Monday, May 25, 2009

Thoughts on Memorial Day, 2009

As is my tradition, I visit the Vietnam Memorial in Washington Park on this day. This year I came early to beat the crowds that also come each year, but the veterans who gather among the names of their fallen comrades were already there. Speakers and sound systems, along with canopies sheltering displays and coffee urns competed with the American flags spaced evenly along the circling path. Scattered among the flags are the black with white lettering, denoting those who were POW’s and Missing in Action. Men with remnants of uniforms or leathers from various bike clubs milled around and talked. There is certain camaraderie among them…also remnants of a shared experience so many years ago.

I walk past the groups. They look at me, and some nod in recognition that I am a part in their generation. Ahead of me walks a veteran. He moves slower than me so it doesn’t take long before I pass him by. We talk briefly...”I can’t walk as fast as I used to. It was the Agent Orange that they said only affected vegetation”. “Yeah…that is what they said, isn’t it?” I replied. We both move on in silence.

The Memorial is set up with various curved walls representing certain years of the Vietnam War, starting in 1959 and the last segment for the years ending in 1976. Each segment lists the names of those who died during that period. Another segment of wall lists those who are missing in action. I go here because these were my contemporaries…part of my generation.

I try to read each name. Some I recognize from past years, and others have the same name as people I know. I wonder if they were related. As I scan the names, I also wonder what they were like…were they athletes or scholars in high school…who did they leave behind? Young lives suddenly cut short. As I ponder each name there is a palpable presence…perhaps they are here as well, waiting for loved ones to visit.

On the wall with the names of those who died in 1968-1969…perhaps the wall with the highest number of names…I see one of those who I know. It is the cousin of my best friend in high school. Suddenly I am transported to 1968 when the war that was an abstract item in the nightly news became very, very real to this 16-year-old at the time. Suddenly the draft became a real worry to me and I began to wonder what I would do when my turn came.

I allowed my tears to flow, as they still do when I write this, thinking of the lives interrupted, family dynamics permanently changed…and broken hearts left behind. I continue on and complete my reading of names. I utter a heartfelt thank you into the air…perhaps that palpable presence will hear me and accept my meager gratitude.

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