26 June 2009
One of my favorite novels is In Country by Bobbie Ann Mason. It is set ten years or so on from the Vietnam War and is told from the perspective of a teenage girl who lost her father there. She is coming into adulthood struggling not only with who she is, but how she is defined by this event in her past. Part of its appeal is that I recognize the setting. It could be the community where I am from. I could know the characters personally. But I also enjoy it because it is a nontraditional war novel. Its protagonist is not a soldier, yet she has had the war define her life. It has seeped into the fibers of her very being. She can relate to the war vets she interacts with, but processes the war in a very different way. She isn't one of them, yet is on a similar journey with them. She struggles to understand this thing that has so touched her life- what its meaning is, how she truly fits in, how she can make sense of it and move on, or at least forward.
Towards the end of the book, she piles her assorted and estranged family members into their vehicle and they head to the newly dedicated Vietnam Wall. She seeks solace and answers from it, as if this object can bring her closure and peace. It is something she feels she must do, the next step in her journey.
The book doesn't answer her questions, it is left open to interpretation what she finds there. But one passage struck me as I reread it recently. It begins as Sam stands looking upon the Wall for the first time: "Sam doesn't understand what she is feeling, but it is something so strong, it is like a tornado moving in her, something massive and overpowering."
I recently had the chance to visit the Arlington West memorial at Santa Monica Pier. I don't know when the powers that be will get around to building a memorial for our war, but this is a suitable stand in.
I was worried that there might be a political slant that would tarnish it for me. Though the organization that sponsers the display certainly takes a side, the memorial itself did not. It simply counted the fallen.
The memorial is located right alongside the Pier. This is a place of fun and beauty, the shrieks of rollercoaster riders mixing with the oohs and ahhs of the crowd watching the trapeze act do their thing. The smell of salt lingers in the breeze as the calls of the sea gulls are swallowed by the sounds of the sea. There is a steady beat from the band playing on the main stage at the barbeque festival. And yet here is this place of solemnity amongst it all. It has a power to it, evoking the "tornado" of emotion on many levels. It hurts, but then it should.
Seeing the crosses lined up in rows, the flag-draped coffins respresenting the most recent casualties, is a real gut check. The magnitude and scope of the loss of life cannot be denied. I could not help but think of how many were left hurting by the loss of each one. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the cross is just a symbol. Each one of them is one man or one woman. They had virtues and vices. They had friends and family. They had accomplishments that sit in a scrapbook or picture albumn somewhere. They are quite simply gone. It was Mothers Day, and quite a few mothers were there, telling the stories of their sons.
I brought photos and sought out the names on the panels there that mean something to me. One gentleman- I wish I had thought to get his name- helped me locate them in the book. He also helped me leave messages there for my guys, and put a silver star on them to indicate they were left by a friend. He was very kind and he provided me with a hug when I needed it. I wish I could thank him by name because what they are doing is important. I may not agree with all the groups' aims, but this man is standing vigil. I respect that.
After I was finished, I took a walk along the beach, simply watching the ocean. I'm not sure that I found the answers I was looking for there. I didn't have the capstone moment of closure I half expected to have. But I did feel like I took a step forward on my journey.