I did not know anyone who died in the Vietnam War, and yet I know them all: James and John and James, again; James and Ricardo and Jimmy.
On a spring morning in Washington, D.C., I read their names on the black granite walls of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. I read carefully, wondering if I would find a long-lost friend among the more than 58,000 casualties of the war.
Other visitors found the names they sought, on that breezy day in the capital. They reached out to touch each letter, then put their fingers to their lips. Some unfolded sheets of paper and began rubbing over the grit-blasted names.
"My pencil broke," a woman said softly to her husband. She held the tracing paper steady with her left hand while he reached into his pocket for another stub. "It's OK, Mama," he said, his voice cracking. "It's OK."
The name she traced ended with Jr.
Two teen-age girls whispered to each other as they scattered rosebuds and daisies along the base of the wide-spread V, which stands like an open book between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial.
Gleaming Black Granite
A balding paraplegic rolled his wheelchair to Column 44, set the brake and bowed his head. Small U.S. flags fluttered from his armrests.
The Vietnam Memorial is a wedge in the earth, a memory wall of gleaming black granite with 70 upright panels that stretch almost 500 feet. The path descends toward the heart of the V so that the first slab of granite is only inches high, while the center rises over your head.
It is like half a tunnel, a bulwark of stone on one side, a wide grassy lawn on the other. At the deepest point, dandelions sprout over the top. The place is bathed in light.
As I walked down the path I caught up with a group of deaf youngsters. Their hands flew with questions. I watched their animated reflections in the granite, which is so shiny that it seems to disappear.
The names are always there, of course, but they float in the sky, in the clouds, on the parasols hoisted by tour leaders, on the faces of those passing by. The monument becomes a mirror, a mirror of pride and pain.
I thought of the poignant beauty of the Tomb of the Unknowns across the Potomac in Arlington National Cemetery. I had the same feelings here among the known. They were so young. They are always so young.
Finally I started back up the slope to the point where the granite ends and the trees begin and the lawns heal. Ahead was the classic columned temple of the Lincoln Memorial, which was dedicated on Memorial Day--May 30, 1922.
Lincoln was seated there, a colossal statue in white marble. On one wall are the words of his address at the Gettysburg battlefield in 1863: ". . . but, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate--we cannot hallow--this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract."
If Lincoln could stand, he would be 28 feet tall. He would be able to see the long, low, shining V in the ground nearby. If he could look any sadder, I suspect he would.