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.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The New Frontier

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I went to White Pine in  search of The Wall. I didn't anticipate that White Pine itself would be of interest to me, but it is. 


I have long known what The Moving Wall has meant and means to people across the country; but once in White Pine, I began to realize that The Moving Wall holds increasing meaning for its immediate neighbors, and that, too, is a story worth telling about this structure, so simple in design, so complex in effect. 

Beginning with this post, then, I will toggle between writing about The Wall in its winter home and all that envelopes it in the shop, and then how it exists outside, within the larger community of White Pine. In other words, some posts will live within the walls of the shop; others will stretch their legs out into the streets of White Pine. 

I should also say that if the connections between The Wall and White Pine aren't yet apparent to you, join the club: they are not yet apparent to me, either. 

But I also trust, and I hope you will, too, that in the working out of the observations, impressions, and details, the connections will become more apparent to us both. 

And, for whatever it's worth, let me be frank: I am a writer, and part of my personal interest in writing this blog is to bump up against my limitations in the execution of it, and then to overcome them if I can. If you have suggestions how I might do that, feel free to include them as a "comment." I won't say that I will revise to suit every comment, but I guarantee that I will at least read every comment.

So, let me begin today by telling you a little about The Konteka Inn, where I stayed during my time in White Pine.


The drive from the airport in Marquette, MI, to The Konteka Inn in White Pine took about 2 ½ hours, not the 1 ½ hours I (mis)calculated.

That meant an hour more of pine trees and cut logs and long stretches of road with only me on it. It also meant another hour of trying to dodge Christian radio in search of secular stations: no easy task in the UP.

Arriving successfully unconverted, I pulled into White Pine and The Konteka Inn (officially The Konteka Black Bear Resort) and its big barren parking lot.

A smattering of cars scattered around the mud and potholes. The Konteka's website boasted the ability to accommodate trucks and and their snowmobile trailers,

but none were to be found, as was not the case only a week or so earlier, when the yooper snows were deep. But a spate of warm weather had all but laid bare the forest floor, and the snowmobilers who might have come from far and wide stayed far and wide.

Bad for Konteka. Fine by me.

I climbed out of the Dodge Caravan I had rented and took a quick 360. The Inn was a bit more rustic than pictured on its website, and smaller. 

As I walked into the combination front desk/restaurant/bar/gift shop/bowling alley, a couple guys were having a quiet beer, naturally ignoring the chattering TV head in the bar. I saw no one else. I rang the bell on the registration counter, but no one hopped-to. 

Assuming that eventually someone would come my way, I passed the time looking at the den of slightly blurred framed photos of black bears which populated the walls. I am not a bearologist but even I could tell that these photos were not of the same animal. The bear were clearly of different sizes and weights. 

The biggest, standing tall and looking straight at me, curiously, not ferociously, wearing a  "Well, gee, who are you?" or "Well, gee, what are you dong here?" expression, had a daffodil yellow dot the size of a quarter in each ear, and I thought the adornment quite complimentary. 

There were also photos of bears dining at what looked to be the edge of woods that I could see through the Konteka's dining room windows.

These weren't just any old bears, then, they were local bears. The photos were family portraits. The Konteka's kids.

After a moment or two a young woman approached in black pants and shirt (bear chic?) who seemed a bit frantic. She apologized; she was all "alone." I gathered that she wore a number of hats for the Inn, though given the absence of any customers or guests, I wondered what they might be. 

She stepped behind the check-in desk which reminded me of an empty jeweler's case. I told her that I had a reservation, that my name was Blitefield, and that I had requested the quietest room possible. 

She returned a quizzical look but even as I said it, I understood that look, and agreed, feeling a bit foolish about that last part, given what 'd seen with my own eyes. This wasn't some spring break get-to with Girls Gone Wild going wild. It was an empty hotel. Still, she humored me and said “Room 115. Our quietest,” she said, handing me my key – not a card, not some other kind of modern entry gimmick – but a regular key, and told me that, as things were quiet, the owner might have locked some of the accesses to the parking lot, and that it would be best if I grabbed my things and went to my room via the bowling alley, which I did.
I don't know why they called my room “115”, unless there had once upon a time been more floors to The Konteka, or that some distant plans were in the making for adding some. As the rooms were on one floor, why not just “15”? 

Anyway, I walked down the single dark hall toward my room passing rooms 101, 102, 103, etc., many of which had the European sign for no-smoking affixed to their door. Despite the signs, or perhaps in defiance of them, the hall smelled of deep-soaked cigarettes nonetheless. (Michigan hasn't yet caught up with the rest of the country regarding cigarette smoking, and so smoking is pervasive.) 

Room 115 was at the end of the hall on the left, just before the coin-operated washing machine and dryer, which were just before the “spa” (jacuzzi). 

Room 115's curtains opened onto the woods behind the Konteka (as did all the odd numbered rooms; the even numbered rooms look on to the parking lot and the Mineral River Plaza.) Indeed, the room was quiet, as I had requested, though there was always the possibility, and hence, my fear, that some night owl or yooper yahoo might decide to do laundry at one or two in the morning, no doubt drying a coat with a heavy metal zipper or hard buttons. 

Rm 115 was non-smoking but had obviously absorbed undertones of cigarettes. It was also, by the Gucci-goo standards of the east coast, worn, a bit shabby. But it was neat, mostly. It's furnishings were serviceable. A boxy, sharp edged (circa '?0s?) wood laminate dresser and night table, probably standard of a mountain lodge, stood at the ready for the contents of my meager suitcase.  

The TV was ten or fifteen years old but not so old as to be pre-clicker, and giving it a test run I found that it worked well enough for the amount of viewing I was planning to do (zero).The mattresses of the twin queen beds had colorful polyester covers, but mattresses were tired and soft.

Rm 115, in other words, was a basic room, comfortable but not cozy; the very muted and zest-free room which comes with a $54 nightly rate. One thing stuck out, though. 

In the bathroom, on the wall above the toilet, a flourish of creativity, of design, of personal touch, maybe even wit: a towel rack had been stocked with descending, drooping boughs of towels of increasing sizes and length, beginning with a stack of face cloths at the top, and concluding with bath towels at the bottom. A sort of white pine of cotton. 
So, initial impressions of The Konteka: quiet, simple, smokey, and essential. A place proud of its bears, proud of its bowling alley, bar, spa, and gas pump; a place where some creative housekeeper is proud of her work.

My next post will resume back in Rm 115, but only so long as it takes me to make the I'm here! phone call to John and Joy, and make my way over to The Wall.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Moving Wall: Hardware, worn hard.

John returned to California jazzed. Despite the controversy surrounding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial's design, he was less concerned about the memorial as a proper tribute than he was about the power that that memorial, proper or not, exercised on Vietnam vets. Two things he learned: 

the power of simply seeing a name;

the power of being in community with other vets. 

One could precipitate
a sense of plunging;

the other,
of raising up.

For John, The memorial wasn't important for what it was but for what it did.

Powerful as the memorial was, it wasn't powerful enough. It couldn't give legs to the amputee; couldn't enable the blind to see; couldn't put dough in the pockets of the indigent; couldn't put vacation time on the calendar; couldn't provide travel for widowed wives and fatherless kids, sonless parents and brotherless siblings; couldn't shrink the distance between here and there; it couldn't do a lot of things for vets and their families desirous of going to The Wall in DC but who were physically, financially, or emotionally unable to do so. John felt the huge gap between what The Wall could do, but also what it couldn't do, and he felt the need to remedy that, to close that gap for all vets and their families. To provide them the experience that he and his brothers had in DC.

When he returned to San Jose he and a couple of friends decided to replicate the experience. They made a makeshift memorial of names that they planned on exhibiting in a few towns in the San Jose area. Their efforts were more symbolic than sturdy; I believe he said that those first panels were made out of cardboard.

They took their memorial out into the area, and what they found there was overwhelming, a response far greater than anything they anticipated. The generous outpouring of gratitude and support from those local communities confirmed in John the suspicion that the power of the Wall wasn't anchored in the granite of DC but rather was anchored in the ghosts of memory evoked by it. John realized the Wall was a medium; properly duplicated, those ghosts could be exorcised anywhere. It was then that John got the idea to go farther, much farther than San Jose.

His idea: to replicate The Wall, in miniature, just as it appeared in DC, and take it on the road. With the help of friends he scrambled to find funding, but did. A couple grand. Then, with help from the the Vietnam Veterans Memorial fund, and, with the permission of the National Park Service, in 1983 he returned to Washington and photographed, with great precision, each of The Wall's 140 panels. 

When he returned to San Jose he worked with Norris Shears, an area silk-screen artist and former Vietnam vet himself, and Gerry Haver, to have the photographs converted to silkscreen transparencies. With the generosity of local businesses, he also had made black plexiglass panels, six feet tall where the two wings of The Wall met (1E and 1W),  

gradually winnowing down to a few feet at the wings' extremities (70E and 70W). He and his crew then carefully silk-screened in white letters the names on each panel, exactly as they appeared in DC. The Moving Wall had been created.

That first year, 1984, John set up The (Moving) Wall in four locations; the following year, it hit eighteen stops. In 1987, a second “B” Wall was added to handle the overwhelming demand. A “C” was added in 1989. In 2000, its peak year, John and his colleagues trucked the Wall(s) to sixty-six municipalities, from Angel Fire, NM, to Whittier, CA; from Alaska to Texas; and from Maine to Hawaii. Coordinating the three Walls proved to be too much, though, and in 2001 John retired the “B” Wall. In 2002, he donated the “B” Wall to Pittsburgh State University (KS) who turned it into a permanent memorial.Aerial View, The Pittsburgh State Veterans Memorial 
Since it first hit the road, The Wall has been hosted by over a thousand towns across the United States, and even in Saipan and Guam. (If you'd like to see a full list of all the places The Wall has been, go to http://www.themovingwall.org/docs/history.htm )

The plexiglass construction of the early Wall soon proved insufficient to the task. Sun damage, wind damage, scratches, warping, made the Wall impossible to maintain, and by 1986 John had moved to designing a more durable, roadworthy structure. He replaced the plexiglass panels with metal panels, each painted and baked with a black, tough, high-gloss finish. He silk-screened these metal panels just as he had the plexiglass, and The Wall was reincarnated, identical looks, but more muscle.

And that is The Wall as it exists today. There is still an “A” schedule, now shepherded by Aaron and Lisa,


and a “C” schedule, toted by John and Joy, though one can't help notice two things about the two schedules for this 2010 season. The first is that the “A” schedule as many more stops on its calendar than does the “C”, twenty-two to twelve. Also, the “C” schedule is more geographically circumscribed than is the “A” schedule, with most of its stops in the Midwest (Michigan, Iowa, Missouri, etc.). The “A” Wall will span from California to Georgia. When I asked John why that is, whether requests for The Wall had dropped off, he said, “No. I'm just getting tired. Twenty-six years on the road, and I'm looking to stay a little closer to home.” Fair enough.

Regardless of the route each Wall sets out on, all roads, eventually, lead back to White Pine. Once there to bed down for the winter, each panel will be inspected, touched up when possible,

and completely re-silk-screened when not.

So, when spring rolls around, John will settle for nothing less than perfection as the Walls head out onto the road, not because he is a perfectionist, but because perfection of the Wall is his way of honoring the names on it, and respecting those who'll come before it.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Some Background on John Devitt, subject to revision

First, let me tell you a little 
about John Devitt, upon whom The Wall hinges. (Note: In general, The Wall refers to the Maya Lin memorial in DC. However, while in White Pine, everyone there referred to The Moving Wall as “The Wall.” Henceforth, I will also use “The Wall” when referring to The Moving Wall, and when necessary I will refer to the memorial on The Mall as “The DC Wall,” or something to that effect.”)

John was born and raised in California, not too far from San Francisco. He was a good Irish Catholic lad, and was accorded a good Catholic school education. When he was of age, he went to a residential Catholic high school where he was on track to become a priest. As he tells it, his hormones got in the way of his vocation, and opting for confections over confessions, he dropped out of that school and completed his then secular education at a public high school.

In 1966, at the age of eighteen, John volunteered for the Army, thinking it better to enlist than to be drafted. I'm not clear how that calculation worked out for him, but the result of it landed him as a helicopter door gunner. Consequently, he was, in the parlance of the time, not only “in country” but also, “in the shit.” 

After a year, when his tour was up, he considered his options and what awaited him back home in the States. Not much, was his conclusion. And as the area of his unit's assignment had largely been “pacified,” John believed that if he extended his tour he could ride it out in relative quiet (relative for Vietnam, that is). So he decided to extend, and no sooner had the ink dried on his contract then he was reassigned to a zone the fighting was heavy. I suspect that he must have had some buyer's remorse with that second tour. Still, he managed to stay alive, and in 1969 returned home to California.

As John tells it, a Vietnam vet's return was a bitter affair. Having survived two years of hostilities in 'Nam, John, and others like him, had hostilities of a different sort to survive stateside. By 1969 the war was hugely unpopular. In February of 1968, front pages around the country published Eddie Adams' photo of South Vietnamese Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan publicly executing a suspected Viet Cong lieutenant. The following month, the My Lai massacre occurred, later permeating then dominating the media with accounts of soldiers run amok, leading to allegations of Pentagon cover-ups, further calling into question the morality and justification of the war. 

Because of My Lai and other incidents of military psychosis, the generic American soldier fighting in Vietnam had -- unfairly -- been fitted into an amoral, murderous stereotype. As John tells it, when a combat vet returned home from 'Nam, he kept his mouth shut about his service. He lived incognito. If interviewing for a job, he hoped he wouldn't be asked the question, “Ever serve in 'Nam?”

Those first years back were very isolating for John, very painful, as they were for many vets. Americans reviled the war, and by extension, those who fought it. Only those who were there, who themselves were in the shit, could understand the true nature of the conflict. The idea of fighting for one's country an illusion swiftly lost, in that any soldier who managed to survive the first few days under fire quickly learned that those who were trusted to run the war were inept. The first order of business for soldier in the shit wasn't to defend South Vietnam from Ho Chi Minh and communism, it was to stay alive. It was to help others stay alive. For John, and for other vets, that's what the war was about.

As time wore on, John sought out and established contact with other vets in the Bay area. Long before support groups would be named such, John and others had formed one. It didn't remove the bitterness, but it did make it bearable.

Flash forward, circa 1982. News of the soon-to-be dedicated Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington had been circulating some time. From the moment of its inception the design for The Wall had mired in conflict. Maya Lin's design was seen as renunciation of patriotism, of American honor, of human sacrifice and the glory that should be accorded it. On more than one occasion it was referred to as “the black gash of shame.”

And so it was with feelings of ambivalence toward the memorial that John headed toward Washington in November of 1982, toward The Wall's unveiling. He wasn't sure what he would feel about The Wall once there, but he was sure that he wanted to be among his other Vietnam brothers to dedicate it. For John it was less the occasion of the dedication and more the occasion of reconnecting with former comrades, known and as-yet unknown, that propelled him three thousand miles.

And then it happened. He saw The Wall, and saw his comrades, and saw what The Wall meant to his comrades, what it was doing to them, and he knew it was right. He knew that despite the controversy, The Wall was right. It allowed John and the others to be who they were, with all their histories, and to be with each other openly, unashamedly, perhaps even proudly, in a way disallowed them everywhere else in America. To grieve, to howl, to honor, to breathe, to exhale. 

John was moved tremendously by The Wall and what it enabled. And on his return to California, he began thinking how he might replicate the experience for other. That will be the subject of the next post.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Damn the NEH -- full steam ahead!

The NEH summer stipend I had applied and hoped for fell through, and so without funding my original plans for rolling with The Moving Wall this summer have, for now, stalled. The MV will be close-ish to my home in Rhode Island on two occasions this summer, once while in Lynbrook, NY (6/10-6/14) and then in West Hartford, CT (6/17-6/21), and I should be able to spend a good bit of time at each of those sites and report on them. Separated by only 125 miles, Lynbrook and West Hartford are not especially geographically distinct sites, and so I will also try to find my way out to some of the more far-flung locales the MV will visit this summer, perhaps Reno, NV (6/17-6/21. knocking out West Hartford) or Grande Ronde, OR (7/15-7/19). (Go here for the full schedule: http://www.themovingwall.org/skeds/10/index.htm)

For now, though, I am just back from a four day trip out to White Pine, MI, the winter home of The Moving Wall(s). White Pine is the most remote place I have ever been. To get a sense of just how out in the sticks White Pine is, consider this: the nearest
Wal-Mart is about 45 miles away; the next closest store is in Houghton, about 70 miles away.  As a point of reference, 20 Wal-Marts are thrumming within 30 miles of my 02885 zip code. (Their website store finder wouldn't respond to my request for a 50 mile radius.) 

The Konteka Black Bear Resort, where I lodged, has, apart from sixteen guest rooms: the town's gas pump; convenience store; largest of White Pine's two restaurants; only public saloon (there is an American Legion Hall, but it is for members only); spa (i.e., jacuzzi); tanning bed; and sole source of (legal) indoor recreation, an eight-lane bowling alley. I don't think it's a stretch to say that The Konteka is the social and economic hub of White Pine, though it's also clear from my time spent in this hub that White Pine is an awfully quiet place.

Konteka's restaurant ably handles the needs of the White Pine "yoopers"(upper peninsula-ers).
During the two breakfasts and one lunch I had, I was the sole diner in a room that could have handled a hundred (In fact, apart from Karen, who served me, and Linnie, who cooked my food to the sounds of country western radio, I suspect I was the only person in the entire inn). This wasn't always so, however. Everyone I met over these past four days remembers the White Pine Copper mine, when it was blasting away and employing 4000 hungry, thirsty men. Then, I was told, the Konteka, would serve upwards of 600 lunches a day, 400 dinners, and surely a lot more breakfasts than one. But the plant shut down about fifteen years ago, and since then the kitchen's been a whole lot quieter.

White Pine hasn't only suffered from the closing of the mine. Everyone I met over the past four days shook their head over the recent closing of the
Smurfit-Stone paper mill twenty miles away in Ontonagon. When it finally closed its doors in 2009, gone were another 150 area jobs. And soon the power plant is going to shut down, though at this point it employs but a few people to do what work no one seems to know.

Let's put it another way: when the mine was yielding up its copper veins White Pine had a year-round population of around 1500. Today, that number is 250. When times were flush, White Pine had both an elementary school and a high school; now it has neither. The Mineral River Plaza

-- the single ugliest mall to ever have blighted a landscape -- once upon a time had a market and liquor store, a hardware store, a medical clinic, a barber shop, a laundromat, and other businesses whose storefronts long ago shed any identifying markers; today, the mall is home to the post office, the bank, the tiny library (which got booted when the high school was "sold" -- more on that later), and Antonio's Italian Restaurant and Pizzaria, White Pine's other restaurant. Whatever White Pine was before, it ain't what it used to be.


Why that detour into White Pine when this blog is supposed to be about The Moving Wall? Because with so much collapsing around it, White Pine's relationship with The Moving Wall is becoming increasingly vital. In a town that has little left to hitch its culture to, and its pride, The Moving Wall's summer embarkations, and its winter hibernation, provide not only a rallying point for White
Piners but jobs for them as well.

The Black Bear, which is indigenous to the UP and White Pine, spends its hibernation sleeping. Not so with The MV. It spends its hibernation restoring, rejuvenating. It spends the winter months getting a makeover to ready it for the harsh conditions of yet another summer season of days baking in the sun, or shedding pouring skies, or standing tall to buffeting winds, not to mention the thousands of miles they spend jostling on the back of a trailer as they carted around the country.

In short, when The Moving Wall heads back to its winter home in White Pine, it isn't to remain boxed up and poised for next season's schedule. Instead, each panel is inspected, and, when necessary, refurbished. And some of what makes the refurbishing necessary is that contrary to what many of us might assume, the information on The Wall in Washington is not static but is subject to change. Names are sometimes added if a recently departed's death has been attributed to injuries sustained in battle; the status of names already there sometimes need to be updated (if a soldier's status changes from MIA (missing-in-action) to confirmed dead, the cross alongside the name indicating MIA status is changed to a diamond, indicating death confirmed). In 1982, there were 57,159 names on The Wall; to date, it's been amended over 300 times. As the National Park Services makes these changes to The Wall in DC, so too are the changes made to The Moving Wall.

So, my trip to White Pine was to see what John
Devitt, Joy (his wife and traveling partner),

and the rest of the White Pine crew do to get The Wall ready to hit the road come summer, and to snoop around the shop to get the fullest sense of The MV's 26-year run that I could. What I found, in addition to that run, is the story of White Pine itself, and to tell the story of one is, today, to tell the story of the other. That is what I will be looking to do in the posts ahead.