By S.T. Lanter
Artwork “Public Transport” by Alli Rowe
The war was over, nine years in the past. Yet for the men in the small crowd it would never end. It was as current as last night’s dreams. A freezing wind whistled up from the river. The lead-colored sky reinforced the notion that the day was to be somber, a day of mourning. The crowd was subdued. The dignitaries on the rostrum droned on and on while the spectators stood, backs to the wind, mute, stamping their feet to ease the penetrating chill. The men in the crowd were forgotten strangers to a generation. The crowd ran the gamut from men in business suits, old-hippies in tie-dyed t-shirts and rough bikers wearing their ‘colors.’ Veterans all, hair graying and thinning, bellies beginning to paunch, rapidly approaching middle age, some wearing fatigues that no longer fit. Wives clung tightly to their men, women who in their own youth had all-too-often, been the only ones who welcomed them home.
At last, the moment all had come for, the bronze memorial was unveiled. A loud cheer went up. A twenty-one-gun salute was fired, and even though everyone knew it was coming, many flinched and nearly hit the dirt. Old memories and habits die hard. Taps followed, as the mournful dirge echoed around the hills, some stood stiffly at attention. Many were moist-eyed, and the tough-looking bikers were clumped together in great bear hugs, unashamedly sobbing, recalling memories long suppressed. Recalling events: Tet, Operation Delaware; places: the Rockpile, Khe Sanh, Ia Drang, Ashau, Saigon.
Four helicopters in a ‘V’ formation flew over; the rapid wop-wop-wop of rotor blades creating the rhythmic sound that always meant help was on the way. The bulbous looking Hueys passed over head, one of them broke formation. Hell-bent-for-leather, he raced towards the park at an impossible angle. As if he was coming in to a hot L.Z. to pick up wounded. As he roared overhead one veteran raised his arm in the clenched fist salute.
“Yeah!” he screamed as his young son looked bewildered.
The ceremony was over. The firing squads dismissed. The dignitaries filed off the rostrum. The crowd began to mill about, seeking to get closer to the bronze statues, to touch them, perhaps in remembrance of someone. A queue quickly formed. A glance at the statues confirmed that the sculptor got it right, minute details of the two figures, one black and one white were spot-on. The boots, uniforms, rifles, grenades, flak jackets were exact. Here was brutal equality on display, “in the bush” black and white made no difference, the only color was O.D. green. The two figures had ‘the look,’ the thousand-yard-stare,’ eyes hard, yet softened with sadness. Eyes that saw too much, at too young an age.
At the base of the statues people placed flowers. Veterans tossed their ribbons and campaign medals, whether from respect, contempt or ‘survivor’s guilt,’ who knew? A large can of fruit cocktail and a six pack of Budweiser beer lay at the base, silently telling a sad story no one would ever hear.
The next day, another group was drawn to the park. A small group of veterans stood by the memorial. One was in a wheelchair. They stood in the cold misty rain, quietly talking. As people ambled over the invariable question was posed: “You been to ‘the Nam, man?”
“Yeah,” most replied.
“Thought so. You got ‘the look.’” The veterans stood in the rain telling war stories to men who truly understood them. Each looking for support, trying desperately to exorcise ghosts and demons.
The man in the wheelchair asked each newcomer if they’d gotten “…any counseling since you got back.”
“What counseling! Man, they put me on a plane and 48 hours later turned me loose,” a former squad leader said. “But they sure made sure that they took away my M-16. I had the motherfucker so long. Guess they thought I’d go crazy and kill somebody.” All laughed mirthlessly.
“Yeah,” a former graves registration man added, “We’re all time bombs, jus’ tickin’ away.”
“It’s funny,” Squad Leader said. “When I got back, people who stayed home were always asking me how I could kill somebody. Then they wanted to know how many men I killed. What it felt like.”
“Whadda ya mean men? All we ever killed was women and kids, don’t you know that, man?” Wheelchair said. “That’s what people think.”
“Yeah, it didn’t take me long to find out people didn’t want to hear about it. I quit talkin’ about ‘the Nam.’ Didn’t mention it when I applied for jobs,” Squad Leader added.
As the veterans talked, others drifted in and out, like the changing of the guard at Arlington. A mixed group, varying from guy’s who were unemployed to a former infantry officer who appeared to be a successful executive, all connected by military service. It became obvious that none had attended yesterday’s dedication.
“Couldn’t take the crowd.” Squad Leader said.
“Couldn’t handle the bullshit, man!” Wheelchair seconded.
“Know what you mean.” Mortician agreed. “Can’t stand Taps, it tears me up.”
Fifty-seven thousand men and women died in the war. Their names incised in gold on a black granite wall. To most the wall in Washington is sad but irrelevant, just something to look at. Behind each name was a flesh and blood person. Forgotten by most but remembered by those who served, no matter where. It makes a difference. For all gave a part of themselves.
Finally, conversation ceased, there was nothing left to say, raw emotions, suppressed for years, timorously expressed to the group, were once again tamped down for safe keeping. The group stood in silence, ignoring the rain, they were long accustomed to being out in the rain.
“Got to go, man,” Wheelchair said at last. Everyone shook hands. “I was a basketball star once.” Wheelchair said as we shook hands. His brother pushed him away. “Ya’ll be cool!” He said as the mechanical lift eased him into a waiting van.
By one’s and two’s the group drifted away. Just like “the Nam.” Most went over alone and left the same way. And all those that made the trip will forever have ‘the look.’