...How freedom is really earned
Even at this hour of the morning the sky blazes a hot, cerulean blue. Tourists mill about on the sidewalk as tour guides loudly announce take-off times. Cameras click and gravel crunches, but you are oblivious. You did not even have to look his name up in the book. You know his place by heart. I hesitantly follow your bent figure through the summer crowds, not really sure what to do or say. What words can help to soothe a 32 year old wound?
Here we are, Panel 24E, Row 48. He's on one of the first panels, one of the first to go. I stand behind you, our faces reflecting in the black granite. A slab of shining rock, covered with names and dates. He is in the middle, right at eye level. Edward John Carter, (not his real name) February 22, 1947-July 29, 1967. He was 20 years old, wasn't he? Or 20 years young. How is this cold stone to take the place of a breathing boy? It can't, I know, but it must be a comfort to know that somebody remembered. The base of the memorial is covered in flowers, letters, dog tags, candles, flags, pictures, stuffed animals,memorabilia from lives never given the chance to be lived. All around us people remember.
A group of aging bikers dressed in leather stand in silence to our left. One of them reaches into his pocket, pulls out a letter, and places it under a rock at the side of the sidewalk. He stands for a moment, his arms at his side, looking down at the stone. As he turns, his buddies pat him on the back and mumble, "It's okay to cry, man. It's okay." And he does. I can see his shoulders heaving as he stumbles away. An American flag is painted on his back, along with "VIETNAM VET-1967/68."
To our right, a 50-ish woman holds the hand of a young boy as she stares at the wall. Reaching out, she touches a name, running her fingers over the grooves of the letters. "Who is it Grandma?" the boy asks. Lifting him up, she says, "That's your grandpa's name. He died when your mommy was just a baby." Together they touch the name, lost in the what if's and what might have beens of the wall.
There are so many of them, if you just look around. Families take rubbings of names, tears running down their faces. Fresh college graduates pose stiffly in front of Dad's name. Armless and legless men gaze blankly at names and dates, absorbed in memories of rice paddies, jungles, and chasing Charlie with the men on the wall.
And then there is you, John. You stand between me and the wall, alone in this vast crowd, seeing a face known only to you. What are you thinking, John? Are you seeing birthday parties, proms, and graduations? Are you hearing words you wish you hadn't said? Words you didn't have time to say? Are you seeing a wedding that never was or a grandchild that doesn't exist? No one will ever have his nose now, John. No one will ever have his eyes.
Here you are, John. Here you are, with your faded "US Navy" tattoo on your arm. Did he have a tattoo, John? Maybe he felt a little wild one night in Saigon, just as you felt a little wild that night in Tokyo. Maybe he had a tattoo that read "US Marines." It's funny, isn't it? When he was a kid you never could get him to understand what it felt like to see a dead man, never could get him to understand what it meant to kill. It was safe that way, though. He didn't have to understand that part of you, the part of you that made you wake up in the night drenched in sweat. Funny to think that he did understand. He knew the fear, the wetness, the hunger, and he even knew the excitement that comes just before an attack. He knew this and you never got to talk to him about it. You face him now as an equal, veteran to veteran. Servants of America.
You were so sure it wouldn't happen to him, John. So sure that he'd get a desk job somewhere safely behind the lines. But you forgot that Marines aren't trained to push paper. You forgot that M-16s aren't given to Intelligence. This isn't right, you think. Parents aren't supposed to bury their children. You wonder if he ever cried at night. You know you did. Sometimes you would see the American flag hanging limply in that Pacific heat and you just couldn't take it anymore. You would walk away from your men, ashamed that they might see your tears. Now you know there's no shame in crying.
You're crying now, John. I can see the wetness in your eyes and I'm uncomfortable like an uninvited stranger at a private event. Slowly I try to drift away, try to leave you with your thoughts, but you touch my arm. "No, don't go," you manage to choke out, "I won't be but a minute." All you want is a minute when you've waited 32 years. I feel bad that you've misunderstood my actions. "Take as much time as you need, John. There's no hurry," I say.
Slowly you open your backpack and pull out an American flag packaged in plastic. I saw you buying that flag in some backwoods general store in West Virginia. I thought it odd then, but I didn't understand. "Help me fold it," you say. You hand me two corners of the flag and with all the careful precision of a military honor guard we match up the edges, walk towards each other, and double the flag over into sharp triangles. All around us the crowd has stopped. The younger tourists take pictures and point, unaware of the significance of what we're doing. The older tourists, however, stand perfectly still as they look on with misty eyes. One man stands at attention, his eyes hidden by mirrored aviator's sunglasses. But I can see the tracks of tears running down his cheeks.
The flag is a neat triangle now, a lovingly packaged bundle of a father's love and a country's gratitude. With trembling hands you bring the symbol of our country to your lined face. Gently you press it against your wet cheek. "Thank you, son," you whisper as you painstakingly bend over to place the flag on top of a bouquet of flowers. Stepping back, you salute the wall and execute a sharp about face.
You were proud of him when he graduated from basic in 1966, and you're proud of him now in 1999. The two of you did your time, you both served your country. You made it through the hell of the Pacific, only to sacrifice a son there 22 years later. There were no happy crowds to welcome those vets home, though, you think. They were called "baby-killers" back then. But it's different now. You look around at the families, the school classes on field trips, the veterans coming back to say hello.
And then your gaze falls on me. You step towards me, John, your red eyes meeting mine. With a hand on each of my shoulders you look at me and say, "Don't forget. Don't ever forget." Quickly you turn and walk down that crowded gravel sidewalk, leaving me to stand by our folded American flag.
I just wanted to tell you, John, that I haven't forgotten.