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, 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.