Our War: Memories, Nightmares, and Love
May 4, 2012
It is a great slab of stone from India, black, polished, and reflective in the early morning light that spackles the ground of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It is two hundred and forty-six feet long and nine feet high. It was built, so the visionaries say, to close a wound and heal it. For some, it has. For some, the wound will forever bleed.
I saw the Vietnam Memorial Wall years ago, not long after its foundation was buried in the ground, buried in an open grave. I ran my fingers across the names. My eyes scanned the rest.
I looked for certain names. I did not find them all.
I prayed again for the ones carved in stone. I silently rejoiced when the names were missing. On the Vietnam Wall, missing is good. Missing means they were alive. At least, they were alive in 1982.
Vietnam was our war, my generation’s war. We didn’t want it. We didn’t understand it. We grew frustrated with it. In time, we no longer believed in it. And America no longer believed in the troops on the ground. A nation looks back in shame.
Boys died. Good boys died.
Good women, the number was eight, died right alongside of them.
My friends died.
We never knew. I will never be able to explain it to those 58,272 boys and girls whose names are carved in stone. I will never be able to explain it to those twelve hundred boys who were prisoners of war, who were missing in action, who did not come home when the last shots were fired and the last helicopter left Vietnam in defeat. Their names remain in stone. It’s as though they walked off the edge of the earth. Theirs are the holes in our lives that time does not fill.
Their lives were worth so much. They lost them so early.
No one ever told us.
Death stalked the fields of Southeast Asia. The grief came home. The grief has not healed. Deep within the hearts of so many, the wound still bleeds.
One of the saddest stories I recall is reading about the boy who walked across the National Mall one morning not long after the wall had been jammed into the earth. His shoulders were straight. His eyes were clear. He marched to the mall and found his father’s name. He knelt down on one knee and placed a note beneath a rock at the base of the slab.
The note was addressed to his father. It said, “Dear Dad, I graduated from high school today.” A glorious day. A glorious moment. It would not be shared with a hug. It would be shared only with a note. The boy reached out, and there was only the wind reaching back.
Vietnam was Bert Carson’s war, too. He had seen it up close and personal. He understood the misery of it all. He came home, but pieces of his soul remained behind. He wished he could have left the memories. They linger like thorns that fester in a man’s skin.
He was visiting the Angel Fire Vietnam Memorial near Taos, New Mexico, on the first day of May in 2002. The morning was cold, the skies bleak, and snow swept across the landscape. As he said, “Great big billowy flakes covered the land in minutes, taking away the promise of spring as they settled to earth.”
He pulled his motor home into an empty parking lot. He thought he was alone. He walked inside and met the director of the memorial, shook her hand, and said, “I’m from Alabama.”
A warm smile spread across her chilled face. “That’s wonderful,” she said.
“I think so,” he said.
“What’s wonderful,” she said, “is that we have a tribute for each state on the first day every month. And Alabama is the featured state in May.”
Bert smiled and nodded.
“Would you raise the Alabama flag over the memorial this morning?” she asked.
Bert said he would be honored and proud to be a part of the ceremony.
“There aren’t many people here,” he said.
“It’s the cold,” the director answered. “The weather is keeping them away.”
He didn’t mind the cold. He didn’t mind the weather. He didn’t mind being alone. He had not come for conversation. He had simply brought his thoughts and memories with him, and they would keep him occupied for quite a while.
“There was a couple here earlier,” the director said.
“On vacation?” Bert asked.
“I guess,” she said “The didn’t talk much about where they were from. They just talked about where they met.”
“Where was that?”
Bert Carson paused. He mind snapped on like a tape recorder.
“They grinned a lot, mostly at each other,” the director said.
“They walked through each of the rooms, holding hands.”
“They cried a lot,” she said. “They left when the first snowflakes fell.”
Snowflakes were foreign. Snowflakes don’t fall in Vietnam.
Bert Carson drove home to Alabama and told their fictional story in a magnificent new book: Maddog and Miss Kitty. “Their story is the story of the journey of two warriors,” he said, “and it is the story shared by every warrior since the beginning of time.
“It so happened that Gerald Decker and Kathleen Timmons became warriors by serving in Vietnam. But the truth is, their story could have been about any man and woman swept into a war, who met and fell in love while the war raged around them, and who separated and fought to save their souls before realizing they had walked away from the love of their lives.”
They remember Vietnam. They remember their war. They came home with their memories and their scars. But more important, they came home to find each other. The loves remains long after the nightmares have decided to dwell in the past.
Somewhere in Bert Carson’s mind, life became fiction. And fiction became life. And the story of two, the story of Maddog and Miss Kitty, becomes the story of many.