Winter and spring have been fighting for control of the weather in Northern New Mexico for the last three (3) weeks. Strong, cold winds counterpunch a jabbing warm sun. Clouds blanket blue skies with thick dense clouds that darken spring’s rising spirits. It’s as if winter knows it’s going to lose the fight, but it does so giving spring a reminding black eye of who ran the weather roost for the last several months.
It was amidst this confused weather that Cj (my wife) and I took my dad to visit a traveling replica of the Vietnam Memorial. He is a veteran of that war and he wanted to see it; he wanted to remember. The replica is installed at Fort Marcy ballpark here in Santa Fe, NM until tomorrow and is billed as “The Wall that Heals.” After spending an afternoon visiting this memorial, I can say that it does live up to its billing.
What struck me when we arrived was that the park was rather devoid of visitors. With as big an impact as the Vietnam War had, I expected that the whole town would turn out. But, the harsh weather may have deterred people; when we looked towards the replicated wall, half of it had fallen. It almost look like the memorial was closed. I learned that the strong winds knocked down the wall within an hour before we arrived.
“Bad planning,” my dad said.
“Well, there’s no accounting for the weather these days,” I said.
He just shook his head.
I had discussed my dad’s potential dark mood with Cj earlier at breakfast. When my dad speaks of Vietnam, he does so, not with anger at having been there, but with regret that he had to come home. Being a Marine was the crowning achievement of my dad’s life and fighting in Vietnam was the most purpose he ever encountered. But, with the wall having been knocked down, his mood was worse than what I anticipated.
He instinctively made his way toward some exhibit tents with CJ and I in tow. The exhibits featured pictures from Vietnam and letters from soldiers fighting over there and loved ones encased in glass walls. When I saw the pics and read the letters, tears collected in my eyes and the humanity of war hit home. Real people died in Vietnam, as they do in all wars, and real people bore the weight of the loss and hurt that death brings.
After spending some time reading and absorbing the reminders of Vietnam, we made our way to the fallen wall. It seemed the event people needed help; a bunch of gathered along the wall and lifted the entire fallen section in one collective lift. Once the wall was back in view, it almost seemed as though a crown instantly swelled around it. Immediately, my dad began looking for the names of his deceased comrades.
The skies remained overcast and the wind remained cold and strong. The blowing gusts brought a familiar tune. It was faint, at first, but as the wind slowed, the melody became focused and clear: Taps. My dad looked up from the wall when Taps cracked into his skull. He looked away from us and sobbed.
When he was ready to go, his eyes weren’t the same as when we arrived. He cracked a joke about picking up the wall and chatted with the event workers. He seemed to want to connect; he wanted someone to know that he was there, that he honored his friends’ memories. As we left, his smile lit up the overcast day. The fighting weather became irrelevant. Whatever his reasons were for wanting to see the Vietnam Memorial replica, they appeared satiated.
I wasn’t in Vietnam. I didn’t experience the world of that time. But, in remembering those who did I felt connected to my own humanity: Regardless of what we think of war or of our enemies, they, engaging in a bigger cause provides a landscape of meaning for our actions. I don’t know what it’s like to serve (I failed the military physical because of a bad ankle), but I do know what it means to be human. The wall does heal; not because it reminds us of who died, but because it ties the living to the greater cause of life.