Last week the Traveling Vietnam Veterans Memorial spent a few days in Bemidji. I didn’t know it was scheduled to be here. On my way home from class last Thursday, I was driving by the Lake Bemidji waterfront and, as I was looking at the melting snow and ice on the lake, when my attention became fixed on the Memorial. I had to stop. I turned around at the next set of lights and pulled in to the Bemidji Tourist Information Center at the waterfront. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I have never been to our nation’s capitol, though it is on my list, but I have often wondered about the power of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
I didn’t have my camera with me so my first stop was at the information booth to inquire how long the replica would be here. There is an information trailer which carries the walls from city to town across America and houses displays of memorabilia from the war and era. The Wall That Heals is comprised of two walls approximately 123 feet long. The walls meet at an angle of 121 degrees and rise to a height of approximately 5 feet at the vertex. It is a half-scale replica – exact to the letter and inch – of the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial holds 58,000 names.
As I waited in line, several people in front of me were inquiring as to the locations of names of loved ones, friends, acquaintenances. Inside the trailer, veterans punched up the names on computer screens. I watched as lists of names popped up until the search was narrowed to one or two. I didn’t have a name to ask about. A fact that was calming and troubling at the same time. I’m not sure I can explain why. Perhaps, it was just knowing the sacrifice all these individuals and their families made. Perhaps it was a guilt for not having shared that same sacrifice. Perhaps it was pride and thankfulness for those who chose to stand up for freedom and everything the greatest country in the world symbolizes. Perhaps it was just being in the presence of the memorial, a symbol of the price of freedom.
After getting my answer about how long it would be staying here in our town, I made my way over to the wall. Although I did not have a particular person to thank, I needed to pay my respect. I started at the vertex and made my way down both wings of the wall. The list of names begins at the vertex of the walls below the year of the first casualty, and continues to the end of that wing. It resumes at the beginning of the opposite wing, ending at the vertex, above the date of the last death. This meeting of beginning and ending signifies an epoch in American society.
As I approached, the older lady who was in line in front of me at the information booth had just found the name she was in search of. She touched it, and touched it again, then stepped back and put her head in her hands. To her right there were flowers left by some unknown visitor for one, or maybe more, in the list of names. A few feet farther and one veteran was taking the picture of another veteran pointing to a third veteran, who appeared on the wall. My eyes scanned a path through the list and stopped briefly at familiar last names. “I am terrible with names,” I thought to myself. Then I overheard a woman pointing out to one of the veterans assisting with the exhibit that an older gentleman was seeming to be having a difficult time near the far end of the left wing. I did not hear the veteran’s reply, but I got the feeling he was already well aware of the older man. I looked ahead of me to catch a glimpse of this gentleman. With a cane that lay beside him, he was crouched on one knee. His arm was outstretched to brace him against the wall, and his head held tightly against his arm. His long hair shielded me from his face that, I could only conclude, was filled with unimaginable sorrow.
I had not been there that long, but the emotion I was feeling was overwhelming. When I got home, I called family members to see if we knew any of the names on the memorial. I was feeling compelled to locate a link to the wall for myself. But the answers were all blank.
I planned to return to the replica later in the weekend to take pictures of this experience, but the snows of April changed my plans and I never returned. Perhaps it is better that way. Perhaps I shouldn’t take any more from a wall that has already given so much to me. I write in these essays you see on this screen about the freedoms and liberties the men and women behind the names on the memorial fought to protect. I am forever thankful for that. I am forever thankful to every veteran who ever defended the greatest country in the world.