(Credit to Arve Johnsen for this great picture.)
Calla. Maybe Edward Calla, maybe something more Hispanic-sounding. His name was etched on the tiniest sliver of polished black granite, no more than a few inches in height.
I was beginning my visit to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC, in reverse order as I would later discover. It was a crisp February morning, the sun just beginning to brighten the haze. The day promised to be warm, in the 50's, but at this time of morning the puddle of water from yesterday's rains was still covered with ice. There were one or two other visitors, far ahead of me. For all intents, I was alone.
Vietnam was my war, if any war was. I was required to register for the draft when I graduated from high school in 1975, even though the war was winding down. I refused to register, although this was hardly a brave or consequential decision. By this time, draftees were no longer being called up; the last soldiers would lift off from the roof of the American Embassy in Saigon in less than a year. The government hadn't yet figured out to tie the award of college aid to draft registration, so there were no practical repercussions resulting from my decision not to register. I threw the Selective Service postcard away.
I didn't fight, and I didn't have any friends who fought. I knew people who did go, friends of my older brothers. They all came back, alive but broken. Jimmy Keliher's brother, a helicopter pilot, died in a small plane crash less than a month after he returned. George Turk opened the door to my brother Bill and attacked him; apparently George had some sort of flashback. Jamie's boyfriend Rick, son of a Stanford Aeronautics professor, hung out at the Coffee House, playing Asteroids for hours on end.
Vietnam was tearing my family apart. It wasn't just that, of course. Revolutions in sexuality, pharmacology, civil rights—there seemed to be no end to the national struggles that intersected with adolescent rebellion in our family. The result was family conflict, sometimes violent, around the kitchen table. My Lai, Kent State, the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. Reports of abuse at the POW simulation camp at the US Air Force Academy. As I approached my 18th birthday I had come to terms with the fact that I wouldn't do the only thing I'd thought about doing since I was eight years old. I couldn't apply for admission to the US Air Force Academy. I love planes, and loved the idea of flying them. But knowing what happened when I would release the bombs, after they fell from the sky… I just couldn't sign up for that.
And now, here I was in Washington. I'd snuck a peek at the Vietnam Memorial earlier in the week, when Brian and I visited the Lincoln Memorial. It was in view, the quiet black granite like a sponge holding so many emotions. Later, Brian and I saw an exhibit at the Smithsonian of some of the items that people have been leaving for more than 20 years at the Memorial. Letters, photos, pins, uniforms, hats. I read the letter that accompanied someone's high school letterman's jacket. "Here, you deserve this," it read. "You went to Vietnam and died, and I got to be the big hero in high school. It turns out you did the heroic thing, not me."
I could understand the emotion that would accompany visiting the Memorial to find the name of a friend, a brother or sister (yes, even back then…), a son or daughter, a father or mother. I didn't know what it would be like for me. I didn't even know if I belonged there.
But I had promised Brian I would take some pictures of the Lincoln Memorial, and I had promised myself, many years before, that I would visit the Memorial. So, as the flock of Canadian geese stirred on the lawn behind me, I started down the path. As I descended down toward the middle of the Memorial, the granite tablets grew in size. The lines of names grew larger and longer. I noticed that the tablets were numbered, and that the names weren't in alphabetical order. I stopped every so often to focus on a name. The three Callahan's in a row: Paul, Fusco, Kelly—man or woman? There were a few pins of military origin. There was a piece of paper describing the medical helicopter crew that had gone down in February, 1968. The helicopter had been found—intact—in 1970, but none of the soldiers were ever heard from again. Their chopper went down on February 12th—Lincoln's birthday.
As I headed to the middle of the Memorial, I felt like I had descended into hell. I looked to the east, at the outlines of the names that stretched away in front of me. It was there that I learned that the names were placed on the Memorial in the order of their death, starting in 1959 and ending in 1975. I thought about that last name, about all those killed in Korea during the "Talking War" as negotiations for an armistice went on, and wondered if that last soldier's death seemed more or less futile than the first name on the first tablet. I looked toward the Lincoln Memorial and asked myself how these sacrifices were connected.
I walked up toward the beginning of the Memorial now, reading the names. As I neared the entrance to the Memorial a man went by me, crying. I imagined he was visiting a friend, maybe a war-time buddy. His grief seemed as fresh this morning as it must have been when his friend first died, maybe 30 years ago.
As I walked further I saw what looked like phone books, protected from the weather under Plexiglass. I saw that they were directories of names, there to help visitors find a particular name at the Memorial. They listed the person's name, date of birth, date of death or disappearance, home town, branch of the military, and location on the Memorial. I thought about these lives described in a single line. Here was someone from Los Angeles, born in 1947 and killed in 1969. There are dozens of lines on each page, and hundreds of pages in each directory.
I had always wondered how I would react to the Memorial. What would I do? What would I say? The tears must have been rolling down my cheeks for some time, judging from how damp my face was. "I'm sorry you had to die. And I'm sorry we didn't love you" was all I could say to these people I would never know.
I slipped my hands into the pockets of my overcoat and walked away from the pain and the sorrow.
I wrote this in February of 2002. After I scribbled the story on the back of my printed calendar for the month, I filed the pages away. Having opened that wound, I sought to bury it again, for who knows how long.
Some months later—I can remember it as clear as day—I was driving up Highway 17, just before the Summit, when it hit me. This pain I had felt since I was little, this feeling that Vietnam had scarred me (I had always imagined someone asking me, "Are you a vet? I imagined answering, "We're all veterans of Vietnam")… it wasn't about Vietnam at all. It was about my family, about the crises we went through as each of my older brothers and sisters came of age and sought to start their own lives. Bobby Kennedy's assassination, the Watts Riots, Crips and Bloods. These were the dramatic backdrop, but they weren't the story. The story was a family trying to grow up, of kids trying to figure out how they could still love their parents and move away. As my own children were approaching that age of independence, I saw the war in a new light.
- The name I first saw was Jessie C. Alba.
- The order of names starts at the apex of the Memorial, then continues east, toward the Lincoln Memorial. The names then continue from the west-most part of the Memorial (where I saw Mr. Alba's name) and continue back to the center of the Memorial.
- I didn't get the names of the Callahan's right, either. There are fourteen Callahan's listed on the Memorial.
- Here are a couple of related websites:TheWall-USA Wikipedia entry