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War memorial stands as a reminder that life ends

Baby boomers honoring the fallen at a Vietnam exhibit see death for what it is: inevitable.

June 25, 2007|John Johnson Jr. | Times Staff Writer

Reflection and introspection are the twin luxuries of the old.

So it was no surprise to Nancy Schneider that many of the people who trooped past the Dignity Memorial Vietnam Wall traveling exhibit Sunday were gray-headed and snow-bearded.

The surprise to her was that she herself, a onetime college rebel who marched on Washington in 1969, was among them.

"Now we're the elder generation. Isn't that a shock?" she said, shaking her head while posing for a picture under the name of a first cousin, William L. Sanderson. He died in 1968, now four decades in Schneider's rearview mirror.

"He was from Aspen, Colo. He enlisted after high school," Schneider said. "We came from a long line of pacifists, so it was a big shock."

Schneider, of Santa Monica, said she and her husband had come to the exhibit at Pierce Brothers Valhalla Memorial Park in North Hollywood because she had been thinking a lot more about family. She plans to attend a big reunion this week in Nashville.

"All my other first cousins are going to be there," Schneider said. "Bill's the one cousin who won't. I thought, 'I have to visit this place before I visit my family.' "

The Vietnam generation -- or if you prefer, the baby boomers, hippies, acidheads, peaceniks or utopians -- will be passing from the world stage in the next decade or so. Their own mortality brought special poignancy to the memories of the people who dropped out of the action so early.

Charlene Wren, 60 and white-haired, used a pencil to rub the name of an old high school friend, Michael Bryan Grimes, onto a small slip of paper.

"He wasn't my boyfriend or anything," Wren said. "But he was the first one out of all of us in high school to die.

"He made people laugh," she said. "He used to slouch down in his seat. He was just a guy."

Now, however, he'd become more than just a guy to Wren. Grimes was the groundbreaker, the scout, the first to travel to that final destination where his entire generation is now heading.

Some of the hundreds of visitors at the 240-foot-long exhibit, a three-quarters-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., leaned on canes. When taps was played, they snapped to attention, although many of their bellies didn't exactly fall in line.

In the background, the "Good Morning, Vietnam" soundtrack no longer sounded cool, with its Beach Boys and Motown songs -- just quaint.

The dinner-table arguments over the rightness of that war are so far in the past now that most of the visitors seem content to leave further discussion of it to the historians. The one thing they agree on is that the soldiers should have been treated better when they returned home.

As visitors filed by the faux granite wall, Linda Mustian sat at a small folding table, busy with her thick files. She has tried to catalog every person who died in Vietnam from the San Fernando Valley.

Leafing expertly through her North Hollywood binder, she found Grimes. His biography was three pages long. He was born Nov. 28, 1946, and died March 22, 1967. That made him 20.

He had tried San Fernando Valley State College after high school but didn't last long before enlisting in the Marines as a radio operator.

Grimes was shot in the chest by a sniper in Quang Tri.

"He didn't want to leave home, but he knew what he was fighting for," his father was quoted as saying in a March 30, 1967, newspaper article. A year later, there was another article. It said Grimes had been awarded the Silver Star.

Mustian had no file on Sanderson because he was from Colorado. Schneider, whose mother and Sanderson's were sisters, has happy memories of traveling west once a year to Aspen from Boston for skiing.

Sanderson was three years older than she, so they weren't close. But she was tight enough with his younger sister, and the two traveled together to take part in the Peace Moratorium on Oct. 15, 1969.

"He wasn't ready to go to college," Schneider said of her cousin. "He was a little bit lost."

Her own mother, Jeanne Wasserman, was an advertising executive and an art historian who was active in the anti-war movement. She died recently at age 90.

"She said she was born in World War I and was going to die during the Iraq war," Schneider said. "She said, 'My life was war to war.' "

john.johnson@latimes.com

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