June 01, 1992 12:00 PM

NOBLE YET GRIM, POIGNANT YET SEVERE, THE VIETNAM VETERANS Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a gulch of black-walled granite that moves hearts by its very starkness. Human soul is stirred to respond, to decorate it with memories. Over the years, thousands have strewn its base with flowers and flags—and with more personal gifts. A few bear explanatory notes—a message to lost friends, the echo of names unpronounced for what seem to be ages. Most, however, are anonymous ephemera, poetry in search of words, yet perhaps not needing more eloquence than they already possess. A teddy bear patched with the name tags of a fallen friend’s fellow soldiers. A champagne glass of unknown provenance, possibly a souvenir of a wedding party that in time turned into a wake. A baby bootee left perhaps by a widow to remind some spirit of the existence of a daughter. Intimations of joys that were never tasted.

Twice a day, National Park Service rangers walk along the wall, sweeping away wilting petals and placing the more permanent offerings in Ziploc bags. Each bag is labeled, cataloged and then stored in a warehouse in suburban Maryland. After eight years, there are now some 25,000 objects in storage. This fall, however, a sampling of the gifts will emerge from the chilly darkness of the warehouse as part of Beyond the Wall, an exhibition of 200 to 300 mementos at the Smithsonian. Says Jennifer P. Locke, 29, the Smithsonian’s manager for the project: “We want this to be a tranquil space that people can reflect in.” Working with her is Duery Felton, a 44-year-old D.C. native and Vietnam vet who has been trying to identify the donors of the gifts and to tell the stories behind them in as much detail as possible. “I don’t want this to be a collection of myths,” he says.

The first gift was left at the wall even before the memorial was completed. In the summer of 1981, a man in a Navy officer’s uniform walked quietly through the construction fence and left behind an object that workers at the site later noticed glinting in the sun. It was the Purple Heart that had been awarded to his brother, a pilot killed in action in Vietnam.

The gleaming blackness of the wall becomes a dark mirror for the emotions that tore the country apart during the war. One letter left behind reads, “I miss you so very much but you died for nothing…. I will fight no more.” Elsewhere, though, another declares that “the mission was a success, so [you] did not die in vain.” And then there is the letter with a Vietnamese signature: “I want to tell you how sorry I am for all you had to go through for me and my country. I can you in my heart forever.” Sometimes the gifts are touehingly humble—with all the blessings of simplicity. A tin of Chef Boyardee ravioli, a can of beer and a package of cigarettes accompanied this note: “Eat, drink and then it’s puff time. I bought your favorite brand. P.S. Don’t scarf it all on your own.”

The varied mementos accumulate against the wall’s benign stone face, testaments that life and remembrance go on in spite of the ravages of war and time. In the end, all share in the sentiment expressed on one wreath that commemorates the missing and the dead: “We who are here walk for them in places they cannot go—speak words they can no longer say and keep alive their memory in the silence.”


DEBORAH PAPIER in Washington, D.C.

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