In 1982, Bob passed through Washington, DC, on his way home from the Worlds Fair Expo in Knoxville, Tennessee. The trip was very long and Linda, his wife, was engrossed in a magazine she picked up at one of the many fuel stops along the way. There was this trench being dug near the Lincoln Memorial. Bob drove passed and continued to look at the great architecture of the nation's Capitol. The significance of that excavation would not be realized until some time later.
As far as war memorials go the Vietnam Veterans Memorial has no physical stature that looms above. It has no complex intricate sculptural detail. But it has the stealth of a cat, and the punch of a heavyweight champion.
Bob was in DC on business in June of '86. He realized the construction seen years before was the memorial and had seen much discussion of the merits and criticisms of its design. From his hotel room adjacent to the Capitol Building he began his trek to the memorial. In his wheelchair, he set forth alone across the Capitol city. Block after block he pressed onward toward the compelling silent call. The stone building crept passed as push after push on the chrome rims turned wheels into motion. The Jefferson Memorial peered skyward and played on the horizon behind official buildings where the mechanisms of war and peace, poverty and wealth, happiness and misery are planned and set into motion by the force of human will. It was a will much like the force which propelled Bob against friction and gravity toward the granite wall.
The Washington Monument stood poised and pointing toward the Heavens as Bob rounded the corner. Its full length and immensity became apparent as Bob huffed and puffed his way, push after push on the asphalt path up to the base. He stretched his neck looking upward to the pinnacle. How huge it was and how puny it is depending on ones perspective.
From there the course was down hill to the Lincoln Memorial but the going became more difficult as the distance shortened between Bob and The Wall.
He jumped a curb and rolled toward the Reflecting Pool. The path was level but hardly flat. The bumps jarred the wheelchair as Bob hurried along the path then up a small grade at the far end and a right turn. There. Dogged weary faced soldiers stood frozen in time and space gazing at a memory which refused to fade.
Bob paused at the top of the walk to take in the essence of the wall and realize the power that it commands. With so much blood and so many human souls consumed for its creation, the black granite emanates a life of its own composed of the lives that prompted its creation.
Slowly Bob made his way to the bottom of the path. He felt himself sinking into the depths of the grave as the wall grew taller and the names stood out further and further as they became more numerous.
Milton, Crosby, Holt, Ramsey. As he descended the path the oncoming people silently stepped aside to let him pass. Not a word was spoken. They had their own thoughts and their own words for each other. Not even a "good day" was said to Bob as he wheeled by. He began to feel the coldness that so many veterans told about.
One very good feature to the memorial is that although one travels to the depths of despair and desolation as they approach the vertex, after passing it, the path is uphill and the names become less numerous as the far end is reached. One is at least left with hope that these are the very last war dead for this country. But there is so much spare space in Washington for war memorials.
The list of dead sits at both ends and reads like a telephone directory or a college yearbook. Bob flipped the pages to "SPR" then back to "SLA" finally to "SMI." Smith. Smith, Robert A., Smith, Robert B. There were so many Robert Smith's lost in Vietnam.
14E-17 seemed the most likely, but it was so hard to remember and be sure.
Bob left the walkway and went to sit on a bench overlooking the wall from one end. He passed the lectern where the list lay under glass. While seeking his friend his only thoughts were "this book is too damned long." He sat on the empty bench and looked at the wall and the people who stood before it. He could imagine the people who stood behind it.
A Vietnamese man, about 40, sat next to Bob. He said, "you remember me, Jim?" Bob looked at him, surprised. "You remember me, don't you," he repeated. Bob shook his head no. "You must, you were in my village. You and the others. You remember, Jim."
"I'm not Jim," said Bob. "I've never been in your village."
"But you helped me when the shelling came," he said in his broken English.
"I remember you, Jim."
"I own a grocery store here, now."
"I'm glad to hear that."
"My wife, she helps, and the son."
"I'm glad, but I'm not Jim."
"Sure, you'll remember. You just think hard, You'll remember."
Bob said, "I hope you're happy here now." Then he got ready to transfer back to his wheelchair.
"When did you get wounded," he said.
"I'm sorry, I have to go now." He backed away before turning to leave.
"I came here to thank them."
Bob began to leave. "It's been good to talk to you."
"Goodbye, Jim. I hope to see you again real soon."
Bob left feeling quite strange to have been mistaken for a man who might have been killed, or might have been captured and tortured, or might have come home to be ignored and never thanked. Bob knew that at least one man and family thought that the men who fought did some good. He rolled away feeling sad and confused. The road back was another two miles. Two miles never seemed so easy as when compared to the road that so many men traveled to their ends or back.
As he rolled back along the walk parallel to Constitution Avenue, Bob came upon a small booth surrounded with state flags. A solitary man stood behind the counter upon which was affixed the message "MIAs You can do something." To the right of the words stared the sweaty black face of a soldier still MIA. The stark contrast of his white eyes punctuated the moment as Bob first saw the face, the face that well could have been Smitty. But Smitty was a casualty. 14E-17 bore the name. But with so much confusion and bureaucratic SNAFU, the possibilities were there. Those eyes shot a twinge of pain through Bob's head and caused a muscle to spasm in the back of his neck. It grew to a full fledge shudder that raced down his back and into his numb legs all the way to his feet where it disbursed into his all but forgotten toes. There it remained a tingle for quite some time as smaller waves if chill raised the hairs on the sides and back of his head and fled downward to join the fading sensations in his paralyzed legs.
The man behind the counter just looked at Bob. As Bob paused the man said, "How are you, Sir.?"
Bob replied, "Better today, thank you." He was still quite chilled from the experience. He could not think of anything more to say so he quickly pivoted and departed on his course hotel-ward. The man said, "take care."
Soon that booth, the man and that photograph were in the distance behind. Bob could still see that face as clearly as ever as he rolled around the great eclipse by the Whitehouse.
Not many things emotionally overtook Bob. Even the death of a family member or a friend usually doesn't cause much grief, if it happens in the normal course of life. Even a car crash fatality seems commonplace in life with 50,000 of them a year. It is difficult to realize that the numbers of names on the granite wall also represent the number of people killed every year on the highway. Or that represents the number of men killed in just four days in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania over a century ago. They represent only a fraction of the total Vietnamese dead of the same period.
Dying for a good cause is a glorious noble sacrifice. Bob never has been able to set definitely in his mind whether Vietnam was a noble cause or not. In retrospect, The Wall could have its mirror in one that names the men who served in Vietnam and have committed suicide since returning home. That wall would be taller and longer and the book heavier.
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