When my good friend, Linda, visited the Washington, DC area, she wanted to go to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I agreed to be her chauffeur and tour guide, although I had never been to the Wall, afraid I would break down under the heavy emotional impact. The black granite wall starts out as a sliver, with just a few names. The list grows as the wall becomes higher, and the visitor walks deeper into the “hole.” The polished stone reflects visitors’ images, so they are superimposed with the etched names of the dead, reminding us that these are not just names, they are people, like us.
As we walked along the Wall, with the list of names overwhelmingly tall, I randomly read names, wondering who these people were, unable to imagine. My mind made a connection between this memorial and the Piscataway Indians‘ autumnal Feast of the Dead ceremonies, where ancestors are remembered, their names said aloud by descendants. Sometimes, they are names that have not been said since the last ceremony, or even in decades. As participants of any ethnic background call each ancestral name, they tie a piece of cloth to the cedar tree in the middle of the circle. Speakers will sometimes make a brief statement about their ancestor, about who the person was, or how the descendant feels connected to the person who went before.
Standing at the Wall, despite the weight of those seemingly endless names etched upon the black granite face, I held myself together well, even as we passed several little altars–the photos, medals, flags and other offerings to the dead. Then we came to a particular shrine, a zipper bag with a flag in it and some photos, a child’s scribbled drawing, and a note that read something like, “Dear Dad, I graduated from college and wore your wings. I am married now, and have two children. This is my husband, Scott, and our daughters…[forgot their names]. I never met you, but I think about you often. You were only 22, and you did not come back…” Linda and I read this, looked at each other briefly, but intently, and I turned away as my eyes teared up. It took all I had to keep from breaking down as we walked slowly, silently back out of the hole, watching the list of names wane as we reached the top edge of that black mirror.
From there, Linda and I bypassed the pompous National WW II Memorial on the way to the Korean War Veterans Memorial, where the life-sized soldiers of pale cast-aluminum were like scattered ghosts frozen mid-stride. The black granite wall there bears the etched images of American soldiers who served, likenesses taken from a multitude of photographs, their wraith-like faces straining the polished surface of the stone as if they were pressing through thin fabric. They seem to be in effort to lift themselves from it, as if they want to come forth to speak. I wondered aloud, considering when the Iraq War Veterans Memorial would be built, and how many dead would be honored there–and where would they put it? The Nation’s Capitol is running out of room for memorials to those killed in our wars.
The last spot we visited was the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial, my favorite. I like its relative informality, the individual rooms, the human touch and human scale, the varied use of water, and, of course, the quotes about social responsibility. I pointed out one of the best to Linda, which gave stark testament to what we had seen and experienced that day, “I have seen war…I have seen blood running from the wounded. I have seen the dead in the mud. I have seen cities destroyed. I have seen children starving. I have seen the agony of mothers and wives. I hate war.”
(c) Shay Seaborne, 2006, 2011. All rights reserved.