The Moving Wall is a half-scale replica of Washington DC's Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Since 1984, The Moving Wall has toured the country, having installed itself for public viewing at over a thousand towns and cities. A conservative estimate would put the number of visitors in the millions. This blog is dedicated to getting behind The Moving Wall, to revealing how it was built, and what keeps it standing and rolling along.

On The Road With The Moving Wall

I have created a separate blog for this year's visitors to The Moving Wall. On it, they can directly post observations, impressions, reflections, etc. They can also post images. This new blog has the potential to be a great journal or travelogue of The Moving Wall in 2010. Please spread the word.

Here is the blog: http://rollingwiththemovingwall2010.blogspot.com/

I am also quite honored and pleased that Sharon Denitto has requested that her excellent site, Touch The Wall, be linked here. Please visit Touch The Wall, as Sharon's hard work offers a unique perspective on The Wall, and presents information not readily found elsewhere.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

When The Wall Comes To Town, And When It Doesn't

A casino seems an odd place to host The Wall. After all, The Wall is about contemplation, reflection, remembrance, prayer. A casino would seem to have nothing in common with The Wall, apart from the praying, perhaps. Yet, a few weeks ago, on the invitation of The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, John and Joy schlepped The Wall out to Grand Ronde, Oregon, home of the Spirit Mountain Casino (owned by The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde). 
I caught up with those weary road warriors in the casino lodge. I had to be in Tacoma the following week, and so I came out to the west coast early to spend some time with them and visit The Wall. As it turned out, the casino, lacking any grassy area large enough to support The Wall, had to re-site it to tribal grounds a couple of miles away in a much more suitable environment – a big open space surrounded by trees, mountains, and a scattering of distant, sleepy buildings. The good news is that there The Wall was able to spread itself on quiet grounds; the bad news is that it was removed from the casino and its ready-made population. 

 To their credit, the casino promoted The Wall at every turn, with table tents and posters and audio announcements. They even made available a regularly scheduled casino shuttle for ferrying visitors out to and back from The Wall. I don't know what the shuttle's final numbers were like, but I suspect many a gambler opted not for the free ride but rather to be taken for a ride: time equals money (lost).

I visited The Wall twice while in Grand Ronde, once on Saturday morning, when I rode over with John and Joy in First Cav, John's daffodil yellow pick-up with its huge first cav insignias emblazoned on each of its front doors,

and then again on Sunday afternoon, by myself. 

On Saturday, John and Joy had gone to polish The Wall, which they do each morning (so do Aaron and Lisa, with The “A” Wall);
Joy and John
I had gone to hang around for the opening ceremonies, and catch the shuttle back to the hotel.

The opening ceremony was modestly attended, and, as one would expect of its hosts, heavily inflected with Indian culture. (Note: While “Native American” seems to be the accepted term of reference these days, the tribe members referred to themselves as Indians, and so then will I). As the color guard proceeded slowly from the parking lot to The Wall's apex, a local tribesman, somewhere in his thirties, whacked a drum with a stick and sang a doleful song in which language and carrying what message I do not know. All that I do know is that it seemed ancient and sacred. Along with the color guard marched five little girls, beautifully decked out in tribal dresses, all five in the running for Little Miss Grand Ronde 2010-2011, a tribal election of no trifling significance: Little Miss Grand Ronde, I was informed, is a much coveted tribal award, on the level of royalty, for which young candidates (and, presumably their parents) compete vigorously. Unfortunately, I had not checked my camera's battery before leaving the hotel and had used up all its juice by the time the girls “signed” a recording of Aaron Neville singing “The Lord's Prayer.” But I did take a picture of them (and a friend) before the ceremony began. You can imagine how cute they looked signing.

The rest of the ceremony was brief. There was a prayer offered up by one of the tribal elders, a variation of “Hail Mary, Full of Grace,” and a short recounting by one of the tribe's council members of his time in Vietnam. The whole thing lasted about twenty minutes, after which some people hung around to look at The Wall up close, while others stood around chatting, or drifted off to toward the parking lot and their cars. As I had to wait for the casino shuttle, I moseyed over to the information tent, which didn't have much information but which did have an ample supply of cold drinks. As I stood there eavesdropping, I overheard conversations which indicated general familiarity. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. One woman, Siobhan Kelly I think was her name, was particularly outgoing and conversational. She spoke to some of the elder folk in that kind of maternal way a daughter would talk to an aging father, which suggested she was some kind of caregiver. I learned after a while that she worked for the tribal council (she was also married to a member of a tribe), and she impressed me immediately as a true can-do/does-do person. We struck up a conversation and she told me how proud she was to have The Wall in Grand Ronde, pointing out to me that the confederation of tribes had a disproportionate number of vets (from all wars) given the size of its population (six members of the confederated tribes were on The Wall). She then went on to tell me some of the services the council could now provide, thanks to the casino. Physically, there is a school, a health clinic, a culture center and more. The tribes also provide outreach services like food banks, clothes drives, etc. Siobhan told me the casino contributes 6% of its earnings to the community. The Confederation's website reports $5,000,000 as the dollar figure. That's no token amount.

Clearly, the casino is good for the Confederation, the tribes' overall welfare. But it's a deal with the devil. If you walked the casino's gaming floor, as I did several times, and saw the dull eyes of those who sit hour after hour feeding the slots, you'd know what I mean.



On Sunday afternoon I returned to The Wall. It was a bright, breezy day, weather hard to beat. When I got to the The Wall no one was there except for the security guard who was napping in his car. The chairs which had been put out for Saturday's ceremonies had been taken back, and hand been replaced with a handful of benches set back from The Wall. I sat in one.

After a while a man approached The Wall, alone. Late fifties, early sixties. Gray; pot belly; ill-fitting pants held up by suspenders. Beginning at the far end of the East Wall (the right side panels) he proceeded from one panel to another, somewhat quickly at first, and then increasingly more slowly. After a while, seeing him stand for several minutes in front of a single panel, it occurred to me that he was reading every name.

I wondered if he was planning on reading all 58,253 names (Note: 6 names were added on May 31st, which will added to The Moving Wall when it retires to White Pine for the winter), whether that was even possible, and if so, how long it would take.

After a while a car drove up and two middle-aged couples got out, wearing casual, summer vacationing on the road type clothes. The men appeared more fit than the women, and the t-shirts they wore boasting of some road-race may have been part of the reason why. From where I sat I could see that they were unfamiliar with The Wall. They approached the The Wall tentatively, not really sure what to do with it. Starting at the far end of the east panels, they scanned some names at random and moved along down the line. The four drifted apart and found solo spots across The Wall's expanse. One of the men, however, didn't make it that far. He stopped a few panels past the panel where the pony-tailed man stood, seemingly fixed, and oblivious to now being scrutinized. The newcomer was clearly curious, curious why the other man was standing there for so long, curious what he was seeing. The newcomer looked at the panel in front of him, as though perhaps he, too, could see into The Wall that which the other man was seeing. He could not. So he returned his gaze to the solitary man and continued his wondering. Eventually he drifted off to meet up with his party. Crossing the field back to their car, they cast confounded glances at the man still standing before The Wall. Their car doors slammed and they drove off.

After another five minutes or so, the lone man stopped his reading and abruptly walked away. Why then? Why so decisively? I couldn't know. He just left.

And so I sat there, alone, just me and The Wall. And why not. It was a beautiful day, and peaceful. I knew that when I returned to the casino, I would be forced to exchange this peace for hubbub. So I lingered.

Another car door slammed and I turned to see the security guard heading toward me. I had recognized him as the skinny kid Siobahn had been fawning over yesterday at the information tent. Brad, I think. At the time he confirmed that, yes, he has served in Iraq, medical support, and that he would be returning in January. As he approached me on the bench I couldn't imagine that rail of a young man, unable to fill out even the rent-a-cop uniform he was wearing, filling out the role of warrior. But then again, he was on the healing side of things.

“Hello, sir,” he said. He stood a few feet away with his hands in his pockets.

“Hello,” I said from the bench. I got the sense that, seeing me sitting alone, he thought I might need some help, that I might be struggling.

“Where you there?”

“No,” I said. “I missed the draft by a year.”

He nodded. He didn't suggest that I could have volunteered. To which I would have said what?

“My father was there,” he said. “He came to see The Wall yesterday. We saw it together.

“Did you ever see it before?”

“No. Neither of us.”

“Not the one in DC, either?”

“No sir.”

“That must have been pretty powerful for you two, then. What was it like? What was it like to see The Wall with your father?”

“We didn't talk much. We were mostly quiet. But it's pretty easy to tell when a grown man is crying.”

I nodded. “You're shipping off to Iraq in January,” I said, changing the subject.

Brad lit up. “Yes! How do you know that?”

“I overheard you talking about it yesterday after the opening ceremonies.”

“I was going to say, news travels fast!”

“Well, thank you for serving. And stay healthy.”

“I will, sir. I will try.” He smiled, and headed back to his car.

I sat for a second wondering how we will honor and remember those who have died and will die in Iraq and Afghanistan. What will be their Wall?

* * *

John Devitt's a pretty quiet guy, with a live and let live philosophy. Perhaps because he has traveled so much and come across so many people he has developed a tolerance for things that would unhinge less well-grounded people like me. Take gambling, for instance. If asked, I'd come down hard on it, get all kinds of righteous and judgmental. John, I suspect, would just shrug. Which is not to suggest that he doesn't care or have an opinion, rather it's more like, if no one's getting hurt or hurting anyone else, let it go.

There is one way to get him going, however: get him started on the “fake” walls, the handful of Moving Wall knockoffs that have emerged over the years, purportedly to do the same thing The Moving Wall has been doing and continues to do -- to bring The Wall to vets who might not otherwise get to see it. Bile is the only word I can use to describe what rises in John when talk turns to the “fake” walls, as bile is what then fills him. I saw the bile building as he, Joy, and myself were having a drink at the Legends bar in the casino. I never before saw John's face scrunch into a sourpuss, especially when sipping a Jack/splash/Coke, but there I did. Somebody close by ordered a Coors, and John grimaced He then told me of the time way back when, when he first started trucking The Wall, and how it had come to the attention of Coors, and how they wanted to sponsor The Wall on a national tour. John said great, so long as you play by my rules, meaning, no self-promoting or commercialization. Coors at first said okay, but then reneged, and that was that. Until, a year or two later, when Coors came out with its own wall, strikingly similar to The Wall that John had designed, and sought to take it around the country under the Coors banner. In true David and Goliath form, John took Coors to court for some kind of legal infringement (I can't remember which), and though the corporate flacks likely thought they would make mincemeat of John, in fact John produced an affidavit that dismantled the Coors case at every turn. John and The Wall eventually won, but it cost him a ton of money to beat the brewing behemoth. Victory was sweet, but the cost of that victory left a bitter taste in John's mouth, a bitterness even his Jack/splash/Coke couldn't wash down.
For John, the dynamics of The Moving Wall have always been simple: arrange a time and place, contract with the hosts that The Wall is not to be exploited or commercialized in anyway, set it up and let it do its thing. Though John has never said so outright, I think he sees The Wall's “thing” as bordering on the religious, as in some way creating a chapel for contemplation, remembrance, atonement, and so forth. There is also its healing effect – some have dubbed it “The Healing Wall” – because of the sometimes mending effect it can have for vets and their families. In order to heal, one must be hurt, and when hurting, one is vulnerable. Therefore, anything which interferes with the sanctity of that chapel, The Wall and its surrounding area, is not just a pollutant but a sacrilege. And anything which seeks to take advantage of the vulnerability of visitors through self-promotion or the hawking of wares is shameful. For John, the fake walls now in circulation compromise the simple integrity upon which The Wall was founded and stands: quietly honoring the sanctity of loss and life. Dignity Memorial, a nation- wide network of funeral providers, has a wall,
at which they hoist a Dignity Memorial logo flag.
Some would see nothing wrong with that. I do. The cynic in me can't help wondering whether, as funeral providers, Dignity isn't hoping to curry a relationship with the graying Vietnam vets to whom Dignity coincidentally offers a burial “discount” (it offers a discount to all military vets). After all, there are about 8,000,000 living Vietnam era vets and within the next decade or two a lot, if not most of them, are going to need burying. It may be that Dignity is truly motivated by the purest of intentions, but my suspicious mind can't avoid thinking that there isn't a business motive behind their wall: to forge a relationship with vets so that they can then bury them. And it's the flag which gives me cause for that suspicion; it's as if their wall is a vehicle for product placement, for selling Dignity Memorial while not seeming to. Sometime this fall Dignity Memorial's wall will be on display in my hometown of Huntington, New York, and I plan on visiting it. I will have a better sense of it then, and will post an apology if I have been unfair.

Then there is The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall out of Florida. They sell their own merchandise (hats for $25/$30; golf shirts for $55). 

This memorial is operated by The Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, a non-profit group. On their website they claim to provide a color guard and rifle team for local events, as well as “support a transitional housing facility” for vets. These are admirable pursuits. Whether or not their organization is non-profit and uses its proceeds to fund noble causes is besides the point. If the Brevard group uses their wall as a way to generate income for those causes, than it is exploiting The Wall for financial gain, even if that gain is without profit.

The American Veterans Traveling Tribute has a Moving Wall knock-off as well,

only they look to capture all wars, not just The Vietnam War. And not just wars. 9/11. The shootings at Ft. Hood. And all the nation's commanders-in-chief. It seems like a three ring memorial circus. As for merchandise, they sell hats, coins, pins, patches, stickers, posters, photos, and a coffee table book. What most separates this wall from The Moving Wall is its agenda. It pushes patriotism, which takes their wall to places neither Maya Lin's design nor John Devitt's replica of that design were ever intended to go. This is not to say that Lin or Devitt are unpatriotic or opposed to patriotism, but only that once The Wall is used as a vehicle or fulcrum for purposes outside itself it is no longer The Wall. It becomes an attraction and medium for other ends.

John conceived and designed The Moving Wall to replicate for vets and visitors the experience of DC. He did not want to [further] politicize it or imprint his own political views upon it. In keeping with his hands-off demeanor, John wanted The Wall to do the talking, or more accurately, the whispering. Whatever it said to those who visited, that is what they'd hear. And nothing else. This is what the knock-offs seem not to get. And this gives John grief.

There's another problem with these copycat walls: they crowd the field, and water down the experience. When I was in Lynbrook a few months back some of the organizers were concerned because another memorial (I think it was the Dignity Memorial) was scheduled for later in the summer somewhere further east on Long Island. They feared that visitors might put off Lynbrook for the later display. With so many walls to choose from, there's no urgency to visit any of them.

A week later, when I was in West Hartford and talking to a stern-looking vet, he told me of having seen The Wall before, and when he mentioned the town and year, I knew it wasn't The Moving Wall. I told him that it wasn't this wall, The Moving Wall we were standing in front of, but rather one of its imitators. He looked at me in a kind of square-jawed military way and wanted to know, “What's the difference? As long as the vets get the experience of it, who cares whose wall it is?”

On the one hand I get that sentiment: it's the effect on the vets that counts. And yet, maybe because I know John and Joy, and I know the history of The Moving Wall, and I believe that people should be recognized for their work and achievements, that simple sentiment doesn't wash with me. John, and now Joy, have made The Moving Wall their life, and for the past 26 years he has devoted himself to bringing The Wall to vets and their families all across America and beyond. Long before these knockoffs hit the road trumping this or trumping that, John was trucking The Wall over tens of thousands of miles. He's sacrificed his life for The Wall. He, and The Moving Wall, deserve to be recognized and appreciated appropriately. To claim that one wall is as good as another is just wrong.

But I also think my criticism of the knock-offs goes beyond my sense of loyalty to John, Joy, and The Moving Wall. It has also to do with cheapening memorializing and remembering in general. As more and more walls circulate around the country, the less special each single display becomes. As visits become less special, more regular, and perhaps someday even routine, the spiritual power of all the walls will continue to leak away. At some point too many walls will deaden our sense of awe at what The Wall represents. Much as we become numb to an over exposure of suffering, so too, may communities become numb to ritual remembering. Ho- hum, it's just another wall again. Its meaning and power to draw us in dissipate with familiarity.
With wall after wall popping up here, there, and everywhere, what was once special becomes mundane, and may, eventually, become unexceptional to the point of beyond unnoticed.

One final comment. Lynbrook's concerns were really about critical mass, and would they reach it given the other wall's scheduled appearance. When I say critical mass, I mean a critical mass of people. Reaching critical mass is not only an achievement of a community but is the living symbol of one. In the case of Lynbrook this could mean community of a specific township and its neighboring towns, but a critical mass of community can also grow out of relationships more loosely formed, self-identified not by location but by purpose. Here we come, from far and wide, to pay our respects at The Moving Wall. Part of being in public at such times and places as memorial events calls us to, is to bear testimony to each other that we share in the honoring, respect, gratitude, remorse, and whatever other spirits brought us to that place. Our presence affirms the sentiments captured in and reflected by the memorial and what it symbolizes. When we are with others we not only confirm those values in others but have them confirmed in our selves. And to the extent that we experience these rituals surrounded by others is the extent to which our experience as a community: our experience is made stronger. A “weak” turnout weakens us. And so if there are several walls overlapping each other in time and place, vying for the same visitors, not only will each of the walls lose, but so too will the prospective community of visitors. This inability to draw a strong, self-aware community represents a loss not only for the living, but for those whose names fill The Wall. For above all else, they fought for and died for their communities. To see their communities robust and thriving vindicates their sacrifice in a way that pockets of visitors here and there cannot.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

"Welcome home, brother." (Day 1)

"Welcome home, brother," Frankie said from behind the folding table, extending his hand as I entered the pavilion at Greis Veterans' Park. Frankie wore a big smile, and like so many of the other men in the pavilion, a gray embroidered "Vietnam Veterans of Nassau County" golf shirt.

I was wearing a white t-shirt commemorating the 25th anniversary of The Moving Wall as it was celebrated last year in its hometown of White Pine. The shirt bears The Moving Wall logo with the silhouette of a chopper sitting atop it, and a bunch of lettering.

I wore the shirt to signal my connection with John Devitt, The Moving Wall, etc. I was unaware in wearing it that the logo -- based upon the ribbon given to those who served in the war -- would suggest that I was a Vietnam vet. (Of course my advancing age was a corroborating signal.)

So when Frankie said, "Welcome home, brother," I knew that choosing this shirt was a big mistake, but I was shy about correcting him.

I was at Greis Park, in Lynbrook, NY, this past weekend to see The Wall. Google maps lists Lynbrook as 3 hours and 26 minutes from my hometown of Warren. With the way I drive, I figured it would be closer to 4 hours. I didn't plan on mistaking Merrick Ave for Merrick Road in the directions, however, which added another 45 minutes or so to getting back on track and to the park.

When I arrived Friday afternoon around 2:30 there were a few minglers at The Wall. A single loudspeaker played spiritual and patriotic recorded music from high up on a stand. I walked past it and the gazebo bunted in red, white, and blue, and into the park's spacious pavilion.


That's where I was welcomed as a brother. It's where the vets congregated, educated, pontificated, (re)told war tales, some funny, some tragic, and generally relaxed in the warm bathwater of guys who understood them as no one -- not family or friends -- could understand them. That's what it means to be a brother. Your bloodline extends back to Vietnam. Only those who spent time there are of the family. The rest of us, regardless of affection or intention, are outsiders.

After I let go of Frankie's hand and my unease, I asked if Nick was around. "Nick" is Nick Camarano, the guy spearheading things in Lynbrook. I told Frankie that Nick was expecting me, that I spoke with him on the phone the night before when he told me to find him once I got to the park. And so that's what I was doing. Frankie told me Nick should be around, and yelled out for other vets in the pavilion, "Where's Nick? Anybody seen Nick?" "He went home. He'll be back soon," somebody answered. 

"Somethin I can help you with?" Frankie asked. I told him that I studied The Wall, and that I just had some questions for Nick. I said I was in no hurry. that I could wait. "Make yourself comfortable," Frankie said. "Have a look around."

And so I did. The table Frankie sat behind was at one end of a series of tables all of which exhibited Vietnam era military paraphernalia, neatly arrayed, from ammunition of all types, to six different rifle models, to explosives such as hand grenades and Bouncing Bettys, to military attire from helmets to boots. There were c-rations, apparently vintage surplus from World War II. 

There was a thicket of bamboo sticks whose tops had been cut at an angle to produce very sharp points: No mystery what they were for. 

Scary as some of it was, for a variety of reasons, it was all pretty interesting, and a couple of teenagers were clearly mesmerized by it all, especially by the firearms. I later overheard two vets who had been manning the exhibit: "These kids know everything, what every piece is." "Yeah, they learn it all from video games. They probably know more than we do."

I continued to look around the room. There was a small cart with a bamboo cage atop it, a cage no more than a few feet long, wide, high. "That was home to a POW," one of the vets told an elderly couple, part solemnly, part bitterly.



There was an information table about Agent Orange, manned by a vet who though suffering from its affects seemed to be in good spirits at present.

A video/music montage put together by a local guy played on a large TV which showed gritty footage from the war set to rock music from the era.


Three easels each held a framed collection of faded black and white photographs of soldiers and locales whose significance remained anonymous and unclear.


And of course, there were two computer stations, on loan from the library, for searching The Virtual Wall's database to locate a name on The Wall, panel number and line.

A mostly disinterested library employee sat watch over the computers, but was quick to assist visitors in using them. The employee also guided visitors to the collection of books on Vietnam the library housed in its stacks, placed on special display in the pavilion for this occasion.


All in all, the organizers did an outstanding job outfitting the pavilion with an educational mix of learning materials and curios.

After a while I went outside and stood on the pavilion's patio, further look over the grounds while I waited for Nick. 

At the sound of footsteps I turned and saw a guy, 45 or so, approaching in desert fatigues and a blue beret. He was about my height (5'8") and about equal his height across the shoulders. He was a walking slab of granite. "You looking for Nick?" he asked as he approached.

I said yes.

He glanced at my shirt and held out his hand. "I'm John O'Dougherty," he said crisply, "I'm co-coordinator with Nick. Anything I can help you with?" I was relieved he didn't call me "brother." But I think he might have said, "Thank you for serving," or something like that. Again, I didn't correct, and I downed another big gulp of guilt because of it.

I explained that I had spoken to Nick the night before, and that I was supposed to look him up when I arrived. "Let me see where he is." John O'Dougherty, or "Johnny," as I later learned, opened his flip phone and pushed a button. His hand was speckled with Irish freckles, down to the fingernails. "Yeah, where are you?" he said into the phone. "You're in the parking lot. Well there's a guy here -- what's your name? --"


"-- Jerry, who says he's supposed to meet with you. Okay." Johnny snapped shut the phone. "He's in the parking lot. Right over here."

Johny lead; I followed. We turned the corner around the pavilion onto the parking lot. "There he is," Johnny said, alluding to a bald six-footer walking across the parking lot toward a side entrance. "Be right out," Nick said, holding up his index finger.

Johnny and I stood outside and waited. We chatted awkwardly, as two people do who are waiting on a third.

"How's it going so far?" I asked.

"Great!" he said, we opened last night and had a real nice ceremony. Today we had like 300 school kids come. It was fantastic. Got to explain things to them, you know, about The Wall and what it means. And patriotism. Sunday is our big day, the closing ceremony. Rocky Bleier is gonna speak. 
And Michael Amonte is going to sing."

I remembered Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam vet himself, as a pretty good running back for the Steelers back in the 70s, but I hadn't ever heard of Michael Amonte. Though it was clear to me by the enthusiasm with which Johnny mentioned his name that I should have.

Then Johnny told me about some of the military hardware which would be coming to the site over the next couple of days. He referred to them in military jargon and so I didn't know what he was talking about. I did pick-up the word "humvees," but that was it. (I later discovered that he was talking about two new-generation, "up armor" humvees each with mounted guns. As I would come to learn, Johnny was on active duty, having returned not long ago from a stint in Afghanistan, where he rode in these new humvees and could attest, from first hand experience, their war-worthiness. "The doors weigh 475 pounds a piece. Took a direct hit by an rpg [rocket-propelled grenade] while I was driving one day. Sucker barely made a dent.")

Johnny was real military, real marine. I wondered just how much of a sissy I would have appeared to him had he not confused me with someone who served. Not just me, but anyone who isn't marine.

"Yeah, those closing ceremonies Sunday are gonna be somethin. We've also got this vets parade -- not just vets from Nam but vets from any war. We did a lot of reaching out to various posts to get a good showing. I think we will.You going to be around Sunday?"

"No. I take off back for Rhode Island Sunday morning."

"Too bad."

I suddenly felt there was something weak about going back to Rhode Island Sunday morning.

After a few more minutes of idle chatter Johnny voiced what we both were thinking: "Where the hell is Nick?" Then: "C'mon, let's go find him."

Johnny lead me in the pavilion's side entrance and we looked through the sea of gray golf shirts. "There he is. C'mon"

We approached Nick and stood by a few seconds while he was conferring with one of the volunteers.

Nick is ex-marine, maybe in his sixties, and he, too, presents a formidable bulk, though gravity is catching up with his. He's bald in the way you want to be bald (if it can ever be said one wants to be bald): not a follicle on top and full around the sides and back.

Then he broke off, shook my hand and glanced at my shirt. "You made it."

"Yes, though I confused Merrick Ave with Merrick Road and ended up way the hell out of the way. Took me forty-five minutes to get back."

"Ouch." He glanced at Johnny, but said to me, "Johnny been filling you in?"

"Sure has. He told me about last night's closing ceremony and the closing ceremonies Sunday. Sounds like quite an event."

"I'm telling you," Nick said, shaking his head as if he still couldn't believe it, "the support around here has been tremendous. From the city council on down the line. Anything we've needed we've gotten, and generously."

Nick chimed in. "That's absolutely true. So much stuff has been donated to us -- and I don't mean just the plants and wood chips and stuff -- but labor, too. The electricians who put in the lights for night viewing? All donated labor. It's been amazing."

I remembered having seen The Wall outside of Boston last year, where I met John and Joy for the afternoon. They told me all the union work - the lights and everything else -- had all been donated.

And then, remembering back to when The Wall came to my town of Warren, how its beautiful landscaping there was all donated. Indeed, The Wall seems to invoke a spirit of giving.

"C'mon, let me show you around and introduce you to some of the boys."

Johnny said, "I'm going to head home for a little while. Be back in an hour."

"No hurry," Nick said.

"I'm probably going to be gone by the time you get back. Any chance I can interview the two of you tomorrow?"

"Fine by me," Johnny said, a little flattered, I believe, to have been asked.

"Yeah. Me, too," Nick said.

"How about 12:30?"

They nodded.


Leaving, Johnny shouted a couple of marinisms to the guys who shouted marinisms back.

Nick introduced me to a number of guys, each of which looked at my shirt and shook my hand. Thank god not one of them ever asked me a question that would out me as a mere civilian. You know, where were you stationed? What outfit were you in? Etc.

At one point Nick and I were back on the patio outside the pavilion, talking with a bunch of vets. Thinking that I was one of them, or perhaps not caring whether I was or wasn't, they fell back into military speak, where everything is a nickname or a combination of letters and numbers. I had no idea what they were talking about. Happily, I hid it well. No one seemed to notice. Then a little light opened up on their conversation and I came to understand that they had secured a military helicopter (Huey?) to fly in for the closing ceremonies. A genuine Vietnam era helicopter. The only problem was, no current military pilot knew how to fly it: it was too old. 



"Maybe you'll fly it!" some guy said to me, pointing to the helicopter on my shirt. "We've got our guy right here!"

I laughed and babbled something and decided I had to get out of there and out of that shirt. I said my goodbyes, see you tomorrows, and headed for the parking lot. Though I hoped to visit The Moving Wall many more times in the months and years ahead, this day, June 11, will be the day I stopped wearing the 25th Anniversary shirt during any future visit.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Things They Left Behind

Stacked and jammed on metal racks in the shop at White Pine are taped cardboard boxes of every size. Each is identified in magic marker both by location and date: Rockford, IL 07/01-07/04 1989; Bossier City LA 10/05 - 10/11 1994; Warren RI 10/11-10/17 2004. And a thousand more. These are the things they left behind, the things visitors to The Wall deposited at its base in remembrance of somebody on the panel looming above. As part of the contract to host The Wall, site organizers collect these left behinds and send them to Vietnam Combat Veterans, LTD, the organization John Devitt begat as the legal parent of The Moving Wall.
For better than a quarter of a century local sites have been sending their boxes to VCV, LTD, and now better than a thousand of them cram the racks. 

In a way, these things they left behind are only half way home; White Pine is just a stopping point, and John is simply their custodian. He hopes to one day find a permanent home where they can be unboxed and properly displayed. For now though, they wait. 

While I was in White Pine I snooped through a few of the boxes, four or five. Some of the things I found therein are familiar, likely to be seen wherever The Wall sets up: 5/6 of a six-pack; artificial flowers; teddy bears; boots; little flags. 

Other items are more personalized: a dog biscuit and a champagne cork in a plastic bag; funeral service cards; photocopied telegrams from the Secretary of the Army; MIA bracelets; photocopied yearbook photos; t-shirts from class reunions.
And then of course, there are the letters.
Sometimes for all to read; sometimes sealed. Some have carefully been thought out, written slowly late at night on the kitchen table. Others scribbled in the moment, inspired by the encounter of a name. The letters tell a lot, and in a later post I will transcribe some of those public letters (ensuring the privacy of both addresser and addressee), and discuss in greater detail some of what I think the letters tell beyond what's contained in their words. But that's down the road. 

The boxes also revealed that, apart from the individual ways that people communicate with those on The Wall (as well as with others who go to The Wall) -- for, to be sure, everything left behind is a form of communication -- there are ways communities collectively symbolize paying tribute. In the Anchorage, AL, box, for instance, I found a good number of white crosses, each with a veteran's poppy stapled to the front, that some visitors had written on and others not, which presumably got staked in the ground below the panel of someone remembered.

In the Mountain View, AR, box, I found a completely different way of organizing community expression: Mountain View appeared to printout profiles of area casualties from the online site The Virtual Wall > with panel number and row number where to locate each name on The Wall.They included many profiles from nearby Missouri and Oklahoma, as well as occasional profile from New York, North Carolina, etc. I hypothesized that these were sons and daughters not native to the area, but rather spouses to those who were. But who knows.

I suspect that if I looked through other boxes, I would discover yet other unique ways that host sites established for remembering the dead.

There is much that those boxes could reveal, and much to be studied and learned. Even in the few boxes I looked through I discovered deep sockets of sadness, regret, guilt, love, loss, camaraderie, humor, appreciation, pride, and more. And that from only about 1/200 of the total collection. 

Do the things they left behind deserve a permanent home and permanent display? I'd argue yes. To give you what a well-designed display might do, and to see how through the artifacts in the glass cases we are offered windows into the past as well as present, take a look at what Gail Blummer did.

Gail is General Manager of the Orland Park (IL) Civic Center and Recording Secretary of the Orland Park Veterans Commission, and long-time friend of The Wall. Convinced that the boxes contained valuable artifacts, she persuaded John to let her take some of those boxes -- I think it may have been 100 -- back to Orland Park in 2008 to create an exhibit, and to share with her community some of the things they left behind. Below are just three display cases she and her colleagues created. [Note: you can zoom in on any of the images by clicking on them twice, and then using your mouse as a magnifying glass to navigate the image.]
As you can see, the displays are carefully -- and, having met Gail this past March in White Pine, I can say confidently, lovingly -- arrayed and beautiful. They also demonstrate the great diversity of the things they left behind, and the sometimes unique nature of those things. For instance, in one display case was placed a pair of gloves and hand embroidered blanket, apparently Native American in origin. With them are a group photo of vets, probably Native American also, if the men in traditional dress are any indication. Another case has a white wall clock set/stopped at 5:21, perhaps meant to show 5:19, the date in 1967 when Dennis H. Fairfield was killed. A third case holds an ancient-looking reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Everything left behind is a mystery; everything a clue. Each is part of the historical mosaic we as a nation are still trying to piece together. For those who fought in Vietnam the mosaic tries to tell the story "What we lived through." For those who weren't there the mosaic tries to tell the story "What they lived through." Same pieces; different story. 

The things they left behind aren't just shrapnel stories of love and loss in Vietnam, however. They are local edits of The Moving Wall. For a quarter of a century The Wall has crisscrossed the United States providing local citizens to contribute to its telling of the Vietnam narrative. It is a single narrative repeated 58,260 times: "Here is .... who made the ultimate sacrifice in Vietnam." That's all The Wall can say. But when a thing gets left behind it says, "But wait -- there's more," and at that point one of the 58,260 becomes unique. Not better, just unique. The Wall tells the story that they all died; the things that get left behind tell the story that in life they were all unique. And when this Wall retires, at it someday will, and is put on permanent display as it surely should be, these things they left behind will need to become part of the display, too, because each is the second half of a story, of one of those 58,260 stories. And because each serves as testimony to the significance of this mobile tribute and its endless pursuit of those who needed it.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Seamen on the Poopdeck

In his first inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln coined the phrase "mystic chords of memory" referring to the history all Americans shared, irrespective of their significant differences. It is a lovely phrase.

At this point in the arc of this blog, for me a less poetic but more descriptive phrase would be "mystic shards of memory" or even "distant shards of memory." Lincoln may have heard harmonious chords echoing from the past; I'm trying to pick up the pieces from a time not long ago. It's been about two months since I left White Pine and the mental images of it, and the impressions I formed there, are not quite so vibrant as they had been, and certainly not so coherent. Still, I will keep on keeping on until even the shards seem shattered.

Over the few nights that I was an adoptee of the American Legion Hall Post 462 I got to see first hand the affinity vets feel for each other, especially those of the same or similar branches. John engaged with several other combat vets to share their wartime experiences, but even more, to share the good-hearted tag-team ribbing of those non-combat vets, even those who may have served during war time though removed from the action. As far as the military pecking order goes in Post 462, Marines top the heap, followed closely by the Army, but a distant third is the Navy (I'm not sure the Air Force shows up at all). A oft-repeated laughline was "there's seamen on the poop-deck" which I also suspect got its yuks from the identical sounding "semen", and what "semen on the poopdeck" might mean. In any event, John and other land-based vets got many a good chuckle repeating that phrase.

I was, to be sure, an outsider there. Not only was I a foreigner, all the way from the east coast, but more distant still was that I had never served in the military -- not even in the Navy. However attentive I may be as a listener, no amount of listening was going to get me remotely close to actual military, and even more exclusive, combat experience. I know this and I accept it. I also understand it.

A world I could not know. It was explained to me several years ago when The Wall had traveled to my home town of Warren, RI. I had just become acquainted with John and Joy, and John was gracious enough to let me hang around while he chatted with some local vets. While it was a source of kibitzing in White Pine, I discovered there is a real, felt distinction between those vets who have seen combat and those who haven't. Not pronounced, but it exists. There is even a little bit of animosity from those who fought in Vietnam toward those who simply served during that period (stateside, in Germany, Korea, etc.), those who call themselves "Vietnam Era" vets, as though they are trying to land a place in a heroes' parade for which they haven't really paid their dues. But that is another issue.

While I eavesdropped on John's conversations with his Vietnam "brothers" I came to find out what an extraordinary thing combat is -- how on the one hand it can be the ultimate, terrifying rush, and on the other hand the greatest source of human bonding men can know. John and others made it pretty clear to me that, if they bought Washington's rationale going in, once they got to Nam the scales fell from their eyes. The war was a bungle, run by incompetent officers who, if you didn't watch out for them, would get you killed. Maybe hindsight is 20/20, but I got the sense that many a vet did not believe in the story they were told about our being there -- to stop communist aggression, etc., and came to measure victory simply in going home alive. They felt lied to by their government. But while they felt little loyalty to an untrustworthy government they felt great loyalty to each other. The G.I.'s mission in Vietnam was not to fight for "America" but rather to fight for your brother, to keep him alive. For the guys firing the guns, the war was not a series of speeches or geo-political abstractions. It was bullets and artillery, and how not to get hit by them. Survival was the name of the game, and survival was, in Nam, a team sport. Survival meant interdependence, and interdependence meant trust, valor, watching each other's back. It was just too easy to die there.

While The Wall was in Warren, I spoke with a vet who walked me over to his truck to show me something. There, on the front seat, were scattered several small clear plastic bags. Inside each was a photo of some smiling soldier in dress uniform, and an accompanying page of information. The information included the soldier's name, date of birth, hometown, etc. The information also listed the date the soldier landed in Vietnam, and the date he was killed, because all the soldiers on the front seat of that truck were killed in action. It was shocking. Most of those killed, that I saw, died within a few weeks of having arrived. Several were killed within a few days. The greatest enemy was ignorance; the greatest killer, innocence. I gleaned from those plastic bags, and from bits and pieces of conversation, that if a soldier could get through the first few weeks "in country" there was a good chance that he would outlive the war, because, after a few weeks he would have learned how not to get killed, and how to count on his brothers as he would have them count on him. Knowing this, in a way, I can understand some of the immediate furor over Maya Lin's original design of The Wall, and why the issue of amending The Wall with the sculpture of the three soldiers was so important:

The Wall can only address the failure to return home alive of those whose names it bears; the three soldiers speak to the comradeship and brotherhood that got those whose names escaped The Wall home alive. Perhaps honoring the dead wasn't enough to memorialize about the war; perhaps honoring, and in a sense reliving, the self-sacrifice and spirit of camaraderie that existed among those who dodged the bullets, or took them, and fired them, is something to be cherished and remembered, not by people like me who weren't there and couldn't know, but by those who were, and need to have something substantial to fix their pride and appreciation to.

The statue of the three soldiers may have been necessary for just that reason; to honor not only those who were lost in the war but those who survived it. The Moving Wall seems to accomplish both aims, despite the fact that there is no replica of the three soldiers (nor of the nurses statue). As it is brought to towns largely by vet's groups -- and it is for the vets more than anyone than John has been toting The Wall all these years -- it can be argued that those same vets are its primary audience, providing a place for them to come and gather, trade stories, and thank their stars, the names on The Wall, and each other they're alive. Collectively as well as individually The Wall enables them to appreciate not only the sacrifice of their fallen brothers but also the commitment of those grizzled old men who, thanks to the common yet uncommon bonds of soldier to soldier, have lived all these many years, to grow from skinny high school kids to men with paunches, jowls, bald spots, and watery tattoos, to men with wives, children, grandchildren, and maybe even great grand-children. Men with full-lives. The Wall reminds them of the time, that there was a time, when life's longevity was a crapshoot.

Lincoln spoke of the mystic chords of memory. For the vets who come to visit, The Wall plucks those strings, strums those chords. Vietnam was a horrifying yet mystical time for those who survived it. It is right and fitting that they have some common ground to celebrate their mutual survival, and the surviving memories of those less fortunate.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Veterans' Benefits

Following a successful day of printing, and a successful evening of celebrating that successful day, we closed up shop around 9:00 or so and headed over to the American Legion Hall for pizza. As I stated in an earlier post, the American Legion is one of two public places to socialize in White Pine, the other being the bar at the Konteka. With a population of 250, that means in White Pine there is a watering hole for every 125 people. I don't know if that per capita figure is high or low by national standards, but the choice of two saloons seems rather limiting to city slicker me. On the flip side, with only two places to go, you're pretty much assured of a crowd at either one. 

We rolled up to the American Legion Hall, an indistinct white one-story building whose most notable feature was the full-sized military tank parked on its front lawn. If White Pine ever went to war with Silver City or Bergland, White Pine would kick ass.

John, Joy, and myself walked into the hall and while they were greeted with "Hi"s I encountered unsaid "Who's this guy?" and accompanying stares. Not hostile or anything. Just curious in the way a town of 250 people located in the middle of nowhere who likely don't see many passers through might be. I immediately closed rank behind John and Joy to affirm that I was with them.
Joy and I plopped ourselves on barstools while John went to shake somebody's hand. The bartender -- a friendly, middle-aged woman on the short side -- swung by with a Bud Light for Joy and a JsC (Jack splash Coke) for John. When asked what I'd like to drink and seeing none of the la-di-dah microbrews that both entice and confuse me back home, I asked for an Old Style.

Not bad. Could be worse.

Joy ordered up two or three pizzas, as we were expecting Aaron and Lisa and a couple other people from the shop to be joining us. The pizzas were pretty simple affairs. Prepackaged and frozen, they were slid (after the plastic wrap had been removed) into a teeny-weeny electric pizza oven (more like a big toaster flipped on its side) to cook until done, about 15 minutes.
I had been nibbling constantly while we were in the shop and so I wasn't as hungry as I might have been, but the sound of something more substantial than taco chips and dip did fire-up my appetite some. Now that I had some time to kill before the pies arrived, and my celebrity had kind of lost out to unfinished cigarettes, drinks, and conversation, I had a chance to snoop around a little. 

For as dull and indistinct as the hall is outside, it shines with craftsmanship, creativity, and civic pride on the inside.

I haven't been in a lot of American Legion Halls or VFW halls, but those I have been in have traded off a sense of dreariness with functionality: they were nothing to look at, but they worked. That is, they provided a welcome gathering place and served decent drinks at better than decent prices. White Pine's American Legion Hall, on the other hand, was bright, clean, and chock full of local chatchkas and memorabilia enough to fill the place with spirits even when no one was there. 

How to begin? First, we have to start with Jim, the quiet, shaggy master carpenter who stopped by the shop earlier that day to have a beer and observe the printing process. Jim, as I mentioned in my last post, mills his own wood, and as it turned out all the sparkling white pine boarding that made up the walls of the hall were turned by his hand. Beautiful, angled tongue-and-groove white pine.

The bar, shaped like a shepherd's staff imaginatively blends White Pine's military past with its industrial past. The length of the bar features patches, post-cards, and period photos of local of White Pine's service men and women (playing it safe here: I don't recall having seen a picture of a servicewoman) stare up from beneath a several inches thick layer of clear laminate.

Some were photos from World War II but most were from more recent conflicts. It surprised me that such a small town (even when it was big) had produced so many vets. Whatever its per capita rate for saloons may be, its per capita rate for townspeople who've served is surely off the charts. 

Sprinkled between the photos like chocolate shavings on a cake are shining copper slivers harkening back to White Pine's mining days. Maybe the bar and the young-ish faces looking up from it have become old hat to members of the hall, but I found the history locked in that laminate fascinating, and the simple idea of it brilliant. 

There are four finger bars,

constructed and decorated consistent with the main bar, what with photos and copper slivers, but each finger bar has its own theme. One is dedicated entirely to fixing in memory copper mining and the industry it brought to town. Aerial views of the mine, the refinery, etc. Another finger bar displays photos celebrating The Moving Wall's 25th year when it returned home to White Pine in July of 2009 and went on exhibition there.

(I forget what the other two finger bars concerned themselves with)

Of course, there are other ways to look than down, especially in this hall. If you look up, you will see a patchquilt of ceiling tiles,

each individually painted to honor a military unit, to bookmark one's tour of duty, or to remember a lost family member or comrade.

Much like one can spend a good bit of time moseying down the bar, poring over it like one big photo album, one can also walk around the open floor, head tilted back, reading the ceiling and learning a good bit about White Pine's military contributions, some of whom have gone heavenward.

The pizzas arrived,

and while I can't say they reminded me of pizza as I've grown up knowing pizza, they were hot, and cheesy, and generously offered by Joy. I certainly had my fill.


After this, my first full day in White Pine, I began to reflect upon what it might be like living there. To an outsider from densely populated Rhode Island, at first glance there doesn't seem to be much to do, nor many people to do it with. To an outsider, it looks, in a word, boring. 

But, outsiders never really see what insiders see, or live, and so I suspect that my initial impressions probably do not faithfully represent life in White Pine. Yes, they don't have a movie theater or a mall, no nearby arena or sports teams, but maybe White Piners don't need that. Maybe they find enough entertainment in the woods. I don't know. 

As for socializing, I wonder what it's like knowing that wherever you go -- of the two places to choose from (the Konteka and the American Legion Hall) -- you are going to know everybody there, and will have likely seen them the night before, and the night before that, on back to the beginning of time. On the one hand, that may produce a sense of social claustrophobia, as though you're cooped up with the same people day in and day out. And yet, I suspect there is another way to look at this rather small and tight circle: that because you do see the same people day in and day out, you form stronger bonds with them than you might among a larger pool of acquaintances, that you get to know them more intimately than you would in more transient communities. This is not to say that everyone loves everyone else in White Pine. I'm sure they don't. But I suspect that everyone knows everyone in White Pine far far better than, say, someone like me, who knows next to nothing about my townsfolk (even my neighbors), in Warren. 

My point: White Pine appears very still, very quiet, not much going on or holding it together. I suspect that a number of townspeople might agree with me. But as John is attempting to show in the shop, and as Jim and Kevin and all those whose faces peer up from the hall's bar or whose panels hang down from its ceiling, little White Pine can muster up some tank-sized pride.