Flashes of lightning streak the faint red glow of the predawn sky as the day’s first visitor arrives at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall in Washington. The dim lights dotting the base of the 493-foot-long granite monument shine vaguely up through a thick mist. Thunder is the only sound until a few fat raindrops splat against the memorial walkway. The drizzle becomes a downpour, and the visitor looks for shelter. About 100 yards from the memorial wall he finds a tent, dark but open.
He stands inside the flap, shivering, looking out at the rain. He is there for about 15 minutes before he hears a noise behind him. A man has been sleeping in the tent, on three chairs lined up next to each other; now he is offering the visitor one of the chairs, as well as a poncho to shield him against the chill. The man, who identifies himself as “Gino from Utah,” says he served with the 4th Infantry Division in Vietnam; he is a volunteer with the “Veterans’ Vigil of Honor,” a 24-hour exhibit-demonstration set up to generate support for a group that believes more than 2,000 Americans listed as missing in action are still being held prisoner by the Vietnamese. “I like being near the memorial because so many kids come by,” Gino from Utah says. “They want to know what the war was about. Of course, I want to know what the war was about too.”
Gino, who is black, and the visitor, a white veteran of the 25th Infantry Division, watch the rain, compare it to the storms of Southeast Asia and talk about what seems to be Americans’ increasingly positive attitude toward Vietnam veterans. Then Gino says, “I’m working here because I got five buddies on the wall. I came down here once and was in trouble, and these people were nice to me. Now I get to pay them back. Sometimes a vet comes here, he needs help but he don’t need that much. All he wants is a guy who understands, who can hug him and tell him it’s all right.”
The rain starts to let up shortly before 7 a.m., and more visitors begin to arrive at the $7 million memorial, designed by a 21-year-old Yale student, Maya Ying Lin, of Athens, Ohio, and dedicated on Nov. 13, 1982. Throughout the rest of a mostly drizzly day, until well past midnight, some 10,000 people will stream past the monument, in ones and twos, in families, in busloads. They will come to look at the names on the wall—names of 58,014 men and eight women who died or are listed as missing in Vietnam. They come to look at the names of their sons, daughters, brothers, husbands, fathers, friends, neighbors—and at the names of people they never knew at all, never heard of.
At the base of the wall people leave newspaper clippings reporting a death in the war, medals, messages, flowers. This morning there’s a note left from the night before. The inscription and signature have been washed out by the rain, but not the message: “Thanks to a great man and true friend.”
A woman in her 50s is holding down the corner of a piece of paper, helping one of the National Park Service rangers make a rubbing of a name engraved on the wall, Jerry C. Light, an Army PFC who was 20 when he died on Oct. 11, 1967. The woman takes the paper and walks away, looking at it. “They got it all right,” she says, as tears well up in her eyes. The woman’s name is Norma Light; she is from Hillsborough, N.J., and Jerry Clifton Light was her son.
Rob Brennan of Guilford, Conn. has come because his brother, Stephen, was killed in Vietnam. It must have been terrible, someone says. “No,” Brennan says slowly. “I hardly knew him. I was 3 when he died.”
Groups of children, having come from all over the country for tours of the capital, move along the wall. Few of them had been born when the Vietnam War ended. They chatter relentlessly. “Hey, you hear about that new Travolta movie?” “Did you see who Jennifer was sitting next to on the bus?” “Mrs. Peterson, how long did the war in Vietnam last?”
Ken Cunningham of Sacramento, Calif. has come to see the name of Mark L. Morgan. Morgan lived next door to Cunningham’s grandmother.
One scene repeats itself often: A middle-aged man, often a big, sturdily built man, stands looking at the wall, his arm around a woman. He reaches to run his fingers over a name. Then he turns, and as he starts to walk away, he sags, his knees beginning to buckle. The woman hugs him harder, pressing against his body with all her strength as she fights to hold him up. While he steadies himself, and they walk off, she keeps hugging, as though he would die if she let him go.
Alex Hernandez of Independence, Mo. has come with his fiancée, Rowena Todd. Hernandez, wearing dark glasses, says he wanted to see the names of men he had served with in the 1st Air Cavalry Division. “But I didn’t know,” he says, “that after I left my unit…” He stops for a few seconds that seem will never end, then takes a deep breath. “But I didn’t know until today, until I saw his name on the wall, that one of my best friends was killed after I left my unit.”
Irene Hockett has come from Richmond, Ind. on a tour with 30 other people. Her son, David, was killed in 1970. “Let me think,” she says. “He was home on leave in November, then he died in February.” She pauses, and a friend puts in hastily, “Yes, another boy from Richmond was killed too. I remember he used to come to my house and leave notes on my refrigerator that said, ‘You’re out of cookies.’ ”
“There he is—Ian Franks,” a boy of about 12 calls out. “Did you go to war with him, Dad?” “Yes.” “How did he die?” “His chopper crashed.” “What happened?” The man begins to answer, stops, waves his hand in front of his face as if trying to wipe something away, then walks off.
The park rangers and the Vigil volunteers say that a surprisingly large number of Vietnam vets come to the memorial after dark, perhaps because of the privacy provided by the night and the monument’s subdued lighting. It is 9:30 p.m. when Donald Simms of Washington, D.C. arrives. He is a veteran of the 101st Airborne Division, and as he walks along the wall, stopping at nearly every one of its reflective black panels, he begins to sob and call out, to nobody in particular, “Damn! Is that all they give him? What a waste—what a waste. See that man’s name there? He was blown up for no reason at all. I was there, man, I was there. Why did I come back? Why did I come back?” Simms takes a few steps, then falls to his knees at the base of the wall. He waves his arm at the other visitors, who have backed away but are listening: “What do these people know? I was there, man. I know what a waste it was.” A friend coaxes him to his feet and up the walkway. But then Simms sees the statue by Frederick Hart, added to the site because some veterans found the wall too stark, and almost runs to it, walks round it, puts his arm around one of the figures and begins to cry quietly. Again his friend takes him by the arm and leads him off, speaking softly to him.
Later, Simms seems exhausted as he talks to another veteran. “You know, I live in Washington, man, but I haven’t been able to come here until now. I just think about things. I remember one day in ‘Nam, sitting having Thanksgiving dinner, and we get incoming. Everybody hits the ground and scrambles. When it’s over, I turn to the guy next to me and I say, ‘Hey, man, get up,’ and then I see that his head ain’t attached to his body anymore. You know what happened there? When I first came back, everything used to scare the hell out of me: backfires, sudden movements, noises. Now I’m mostly okay. Now when something like that happens I just laugh.” He stands up and shrugs. He hugs the other man, then turns to his friend and family—he has brought them with him as if this evening were a ritual they needed to be part of—and walks into the night.
It’s a cool night, very dark. The Park Service ranger on duty helps those people who want to make name rubbings, using his flashlight and sometimes doing the tracing himself. One man, Walter Mazur of Coventry, R.I., a veteran of the 554th Engineer Battalion, borrows some paper and sets about making rubbings of three names. He has finished one name when someone asks him, “Are you going to do another one of those things?”
Mazur slowly turns and says evenly, “Understand this: These are men here. Three friends of mine. They died much too young, and they died horribly. These aren’t things.” He turns back to his rubbing.
The ranger goes off duty at midnight, but people keep coming until around 1 a.m., when the heavy rain resumes. It continues until after 5. But the morning brightens quickly. The sun has all but burned the haze away when, around 6 a.m., Eric and Jean Smith of Westport, Conn. arrive. They find panel No. 1W, which bears the name of Mrs. Smith’s brother, Barton Wade. At the base of the panel they place a geranium. The memorial and its 58,022 names have begun a new day.