recall the Vietnam Years, were quietly making their way through the cool night air. Everyone seemed to be in a sort of prayerful mood and I'll say that I can't really describe how all this felt inside me but if I had to choose a couple of words they might be "powerful" and "haunting." I felt a tremendous sense of personal loss. I can't even imagine how someone who lost a loved one in Vietnam might feel at meeting this wall in the cool of an autumn night in a sweet little town in Illinois. There were memorials placed along the 246 foot span of the wall, caring letters written by children, single roses, carnations, little momentos. I found myself thinking on all the tears that had been shed in the shadow of this wall and all the prayers that had gone up for family, friends and strangers alike.
I remember thinking how it would be a Good Thing if everyone in America could step out of their own little lives for a few minutes and be quiet and come to this wall and read and listen and weep for the lives that were lost in this war and in all wars. I felt like my life was enriched by taking a little time to see and experience this memorial wall and by reflecting on its impact and meaning. And I thought how it could have been my brother or my father or my cousin's name up on that wall -- and how all those names - some 58,000 in all - were indeed someone's loved ones, lost forever. How 58 thousand names were neatly inscribed on this long wall yet imagining the even greater impact of seeing 58,000 caskets with American flags on them all lined up in a row stretching out for miles, each with its own honor guard, each representing a life lost to war. And in the tent presided over by a veteran of I presume WWII, a book showing thousands of folks who were also victims of the Vietnam War, those who suffered through Agent Orange-induced cancer and horrible depression or alcoholism...the unseen victims whose names never made that shiny wall...soldiers who succumbed to the fallout of war. And still they die.
Years ago when I lived in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, I had a really cool neighbor named Bertha who was way up in her 90s (95 last I knew) and she'd had one child, a son named Joe Jr. and he'd been killed in Vietnam and whenever she told about that she'd still tear up, even though it was nearly 40 years after he'd died....and it was only a couple of years after Joe Jr. was killed that her husband Joe had died, leaving her alone in a nice little house on a nice little street. And there she'd lived on her own some 35 years, still going to her beloved Baptist church every Sunday and sometimes during the week. On the walls of her living room among beautifully cared for antiques were newspaper articles about the day Joe died and photographs of her husband and Joe Jr., memorial walls of her own making standing guard over her own lost loves.
So when I walked into the tent there at the Memorial and saw an alphabetical listing of all those men and women who died in Vietnam, I went ahead and looked up Joe Jr. and found which line and section he was listed on and I went there in the darkness and read his name among so many others, illuminated by the spotlight, and I bowed my head and I said a prayer for Joe and all those other folks I'll never have a chance to know.
I'm dead against this war we're fighting and the reasons it's being fought but I join so many other folks around the world in hoping our troops will come home soon and safely because it's never the foot soldiers who think up these horrible wars and so many of them, like the folks who fought in Vietnam, did not go there by choice, and they have left behind loved ones who worry about them every moment of every day.
My own brother enlisted in the Marine Corps during the Vietnam war. Though he's nine years older than me I looked up to him like nobody else in the world and it broke my heart while he was away serving his country. He was one of the lucky ones; he got stationed in Hawaii, not Vietnam, but still I worried like some newlywed for his safety and I wrote him long letters two or three times a week and he was constantly in my thoughts though most young teens were dreaming about boys and being kissed...how good it was when he returned alive and whole, unlike so many of the folks who went to Vietnam whose names stand on the wall and those going to the middle east who may never have a Memorial Wall built in their honor.
If you have a chance to go to Washington DC or to see this traveling "Wall that Heals" take the time to go honor these fallen soldiers and the ones who live with the painful memories of what happened across the world so many years ago. You'll be glad you did. It's a powerful thing that, though I used plenty of them, I just can't seem to put into the right words. Sad and disturbing. Salute.