Those Capitol Hill police must have thought I was crazy. The
dead of night in Murder City in 1987 this town had
the nations second highest per capita murder rate; last
year there were calls for the National Guard to patrol the
streets here was this white boy in a khaki coat asking
for the nearest diner. And oh-by-the-way when did the legislative
session open in the morning? Definitely some nut.
I had to go somewhere. It was too cold and wet to stay outside.
Having arrived close to midnight on a bus from Boston, I didnt
plan on wasting what little cash I had on a motel room. But
it was tempting. Nighttime Washington looked especially uninviting
in the winter: many dark, hard buildings intermittently scorched
by white floodlamps. Fortunately, for the moment, there was
no stiff wind.
Memorial! The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall came to mind
as I stood there on the back steps of the Capitol Building
groping for a destination. I hadnt thought about it
since leaving New England, yet The Wall was the only bit of
official Washingtondom, other than Congress, I wanted to see.
It wouldnt provide shelter, but I could stay warm moving
along to find it. And with the decisive Contra-aid debate
scheduled to begin in a few hours, the memorial was the right
preface: one pointless war after another.
reason for being there was to sit in on the February 3, 1988
Contra-aid vote set for the Congressional House. If the Administrations
proposal that included military hardware was defeated it would
signal the beginning of the end for Ronald Reagans freedom
fighters. Recently in Nicaragua, I felt I had a high
emotional stake in this political decision.
I had no idea where to find The Wall. I remembered reading
about it being almost hidden or stuck in a corner like an
afterthought. For my thinking it was the one site in Washington
that had more than cursory interest. All those halls, exhibits
and museums anyone living outside the Beltway might become
familiar with from a distance meant nothing to me. The Vietnam
Wall had the sole, legitimate claim at representing any type
of connection to todays society.
the Capitol steps I noticed a black man walking nearby. When
his stride brought him alongside me I asked, Excuse
me, but do you know the way to the Vietnam memorial?
In a calm and measured voice he replied, Its between
the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. It was
reassuring to have that lone man know what I was looking for;
otherwise I might still be lost.
than once as I went along I walked up to tall points-of-interest
directories which dot the Mall concourse. They did not list
or map the Veterans Memorial the most visited site
in Washington. It was both strange and appropriate that a
passer-by would tell me what government information sources
the far side of the last street intersecting the Mall I stopped
a jogger. Down and to the right. Just follow the signs.
The Reflecting Pool stretched the length of my final walkway
before The Wall. The pool was unimpressive and appeared to
be in need of repair. The assorted species of ducks splashing
about, however, didnt seem to mind.
I was apprehensive and nervously glancing around. I wanted
to be impressed. All those pictures and stories of people
teeming at the memorial crying, praying, remembering were
so powerful. I wanted to feel some of that emotion.
slightly rolling landscape then appeared, and a very conventional
three-soldier statue of American servicemen stood before me
with interlocking arms. I had seen more than my share of statues
and didnt give this one a second glance.
short distance away I found The Wall. It began from a blackstone
point that grew geometrically in mass and height while the
facing walk sloped down and into what seemed an intangible
depth. From my vantage point it was impossible to take it
all in. The piece was too long, too high and too detailed.
This was one artwork that demanded interaction.
dawn light had not yet appeared, but the artificial lighting
was good. Still it was only after walking several steps that
I noticed names. Backtracking I found the first one: John
H. Anderson Jr. He leads a roll call which engulfs visitors
with the wars missing and dead. And at the first panels
it was easy to understand one war, a few dead. Turning
my vision down the length of The Wall, however, that momentary
aberration was crushed under the weight of the rest.
lowest depth of the facing walkway lies under The Walls
apex. My overwhelming sensation there was of being piled under
the names and their bodies. The names were above, in front
of and to the sides of me. I doubt whether one would get the
same feeling with other people around to block out the entire
sense of The Wall. It was enormous.
also touched the smooth edges of the engraved names: Johnny
Lee Godrey, Luther N. Bagnal III, and too many more. They
brought to mind a television show of some years back about
a small, hardscrabble town in Kentucky or Tennessee that had
topped the national list of per capita battle deaths for a
I realized, standing there alone, that this war was not mine,
no matter how much I might sometimes think it was. One older
relative survived a tour of duty in Vietnam, and I recall
the family mailing him baked goods at Christmas. Mom was very
concerned and admonished us to pray for your cousin
Jimmy. But I really didnt understand at age 8
or 9 what was going on. Vague memories of body count graphics
on network television and M.I.A. bracelets handed out at school
were the only other connections I had. Still, under all those
names at The Wall I couldnt help but feel like a victim
of the time. Moreover I was reminded that the carnage went
far beyond these blackstone borders.
important feature of The Wall is an omission
branches and military rank are not listed with the names although
they are found in the directories flanking both ends of the
memorial. This omission for me only reinforced the truth of
these casualties as people, ordinary people, for the most
part conscripted from the poor and disenfranchised. From urban
ethnic neighborhoods and small, hardscrabble towns.
now the sun had risen. Four men in business suits passed me
into the memorial as I began walking away. One of them separated
from the others and stopped to reach high for a particular
spot. At one time or another they all in turn paused to consider
group and two joggers turned out to be the extent of my anticipated
teeming masses. And I half expected veterans keeping around
the clock vigils. But the only sentinels on watch were a handful
of flowers littering the base of the memorial. One white carnation
had been stuck eye level between two stone slabs. It looked
the time I arrived back at Capitol Hill I still had plenty
of time to find a good seat for the aid debate. Before reaching
the upper gallery I shared an elevator with a smartly dressed
woman. I just heard there were ten hours of debate scheduled
on the Contra-aid vote, I offered, recalling a conversation
I overheard in a lower lobby. Yes, she replied,
its going to be incredible.
debate was actually an endless marathon of thirty-second to
ten-minute speeches rambled on for the benefit of the C-Span
cameras and assorted colleagues who usually numbered less
than a quarter of the House floor seats. Except for the rare
challenge to a specific statement, all the talk had very little
to do with a debate.
days only visible drama took place in the observation
gallery. During one Congressmans impassioned rail against
the aid package, he ended with the scream And these
programs suck! A handful of people, including myself,
answered by roaring out their approval. Sit down! You
want to get thrown out?! the guy next to me said in
a look of exasperation as he yanked me back in the seat. Dont
say anything. Dont even gesture. They can remove anyone,
he added as I stared back at him embarrassed at myself for
reacting like a hopped-up sports fan. The floor proceedings
were interrupted to make an announcement against further outbursts.
I sat ramrod straight and hoped the security people hadnt
long afterwards a group of five or six spectators rose to
their feet in the middle of a floor speech and shouted Stop
Contra-aid! Obey the World Court! They repeated their
lines with placards in hand until guards ripped away the signs
and hustled them out. Behind me I heard a teenager say to
his companion, Wow! Im glad we were here to see
voting finally took place shortly after 10:00 p.m. The last
speeches were reserved for Minority Leader Bob Michel, House
Speaker James Wright and the venerable Florida Congressman
Claude Pepper. When the electronic yeas and neas were in order
it came down to a margin of eight votes among the 430 cast
an aid package defeat of 219 to 211. The gallery erupted
in applause when it was over. They could toss us all out now,
I left the building I didnt feel anything particularly
moving or even satisfying. Certainly no letdown, but there
was no great passion either. Maybe I still had to get closer.
Maybe like the guy who yanked me down in the gallery. Earlier
I had mentioned my visit to The Wall. In a manner expressing
instruction he responded, Didnt you first feel
the sadness, then the anger, and then the RAGE!? He
had been very close.
in Quimby Magazine, 1988.
Illustration by D. B. Velveeda.