This past Fourth of July, the replica of The Vietnam Wall came to our town. I called my wife to meet me in front of the auto parts store so we might go see it. My wife is Colombian and her knowledge of American history is a bit sketchy. When we arrived at the site and looked down the long V shaped row of panels, my wife asked me, “How many are here?”
“58,272,” I said.
“All these soldiers are from all the American wars?”
“No, just one. Vietnam.”
“Just ONE? Just Vietnam? All these? Why?”
Ah, yes, there it was. That age-old question about Vietnam. I gave her the only answer I knew: “I don’t know.”
Not even the birds twittered or sang in this small corner of the park. I would like to have imagined their silence was out of respect for all these young soldiers on The Wall. But I think they didn’t sing because it was just too hot. It was only nine o’clock in the morning and the thermometer had already climbed to 80 degrees or more. I hobbled over to sit on one of the metal benches provided which was partially shaded by the large cottonwoods behind it. A good way for a 68-year old man coming to see some old friends, a shady bench. With my arthritis, I just cannot stand that long.
However, these Soldiers, Marines, Sailors and Airmen were not old; they were never old and never will be. I was like them once, long ago. We were very young then, children actually. Youths of 17, 18 and 19 years old still battling acne and thinking about girls. Children who had no clue as to the horrors of the breech they were about to be thrust into.
The silence here in the park was complete, almost deafening. Not a breath of wind stirred the leaves of mid-summer. Only by moving my foot slightly in the gravel beneath the bench told me the world’s sound had not been turned off. Visitors began arriving early making little noise and saying even less. The fact that this place was consecrated ground, the resting place of a generation of teen-age American soldiers held that power over them, even after 40 years.
I have read much about the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C.; the designer, the builder, and of the thousands of mementos visitors leave daily for a buddy, a son, a husband, a father, an uncle or just some random act of kindness by a complete stranger.
So many, many names.
It was like standing before a crowd at the Vatican or Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Here on these panels are written 58,272 names of our Vietnam War dead. The sheer number of all these names is a grim reminder of the stupidity of a government. I think it was President Herbert Hoover who once said, “It is the old men who start wars, but the young must die in them”. Why didn’t subsequent politicians heed his words?
If you buy a house for $58,272, it’s a real bargain and not a lot of money, however if one were to lay 58,272 people down head to toe, they would form continuous line nearly 70 miles long. Seventy miles is not far at all in an air-conditioned Buick at 75 miles an hour down the Interstate. But try walking seventy miles; just remember that every two paces you would take would represent one of these names. Sobering.
I was surprised that I suddenly thought of Jane Fonda. What surprises me even more is how, after her betrayal of these soldiers, she would have the gall to appear in movies anymore. She was nominated some time ago as “Woman of The Year” by some group. I was nauseated. What is wrong with a society that throws beer bottles at returning veterans, but would venerate a collaborator? As an old man, this frightens me.
Every single name inscribed on these panels had a life every bit as significant and full as my own, perhaps even more so in some cases . Each name, three-quarters of an inch tall, represents a human being with a mother, a father, a son or a daughter, a sweetheart, a wife or husband they left behind.
I thought of some of my Marine Corps buddies that may or may not be eternalized on these panels. That was so long ago. Somewhere in my shoebox full of old photos, I have a picture of four of them together when we were at Camp Pendleton. I look at this yellowing snapshot from time to time and the young faces peering back at me from 50 years ago look vaguely familiar. I recall bits and pieces of personalities of each one, but my brain has long since discarded the remainder of the information about them. I thought about looking for their names among all the 58,272 war dead here in front of me, but I was saddened that I could not remember their names. But then I thought, why? I was here to visit a monument, a graveyard, a tomb and I did not feel the need to exhume a body to identify it. They were noted as being here. We were children with rifles and machine guns and mortars and artillery. So were the Vietnamese. Children killing children.
So God-awful many names.
No, not names, lives. All lined up neatly according to the date they were killed, row upon row upon row of them, like an entire generation of youth awaiting the Final Inspection. Ah, but they will all pass The Inspection. Why wouldn’t they?
I remember the 1960’s. They kept sending more and more troops into the meat grinder of Vietnam, into a war that was unwinnable. A war that was directed from desks in Washington by old men who had no clue what they were doing and often forbade our soldiers to do the jobs for which they were trained. God forbid, we might offend someone. The old politicians would look at a map on an office wall in Washington, rub their chins and say, “We (they would say ‘we’ as though they were themselves soldiers) need to take this valley or that hill or this city.” The politicians were looking at a piece of colored paper on a wall under clinical conditions. But it was the chicken farmer from Alabama, the kid frying hamburgers at MacDonald’s and the kid pumping gas in Chicago who were made to go into that area to discover it was not flat and smooth and colorful like the map in Washington. It was jungle or swamp or stinking rice paddies or steep mountains, all full of leeches and snakes and mud and heat and booby traps and Vietnamese children with guns.
How ironic that President Franklin D. Roosevelt had three sons, John, Elliot and James, who served in World War II. I remember reading once that not one Senator’s or politician’s son or daughter went to Vietnam, save one. He had some cushy duty in Da Nang. I have long since forgotten which politician’s son that was but that alone should have told us something. I could be wrong about this, but not by much, I’m sure. I guess it no longer matters, does it?
On the outdoor stage across the park, I could hear some thumping and banging as the chairs and podiums were being set up for the afternoon’s festivities. I didn’t find the intrusion annoying; it served as a reminder that life still reigned.
I was blinded by tears. When I thought no one was looking at me, I swiped them away with my hand.
A well-meaning elderly woman nearby seeing me sitting on the bench, noted my tears. “Do you have someone special here?” She asked softly.
“Yes,” I said, “fifty-eight thousand of them.”
She walked away, not really understanding.
But that’s no longer important, is it?
Jack quit high school in 1963 and enlisted in the Marine Corps at the tender age of 17. When asked about his service in the Corps, Jack is quick to say, “I enlisted, I served, I was honorably discharged. I was never any hero, a Chesty Puller I was not.” Upon his discharge, Jack finished high school and went on to earn an MS degree in natural resource management and foreign languages the University of Wyoming. Jack’s computer is stuffed with book-length manuscripts and short stories and writes three to five hours a day. Today, working as a home health care nurse, Jack and his Colombian wife quietly live in Colorado.