Perhaps it is a matter of age, or generation. Or, perhaps I’m just a weepy old man. As I walked down the gentle incline, into the earth and back into time with the polished black granite just a foot or two from my right shoulder I could see the names passing by, and the little identification numbers on each panel. It’s all very organized and tasteful. Just names of young men and fewer young women. Alan W. Andrews, Thomas E. Johnson, and over fifty-eight thousand more, all cut into the stones from a very few in the beginning, to large panels, full from top to bottom near the middle and tapering out again to the last names, the last Americans killed in Viet Nam.
It should be easy to walk down and back up again. But if you find it easy I wonder it you are really all right. I was on a mission to find a name, the national reminder that a young man had lived among us and died far away. The well-worn, plastic-laminated directory at the entrance to the Memorial showed the panel number I was to look for. As we got closer my feet got heavier. I wanted to find his name, and yet I didn’t. Then, my guide pointed up and said, “There it is, right there.” And, so it was, LEO A. REMONDINI Jr *, clean, clear, precise. He didn’t go out that way. Nothing was clean, clear or precise because, after all, it was war. And the “fog of war” in Viet Nam stuck to their boots and splashed on them when the incoming got too close.
I never met young Leo, but I knew his family for all the years I lived in Michigan. The young man was remembered in a shrine on the wall of the Caspian City Hall.
This was where the weepy old man popped out. As I laid my hand on his name, touching several other names above and below his the power of The Wall hit me hard. You can’t convince me that the spirits of men do not linger and watch. In front of my grown daughter, my friend Doyle and his young niece this gray-haired fellow had to wipe his face as The Wall volunteer made a rubbing of the name, and handed it to me with a smile.
There is a stone channel along The Wall at ground level. It is there to retain the offerings that people leave. I looked, but there were no letters, books, teddy bears, graduation rings, bottles, keys or any of the millions of items that have been collected there in the past. It seems that much of what is found simply appears there early in the mornings, as people can come at night and ponder, and pray, in private. There is no magic lantern to show us the tear stains on the walkway. If there was, I suspect it would glow with love and memories in a million little puddles. Park employees collect the offerings daily and document the location, time and date, and everything collected goes to the National Archives for eternity.
Speaking of eternity, I guess that’s why The Wall is there. Lest We Forget and all of that. Nearby, and facing The Wall is The Viet Nam Soldiers Memorial, a painted metal sculpture depicting three “grunts”, in jungle gear, actively looking over at the names of their comrades. It is a beautiful piece and it would look good in any downtown city park. This near to The Wall it appears “lightweight” by comparison.
When my feet stopped looking too blurry, we slowly walked back up out of the gash in the earth, leaving the black granite Wall behind us, as much of America has left Viet Nam and it’s memories and significance behind.
Leo and you other men, if you really are there watching, we are still thinking of you. Our generation will be wiping our eyes forever.