Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day 2009

This Spring, I visited the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C. for the first time. I went to honor young men I had known who had fought and died in that hell. I also wanted to acknowledge my own part in the protests and marches. It had been a time of huge upheaval, torment, and rage -- my own rage against an unjust war and an impersonal system that drafted my friends and haunted our futures.

I walked from the Capitol Building and kept the Washington Monument in my view. It was cherry blossom time -- a warm and beautiful April afternoon. The city was alive with visitors, student groups at the Smithsonian, and the homeless at Union Station.

For an hour I followed a path I had walked 42 years ago. In October 1967, I marched in Washington, D.C. to protest the Vietnam War. We met at the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial and marched upon the Pentagon, where it was rumored Allen Ginsberg and a group of friends were planning to levitate the building.

I was with my friend Trish, in our tan trenchcoats, like the good journalism students we were. We had travelled all night on the bus from Syracuse. I was taking a first step in the long march that has become my life. I wanted to be counted -- against the war, against the military draft, against colonization and "manifest destiny" and all those other excuses we use for taking what we want, when and where we want it.

I marched for Jeff who had enlisted after losing his scholarship freshman year. I marched for Lenny and Mike and Johnny and Jim. I marched for what the draft did to young men and their families. I marched because I had been radicalized and I was furious at the betrayals in my life.

So, in April 2009, I retraced my steps along the Reflecting Pool and was caught by the irony of the Vietnam Memorial being placed just over the berm from where we had sung and yelled and beat our fists into the air. "One, two, three, four. We don't want your fucking war." Over and over and over.

Who could have imagined that 42 years later, I would return to open thick, waterproof books neatly printed with the 58,256 names of the dead. Who knew I would search and find two men from my youth -- Michael who teased me about my high school editorials and Johnny, my neighborhood friend from when I was five.

Michael was to die early, on May 24, 1968. Johnny -- and eleven other young men -- died on June 22, 1970. Their names are engraved side by side on the same row. There are coordinates on each panel so you can trace that one death, that one name, that date and your unique heartbreak amongst the thousands.

Who could known it would be so organized...

I started walking the path next to the polished black stone. First, I passed rows of names at the height of my ankle. I found Michael on a slab that reached my waist. Johnny was lost in waves of names on a stone far above my head. May 1968 to June 1970 was a bad time for young men aged 18 to 25.

An airforce veteran stood nearby and talked about his experiences. Most of these men, he said, were shot down while on secret missions over Laos and Cambodia. Like Johnny, when they died they were listed as "Missing in Action" -- and certainly not missing in the jungles of Cambodia. We weren't there -- remember?

The airman did a rubbing for me and I carried that sad bit of charcoal on paper in memory of my friend. I called Barry and told him I was so grateful I wasn't bringing home a rubbing of his name, because we both knew how easily it might have been... could have been... would have been...

I sat on a park bench for a long time. A bird sang in the thicket nearby. I remembered me, at age 20. I cried a little for what had once seemed promised and for what we had lost.

Later, much to my surprise, I left the park feeling relief and closure.

I flew out of Washington the next day. From the air, the Reflecting Pool meets the Lincoln Memorial. Beyond an access road and a clump of trees, the Vietnam Wall slices a deep gash into the earth. Further out, Arlington Cemetery rolls over green hills speckled with small white crosses.

Arlington still yields her soft soil and embraces dead soldiers from conflicts, old and new, current and future. Pearl Harbor to Basra. Kabul to Iwo Jima. Normandy to _______. War is so persistent. So tenacious. So universal and eternal. I might have guessed.

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