Somewhere in a box of belongings stored away since we moved out of our big house a while back, I have a delicate piece of paper with a pencil-shaded name from the Wall in Washington, D.C.
The names on the Wall are of the more than 58,000 men and women who died in military service in Vietnam. The pencil-shaded name is of a friend and fellow journalism major from college. We graduated in 1966. I found journalism work. He entered the Army and in 1968 went to Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He died there in September of that year when his helicopter was shot down.
The year 1968 was a brutal one in that war. Starting with the bloody Tet Offensive, more American troops were injured or killed in 1968 than any other year of the long conflict. I've told this story before, but my friend died when, returning to base in an unarmed helicopter, he saw an American unit walking toward an ambush. He buzzed the enemy, drawing gunfire and alerting the American troops. It worked, but my friend was shot down and died.
My friend was the all-American boy, the kid next door who would mow your lawn, the classmate who would sit up all night to help study for a final, the easy-going guy who smiled through the most stressful situations. If Hollywood had made a movie about his life, they'd have cast Troy Donahue for the part.
He was 24. His name and the others on the Wall record the war's casualties, but they also form a remembrance of some of the best young people this country has to offer. Had my friend had the opportunity to live to my age, 75, I can only imagine the things he'd have done. In that sense, the Wall represents both selfless service and unfulfilled possibility.
Another friend who served during the Vietnam Era sent me the pencil-shading a few years after the Wall went up. This friend and I were pals from third grade, college roommates and infrequent but extended telephone conversationalists for the rest of our lives. He visited the Wall during one of his trips to D.C. He knew of my friendship with the pilot, so he made a couple of pencil shadings and sent one to me.
I probably should go through my stored belongings and find that piece of paper again. I packed it carefully so it wouldn't be damaged. I think I know about where it is. On Memorial Day, it might be nice to see it again, although I don't need it to remember my friend or his service. He was one of those people you meet and immediately know you won't forget.
Many years after I received the pencil-shading, I had a chance to visit the Wall for myself. It was newspaper business, my first time in the nation's capital. I had only a couple of days, but I wasn't about to leave without seeing two things: The Lincoln Memorial and the Wall. Another guy at the newspaper gathering knew the city quite well, and late one evening he served as tour guide. It was a weekday evening and few people were out. The hazy sky and off-and-on mist created shadows over the landscape.
I felt a deep sadness at the Lincoln Memorial. The sorrow etched in the face of the former president affected me in a way I hadn't expected, probably because it brought to mind the immense losses in the bloody, divisive Civil War.
Then we went to the Wall. A handful of people stood or knelt quietly there. The names etched in the damp stone glistened in the light from nearby street lamps. From where I stood, the Wall and the names stretched off into the fog. The evening was warm and humid, yet I shivered as I reflected on the enormity of the sacrifice the names represent.
Vietnam was my generation's war. It seems every generation has its war, and every war has its casualties, men and women who represent selfless service and unfulfilled possibility. It's easy to say we won't forget, but too often I do. This weekend, I will remember.