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,
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
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