Monday, June 09, 2008

Lest We Forget

Last Saturday I went into town with a friend and visited "The Wall".

"The Wall" is an 80% scale replica of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC – “The Wall” – is 370 feet long and stands eight feet tall at the apex. The Tribute Wall contains the names of all 58,219 Unites States service men and women killed or listed as missing in action during the Vietnam War.

This is the first time I had visited such an exhibit. Apparently there are several traveling Walls, sponsored by various groups. This one came through the American Veterans Traveling Tribute & Traveling Wall Foundation.

I didn't know what to expect, or how I would react. No family members had died in Vietnam, although my husband served there before we met and married. I knew of one classmate from high school who had served there and died. I'm sure there were several more, but the only name I could recall was that of Joe Lyons.

I didn't know Joe well; he was just one of the many good-looking guys at my high school. I don't recall having any classes together, but I did know who he was. He had a cute blonde girlfriend, and they married during their senior year. I don't know if they had children. He joined the Marines, and began a tour of duty in Vietnam on January of 1968. On June 5, 1968, he was killed by small arms fire in Thua Thien Province. I didn't know about his funeral, or I might have gone.

This is the first stanza of the poem "White Gloves," by Mary Anne Russell. Her mother's reaction describes very much what happened to me once I received a printout of the location of Joe's name:

Mother paged through the names,
In the book of names
And then, businesslike
Read aloud;
“Robert S. Bagnall,
Bloomfield, Connecticut.”
And I read too, but silently,
High school basketball
And yearbook photos.
“January, 1968 –
Date of Casualty,” it said.
Impersonal words for death.
“Row 34E,” she said
And stiffened.
“Line 40,” she said, and turned away
As it struck.
“I will not cry,” I thought,
A boy I hardly knew,
We all admired
Healthy, handsome, easygoing,
Clean cut.
His hands in such white gloves, folded.

My throat closed and tears welled up. It's been forty years, and I still wept for a classmate I only knew in passing. Freedom is not free, and my acquaintance Joe paid the price of it a long time ago in a far-away country.

Let's not forget him and the countless others who defend our freedoms around the world.

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