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Moved to tears by a wall

A traveling replica of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial renews old memories.

May 17, 2008|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Ernie Barbosa, a sergeant in the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, sat in the moonlight before a replica of the Vietnam Veteran Memorial -- 58,256 names etched in white that from a distance looked like serrated piano keys against a black expanse.

Sitting in Temple City Park, with Memorial Day approaching, Barbosa recalled taking his dad, a World War II and Korean War veteran, to Dodger Stadium after he had retired and buying him a hot dog, a drink and some fries.

"Why the hell do you bring me fries for? I hate potatoes!" John Barbosa screamed. "I ate potatoes three times a day in the Army!"

The burly 43-year-old lawman laughed sympathetically, but moments later, he wiped tears with his palm as he recalled other memories.

It was 2:19 a.m. Friday. And around him, a handful of other volunteers stood watch over the memorial and waited for visitors to straggle in. The lights that had illuminated the white gazebo had flickered off. Plump water bugs skittered in the darkness, and crickets chirped.

It was six hours into a round-the-clock viewing of the wall, which would last until Sunday evening.

The "Moving Wall" has gone through big cities such as Miami and Chicago. But for the most part, it has been relatively small towns such as Guntersville, Ala.; Little Falls, Minn.; Liberty, Ind. -- and Temple City, population about 35,000 -- that have hosted the one-half scale replica.

Temple City welcomed the wall for the second time in 11 years early Thursday evening. The 1st Marine Division Band played the national anthem and John Phillip Sousa's "Stars and Stripes Forever."

There were Boy Scouts and American flags and grizzled bikers and veterans of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, as well as Afghanistan and Iraq. Overhead, F-18 jets roared. Young boys and girls strolled through the green grass, tracing names from the wall and interviewing politicians and veterans for school assignments.

Gerardo Miranda, 9, a student at Northam Elementary in La Puente, took pictures of names with a digital camera.

"We learned that a lot of soldiers went to Vietnam and they died in the war," the boy said. "In school, they told me more than 58 million died. I mean, thousand."

Just a few steps away, Manuel Garcia, 59, a Marine corporal during the Vietnam War, stood ramrod straight.

"I came because I could have been on that wall," Garcia said.

Lupe Moreno, 58, a Sierra Madre resident, used a nub of black chalk to trace the name of Humberto Melendez, the brother of her best friend from El Paso. She remembered how the 21-year-old was expected back home the week he was killed in Vietnam.

"Instead of a party, we had a funeral," Moreno said, sobbing.

She said she would tuck the white slip of paper with Melendez's name in her Bible.

Just before 8 p.m., the L.A. County sheriff's color guard and rifle squad fired off a tribute volley. Then the 1st Marine Division Band closed the ceremony with the mournful strains of "Taps" followed by "God Bless America."

As the crowd trickled out, Cathy Wang, 37, took her 2-year-old daughter, Alice, to the wall, and ran her little hands across the names. Wang, an immigrant from China, said she happened upon the ceremony as she was taking her daughter to play at the park.

"War is so terrible," she said. "There's too many names on this wall."

Just before midnight, only about half a dozen volunteers remained. Mayor Cathe Wilson explained that some veterans preferred to visit during the early overnight hours, when they could be alone. She learned this 11 years ago, the first time the wall visited Temple City.

"They come up here with their can of beer, sit there and talk to their buddies," the 75-year-old mayor said. Eleven Temple City residents died in Vietnam. Wilson said she knew two of them, through her children.

At 1:04 a.m., Ron Frescas, 26, from Rosemead and his friend Donna Schmidt, 26, from Glendora went to the park looking for the name of Ignacio Duran, an Army private first class who died May 30, 1968, and was a close friend of Frescas' father in Texas. Frescas found Duran's name and traced it on a white sheet of paper.

"I'm going to give this to my dad," he said.

Sheriff's Sgt. Barbosa sat facing the wall. He works in the Men's Central Jail. It's a job where you see a lot of teenagers and young men throwing their lives away, letting gangs and drugs shape their destinies. His father lied about his age so that he could fight in World War II, Barbosa said.

He couldn't help laughing, recalling how his father got angry when he bought him fries at Dodger Stadium -- which unwittingly reminded his dad of the hated potatoes served with just about every meal when he went to Korea. But he also recalled taking his father to Las Vegas.

"We're asleep in the hotel room, and suddenly I wake up to screaming and a lamp breaking," Barbosa said. "I thought there was an intruder. But it was my dad having a nightmare. He was 70 years old. I asked my brother how often this happened. He said it was like once a week."

It was nearly 3 a.m. and the park was almost empty. Barbosa looked at the memorial and did some calculations.

"You could fill up Dodger Stadium with 57,000 people," he said, "and that's how many died over there."

--

hector.becerra@latimes.com

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