WOSTER: Words on the Wall are more than just namesI’ve been to Washington, D.C., just once in my life, and my tour guide packed so much stuff into the couple of days I was in town that I didn’t get to process the experience.
By: Terry Woster, The Daily Republic
I’ve been to Washington, D.C., just once in my life, and my tour guide packed so much stuff into the couple of days I was in town that I didn’t get to process the experience.
I was in the nation’s capital on business and had most of one day and part of a second to see the sights. It was a slap-dash affair, rushing from place to place, monument to monument, all over the city.
Two things I clearly remember.
The Lincoln Memorial was magnificent. Although part of it was under construction (not sure what they were doing, just that there were construction blocks around and roped-off areas here and there), it was everything I expected and more. I’ve been something of a Civil War nut in my time, interested in the causes of the conflict and in the ferocious battles that raged for most of four years. I’ve never quite fathomed how a disagreement among citizens in this country — even a century and one-half ago — could have ended in such bloodshed. Battle after battle left thousands from each side dead on the ground, left thousands upon thousands more with grotesque, indescribable wounds.
We talk sometimes of surgical strikes and clean bombs and such. The Civil War had none of that. Soldiers went off to fight knowing that a battlefield wound quite likely meant a slow and excruciatingly painful death.
The face of the seated Lincoln, as I studied it, contained all of the pain, all of the suffering of all of the soldiers and all of their loved ones from both sides of that war. It was late in the day, nearly sunset, and my guide tugged at me to get on to the next attraction. Had he not, I might have stayed all night.
The Vietnam Wall was a surprise. I had seen it in photographs hundreds of times. I’d read about it from the time it was conceived. I knew what I was going to see, and yet I had no idea what I was going to feel.
My guide took me there almost directly from the Lincoln Memorial. It was growing dark by this time, and fewer people than I’d have expected were at the wall. The guide asked me for the name of someone I knew who had died in Vietnam. I mentioned Curt, the Kingsbury County kid who just had to learn to fly and so he traded some years in the service for some lessons on campus. In the last half of the 1960s, a young man in uniform who knew how to fly was a hot property, and even if he was about the nicest, most gentle guy in the world, Curt went to war and didn’t come back.
They say he died using his helicopter to draw enemy fire to alert a ground force about an ambush. Well, of course that’s what he would have done. Curt wouldn’t have known how to do anything else.
We found his name, and the guide offered to show me how to do one of those pencil shadings that trace the name onto a piece of paper. I said I’d prefer just to stand there a minute. In the surface of the wall on that quiet evening, I could make out my friend’s round face, crew-cut hair and wide-open smile. All these years after college, I still smile when I think of his smile. He was only one soldier out of 58,000 or more on the wall, but he was a soldier I knew, and he died for something that mattered to him.
After I thought about Curt a while, I asked about a kid who’d been a classmate for a couple of years in high school, then about a kid from Pukwana I’d played basketball against, and then a couple of names of kids I knew from the farm in Lyman County. We looked them up one at a time. I ran out of names long before the wall did, but not before I created a hefty list.
This Veterans Day, as on that evening I stood at the wall, it is well to remember how many have sacrificed for the rest of us.