Those Capitol Hill police must have thought I was crazy. The dead of night in Murder City — in 1987 this town had the nation’s 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.

Well, 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 didn’t 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.

The 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 hadn’t 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 wouldn’t 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.

My reason for being there was to sit in on the February 3, 1988 Contra-aid vote set for the Congressional House. If the Administration’s proposal that included military hardware was defeated it would signal the beginning of the end for Ronald Reagan’s “freedom fighters.” Recently in Nicaragua, I felt I had a high emotional stake in this political decision.

Naturally 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 today’s society.

Leaving 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, “It’s 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.

More 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 could not.

On 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, didn’t seem to mind.

Now 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.

A 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 didn’t give this one a second glance.

A 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.

The 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 war’s 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.

The lowest depth of the facing walkway lies under The Wall’s 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.

I 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 single community.

And 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 didn’t 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 couldn’t help but feel like a victim of the time. Moreover I was reminded that the carnage went far beyond these blackstone borders.

An important feature of The Wall is an omission…Service 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.

By 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 their surroundings.

That 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 fresh.

By 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, “it’s going to be incredible.”

The 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.

The day’s only visible drama took place in the observation gallery. During one Congressman’s 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. “Don’t say anything. Don’t 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 hadn’t noticed me.

Not 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! I’m glad we were here to see that.”

The 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 thought.

As I left the building I didn’t 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, “Didn’t you first feel the sadness, then the anger, and then the RAGE!?” He had been very close.

Appeared in Quimby Magazine, 1988.
Illustration by D. B. Velveeda.