I’m a western guy. Born and raised in Colorado I’ve worked and lived in the western United States all my life. American history is relatively young out west even though we feel pretty well established. Sometimes we lose track of just how young our western culture is. Weddings and work took me to New York, DC, Atlanta and other states rich in a history I’d only read or heard about. Friends who live back east tried their best to introduce me to locations that are rich in history be it the Civil War or American independence. I’m a bit ashamed to say that much of what I saw or heard did not stick. Like the study of family genealogy, I think that one has to be ready, emotionally and mentally, to appreciate our past. Perhaps I’m still not quite totally ready to become immersed in our heritage but visiting the Washington DC area recently produced a new set of reactions and emotions to witnessing the memorials and monuments to our past.
Dianne and I walked the National Mall together for the first time at the end of the 2009 Cherry Blossom Festival. We exited the Metro at the Smithsonian stop and set out see as much as we could before we got too tired. We were determined to not hurry. As anticipated, we were among thousands of others visiting the area on a beautiful April day. It was chilly and the breeze kept us moving. We made a plan to head toward the Lincoln Memorial as our first leg of the hike. I had a strong desire for Dianne to see the Viet Nam Memorial and the Lincoln Monument and made sure that we kept those two sites lined up as we walked past the Washington Monument to the World War II monument… a site new to me. We did the obligatory tourist thing and took a picture of us at the Oregon column and then moved on.
We got to the Viet Nam Memorial and I thought I was prepared for what I knew would be an emotional experience…I’d been there before and clearly remembered the emotions I had then. There’s something about seeing all the names carved into the black marble wall. It’s a lot to assemble in your head and heart. I watched as people paused to search for a name…perhaps a friend or a relative. Maybe I’m an anomaly but I don’t know anyone who died in Nam or is MIA. I have relatives and friends who served there and I relish every phone call or visit to them. They came back whole. My best friend from high school served there too and came home only to die in a freak accident at a ski area. Given my insulation from personal loss in Nam you’d think that I’d be able to visit the site and absorb it’s meaning without too much emotional involvement. Wrong.
Di reminded me that she had a cousin, Edward McNally, who’s name was among the thousands on the wall. We headed for a volunteer to see if we could get some help finding the name to do what others were doing… pausing, thinking and missing people we love and who are gone. We listened to the volunteer explain the symbols beside each name… confirmed death or MIA. I was impressed about how he stood there and listened to stories from visitors about their service there and the loss of family or friends or comrades. Respectful and caring, he patiently listened and nodded as the stories came out. Both Di and I were beginning to bubble with emotion and we headed for the paper index of names to look up her cousin’s name. We found it and walked back to the wall panel that his name is carved in… panel 36E, row 26. We counted rows of names and found Edward McNally… one name among the 58,195 names… but this one was ours. I can’t express what it felt like to take a picture of Dianne pointing to his name. Even though both of our fathers served in previous wars, the Viet Nam wall stirred my emotions more than the WWII and Korean War memorials. It was the first war of my time and it involved people I know and love. I’m still wondering about my different reactions and don’t know that I’ll ever fully understand why Nam elicits more feeling than WW-I, WW-II or Korea.
We spent quite some time at the wall and as we were leaving I remembered that my good friend David had mentioned that a dear friend of his had been killed in Nam. David had not been to the wall but I knew that he’d appreciate it if I looked his friend up and said thanks personally. I called David and confirmed the spelling of the name. I know David could hear the emotion in my voice as we talked. We returned to the directories and looked for Stephen Kenoffel. We traced our steps back along the wall to the panel where Stephen’s name resides. We paid our respects and took a picture or two.
So, there you have a short version of a visit to a place where history got personal. We paid our respects to family and to a friend of a friend. We walked away feeling differently and glad to be wearing sun glasses. It was Easter Sunday and we walked on. There was a choir singing at the Lincoln Memorial and we headed for the sound of beautiful voices along with the masses of people sharing the day with us.