Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Memorial Day, Observed

When you see the Wall for the first time, you are awe-struck by the visual simplicity of a memorial for something so complex as the Vietnam War. It is simply a wall etched with names, chronologically, of those who were killed or missing and unaccounted for in the Vietnam War. The size of the wall and the overwhelming number of names has a profound effect. Most people my age have learned about the Vietnam War through history classes or from watching action-packed Hollywood films. Some of us may have heard accounts from those who were there, the experiences they went through; or even from those who did not serve, but have stories about others who did. Anyone with an elementary education in American history knows of the Vietnam War, the protests, the political unrest, and the shameful way our country neglected the returning service members.

Like most historical events, one can never fully comprehend without having lived through the event and seeing it with their own eyes. Could you effectively describe the events of September 11, 2001? I was in Iowa on 9/11, far from New York City, the Pentagon, or Pennsylvania; yet I will never forget the day. I sat in front of my television all day with friends and loved ones, trying to grasp the reality of what we were watching. It was a surreal experience from halfway across the country. When I hear stories of those who lived through it, I feel the emotional connection between the events I watched fearfully on television, and the experience of those who saw it firsthand. Everyone remembers where they were on 9/11. But, in ten years, will you be able to explain to an 18 –year old, exactly what happened in this country? If you were in NYC or if you were in Iowa, or if you were in Oregon, I don’t believe there is a way to make someone who has no emotional perspective truly understand what happened on that day.

Unfortunately, that is the same disconnect I have with the Vietnam War. The facts I have learned over the course of my life, the people I have talked to about their experience, be it in the service or just growing up and knowing that their neighbor left and never came home – as much empathy and respect as I feel, I know that I will never truly understand what it meant to have lived through that time. I think that is the case for most people my age. We know the facts, but will never understand. That is why the Wall is such a moving experience.

Of all the facts that have influenced my understanding of the Vietnam War, nothing I ever learned in a textbook, saw in a movie or even heard from a Vet that had the same effect as seeing those 58,261 names etched into nearly 250 feet of the Wall. It is the first time I understood the impact and devastation of what happened in Vietnam.

250 feet of wall… 70 inscribed panels, each with up to 137 lines of names. Each of those names represents a member of the U.S. military lost in battle. 58,261 service members never to be seen again by their parents, husbands, wives, children, neighbors, friends, relatives… who now have a name on a wall to remember their loved one, and to remind the rest of us of our country’s history.

I’m sure everyone who visits the wall has their own unique experience and understanding of the memorial. For me, it has not been any one individual, but the magnitude of seeing all of those names as the list goes on and on. Having no personal connection to any one person memorialized on the Wall, it is the overall structure and the collection of so many names that makes it so breathtaking. Many people come to the Wall to visit a loved one and see their name, perhaps leaving behind a card or flower to show that the person is still in their heart. For me, it is the list of names as a whole that I have always found so moving.

Until yesterday

On Memorial Day that list of names comes to life. On any given day you may find a card or a flower lain in front of the panels. On Memorial Day, I saw more than a daunting list of names with some cards and flowers. I saw letters written by friends and family, mementos left by those who served alongside the men and women fated to earn their name on the wall. A pack of Marlboro Reds, a picture of a the American flag drawn in crayon by a youngster, the words “Miss you, Daddy!” on a photo of a man holding a baby – and the realization that the infant in the photo is probably now older than me but still feeling the loss of her father.

On the last Monday in May, we take a day out of our regular work schedules in remembrance of the men and woman who paid the ultimate price for our freedom. I have always had the utmost respect for those who wear the Uniform of the U.S. Armed Forces. The time I spent in D.C. over Memorial Day weekend has deepened my respect, not only for those who have served, but the families they leave behind.

4 comments:

Paul said...

Marvelous post, Kathleen--just marvelous. I've been to the wall in Washington, and you captured it very well indeed.

When news of the planes hitting the towers broke, I was helping tear down the Grossology exhibit at the science museum. The museum always closes for a week after Labor Day to take care of major maintenance projects, so the whole staff gathered in the Omnitheater lobby to watch the news on the TVs that hang from pillars. A completely surreal day.

A few days later we had a staff dinner in the cafeteria, where there's a beautiful view of the Mississippi. Someone looked out and saw the first plane they'd seen since the event. We all broke out into spontaneous applause.

I also remember when Ronald Reagan got shot. I was sitting in my ninth grade geometry class when someone in the school office simply turned on a radio over the PA system. Once we figured out what was being broadcast, my teacher said, "Oh no; not again." I'm sure he was remembering Kennedy. Another surreal day.

But, as you say, unless you've been there, been through it, you can't really know it.

Thanks so much for your words. Are we going to see any of them in print one day?

Kathleen said...

Awww... I remember the Grossology exhibit! That thing sneezed on me. :) I don't know how to get in touch w/you Paul, we need to catch up. I had a column in the DI last year. I still have the same email address from UI. I love your comments on my blog but it has been way too long. We need to catch up.

Jenna said...

touching post Kathleen, and what awesome pictures!

Miss you.

Paul said...

Hi, Kathleen. I guessed you would figure out it was me after that last post--and you probably did before that, too.

Sorry to disappoint, but the sneezer is part of the permanent Human Body Gallery. Grossology was a travelling exhibit we had for the summer of 2001. The tagline was "The [Impolite] Science of the Human Body." Here's the Web site.

Hang tight; I'll get in touch with you....