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, August 17, 2010

When The Wall Comes To Town, And When It Doesn't

A casino seems an odd place to host The Wall. After all, The Wall is about contemplation, reflection, remembrance, prayer. A casino would seem to have nothing in common with The Wall, apart from the praying, perhaps. Yet, a few weeks ago, on the invitation of The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, John and Joy schlepped The Wall out to Grand Ronde, Oregon, home of the Spirit Mountain Casino (owned by The Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde). 
I caught up with those weary road warriors in the casino lodge. I had to be in Tacoma the following week, and so I came out to the west coast early to spend some time with them and visit The Wall. As it turned out, the casino, lacking any grassy area large enough to support The Wall, had to re-site it to tribal grounds a couple of miles away in a much more suitable environment – a big open space surrounded by trees, mountains, and a scattering of distant, sleepy buildings. The good news is that there The Wall was able to spread itself on quiet grounds; the bad news is that it was removed from the casino and its ready-made population. 

 To their credit, the casino promoted The Wall at every turn, with table tents and posters and audio announcements. They even made available a regularly scheduled casino shuttle for ferrying visitors out to and back from The Wall. I don't know what the shuttle's final numbers were like, but I suspect many a gambler opted not for the free ride but rather to be taken for a ride: time equals money (lost).

I visited The Wall twice while in Grand Ronde, once on Saturday morning, when I rode over with John and Joy in First Cav, John's daffodil yellow pick-up with its huge first cav insignias emblazoned on each of its front doors,

and then again on Sunday afternoon, by myself. 

On Saturday, John and Joy had gone to polish The Wall, which they do each morning (so do Aaron and Lisa, with The “A” Wall);
Joy and John
I had gone to hang around for the opening ceremonies, and catch the shuttle back to the hotel.

The opening ceremony was modestly attended, and, as one would expect of its hosts, heavily inflected with Indian culture. (Note: While “Native American” seems to be the accepted term of reference these days, the tribe members referred to themselves as Indians, and so then will I). As the color guard proceeded slowly from the parking lot to The Wall's apex, a local tribesman, somewhere in his thirties, whacked a drum with a stick and sang a doleful song in which language and carrying what message I do not know. All that I do know is that it seemed ancient and sacred. Along with the color guard marched five little girls, beautifully decked out in tribal dresses, all five in the running for Little Miss Grand Ronde 2010-2011, a tribal election of no trifling significance: Little Miss Grand Ronde, I was informed, is a much coveted tribal award, on the level of royalty, for which young candidates (and, presumably their parents) compete vigorously. Unfortunately, I had not checked my camera's battery before leaving the hotel and had used up all its juice by the time the girls “signed” a recording of Aaron Neville singing “The Lord's Prayer.” But I did take a picture of them (and a friend) before the ceremony began. You can imagine how cute they looked signing.

The rest of the ceremony was brief. There was a prayer offered up by one of the tribal elders, a variation of “Hail Mary, Full of Grace,” and a short recounting by one of the tribe's council members of his time in Vietnam. The whole thing lasted about twenty minutes, after which some people hung around to look at The Wall up close, while others stood around chatting, or drifted off to toward the parking lot and their cars. As I had to wait for the casino shuttle, I moseyed over to the information tent, which didn't have much information but which did have an ample supply of cold drinks. As I stood there eavesdropping, I overheard conversations which indicated general familiarity. Everyone seemed to know everyone else. One woman, Siobhan Kelly I think was her name, was particularly outgoing and conversational. She spoke to some of the elder folk in that kind of maternal way a daughter would talk to an aging father, which suggested she was some kind of caregiver. I learned after a while that she worked for the tribal council (she was also married to a member of a tribe), and she impressed me immediately as a true can-do/does-do person. We struck up a conversation and she told me how proud she was to have The Wall in Grand Ronde, pointing out to me that the confederation of tribes had a disproportionate number of vets (from all wars) given the size of its population (six members of the confederated tribes were on The Wall). She then went on to tell me some of the services the council could now provide, thanks to the casino. Physically, there is a school, a health clinic, a culture center and more. The tribes also provide outreach services like food banks, clothes drives, etc. Siobhan told me the casino contributes 6% of its earnings to the community. The Confederation's website reports $5,000,000 as the dollar figure. That's no token amount.

Clearly, the casino is good for the Confederation, the tribes' overall welfare. But it's a deal with the devil. If you walked the casino's gaming floor, as I did several times, and saw the dull eyes of those who sit hour after hour feeding the slots, you'd know what I mean.



On Sunday afternoon I returned to The Wall. It was a bright, breezy day, weather hard to beat. When I got to the The Wall no one was there except for the security guard who was napping in his car. The chairs which had been put out for Saturday's ceremonies had been taken back, and hand been replaced with a handful of benches set back from The Wall. I sat in one.

After a while a man approached The Wall, alone. Late fifties, early sixties. Gray; pot belly; ill-fitting pants held up by suspenders. Beginning at the far end of the East Wall (the right side panels) he proceeded from one panel to another, somewhat quickly at first, and then increasingly more slowly. After a while, seeing him stand for several minutes in front of a single panel, it occurred to me that he was reading every name.

I wondered if he was planning on reading all 58,253 names (Note: 6 names were added on May 31st, which will added to The Moving Wall when it retires to White Pine for the winter), whether that was even possible, and if so, how long it would take.

After a while a car drove up and two middle-aged couples got out, wearing casual, summer vacationing on the road type clothes. The men appeared more fit than the women, and the t-shirts they wore boasting of some road-race may have been part of the reason why. From where I sat I could see that they were unfamiliar with The Wall. They approached the The Wall tentatively, not really sure what to do with it. Starting at the far end of the east panels, they scanned some names at random and moved along down the line. The four drifted apart and found solo spots across The Wall's expanse. One of the men, however, didn't make it that far. He stopped a few panels past the panel where the pony-tailed man stood, seemingly fixed, and oblivious to now being scrutinized. The newcomer was clearly curious, curious why the other man was standing there for so long, curious what he was seeing. The newcomer looked at the panel in front of him, as though perhaps he, too, could see into The Wall that which the other man was seeing. He could not. So he returned his gaze to the solitary man and continued his wondering. Eventually he drifted off to meet up with his party. Crossing the field back to their car, they cast confounded glances at the man still standing before The Wall. Their car doors slammed and they drove off.

After another five minutes or so, the lone man stopped his reading and abruptly walked away. Why then? Why so decisively? I couldn't know. He just left.

And so I sat there, alone, just me and The Wall. And why not. It was a beautiful day, and peaceful. I knew that when I returned to the casino, I would be forced to exchange this peace for hubbub. So I lingered.

Another car door slammed and I turned to see the security guard heading toward me. I had recognized him as the skinny kid Siobahn had been fawning over yesterday at the information tent. Brad, I think. At the time he confirmed that, yes, he has served in Iraq, medical support, and that he would be returning in January. As he approached me on the bench I couldn't imagine that rail of a young man, unable to fill out even the rent-a-cop uniform he was wearing, filling out the role of warrior. But then again, he was on the healing side of things.

“Hello, sir,” he said. He stood a few feet away with his hands in his pockets.

“Hello,” I said from the bench. I got the sense that, seeing me sitting alone, he thought I might need some help, that I might be struggling.

“Where you there?”

“No,” I said. “I missed the draft by a year.”

He nodded. He didn't suggest that I could have volunteered. To which I would have said what?

“My father was there,” he said. “He came to see The Wall yesterday. We saw it together.

“Did you ever see it before?”

“No. Neither of us.”

“Not the one in DC, either?”

“No sir.”

“That must have been pretty powerful for you two, then. What was it like? What was it like to see The Wall with your father?”

“We didn't talk much. We were mostly quiet. But it's pretty easy to tell when a grown man is crying.”

I nodded. “You're shipping off to Iraq in January,” I said, changing the subject.

Brad lit up. “Yes! How do you know that?”

“I overheard you talking about it yesterday after the opening ceremonies.”

“I was going to say, news travels fast!”

“Well, thank you for serving. And stay healthy.”

“I will, sir. I will try.” He smiled, and headed back to his car.

I sat for a second wondering how we will honor and remember those who have died and will die in Iraq and Afghanistan. What will be their Wall?

* * *

John Devitt's a pretty quiet guy, with a live and let live philosophy. Perhaps because he has traveled so much and come across so many people he has developed a tolerance for things that would unhinge less well-grounded people like me. Take gambling, for instance. If asked, I'd come down hard on it, get all kinds of righteous and judgmental. John, I suspect, would just shrug. Which is not to suggest that he doesn't care or have an opinion, rather it's more like, if no one's getting hurt or hurting anyone else, let it go.

There is one way to get him going, however: get him started on the “fake” walls, the handful of Moving Wall knockoffs that have emerged over the years, purportedly to do the same thing The Moving Wall has been doing and continues to do -- to bring The Wall to vets who might not otherwise get to see it. Bile is the only word I can use to describe what rises in John when talk turns to the “fake” walls, as bile is what then fills him. I saw the bile building as he, Joy, and myself were having a drink at the Legends bar in the casino. I never before saw John's face scrunch into a sourpuss, especially when sipping a Jack/splash/Coke, but there I did. Somebody close by ordered a Coors, and John grimaced He then told me of the time way back when, when he first started trucking The Wall, and how it had come to the attention of Coors, and how they wanted to sponsor The Wall on a national tour. John said great, so long as you play by my rules, meaning, no self-promoting or commercialization. Coors at first said okay, but then reneged, and that was that. Until, a year or two later, when Coors came out with its own wall, strikingly similar to The Wall that John had designed, and sought to take it around the country under the Coors banner. In true David and Goliath form, John took Coors to court for some kind of legal infringement (I can't remember which), and though the corporate flacks likely thought they would make mincemeat of John, in fact John produced an affidavit that dismantled the Coors case at every turn. John and The Wall eventually won, but it cost him a ton of money to beat the brewing behemoth. Victory was sweet, but the cost of that victory left a bitter taste in John's mouth, a bitterness even his Jack/splash/Coke couldn't wash down.
For John, the dynamics of The Moving Wall have always been simple: arrange a time and place, contract with the hosts that The Wall is not to be exploited or commercialized in anyway, set it up and let it do its thing. Though John has never said so outright, I think he sees The Wall's “thing” as bordering on the religious, as in some way creating a chapel for contemplation, remembrance, atonement, and so forth. There is also its healing effect – some have dubbed it “The Healing Wall” – because of the sometimes mending effect it can have for vets and their families. In order to heal, one must be hurt, and when hurting, one is vulnerable. Therefore, anything which interferes with the sanctity of that chapel, The Wall and its surrounding area, is not just a pollutant but a sacrilege. And anything which seeks to take advantage of the vulnerability of visitors through self-promotion or the hawking of wares is shameful. For John, the fake walls now in circulation compromise the simple integrity upon which The Wall was founded and stands: quietly honoring the sanctity of loss and life. Dignity Memorial, a nation- wide network of funeral providers, has a wall,
at which they hoist a Dignity Memorial logo flag.
Some would see nothing wrong with that. I do. The cynic in me can't help wondering whether, as funeral providers, Dignity isn't hoping to curry a relationship with the graying Vietnam vets to whom Dignity coincidentally offers a burial “discount” (it offers a discount to all military vets). After all, there are about 8,000,000 living Vietnam era vets and within the next decade or two a lot, if not most of them, are going to need burying. It may be that Dignity is truly motivated by the purest of intentions, but my suspicious mind can't avoid thinking that there isn't a business motive behind their wall: to forge a relationship with vets so that they can then bury them. And it's the flag which gives me cause for that suspicion; it's as if their wall is a vehicle for product placement, for selling Dignity Memorial while not seeming to. Sometime this fall Dignity Memorial's wall will be on display in my hometown of Huntington, New York, and I plan on visiting it. I will have a better sense of it then, and will post an apology if I have been unfair.

Then there is The Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall out of Florida. They sell their own merchandise (hats for $25/$30; golf shirts for $55). 

This memorial is operated by The Vietnam and All Veterans of Brevard, a non-profit group. On their website they claim to provide a color guard and rifle team for local events, as well as “support a transitional housing facility” for vets. These are admirable pursuits. Whether or not their organization is non-profit and uses its proceeds to fund noble causes is besides the point. If the Brevard group uses their wall as a way to generate income for those causes, than it is exploiting The Wall for financial gain, even if that gain is without profit.

The American Veterans Traveling Tribute has a Moving Wall knock-off as well,

only they look to capture all wars, not just The Vietnam War. And not just wars. 9/11. The shootings at Ft. Hood. And all the nation's commanders-in-chief. It seems like a three ring memorial circus. As for merchandise, they sell hats, coins, pins, patches, stickers, posters, photos, and a coffee table book. What most separates this wall from The Moving Wall is its agenda. It pushes patriotism, which takes their wall to places neither Maya Lin's design nor John Devitt's replica of that design were ever intended to go. This is not to say that Lin or Devitt are unpatriotic or opposed to patriotism, but only that once The Wall is used as a vehicle or fulcrum for purposes outside itself it is no longer The Wall. It becomes an attraction and medium for other ends.

John conceived and designed The Moving Wall to replicate for vets and visitors the experience of DC. He did not want to [further] politicize it or imprint his own political views upon it. In keeping with his hands-off demeanor, John wanted The Wall to do the talking, or more accurately, the whispering. Whatever it said to those who visited, that is what they'd hear. And nothing else. This is what the knock-offs seem not to get. And this gives John grief.

There's another problem with these copycat walls: they crowd the field, and water down the experience. When I was in Lynbrook a few months back some of the organizers were concerned because another memorial (I think it was the Dignity Memorial) was scheduled for later in the summer somewhere further east on Long Island. They feared that visitors might put off Lynbrook for the later display. With so many walls to choose from, there's no urgency to visit any of them.

A week later, when I was in West Hartford and talking to a stern-looking vet, he told me of having seen The Wall before, and when he mentioned the town and year, I knew it wasn't The Moving Wall. I told him that it wasn't this wall, The Moving Wall we were standing in front of, but rather one of its imitators. He looked at me in a kind of square-jawed military way and wanted to know, “What's the difference? As long as the vets get the experience of it, who cares whose wall it is?”

On the one hand I get that sentiment: it's the effect on the vets that counts. And yet, maybe because I know John and Joy, and I know the history of The Moving Wall, and I believe that people should be recognized for their work and achievements, that simple sentiment doesn't wash with me. John, and now Joy, have made The Moving Wall their life, and for the past 26 years he has devoted himself to bringing The Wall to vets and their families all across America and beyond. Long before these knockoffs hit the road trumping this or trumping that, John was trucking The Wall over tens of thousands of miles. He's sacrificed his life for The Wall. He, and The Moving Wall, deserve to be recognized and appreciated appropriately. To claim that one wall is as good as another is just wrong.

But I also think my criticism of the knock-offs goes beyond my sense of loyalty to John, Joy, and The Moving Wall. It has also to do with cheapening memorializing and remembering in general. As more and more walls circulate around the country, the less special each single display becomes. As visits become less special, more regular, and perhaps someday even routine, the spiritual power of all the walls will continue to leak away. At some point too many walls will deaden our sense of awe at what The Wall represents. Much as we become numb to an over exposure of suffering, so too, may communities become numb to ritual remembering. Ho- hum, it's just another wall again. Its meaning and power to draw us in dissipate with familiarity.
With wall after wall popping up here, there, and everywhere, what was once special becomes mundane, and may, eventually, become unexceptional to the point of beyond unnoticed.

One final comment. Lynbrook's concerns were really about critical mass, and would they reach it given the other wall's scheduled appearance. When I say critical mass, I mean a critical mass of people. Reaching critical mass is not only an achievement of a community but is the living symbol of one. In the case of Lynbrook this could mean community of a specific township and its neighboring towns, but a critical mass of community can also grow out of relationships more loosely formed, self-identified not by location but by purpose. Here we come, from far and wide, to pay our respects at The Moving Wall. Part of being in public at such times and places as memorial events calls us to, is to bear testimony to each other that we share in the honoring, respect, gratitude, remorse, and whatever other spirits brought us to that place. Our presence affirms the sentiments captured in and reflected by the memorial and what it symbolizes. When we are with others we not only confirm those values in others but have them confirmed in our selves. And to the extent that we experience these rituals surrounded by others is the extent to which our experience as a community: our experience is made stronger. A “weak” turnout weakens us. And so if there are several walls overlapping each other in time and place, vying for the same visitors, not only will each of the walls lose, but so too will the prospective community of visitors. This inability to draw a strong, self-aware community represents a loss not only for the living, but for those whose names fill The Wall. For above all else, they fought for and died for their communities. To see their communities robust and thriving vindicates their sacrifice in a way that pockets of visitors here and there cannot.


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