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.

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