Who are John and Jessie? Pretty good question. Very good question. And the answer is, I don’t know. Here’s what I do know. Both were men, most likely youngish and fit. Both were American. Both traveled outside the United States and both were killed in Vietnam. How do I know this? Well John was the first American killed in that conflict and Jessie was the last. Still, how do I know this? Well, the traveling Vietnam wall came to my home town and I visited it last night since I’d never seen the wall at night. And there was John and there was Jessie. The first and the last. Forever etched and forever cut short.
Whenever I see a memorial like that, with the names carved quietly into stone (or hard plastic in this case) I can’t help but imagine the screaming anger and justified indignation behind each name. They were birthed, grew, barely scratched the surface of their lives before whoops, time for war and time to die. There is so much weight and domino effect behind those names. And not just those names, but the uncarved names of the myriads of people who died in violence and war and battle and pillage. Those who do not get a memorial and even the name, cause and time period of their quickened death has been forgotten. So many stolen chances.
Looking at that wall, and trying to see people instead of letters, I can’t help but grin a little and remember that yes, they died, but they were still people. Goofs, assholes, honorable, douche bags, intellects, nerds, athletes, orphans, geniuses, jokers, introverts, artists, romantics, pessimists, farmers, economists, joyful souls and dour spirits. I look at those names and hear the staccato pronunciation in the voice of a Drill Sergeant and the laughing tease as friends take and misshape a name into a dirty joke or dry insult. So many lives hurtled unwillingly toward that wall. Splat into death and cultural immortality.
There are so many meanings and interpretations and soul searching to be done at a place like that. The usual thoughts arise such as “It’s not fair.” “What a waste.” “Those poor parents.” “No more complaining about getting old since I get to do it!” “Better not waste my life since they lost theirs.” And other and sundry such thinkings. All that is of substance, but that was not the primary thought on my brain as I knelt in the grass and watched the flame from the torch reflect off that dark wall. Nope, my thought was a selfish, bitter tasting longing. “I want one! I want a wall!”
These men who died, I honor them. Deeply. Yet none of those names belong to faces I knew.
It is called the healing wall. I want a healing wall. Or if not a wall then something to see and know and trace my fingers across the names that contain the heartbeats and laughter and fights and panic and jokes and shared long boring days and impulsive snowball fights and de-pantsings, and pranks and fear and disgust and sweat and long hard days of work and…and the lives! Their lives! Something to see and touch again. Something more than the remembered empty boots and dangling dog tags. Something tangible. Something I can stare at and rage at and, God help me please, weep at.