Chapter 5: Gentle heroes

Take what they have left
and what they have taught you
with their dying
and keep it as your own.
And in that time
when men decide and feel safe
to call the war insane,
take one moment to embrace
these gentle heroes
you left behind
— Maj. Michael O’Donnell

The poem, gentle itself, touched with bitterness and love, captures the spirit of the California Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a graceful and somber monument that celebrates the honest human emotions of war.
The memorial, hidden among the trees of on the grounds of the California Capitol, is a quiet sanctuary in downtown Sacramento, a fitting contrast to the noise and chaos and pain of the war in which Major O’Donnell’s gentle heroes died.
In center of the memorial are the poem and the statues. Two soldiers in combat. Two others walking together, unarmed buddies. Another soldier holding a letter. A nurse caring for a wounded man. A prisoner of war sitting and staring.
The statues are in an open area, encircled by a curving sections of wall bearing the names of “those Californians who died, or remain missing, in the Vietnam War 1959-1975.”
On national holidays, marching bands and preachers and public speakers and middle-aged men in battle fatigues come to the memorial to honor the dead of America’s longest war. On other days, the monument is usually quiet, seldom crowded but seldom empty. Children on field trips pour out of the Capitol and scurry across the park, then wander through this memorial to a war they know mostly from the movies. Tourists and downtown office workers drift quietly in and out. Friends and relatives leave flowers and notes to the fallen. Men who survived the war stand in silence before the names of those who did not.
On one of these ordinary days, the memorial is empty and silent beneath the bright sun and wispy clouds of a late spring afternoon. Above the memorial, a worn flag flutters in the breeze.
An old man and woman stroll past the walls of names and into the center of the memorial. They admire the statues, read the poem. In a few minutes, they are gone.
A young woman in a blue sweatshirt and green shorts rides up on mountain bike. She leans it against a park bench and walks into the memorial. She reads the poem and the inscriptions. She takes more time than the old couple, studying the statues carefully but, like them, ignoring the names on the walls. She is thoughtful and curious. Nothing more. After ten minutes, she is back on her bike.
As the afternoon passes, more visitors come: a lady in a jogging outfit walking slowly but staying only a minute, a middle-aged man carrying a camera but not taking pictures, a young man in a black muscle shirt. These visitors look around and leave, their emotions untouched by the memorial.
Then, finally, they come, an old man and old woman, in plain, unfashionable clothes, walking slowly, deliberately.
They seem, at first, to be like the others, interested in this monument to the dead yet unmoved by it but, unlike the earlier visitors, they do not go inside to look at the statues and read Major O’Donnell’s poem. They walk past the big map of Vietnam on the ground at the entrance to the memorial without looking at it. Instead they head straight to a bench just outside the memorial.
The white-haired man eases himself onto the bench, just ten feet from a wall that bears the names of the gentle heroes. He shades his eyes with his right hand and looks straight ahead. The woman doesn’t join him. She walks to the wall and begins running a finger down the list of names — down one row, then another, then a third.
Her finger stops. She turns from the wall and looks at the man. She nods slowly, sadly. The man, still shading his eyes and squinting at the wall, looks back at her and nods.
The woman stands close to the wall, staring at a name, saying nothing. The man stays on the bench, looking straight ahead, showing no emotion. He, too, is silent. Two, three, four minutes pass. His face slowly changes, melting into sadness. He looks tearful but he doesn’t cry.
Two more minutes go by. The man gets up and walks over to the woman. He glances at the name, then the two of them walk away, close to each other, talking softly.
Suddenly the silence of the memorial is shattered by the shouts and laughter of a class of fourth graders. They rush around, chattering about the statues, shouting questions about the war. They see the statutes but do not notice the walls filled with the names of the heroes who had died so long ago.
In the distance, far from the noise, the man and woman walk through the trees, lost in their own thoughts.

8/20/04

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