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.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

The Shop (Part 1)

I decided to give John and Joy a call before settling into Rm. 115 at the Konteka. I picked up the room phone, dialed 9, and then their number.

Joy answered.

“Hey Joy. I'm here.”

“Hey. Do you want to come to the shop?”

I hadn't actually anticipated going there so soon, but, why not? “Sure. I'd like that.”

“Okay. So you need directions, ā? Wait...”

I waited.

“John says he'll come and get you.”

“Great. I'll be waiting outside.”

A few minutes later I was standing in the Konteka's potholed parking lot when a cream colored Chevy pick-up, a relic, turned into the lot and gently rolled up to me. I hopped in the cab and John and I exchanged great-to-see-yous! He looked the same as when I saw him outside Boston this past summer, perhaps a dash more salt to his beard, perhaps another inch or so to his braided ponytail. But still the easy manner, the quick smile and laugh, even after a UP winter.

Between how ya doins I scanned the truck and was impressed by its near mint condition, especially for a truck its age, whatever its age was.

“This is some truck,” I said, “What year?”


“Damn. It's in great shape.”

“Yeah, it wouldn't normally be out this time of year. They dump so much damn salt on the roads that it just eats through metal. But we've had this warm weather, and it's melted all the snow. So I decided to take it out.”


“Yeah, back in the day I towed the Wall around with it.”

“You've really kept it up.”

“Yeah. I'm kinda proud of it.”

I nodded. Soon I would come to know that John was proud in many ways – not boastful, but proud.

* * *
Minutes later we rolled onto the property dominated under White Pine Electric, the old and soon to be decommissioned coal burning power plant.
The plant lords over a complex of mostly abandoned cinder block and metal-siding buildings, some of its own, others independent of it. I guess you'd call the site an industrial park, but at this point it's more the ghost of an industrial park.

John pulled the Chevy up to a huge, blue, almost windowless building, with the trademark logo of The Moving Wall/Vietnam Combat Veterans emblazoned across a garage door. A handful of trucks were parked outside.

I followed John into the building and was instantly struck by the size of it and the richness of it. Its ceiling must have been thirty feet high, and whereas everything leading up to the building, including its exterior, seemed so austere, barren of color, of vigor, inside, seemingly every square foot of floor space was busy with activities – some in progress, others in waiting. For instance, as soon as you step inside the building
you bump up against a recently acquired pool table, covered, not yet in service, but soon to be. Pan left: just beyond the old truck, much much older than the '87,

stand steel racks, two across by two deep, which hold the hundreds and hundreds of boxes of all colors and sizes The Wall has collected along the way over its 26 years on the road. These are the items which visitors leave behind – letters, flowers, cans of beer, medals – all sorts of stuff.

I approached the racks and John followed. “Jesus,” I said, closing in on them, “I knew you had some stuff, but I had no idea you had that much stuff.”

“Yeah, It's quite a bit. The sponsors at each stop collect the stuff and send it to me, but I can't really do much with it right now. So, I just hang onto it all. Someday, I hope to find a proper home for it all, someplace that will display it properly, like it deserves.”

I came to White Pine to sift through some of those boxes, but standing before the looming racks of left behinds, each identified by date and location, I realized there was months and months of solid work to be done there. Identifying, cataloguing, contextualizing, and more. (I can imagine
that all sorts of academics would be interested – anthropologist, psychologists, historians, to mention just a few – and of course, people like me, rhetoricians.)

“I can see already I’m going to have to come back,” I said, looking over to John. Then I spotted something, and he followed my eyes. To the left of the racks, lining a wall, were about a billion beer cans, neatly bagged, which if ever redeemed at a dime a piece, will catapult John and Joy into
a higher tax bracket.

“We really do need to cash those in,” he said, “it’s a small fortune, there. And they’re getting in the way. It’s not as bad as it looks.”

“Sure it isn’t,” I said.

He walked me away from the rack and the aluminum mine and showed me the office, whose walls were chock full of plaques and declarations and photos and clippings and on and on.

“Oh, I can see I’m going to have to spend some time in here,” I said.

“C’mon, let me show you to the crew.”

On the way into the inner room we passed a woman, slight, in a red sweatshirt and red baseball cap, working intently, touching up a silkscreen.

“This is Joyce,” John said.

Joyce looked up to me briefly to say hi, and then returned to her work.

John then lead me through an opening into an even larger room. In it, a number of people were seated around a table, imbibing.

“There he is,” someone said.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” said another, indicating the method by which they’d been occupying their time. “It’s all your fault.”

“Okay,” I said, holding up my arms in surrender. “Guilty as charged! I thought I’d be here much sooner.”

Joy, a woman of seeming endless energy, came bounding up to me. “You made it, ā?” she said with a hug and a smile.

Joy was a true-blue yooper, and she sounded to me more Canadian than American.

“I miscalculated,” I announced. “Thought Marquette was much closer than it is."

“You must need a beer then, ā?” Joy deduced.

“Why yeah, sure, I’d love one.”

“Or a drink. You want a drink? We’ve got other stuff to drink. A lot of stuff left over from our wedding.” (John and Joy had gotten married the year before, in the shop. Big party.)

What the hell, I thought. “Got any scotch?”

Joy disappeared and quickly reappeared with about half remaining of a 1.75 bottle of Dewar’s.

“How about this, ā?” She showed me the label.

“That’ll do just fine. Maybe too fine.”

She darted away to pour me a find a glass and ice, and the rest of us swapped introductions. There was Lisa and Aaron (they’re married), two Rons, Jeff (Lisa’s son), and Linnie.

“You’re the author,” one of the Rons said, and, not clear on the technicalities and wanting not to misrepresent myself, I corrected him.

“Not an author. But I am a writer.”

“What’s the difference?” he asked.

“I think author refers to some one who’s published something. I haven’t published anything – yet – so for now I’m just a writer.”

Still, author or writer, whatever I was changed the chemistry of the room.

I don’t know how many self-confessed authors/writers have passed through White Pine, but not so many that I wasn’t looked upon with curiosity, perhaps even a little suspicion. Clearly alien.

Lisa asked me a question, which I don't remember. I only remember her response to my answer I answer: a polite but vacant expression. I got the sense from her expression that I might have been speaking Chinese. It wasn’t Chinese, but coming from New York, and speaking fast, it might as well have been. I’d have slow down my speech a bit, not be in such a hurry.

Joy returned with my drink, poured just how I like it, right up to the brim.

“Thanks,” I said, looking around. This room was twice the size of the first room, and equally as interesting. Apart from the actual silk-screening equipment, there were photos of soldiers and a huge thank you banner hanging on the wall that separated this room from the garage.

There were yet more framed photos of the Wall from around the country crowding the room’s vertical surfaces.

Then I heard music, and looked to its source. It was coming from a room behind the table. “What’s that?” I asked John, who returned with a fresh Jack-splash-coke.

“That?” he said laughing, taking a seat at the table, “That’s Shanghai Kelly. Take a look.”

I stepped inside the small, windowless, cinder block room out of which the music was bopping. John named it Shanghai Kelly, though one might mistake it for Shangri La, especially in White Pine, Michigan, 2 1/2 hours from Marquette.

John and Joy converted that small room into their own “private” (more on this later) bar, and it is about the most interesting and aesthetically invigorating bar in the world. Lit entirely by string lights tacked overhead, the room was buttery and warm. Much care was given to adorning the walls (each with its own theme),
and the ceiling (baseball caps from all over America hung between the rafters),
and the back bar, loaded with all kind of doo-dads and chatchkas, that Shanghai Kelly was itself an exhibit of sorts.
 And then there was the juke box,
a real live jukebox, with hundreds of the greatest songs to come out of the greatest musical era in American history: the sixties. Buffalo Springfield; Steppenwolf; Creedence; Sly; The Stones; Motown – a jukebox to make The Big Chill jealous. But also: Johnny Cash, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, and Elvis.

It rocked.

I emerged from Shanghai Kelly’s kind of ga-ga, and asked John, “This is the best bar I’ve ever been in. Why would you ever leave?”

He smiled, but didn’t offer a reason. My guess is he couldn’t.

* * *
We spent the next several hours chatting, listening to great music, and yes, drinking. I was able to dial back my New Yorkese from 45 rpm to 33, and was much better understood as a result. I learned a little bit about everyone there; that Aaron and Lisa were road stewards to the A wall, and have been for several years; that one of the Rons was Lisa's half brother; that Linnie cooked at the Konteka and would be making my breakfast come the morrow (if I saw it); that Aaron had served in the Gulf War; that these were all genuinely nice, down to earth people. I also learned a thing about John that night. 

"You know," he said, taking a sip from his Jack-splash-coke, "It really pisses me off that no one knows what we do here." [Note: it's inconceivable that anything really pisses off John -- he's just too much on an even keel to get knocked into pissed off. I believe, though, that he can become peeved.]

He continued: "No one around here has any idea what we do. They think we take the Wall on the road, bring it back here, pack it away, and spend the winter drinking in the American Legion. They don't know the work we put into the Wall, into maintaining it."

He took another sip. "That's why I've been trying to get people to come out here, to see what we do, because if they did, they wouldn't believe it. My goal is to have everyone in town come out here to see what we do, to see the whole process. Then they'll know."

John offered the town of White Pine a standing invitation to come out to the shop and see what goes on. By word of mouth he lets it be known when he and his crew will be doing what process, though the door to the shop is always open for anyone to drop by and just grab a beer from the fridge, or play Shanghai Kelly's juke box (it's free). John hopes that the social atmosphere he's created in the shop will spill over into a greater interest in, and understanding of, the winter Wall. Tomorrow, for instance, he has scheduled printing panels at 1:00. A few people have said they'll drop  by, and others will likely drop by unannounced. By the end of the night, I got the strong sense that this shop was much more than the winter home of The Moving Wall. I wasn't sure what that more was just yet, but I trusted that the next few days would make that clear to me. 

1 comment:

  1. I have known Devitt for 25 plus years and can truthfully say, "He is the best friend I have ever had".. But I have to say, with a long Texas twang, WHY.. ... .. And my wife Rene thinks that Devitt hung the moon.. They don't come any better than John & Joy.. ... ..

    In Peace & Patriotism,


    "Once Cav. - Always Cav."