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, 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.