They Call It "The Wall"
One night, I never went home. I had planned this out. I got the family on welfare, and I left. Even though I changed some, nothing else around me did. Every night, after I was gone, for years, I would ache inside, as I thought about my kids, and how it must have tore them up inside. They woke up one morning, and I wasn't there anymore. I never even told them good-by! I wanted to call them, but it got harder and harder, as time went on.
Two years go by, and I find myself in Maryland, living with Terry. We moved there, from Ohio, after I moved from Waterford, right after that move, from Kalamazoo! We moved there, to be near her Dad. It was a comfortable relationship. We didn't fight! We argued a little, but it wasn't out of anger. She even convinced me to get in touch with my kids. It was great! They acted like there was nothing wrong at all. They were glad to see me! It only made me feel, that much more guilty! And now, two of them were living with us.
It was there I sat, in a nice little apartment, as I watched the dedication ceremony, of the new Vietnam Veterans Memorial, on the T.V. news. I started to feel a small lump in my throat, as I watched the other Vets who were there, standing, and crying. I could see...and feel, the pain in their hearts, as they reached out to touch the names of the friends they knew.
Silent tears, poured down my cheeks, and I felt like I was being joined by millions of other Vets, of all wars, as we watched together, and together, finally let go, and to realize that half the sadness, was the realization, that it wasn't finally!............ and it never would be! I knew then, that this black marble wall, with over fifty eight thousand names on it, was going to have far more impact on Veterans, myself included, than anyone could ever imagine!
Probably the only statement I have ever made in my life, that has never gotten an argument, was that the Vietnam War, was a terrible mistake! The sometime tragic effects of it, are still being felt today, not only by it's participants, but by most people, who have survived that point in time. No one, has been able to really explain the reasons for our difficulties, but everyone is starting to realize that the consequences, and confusion, of having just been a part of that war, are still being felt, by most, if not all, of it's participants. And it's not only Combat Vets! People who were cooks, and mechanics, and office people, some who never even heard a shot fired. That's...the puzzle!
When the newscast was over, I went out to the kitchen, where Terry was cooking dinner.
"I think we are going to Washington tomorrow!" I said.
"Okay!" she smiled, wiping her hands. "Is there any special reason, or do we just have to go!" I knew she was trying to make a funny, and I wasn't mad.
"I want to go see that new memorial!" Then she saw the tear marks on my cheeks, and her tone got more serious.
"All right! If you want to, we will. Call the kids. Dinners ready!"
I could feel that she was trying to be respectful about the situation, but she was fumbling to do so. She was fifteen years younger than me, and once again, that awe in her eyes, as I was just trying to explain why I was, like I was, and I had to have her. Things were pretty good though, and we seemed happy. I was beginning to figure, that this was just about it, as far as the home and family thing was concerned. I distinctly remember, thinking, that it was something better though. But, this was okay. Don't get me wrong.
I didn't think about it again, till later that night. I laid there in the bed, staring off into the darkness. Images started coming back into my mind. Things, that used to bother me. Some of them a lot! Some things, I hadn't faced up to yet. There were names on that wall. Names that I knew! And faces of names, I didn't! For a moment, I felt like everything was going to start all over again, the pain, the loneliness, the confusion. Then I realized, that it has never really...been that far away! I finally drifted off to sleep, still wondering, how just thinking about going there, was having such an effect on me!
We arrived in Washington in the afternoon. Since we had no idea where it was, we decided to visit some of the other monuments. As I walked up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, I was amazed at how large he actually was! He was a good man, I thought, as I read the "Four Score" speech, I once memorized in school. Then I read the speech on the other wall. The one that ended with "Taking care of him, who had born the battle, and his widow!" I wasn't even angry. At least there was once someone who felt that way. It wasn't his fault, it's not that way today!
I went back outside, to look for the reason I came. I had no idea what it looked like, just a vague picture, from the pictures I'd seen. As I walked around the front, I spotted a man in a black cowboy hat, with captain’s bars on the front, over his airborne wings. His eyes met mine, and he glanced up at my baseball hat. I was glad that I had at least worn that. In a moment of indecision, I had decided not to wear my shirt, which I just now, started to regret. The hat was given to me by a Sky Pilot (Combat Chaplain) from Ohio. The front of it said P.O.W.'s & M.I.A.'s, and underneath it "You Are Not Forgotten!"
We nodded slightly at each other, and for a moment I thought to ask him where it was. Something stopped me though. It was the look in his eyes. Now this was a look that I'd seen before. A hollow empty look, that said nothing, but meant a lot. I knew he had already been there, and it had been rough. I decided to leave him alone.
I walked back inside the Lincoln Monument, to where the guard shack was.
"Can I help you?" The young guard asked.
"Yes!...Can you tell me where the Vietnam Memorial is?"
"Sure!" he said, and I could feel my heart quicken. "Look right behind you, between those two columns!"
I looked to where he was pointing, my eyes trying to focus on something in the distance, figuring it to be probably a quarter mile away, or more.
"Right down there in front!" said the guard. "Just behind those trees!"
"Thanks!" I said, walking away. For some reason, tears were starting to form, and I didn't want him to see them.
I walked out to the marble platform, to the left of the stairs, not being able to take my eyes off the place where it was, and sat down. All around me people were laughing, talking, taking pictures. Kids were running around, and sliding down the ramps in front of me.
But, I was in a different world. I hadn't prepared myself for this! An overwhelming sadness filled my entire body! The sadness didn't seem to come from within. Instead, it enveloped the entire area around me. It seemed like it was in a different dimension, of which I, at the time, was the only inhabitant. While the world went on around me, I alone, was experiencing the pain and loneliness, of the Vietnam War!
I began to realize, that this is the way it has been for me, all along. Only now it was more obvious. I have always been inside this bubble.
So much had been bottled up inside me for so long. I knew I was either losing control, or finally letting go, I couldn't tell which. But, I now knew, this wasn't going to be easy.
I got up and started down the stairs, to begin my pilgrimage, just as the sun was setting. I could see small lights, like torchlights, in a row up ahead. Unlike all of the other monuments, this one gave off an eerie glow, in the dusk. Coming up the path to the left, was a man, at least three inches taller than my six foot frame. His head was down, and he was crying like a baby. The woman next to him, held his arm, and led him along. I almost stopped when I saw this, but something kept drawing me closer. I now knew, that this was going to be far more intense, than I had ever imagined.
Everything in the immediate area, seemed to get quieter, the closer I got. I could now begin to see the outline of the whole wall. It wasn't anything at all, like I had imagined it to be. I had always thought it stood above ground, but it doesn't. They dug out the front of a mound of earth, and set the wall up against it. The walkway in front of it went down towards the center, highest point, in a wide "V". The ground behind it, was level. You couldn't see it from the other side, at all.
We stopped about fifty yards short of the last walkway, where the sidewalk turns into a Y. One path would take you back towards the Washington Monument, and the other, would take you down in front of it. To my right, was a statue of three soldiers, with a wreath in front of it. To my left, were two lighted stands, with books that looked like phone books, encased in plastic shields, to protect them from the weather. In those books, were the names, and locations, of those, who made up the wall!
As I looked around me, I could feel it coming. I could hold it back, no longer. My body...My heart.....My soul...ached for this release, as I shook with uncontrollable grief. I felt bad, then good, then bad again, as my spirit tried to finally cleanse itself, sixteen years too late!
Then, I started feeling ashamed of myself. I felt like maybe I was carrying this thing too far, like maybe I was overplaying, my part. Then I heard someone behind me sniffling. I looked back to see what had to be another Vet, standing there, with tears pouring down his face. Then I knew I wasn't. I was okay...and I wasn't alone! I grabbed his hand, looked at him, and said.
"I'm glad you made it back...my friend!"
He looked at me for a second. I could see the terrible pain in his eyes. Pain, just like my own. Then, he threw his arms around me! I threw mine around him, and we just stood there, in the middle of the sidewalk, holding on to each other, and wept like babies! Each of us was drawing strength from the other, and convincing the other, that it was okay to do so.
About a minute later, we both regained our composure. We both felt it at the same time. It was like for that minute, we were both together, I won't call it in Vietnam, but in a place together, where only Vietnam Vets, can go. Then, it seemed like, we were back here. We kept one arm around each other, and quietly talked.
"Where were you stationed?" I asked.
"Quang Tri!" he answered.
"I was on the other side of the country from you!"
Just then, a family walked by us, and one of the kids said.
"Hey! Look! That's the thing they show on the Time commercial!"
We looked at each other, and the understanding, the one that comes without words, the one that we all still share, if we will just be aware of it, caused us both to smile.
"They will never understand! Will they?" he said.
"How can they? We don't!...And we were there!"
There was another moment of silence, while we both went back to our own parts of the war. After a few seconds, I heard him sigh, a deep sigh, which I also felt. He looked at the wall, about fifty yards away, and I realized that I hadn't even been up to it yet.
"You know, I haven't been up to it yet!" And thinking how rough, just getting to it was...
"I don't think I am ready yet!"
"I'll walk down there with you, if you would like me to!" he said.
"Thanks my friend, but I don't feel strong enough yet. Maybe I'll come back later! I hear that three, or four in the morning, is the best, for your first time. They say there are other Vets, who stay up all night. They watch for other Vets, who may be coming for the first time, and help them, if they can!"
He understood. This was something that has to be done, just right. The first time, a Vet walks up to the Wall, is an indescribable emotional release, and it can't be forced. Sometimes, what comes out at that moment has been hidden so deep, that it has to be coaxed.
"I heard that too!" he replied.
I could feel the sadness coming back...and I had to leave. I looked around for Terry. She was standing by the statue, watching me, with patient, but not sympathetic, eyes. She just didn't understand! It was okay I didn't hold it against her. I never did. But I knew, that I was not going to be able to walk up to that wall, without her help, or someone else's, like her.
"Listen! my brother, I have to go now! You take care of yourself!"
He looked at me, and smiled.
"We're going to make it!" he said.
"I know!" I said, and smiled back. Then I looked over at Terry, and nodded. She walked over, took my arm, and we walked down the path, that led away, from the monument. For reasons I still can't quite explain, this just wasn't the time. I did know though, that someday, I would!
That day came, almost five years later. They were five pretty good years. We didn't have a lot, but we didn't want, for a lot. We just never seemed to have the deep conversations, about my feelings, that I still needed to talk about, just as much as I did, on the day I came back.
Towards the end of our relationship, I started to notice a change in her. She seemed to be distancing herself from me. While I would never suspect that she was seeing someone else, I knew there was something wrong. One day, at a restaurant we both worked at, I came around the corner, to see her leaning up against the counter, staring out into the dining room. I stepped back to watch her for a second.
There was something in the way she was looking, that was different. I watched, as she watched, and smiled, for about a minute. Then I made a noise, and started walking around the corner again. By the time I got to where she was, she was wiping down the counter, looking busy. I grabbed a glass, to get a soda, and casually turned around, to see if I could spot what caused her to smile like that. And I saw it, right away. It was a baby! The one thing in the world I couldn't give her! I had been to see the doc, before we met. I was a gelding now.
That night, we were sitting in the living room, watching T.V. I looked over at her. I did care for her. But, I didn't think that it was the love, that I knew I was capable of having. I need something from her also, that she was not able to give me! I turned the volume down, on the remote. She looked over at me. She looked so young! I felt, so old. Seven years before, when she was nineteen, and I was thirty-three, the age didn't seem to make that much difference. Now, it did.
"I was watching you today!" I said quietly. I decided to cut right to the chase.
"When was that?" she replied.
"When you were staring at that baby!"
"I wasn't staring!" she said, and she smiled, a guilty smile.
"It's okay if you did! I've just noticed that you have been kind of distant lately. Is something bothering you?"
She looked into my eyes. I could see that wanting to talk, had been on her mind too.
"I guess that I'm just starting to feel old, and I've always wanted a kid, of my own" she added, and I understood. "I didn't think it would bother me, but, now it is. I feel like I'm running out of time!"
I thought for a minute. Then I realized that something, was about to end here. It was just a matter of it being played out.
"Well, you know that I can't give you a child. I would, but we don't have that kind of money for the operation. Is there anything else, I can give you?"
She gave me a long, sad look.
"I guess you could give me… my freedom!"
I knew, that the next words I would say would bring something else in my life, to an end.
"Terry! I love you enough, to let you go!" and, it was fitting.
I moved back to Michigan, and stayed at Lynn’s house. Steve owned his own restaurant, and I went to work for him. I was going to build up a grub stake, and head west. I told people, that I was looking for a wife. They thought I was kidding! I wasn't! I knew that one of the things that I needed in this world, was a companion. Someone I didn't have to leave, and wouldn't leave me! I was beginning to think that there weren't any available women over twenty three, when I met Tammy.
I saw her in a bowling alley. She was sitting with a baseball team, that was celebrating a victory. Although everyone else was laughing and having a good time, and even though she had a smile on her face, there was something behind it, that was very sad. I recognized it, because I've felt, the way she looked. I thought I saw her looking at me, and I smiled.
I had been out of this scene for so long, that I didn't know what else to do. I just sat there, trying to get my courage up. Then, she got up, and left. Some part of me, felt a regret. I thought that I had just let some chance, some door, that was waiting for me to open it, get away. Then! She came back! She had just gone to change out of her uniform. I was not going to let this second chance, pass me by also. I walked over to her table. She looked up, and smiled politely, as I leaned over, and asked her to dance.
"Okay! she said. And I led her to the dance floor.
"What's your name?" I asked. It sounded very southern.
"Tammy!" she answered. "I like your accent!"
"Thanks! I just got back from Virginia!"
We danced the dance, and didn't say very much. The music was loud, and anything we did say, had to be almost yelled, and it didn't sound too good. When the dance was almost over, I knew I had better say something, or she was gonna go.
"Would you mind if I sat at your table!" I yelled to her.
I thought she said "I guess so" But, I later found out she had said "I don't think so!" For once I was glad I didn't hear what was said, in a loud bar.
I grabbed my beer off the table where I had been sitting, and walked over to her table. She began to look uncomfortable (Later I knew why), and I felt like this wasn't going to work.
"Look!" I said, as I pulled a chair back away from their table, and sat down on it. "If I'm bothering you, I'll gladly leave! I'm not out to bother anyone, I'm just looking for someone nice, just to talk!"
That must have been the magic word. Fifteen minutes later, we were outside, sitting on a fence, in the parking lot, just talking. The difference this time, was that we were talking about her. She was right in the middle of a divorce, from an abusive relationship, and it was driving her crazy! She opened right up to me, like I was what she had needed. Now, that's different! The idea, of someone else needing me! We, or she, must have talked for at least two hours. During that time, several times she would stop, and look at me, and say something like...
"Did my sister send you to find me?" or "Are you sure someone isn't putting you up to this?"
"Why do you ask that?" I wondered.
"Because, this is exactly what I needed right now!
I began to realize, that there was something even more special in this woman, than I first thought. As she talked about the things that were being done to her, I could see no revenge in her eyes. There was only hurt. I was feeling more angry at what she was telling me, than she was. I saw a feeling of innocence, and tenderness in her eyes, that made me think, that we could end up more than friends.
Then! She stopped talking, as if she suddenly realized, that she was talking to a total stranger. She said she had to go. I took out a pen, and found a piece of paper.
"I don't want your number! That's not what I'm after" I said, and I meant it. "But here's mine. If you ever need to talk to anyone again, call me!"
She looked at the number, and put it in her purse. My heart smiled! Then she got in her car, and drove away. I went home to Lynn’s, where I had been planning to stay and save money to head west, woke her up, and told her that I was in love!
I got home as soon as I could the next day. I wasn't in a hurry to go anywhere. I was sitting by the phone, just in case! The first night went by, in silence. That's okay, I thought. I'm not going to try to convince anyone any more. But, I hurried home the second day, and it was about nine o'clock, and the phone rang.
"Hello?" I said.
It was her! I now understood how John felt, when he said he couldn't wait to get back to his "Chick", and I now knew how he must have felt, when he did!
"This is me!" I said.
"I just thought I'd call, and see how you were doing!"
"I'm doing good....now that you called!"
Every afternoon, for the next month, I would hurry home, turn on the country video channel, and wait for the phone to ring. And it soon started ringing almost every day. Sometimes, we would meet, in a school parking lot, or behind a shopping mall. All we did, was talk, and it was about each of us. Both of us, had been hurt, and neither one of us, has had the time to heal. As I was thinking of this, I thought about something I had to do, for own healing.
The next afternoon she called, I asked her to meet me later, behind the school. As I pulled in, beside her car, for a moment I felt stupid in my shirt. I wanted to turn right back around, and go home and change. She didn't know, yet! Instead, I got out of the car, still wondering why I was feeling such a dread on the inside. I walked over to her car, and got in the passenger side. She looked at me and smiled. Then she looked at my shirt. Here it comes! I thought. It's either going to be that awe look, or fear. For once, I was glad to be wrong! She looked back up at me, and she had this....this smile....on her face. It was like, Well okay, that's a plus, kind of smile!"
Neither one of us spoke for a moment. Then she gently put her hand on my shoulder, then on the patch on my shoulder, then on my unit patch, then on the one, with my name on it. It was as if she was trying to feel something in those patches.
"Is this the shirt that you wore, over there?" she asked quietly, almost reverently.
"Yes! It's one of the last two, that I have!"
She looked again, at the patches, and asked me what each one meant, except the one with my name. As she did, I could feel a sense of pride in that shirt, and those patches, that I hadn't felt in a long time! Then she gently placed her arms around my shoulders, and kissed me gently on the lips.
"I love you David Turner!"
The lump in my throat, was so large, that I couldn't answer right away. I knew then, that I loved her too! This woman's innocence, had cut right through my guilt, and found a part of me, untouched by the war, that still lived! For just one moment...for just one tiny second...I lost all regret, for anything that ever happened to me, in my entire life! If these things were necessary, to bring me to this point in my life...It was worth it!
We talked a little more, and held hands, and believe it or not, that was all I needed right then. Then, she said she had to go. I knew it was time to ask her. Even though we professed our feelings to each other, neither of us were sure, at this point, if we were ever going to be anything more than really good friends. But, I knew, that even if nothing more ever became of our relationship, to know that there was one more person in this world, that really cared about how I felt, made all the difference in the world! I wouldn't hate her, if she didn't.
"Tammy! I have something I want to ask you!"
"What's that?" she said.
I noticed there was no "uh oh, What's that? in her voice. Even so, I hesitated for a moment, to muster up my courage. You have to understand, just how big a deal, this was to me!
"I would like you to go with me...to visit "The Wall!"
I waited for her to ask me what the wall, was, but she seemed to know what I was talking about. I watched her face, for a clue, as to what her answer might be. Small tears, were forming in the corners of her eyes. I braced myself for the "I'd love to, but I just can't!"
"David!"......she started....."I would be honored to!"
No other way, she could have answered me, would have felt any better!
We made plans to spend about a week, down south. It was going to be a regular vacation, my first! I had some good friends in Virginia, I wanted to see again, and we would stop in D.C. on the way back. There was about a week, until we left, and the clock just seemed to stop, a cruel trick, of his, on all of those in a hurry! I found that I was actually looking forward to this! This was a brand new, old feeling inside me. I think I'm going to call it...Anticipation! Just when it seemed like I couldn't wait any longer, it was time. I felt like a kid, unable to control his excitement at something. But, I couldn't get a grip on this new part of me, yet!
I took great pleasure, showing her the beautiful state of Virginia. I wasn't thinking of ever coming back, to live. I'd been here once already. But, I did think it was beautiful.
We pulled into the driveway of the friends I knew. They were sitting on the porch, working on their crafts. When they recognized who I was, they were genuinely glad to see me, and they made Tammy feel at home. That's why they will always be, one of my islands.
We stayed for two days. during that time I visited a couple more of my friends. It seems like where ever I go, there is always only a few, that I would bother going back to see.
Then, it was time to go. I felt a sadness, partly because we were leaving, and partly, because of where we were going. I noticed it a little bit, as we were driving down. I realized, that even with Tammy, it was still going to be rough.
My friend must have sensed the feeling, because he asked me to take a walk with him. We walked about a quarter mile down his lonely country road, then he took a path, that I didn't even notice from the road, and we went back to this Indians, private meditation place. I could sense a solemn occasion was about to take place. I looked at him. There was a tear in his eye.
"David!" he started. "I know what you are about to go through, and I know it won't be easy for you. I have something, I would like to give you, that I hope will give you the strength you need!"
With that, he opened up a red prayer cloth, to reveal an eagle, hand carved from stone, and made into a necklace. When I saw that eagle, with all of it's detail, showing the care he put into it, all I could do, was stand there, and shake my head. He will never know, how much it still means to me. Then, we hugged.
"I'm missing you already, my brother!" he said.
"Same here! Ke-Mo-Sabe!" I answered.
"David!" he said, still hugging me.
"Tonto, wasn't a Cherokee!"
We both pulled back, and looked at each other, then cracked up, and hugged again! Then, he pulled back again, and got serious.
"There is something I want to ask you to do for me!" he said.
"Name it!" I replied.
"I had a friend, that I grew up with, in North Carolina.....and his name is on the Wall!"
"Say no more!" I interrupted. "Just write his name down, when we get back to the house. I know what to do!"
I already had something in mind, to do for hiim, when I got there, but he spoke again, and this time, his voice was shaking bad.
"Just.....tell him good by for me, will you?"
"Yes, I will!"
We walked back to the house, arms around each others shoulders, in silence. There was nothing more to say. But, even in that silence, we were forming an even stronger bond, and no matter how far apart, in miles, we were, we would always be together, in spirit!
The girls were waiting outside for us when we got back. Tammy had a gift in her hand, and I knew that they had given her something, and I knew it would be beautiful. Everyone hugged everyone, we said our so-longs, and we were on our way. Once we got back out to the main road, Tammy turned to me.
"David, I have never met anyone, that is anything like the people you introduce to me and say, that they are your friends!"
I thought about it. It's true that while I only have just a few friends, and I would always introduce them, as such. Each one is unique in their own way, but, they all have one thing in common. That is the ability to accept someone, just for what they are.
"Neither have I sweetheart...neither have I!"
Most of the drive that day, was in silence. It wasn't an uncomfortable silence, it never is! In my case, it was talking to my friend. He made me realize, that I too, had some good byes to say. In Tammy’s case, I believe that she was trying to figure out, how to give me the strength, to do just that.
We decided to check into a Motel for the night, and get an early start in the morning. We both slept good.
I woke up early the next morning, and like what happens to me still, for a second, I didn't know where I was. I stay calm, and try to acclimate myself to my surroundings, one by one, till it comes back to me. I looked around for Tammy, and she wasn't in the room. I wasn't really sure, for a moment, that I even brought her.
Then I spotted one of those table tents that advertise cable shows, that was turned inside out, and there was writing on it. Then I at least knew, that I brought her, but it looked like she left! I picked it up, as I sat back down on the bed, and started reading it. I knew that everything, but where she was at the moment, was okay, when I saw the little smiley face, that she always puts on her notes.
"Dear David!" it began.
"I wanted to let you know, how good it feels, to grow! When you met me, I crawled with my head down, bumping into things, and hurting. You have given me the freedom to stand, eyes open. I still stumble and fall, but I get back up with the joy of knowing that no one can push me down again, and laugh into the open windows of my heart. David, when I smile at you, it is because everyone's heart has strings attached, which anchors to the corners of their mouths. When I look up at you, my heart swells, the strings tighten, and thus, a smile can't be helped!
David....David....David.... It is not just a name any more, it is you. When I say it, it is the sum of all your parts. It is the label on your contents.
I know this is a tough day for you. I'm here with you in any form that you need me.
The Eagle has to soar today, maybe too close to the sun. Today is your day. I will catch up, don't look back, concentrate on your needs today. Even if I were to have trouble finding you, when this day is complete, I know we will meet. Love You ... Tammy.
What a beautiful thing to write! I sat there, thinking about the things she said, and I knew that she was exactly right! It was time that I started concentrating, on my own needs, and worrying less, about being understood. Then, I looked out the window. There she was, sitting in our car, leaning back in the seat! I walked out to get her, and before the door closed, I grabbed it, and held it open while I checked to make sure I had the key. I knew these doors automatically locked.......
She was sleeping when I walked up to the car. I knocked quietly on the window, so as not to scare her. She opened her eyes, and when she recognized me, smiled, and unlocked the door.
"How long have you been down here?" I asked, as I opened the door, and helped her out.
"Not very long!" she answered. "I went to get you some coffee, so you would have a cup waiting for you, when you woke up. I got locked out!"
"Why didn't you knock on the door, so I could let you in?"
"You were sleeping so peacefully when I left, that I didn't want to wake you. I knew you needed your rest! Here's your coffee!"
I took the cup from her, and took a drink. It was cold.
"How long did you say you were down here?" I asked.
"Not very long!"
We arrived in D.C. around noon. I found a place to park the car, right near the Washington Monument. No better landmark! We got out of the car, and I went back to the trunk. I opened it, and pulled out a plastic grocery bag that I had stashed in the corner of the trunk. It was ceremony time. Tammy walked back.
"What are you doin babe?" she asked.
"Tammy!" I started, as I pulled out my two matching flight shirts. "No one has ever worn these two shirts but me....ever! I want to give one of them, to you!" And I picked out the best one. "No matter what ever happens with us, I want you to keep it! That's how much, what your doing here, means to me!"
I thought she was going to break right down, and cry, as I wrapped it around her shoulders.
"You don't know how much this means to me!" she said.
"Let's go see Washington, my lady!"
There's a lot to see in D.C. More than one days worth, so I figured we would just stay around this area. I decided this, when I noticed that Tammy, was wearing high heels! I didn't tease her about it. I knew why she did. She wanted to look her best, but, I knew she wouldn't last that long. We just slowly walked along. I watched her, with such a satisfaction inside, at her great amazement at everything. As I did, I think, right then and there, I realized something. I realized, that my joy, has never come from inside me. It has always come, from others! And it's not the joy, that one time, filled my cup, that I'm really looking for. It is the joy, that I can create in others, that is what makes me feel good!
As I watched those innocent eyes, taking in as much as they could, a new resolve began to form in my mind. I would live again, through her life. I would attach myself to her dreams. I would create a life, not for me, but for her! I was amazed at the feelings of protection, and dedication, and conviction, that started to come alive again, as I thought.
She stumbled, and I caught her arm. She looked like she was starting to hurt. Then another feeling came over me, an all too familiar one, and I knew, it was time. It didn't seem to matter that just a few moments ago, I was feeling a new sort of direction for my life. This "Vietnam Thing" had it's own space. And I knew then, that nothing else would ever occupy that space!
"Lets get over there sweetheart. It's time!"
She looked at me, and nodded. I could tell, she was nervous. Not because of what we were about to do, but, I think she was worried if she was going to be what I needed her to be, when the time came. How could I tell her, she already was, so I squeezed her hand!
As we got closer, I tried to take stock of myself. It's so funny, how nervous I am! I know I'm not in trouble or anything, but I can't shake this anticipation feeling! As soon as we walked up over the little mound, and I saw it, that feeling, was replaced, by sadness. For a moment...for just one tiny second....I was almost overwhelmed, as all of the hurt, and the pain, and the fears, and the tears, of the last twenty years, tried to come at me, all at once! I saw my old friends smiling and joking up on the bunker. I felt the confusion, of trying so hard, and screwing things up. I felt the guilt, at not doing what I was told. I felt the anger, of unresolved issues. And I felt the regret, at the hand I thought I played. Then, I thought about the dealer, and Tammy squeezed my hand, and it all went away.
"There it is hon!" I said, and I noticed that my voice was starting to shake a little. It wasn't me, I thought. It was this place! I began to look at the Wall as a place where all of the emotions of Vietnam that were felt both over there, and over here, have come to rest! And, I had the key!
"I'm here for you David, whatever you need!"
I knew that. I really did! And it helped! She put her arm in mine, and we stood there, taking it all in.
As I looked at it, and all of the people walking up and down the walkway, and reaching up to touch the name, of someone they knew, it started to look different to me. I was beginning to feel that relaxing feeling, that I had felt twice before. This time, I was not coming to release my grief.....I was coming to pay my respects, and it was time to go do that.
We slowly walked up to where the statue stood. As we walked, I listened to the quiet conversations of the people around me. Again, I realized that we were not the only victims, of the war, and that many of these people here, even though they never heard a shot, have suffered far more, than I ever would.
I dug in my pocket, for the name of my friend gave me. Finding it, we walked over to the books. I watched the older couple ahead of me, as they looked through the pages. I figured they were looking for the name of their son.
"Oh! There it is!"
The woman said, as she pointed to a name in the book. Then, as if the reality of the situation just came to her, she turned to her husband, put her arms around his waist, tucked her head in his chest, and started crying. Nobody moved. Nobody seemed the least bit impatient. Everyone, including the man at the book next to her, with the boonie hat, and tear drop shades, just stood there, and let her have this moment, and we all shared it with her.
After a few minutes, she regained enough of her composure, for her husband to walk her over to a bench. There was a young couple sitting there, and as soon as they realized that these folks were coming their way, they got right up, and offered the older couple the bench. How beautiful! I thought. Then, I started to sense the compassion that surrounded this place. It wasn't only the pain, that could be found here, it was all of the other emotions that I have been looking for! They weren't "out there"! It was here, in the hearts of these people! And it had to be in many other people too! And it took this place, for them to be able to show it.
The man thanked the couple, and they quietly sat down, and held each others hand. I turned back around, and it was my turn.
I walked up to the book in front of me. The people next in line, stayed back a little ways, in fact everyone was giving everyone else their space, and privacy, out of respect. As I looked at the huge volume, I felt a new kind of peace come over me. This day was having a great effect, on how I was feeling inside. I no longer needed to see the names of individuals that I knew. I had come to pay my respects, to all the names. There was just one thing I had to do, for my friend. I looked till I matched the name on the piece of paper. I copied the date of birth, where he was from, his rank, and the date he was killed. Nineteen years old!
I wrote the panel, and line number down, and closed the book. It was closed, when I came up to it, and it seemed the proper thing to do. I looked around for Tammy, and found her, over looking at the statue. I walked over, and put my arm around her.
"It's really beautiful, you know it?" she said.
I took my first real look at it. At first, I thought I saw a proud, and determined look, the one I'm sure many people see. But as I looked at them a second longer, I saw another look. It was a look of desperation, and resolution. That was the look, that was in my Uncle Tom's eyes! Now, I understood! It's not that you go, you sacrifice, and you come home! Once you make it, that sacrifice, is for life! And the direction you take, in life, will always be, as a result, of that sacrifice! That realization, both lifted me, and placed a burden, on my shoulders. I felt, with both satisfaction, and resolve, that I was a Vietnam Vet! And I was going to stay that way!
"Yes, they captured the feeling, quite well!" I answered.
She looked at me, and smiled, a weak smile.
"You ready?" she asked.
You know? I was! I really was! I took her hand, and we started to walk down the path. I felt, as we did, that I was treading on new ground, both physically, and in my life. I was watching the panels grow larger, and larger, with more and more names, when I felt Tammy stumble again. I looked over, and saw her in the grass, and I immediately knew what she was trying to do. She felt her high heels were making too much noise on the walkway, and she had been walking on the grass!
If only, she will not grow tired of me....
We came to the panel number I had written down, and I started counting the lines to the one I needed. There, about three feet from the bottom, was the name I was looking for. I pointed it out to Tammy, and we both stood there in silence, each to their own thoughts.
What I had wanted to do, was make a rubbing for my friend. I needed a piece of paper. I noticed that other people had these pieces of paper, that had borders around them, like they were made for just this purpose. So we walked up to one of the tents that were set up, one on each side of the Monument.
These tents, have been there, since the day it was dedicated. In them, were Vets, children of Vets, and people who just care, who, on their own time, and for no pay, maintain a twenty four hour vigil, on the wall.
On the way up, a man walked by, and recognized the patch on my shirt. He smiled and walked over.
"I was stationed on the same base, as you were!" he said.
I smiled and shook his hand. We talked for a few minutes, exchanging dates and places, but, something else was on my mind. I had a mission, more current, that needed my attention. I shook his hand again, and told him that I was glad he made it back, and walked over to the tent.
The Vet behind the counter, looked at our shirts, and nodded at me. There were other people there too, looking at bumper stickers, and the Agent Orange information, but we were the only ones in that crowd that had any kind of a uniform on. I felt like this was our place, and it seemed like everyone else understood it too, because no one looked upset, when he walked right over to me.
"How ya doin brother?" he asked.
"I'm doin well!" I answered. "Listen... I need to make a rubbing.....
He held up his hand.
"Just a second!" he said.
He disappeared inside the tent. A minute later, he came back out. In his hands were three pieces of paper, about four by eight, with the nice border around them. He also handed me a pencil, with a real thick lead in it. He took the time to explain to me how to do it, to get the best effect. I thanked him and told him I'd return the pencil. He looked again, at my shirt.
"Do I look worried!" he said, and I smiled.
We went back to the panel, and I found his name again. I placed the paper over it, and as the Vet explained, I went over the paper lightly. It actually scared me for a second, as his name started to appear, on the paper. there was almost something living, in the way it formed. As I went across, I noticed that a star was forming on the side of his name. I even had to stop for a second and look behind the paper. I didn't remember seeing the star! Then, I remembered from my first visit, that there was one of two symbols, beside each name. A cross, or a star. The cross meant that the body was never found. The star, meant, it was.
I did all three of them. Then I stepped back to where Tammy was standing, watching me, and she grabbed a hold of my arm. I looked all up and down at the Wall, and all those names. Even though I felt much more in control this time, The tears still came. It is just impossible to comprehend, not only all of the pain the Wall has caused, but all of the pain, that caused the Wall!
Tammy wiped my tears away, and I noticed that she had shed a few of her own.
"David!....If you want me too, tell me the names of your friends, and I will go make rubbings for you. You don't even have to see them! I'll give them to you later, when your ready!"
She didn't know, that I had already seen them. They were on the panel, right next to this one! They were right next to each other, because they were killed at the same time. That was all I needed, was just to see them. What I had done to one, even though I didn't know him...I had done, for all.
"Thanks, my love, but I think my job is done here! I've done, what I came to do!"
I looked back at the granite, one more time. I stood there, with my heart at attention, and saluted each and every person, behind each and every name. Then we turned, and walked away, Tammy, still on the grass.
As we walked back to the car, I thought that today was good. I had done a lot of growing today, and found a sense of direction. I felt a real sense of accomplishment. It was a brand new feeling to me, and it felt good. I could stand a little straighter now, and I did.
When we got there, she helped me off with my shirt, carefully folded it, and placed it with hers, back in the trunk.
We drove by the "Bush Residence" and found our way back out to the expressway. As soon as we got to it, I pulled over, and let her drive. I was exhausted! It seemed like I had been awake, for like twenty years, or something!
I put the seat back, and closed my eyes. I was feeling a brand new kind of satisfaction, not because of myself, but rather with myself. I was beginning to understand, that while I now realized that it was never going to end for me, I was going to be able to live with it! I had not only made it to The Wall, but I had finally made it to a point in my life, that was solid enough, to try to build a life around! I could go on from this point!
I opened my eyes, and looked over at Tammy. She looked back at me, and smiled.
"Thank you, my Love, for what you did for me!" And I leaned back, and closed my eyes again, satisfied that enough had been said.
"No! David!...Thank you....for what you did...for us!
And a tear, a different kind of tear. The tear of some un-describable happiness escaped, from the corner, of my tightly closed lids!