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At the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

The Wall just might be the most perfect piece of design ever
by admin on May 26, 2012

My family and I returned to the wall because I needed to see it again. This time we had a name to look up, Wayne Anderson. He was a distant relation, not ever met by me, but at the hotel I had overheard his mother talking to my aunt.

“We found Wayne’s name on the wall” she said, just like that, as if we would all know what the wall was. And we did.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall is in Washington DC in a side area of the vast green mall between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. As memorials go, it’s minimalist and that is the secret to its power. It’s found in a clearing of trees with a lawn that slopes downward to reveal a long polished surface of black granite set into the earth. It’s almost a hundred yards long and tapered at both ends with a bend in the middle.

People slowly stroll its length. Some can be seen touching the wall. It’s because of the names. The names of all 58,272 Americans lost in that war are etched into the surface of the granite in letters just a bit over a half inch tall.

The names are not listed alphabetically, but chronologically in order of their loss. This adds an exquisite blend of randomness and destiny to it. Soldiers are listed next to each other on the wall because they share a sad anniversary. And the names just go on and on.

The smooth black granite is very reflective. Trees, clouds, blue sky can be seen in it. People see themselves in the names on the wall. The long wall is both beautiful and terrible all at once.

A design competition was held in 1981 with 1,421 entries and was won by twenty-one year old college student Maya Lin with her simple design for a wall that bent to align with the Washington and Lincoln memorials. Critics railed against the design. The black granite was reviled by many as a terrible and inappropriate choice for a monument. Secretary of the Interior James Watt refused to let it be built. After a struggle, it was constructed as designed and then people could directly experience it and come to understand its grace and healing power. What had been called a “black gash of shame” became a revered shrine.

It’s the names that draw people into the experience. These individual connections create a bond in visitors of the strongest kind – the stuff of prayers, tears and other healing kinds of things. Visitors use pieces of paper and pencils to make rubbings of the names. Flowers and little US flags are placed along the base of the wall. Notes and letters too. People can sometimes be seen touching a name and weeping. Other war memorials we visited, though beautiful and contemplative, seemed inert in comparison.

In my case it was an accident of birth – I was born in 1958 – that kept me out of the running to be a part of this vast band of brothers. By just a two or three years, and the impact of that is not lost on me.

We returned that night after the heat of the day in order to come to terms with the wall again. A row of small up-lights along the length of the wall gave it an ethereal glow. We could make out silhouettes of people moving silently along the wall. We used the guidebook in the little kiosk to determine which panel held Wayne’s name and then made our way along the wall. Something about the night made people even more hushed than usual. The black stone still held some of the day’s warmth. I could feel it as I held up a paper to do a rubbing of Wayne’s name with a flat piece of lead. I folded it carefully to avoid creating a crease. In this small and inadequate way I honored one of the fallen. I paused and took in some of the other names, giving a few of them my focused attention and tried to imagine their missed decades of life, the long years of love and laughter that were denied to them. After some moments of this it felt like it was time to go. As we walked back towards our car, we watched the twinkle of fireflies silently moving about under the trees.

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