A stout old marine storming down the street in my direction drew my attention from the people around me. His march took him through the short parking lot, up and over the curb and angled towards me across the park grass. A proud red Marine veteran’s hat emblazoned with “Semper Fi” provided a little shade over his bulldog face set hard with determination. This man was on a mission. And it was about to become mine too.
At half the size of the permanent Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington DC, the Moving Wall would seem to be something of a lesser experience. But that doesn’t account for how directly and powerfully the memorial points us back to humanity. I was invited to help out with the exhibit by an old Navy mate of mine. I had no idea what to expect, nor any idea how I could be of help. But I went anyway, and found myself at the end of the West Wall, greeting people, handing out brochures, and preparing to have my life changed. And so I prepared to greet this determined marine.
His focus was so set he didn’t even see me. He blasted past me by precisely one stride, and then…stopped, dead in his tracks. He stood motionless for a few seconds, his face going from focused determination to abject grief in the space of maybe five seconds. Turning askance towards me, his choking voice said, in answer to my stepping forward to him, “Dammit, I thought I could do this.”
The event was two days old, and this overwhelming surge of emotions had been expressed over and over again. It was there when the Wall began to come off its trailer with hardware and pieces. As we raised the first few panels, the many hands lifted them with a certain unspoken reverence from their storage and up to where they were to stand. By the time 6 panels were up forming a right angle, the power of this display was already apparent in the solemn dignity with which the work was carried out. Workers took turns between adjusting hardware in the back, and standing in the wash of recognition of human life in front of the Wall. Many of the volunteers were from various veterans motorcycle groups. Handshakes were seldom enough as we came together. Words were not always needed. Hands on shoulders, a hug when a brother could be seen struggling with the moment, standing together silently side by side – these things were not just ok, they were needed.
The old Marine stepped back off the walkway, and around the back of the wall where he could shed the unwanted tears privately. He gave himself the old marine pep talk, “C’mon, you can do this”, slapping his cheeks to sharpen his sense of now, and distract from “then”. In a few minutes, he was ready to try again. He got to the same spot as before, and stopped again. Hand on his shoulder, I asked if I could walk with him. Another Docent, more experienced than I, pulled alongside and offered the same, and together they changed course, walking over to the table where information about which wall panel his mates could be found. He could do that much.
This event was the first of its kind for me. I didn’t serve during Vietnam, I served for 10 years on submarines during the Cold War. I don’t understand the fear of bullets flying and landing around me, but I understand the dangers of submerging a vessel into the sea. My shipmates and I have experienced our own nightmares, the cold breath of death held back only by the sometimes intense work of a dedicated, tightknit crew fighting casualty with trained skill. The closeness that comes from that cannot be expressed fully.
The Marine’s list of names was nearly an entire platoon long. Many of them were listed together, as the names are arranged in order of casualty. He spoke little, and worked hard to maintain his composure as he approached the Wall. After only a couple moments he had to step away, face contorted again in grief. The Docent stayed with him as he approached and stepped back several times. Gradually the grief from that day long ago and the years since became manageable. He stood in front of that spot on the wall, processing the memory of those men, remembering that day, thanking those who fought with him, apologizing for living, thanking, living, and starting again at the top. Thoughts that made no sense reconciled with those that do. Emotions that had never seen the light of day broke out in such raw clarity that the pain seared like a fresh cut.
That morning I had ridden my first large group ride, “The Run for the Wall”. We rode together, these men who were brothers of mine. Signals traveled as we rode, from ahead to behind, each of us depending on the communication of the other. These were riders who knew what it meant to be counted on. The rider ahead, beside, and behind me formed an interlacing network of trust that traveled the whole length of the group of 100 riders. We moved as one, in the same sense as my sub crew moved, trusting, being trusted, doing what we knew was needed. I felt a kind of mutual confidence – the kind of confidence that is formed by fire. It fit like a final puzzle piece in my mind that had been missing for the last twenty-five years. Just being among these men, and being here at this wall with those who were lost, a peace settled upon me in a way I hadn’t felt for a long time.
When he finally left an hour later, the sturdy old marine walked away, his bulldog face turning back several times on his way across the grass, through the parking lot, and down the street. It seemed he could still hear the guns of this new battle, as the enemies in his mind had been displaced, and still fought in their retreat. This war of his wasn’t over yet. But today’s battle, perhaps, showed him that he could win.
And I found myself thinking about him and that experience through the rest of the day. The scene played out in dozens of ways over and over again. More than once I found myself being thanked by someone who, turning to deflect the overwhelming emotion of the moment, felt moved to thank someone – anyone – in that moment, even someone who had done nothing more than hammering, carrying, and putting up flags. I watched the sister who had lost her brother when she was in high school, remembering the day they came to tell her family he was dead – people reached out to hold her up in her grief, people who did not know her, but reached out anyway, and sat with her for a spell. There was the swaggering old sailor from the Bronx, who stood calmly, talking to me so matter-of-fact about riding swift-boats, until that moment when he remembered the incoming fire, and the men falling – friends falling. Another taciturn soldier began to tell his story, but suddenly he could do no more than say, “too long…too long…” in grief apologizing somehow, for taking so long to visit.
This one Marine marched into my life, and then walked back out with no more than 50 words spoken between us. But our handshake was a whole conversation. The speechless arm over his shoulder, the acceptance of his arm around mine in response, moved me beyond words. It took several days, and a thousand miles of riding, for me to grasp finally what was meant by the Moving Wall. This wall does not leave you where you were. It changes you.
The Moving Wall – it isn’t just a war memorial, but a human memorial. And it will move you, but not just randomly. It will move you closer to others. The appalling reality of war is how it moves people apart. The miracle of such tribute is how much closer we can become.