by

Lorna K. Grant

 

In memory of my Uncle, SSG Ronald E. Bales, 101st Airborne, Company D, 2nd Battalion, 501st Infantry, KIA April 15, 1971

And in loving memory of my other uncle, Bill Burr, who died tragically in an auto accident December 29, 2008

 

     It is a late November afternoon and cold enough to wish I was inside with a cozy fire burning off the chill.  The gray clouds above the nation’s capital move across the sky at the pressure of the wind blowing steadily out of t

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he North.  A strong gust tugs at my hair until it is freed from its braid and whips across my eyes.  The clouds seem to hint at rain, yet I am outside despite it all: the cold of winter, the wind of the north, the threat of rain.  It is the perfect day to look for a name on a wall – a wall about the dead but for the living.  It is the Vietnam Veteran’s War Memorial.

 

     It stretches out before me and appears to rise out of the earth; as if the two cold, black granite walls forced themselves against the surface until they reached the warmth of human love.  The chevron-shaped walls form an amphitheater in which a bronzed life-sized statue of three infantrymen stare eternally at the wall, perhaps searching for their own names, or that of a fallen friend.  To the west, amidst the winter-barren trees, flies an American flag, forever saluting the names engraved in stone.  I stand and stare at the walls so stark and cold, and realize these walls hold a power that reaches out and touches something deep inside my soul.  This power, this emotion, envelops me and pulls me toward the Wall.

 

     I slowly start down the path, almost hypnotically, heading west towards the vertex, looking for a year, then a name.  I stare at the Wall as I go.  I see the rows of names.  Names that march on, even in death, in perfect military formation.  As the path goes on, the black granite rises until it overpowers me with more names.  The lights in the pavement shine upon the names, embedding them forever into my memory.

 

     God, so many names!

 

     Something catches my eye.  A note taped below a name reads, “I never knew my father.  If you knew him, please write me.”  Tears wells in my eyes.  I look away and see the things people have left at the base of the memorial: photographs of children grown, a pair of dog tags, medals, flowers, parts of uniforms, unit patches and American flags.  I pass a teddy bear smiling up at me, but as I look closer, I notice the missing arm.

 

     I move on.

 

     I drop my flowers so full of life in this place of death, and as I bend down to pick them up, the words of a letter leap out at me: Dear Michael,  I rubbed your name thinking if I rubbed hard enough, it would come off and you would come back to me.

 

     Tears escape my eyes.

 

     I feel foolish as the tears spill down my face, but as I stand up and move on, I notice I am not the only one touched by the emotion of the Wall.  Mothers reach out to touch a name and cry racking sobs that shatter the soul.  Other mumble heart-wrenching prayers as silent tears slide down their faces.

 

     I see those who just stare, seeing ghosts of the past; and those who talk to it, saying their last good-byes.  Anguished friends and relatives turn to each other for comfort, hoping to find the reason why.  A woman clutches her son’s photograph to her bosom and screams at the Wall for bearing his name.  I quickly look away, only to turn my gaze upon a veteran in a wheelchair, silently staring at the Wall.  As I walk by, I see a solitary tear glide down the man’s cheek.

 

     I continue walking, looking straight ahead, until I find what I see – the panel with the year 1971 engraved upon it.  Slowly, I start to read the names etched into the granite – David A. Young, Michael C. Phillips, James K. Fitzpatrick.  Suddenly the tears fall uncontrollably down my face.  I reach out and touch the Wall, to touch a name – Ronald E. Bales.  I do not know how long I have stood here, staring at my uncle’s name carved into this black wall with a finality that rips the soul. 

 

     I do not feel the cold, the wind; I feel nothing.  It starts to rain; softly, as if not to disturb those who are gathered.  It is as if… no, it cannot be; yet… Those hard granite walls that before appeared so unfeeling, seem to be crying with the rain, every tears touching a name.

 

     As I turn to leave, I feel the power of the Wall around me – the power to heal those who are torn.  To them the Memorial is a sacred place; where this world meets the next, where the living meet the dead.  With that thought in mind, I stand before the last panel of black granite.  Staring at the wall through tear-filled eyes, I see faces; faces so young and full of pain.  Then I realize they are not the faces of the names on the Wall, but the reflections on a Wall of the living who are here to find a name, and hopefully, peace.