I have never had the privilege of viewing the Vietnam Memorial Wall located on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I have however, had the honor of being able to visit the traveling “Wall” that is transported all around our country. As a matter of fact, I have viewed this traveling memorial twice and truth be told, I don’t know if I would be able to handle visiting the permanent monument located in the nations capitol. While I was fortunate in that I did not have to put my life on the line during my military service, I was a member of the US Army Reserve during the years encompassing the final chapters of the Vietnam war and I do have a connection with “The Wall”. My unfortunate connection is that I know some of the names on the traveling memorial that has passed through western New York on many occasions.
My first encounter with the traveling wall was just after sun up in the middle of a work week. I had read that the memorial was going to be on display in a local cemetery in Cheektowaga; an eastern suburb of Buffalo, NY. At the time, my work shift started at 7 AM and I had read that the memorial would be available for viewing by the public beginning around that time. To be able to visit the temporarily located wall, I left the house early that morning and got to the cemetery before 6 AM. The sun was just starting to creep above the tree tops and the air temperature was beginning to rise as well, burning off the hint of fog that had settled over the cemetery during the night. I was taken aback by how the wall seemed to shimmer in that early sunlight. It appeared to be damp from the moisture in the air but when I reached out to touch it, it was not wet at all. It was dry and cold. Very cold. There was nobody else around as I stood there, gazing at name after name of the many servicemen and women who had lost their lives during that horrible, controversial war. I moved along slowly, scanning name after name until I came upon the first name that I truly recognized. At that point, my stoic composure evaporated like the wisps of fog still shrouding the wall were evaporating with their exposure to the rising sun. I went no further that day. I stood mesmerized, reading his name and date of death over and over. We had attended the same high school. We had not been socially intertwined. We had never been friends. We had never participated in any sports together. My family and his family had a very minor association with each other. And yet there, on that morning, nearly 20 years after he lost his life and his family lost a son and brother, I was feeling an association – a camaraderie, that I did not know I could feel. I had to search for something to wipe away the tears that started streaming from my eyes in a manner that I had not experienced since the passing of my mother and father. Previous to seeing his name etched on that cold, ebony black wall, I knew when and how he had lost his life. I had felt sorrow for his family and I had talked of his demise with others who had known him. I had felt sadness but not the overwhelming sense of loss that I felt standing before his name on that wall. After a little while, when I regained my composure and realized that I needed to be on my way to work, I reached out and touched the wall one last time. I turned to walk back along the way I had come and saw parked next to my car, a local television news van. I saw the cameraman did not have his camera on his shoulder and the reporter standing next to him, was holding a microphone at her side. When I got near enough, the reporter asked in a respectfully muted tone if I would mind if they showed a videotape of me standing at the wall. I told her I would prefer they did not and she smiled and nodded and said she understood my sentiments and thanked me anyway. I got into my car and as I was exiting the cemetery grounds, saw a short line of cars coming in the entrance driveway. As I drove away, I wondered If any or all or those people were going to find what and who they were looking for.
My second visit to the traveling wall was not as emotional as the first. When I read that it was returning once again to western New York, I made sure to note in advance, what days it would be available for public viewing and found that this time around, the visit would last over the course of a weekend. Once again, I made the short trip from home to a small park where the traveling memorial had been set up. This time, in one of the northern suburbs of Buffalo. On this visit, I was far from being the only person viewing the wall. I had to park a considerable distance from the park and walk blocks to its gated entrance. On this visit, the VFW had set up an information tent to help visitors find the names they were looking for on the wall. There were some single men and women slowly searching, reaching out and caressing the wall with tender touches but more, there were couples or small groups, carefully using pencils and precisely sized bits of white paper obtained from the VFW honor guard, tracing over the etchings of the names they had been searching for. I saw the mementos that I had read about people leaving at the wall, remembrances of and for the loved ones lost. Small American flags, flowers, journals and diaries, pairs of obviously used combat boots, hand written letters; so many items that had held special meaning for the servicemen and women whose names and memories are part of that wall. On this visit, I had to wait my turn to move slowly along the wall, following all those who had arrived at the park before I did. It did not matter though as it gave me the opportunity to see more of what I had missed or bypassed during my first visit. I saw other names that I recognized but for some reason, seeing them did not solicit the same reaction I had experienced during my first visit. Perhaps the sense of shock was gone. Perhaps the feelings of loss or pain had all been dispelled during my first viewing of the memorial. Perhaps I just did not want to display the extreme emotion that had overcome me during my previous visit. For whatever reason, I just read the names I recognized, touched the wall and moved on. There were no cameras or news people at the end of my visit this day, just families enjoying picnics in the shady areas of the park, other folks walking their dogs or just enjoying whatever other diversions the park had to offer.
The traveling wall will return to western New York again and if it is someplace I can get to, I will visit it again. My wife has said that she wants to go with me next time I make the journey. It will be nice to have someone who cares deeply about my sentiments and emotions with me. I know that she has names that she will want to locate on the wall and I know that when she finds them, she will probably be as emotional as I was when I found that first name that I knew. I hope I will be able to console her and help her with the grief she will experience. I hope that wherever the traveling wall is displayed in this country, it can help those who lost true friends and loved ones, knowing that their names will forever be displayed and honored for their sacrifices. I know how fortunate I was to be able to serve in the military and not have my name emblazoned on that cold, black slab. I will always be grateful to those not as fortunate as myself.