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The Traveling Wall


John A. Wilson

“Honey, did you see this?”

I looked up from my crossword puzzle to find my wife looking up from the morning paper at me. My breath caught in my throat for a moment. After seventeen years of marriage I still react that way whenever I look up and see the sparkle in those pretty brown eyes.

“See what?” I asked as soon as I was able to do so.

“It says here that the Vietnam Memorial Wall is coming here. I thought that thing was permanent in Washington, D. C.”

I tried to keep my voice as even as I could as I answered her.

“There’re two replicas of The Wall that travel around the country. They’re called ‘The Traveling Walls’.” 

I quickly looked back down at my crossword puzzle, but suddenly I couldn’t quite focus on the paper before me and my breathing was seriously constricted. The Wall was coming here, to our little town. A storm of emotions erupted through me. No longer would distance be an excuse for me to avoid the questions about The Wall, questions that I wasn’t sure I wanted to know the answers to. Would I really be able to stand and face that wall? Will I be able to handle seeing the names of men that I knew inscribed on it? How about the names of the two men who struggled to draw their last breaths in my arms?

“Let me see that,” I was finally able to say. “When is it supposed to be here?”

“In a couple of months,” she told me as I looked over her shoulder at the story that she was reading. 

I looked at the dates that the wall was going to be in my hometown. It was almost two months to the day. I read the story slowly to give myself as much time as possible before I had to look up into my wife’s eyes. I didn’t want her to see the storm that was raging behind my eyes. I had told her stories about what I had experienced in Vietnam, but not all of them. Even if she knew all of the things that haunted my mind from that terrible era in my life, there was no way that she, or anyone else, could understand the feelings that went along with those stories.

For the next two months I thought long and hard about how I would approach The Wall for the first time. My thoughts ranged from sick dread to hopeful anticipation. One part of me didn’t want to see such a graphic reminder of what I had been through; another part looked forward to facing the ghosts that haunted my dreams. My rational mind told me that I needed to face those ghosts, but my heart was a totally different story.

Finally the day came for The Traveling Wall to arrive. I was very quiet over breakfast, still not sure whether or not I could go there. There was, of course, a huge ceremony scheduled for that morning to officially recognize The Traveling Wall’s arrival in our little town. There was no doubt in my mind that going to the ceremony was out of the question. I couldn’t sit and watch a bunch of local politicians talk about the memorial knowing that, to them, it was just a bunch of names on a wall. Only one of our city councilmen was a veteran and he had already announced that he would not attend the ceremony. Many people had expressed disappointment that he would not be there, but I understood. 

Fortunately the opening ceremony for “The Traveling Wall” was held on Friday afternoon. I planned to go see it late that night. That evening I sat in front of the television not really paying much attention to what was showing. My mind wandered over names and faces long forgotten, but now remembered with amazing clarity. These were men that I had known; now they were ghosts that I had to face.

I watched old movies until far into the night. Finally at 2:00AM I was ready to go. I drove down to the baseball field where the wall was set up, even at this time of night the stadium lights were all on, the field with the wall in it was as bright as day. There was a volunteer on duty and a few people in groups of two or three gathered in front of the wall. I stepped through the gate and onto the field. The stadium lights reflected off the polished surface of the wall, which, from a distance, appeared to be just a long black shiny slab of marble. I took a deep breath and slowly began to approach “The Wall.”

As I drew closer I began to see the names engraved on the wall’s surface. A few steps later I could make out the individual names. I stopped and allowed my eyes to focus on one particular name. The name that my eyes picked out at random was not familiar to me. I had not known that person, but he was still a comrade-in-arms. This stranger had experienced many of the same hardships that I had. He had offered his life to defend the ideals that he had held sacred and had lost that life. Slowly I let my eyes roam over more of the unfamiliar names; I felt closer to these people than those who were not over there could possibly understand. 

My roving eye suddenly stopped. The name that I was looking at was not unfamiliar. I had known this man. We had been through boot camp together. I could see his face. I remembered a day on the rifle range. I remember him sitting on a bench behind the firing line working in his range book. I didn’t even know that he had been in country. Tears filled my eyes as I thought about his smiling face, his youthful energy, and his cocky attitude all forever stilled in that distant land.

My teary eyes moved on as I read the list of honor. My heart filled with pride for all of these young men that had given their all. I silently read some of the names. I could only wonder at what these young men looked like and where in that God-forsaken place did they pay the ultimate price for out freedom. Suddenly a name seemed to jump out at me. We had been friends; we were on patrol together when he got hit. He had been alive when we loaded him on the med-evac chopper but we heard later that he had died on the way to the field hospital.

My eyes moved again and there, not far from the one I was just looking at was the name that I was really looking for and was dreading to find. I raised my hand until my fingertips almost touched the marble. Strong emotions fought inside my head. I wanted to reach out and touch his name, but something held my hand steady where it was. With all the effort that I could muster, I forced my hand forward until my fingertips, then the palm of my hand touched the wall where his name was engraved. Suddenly my emotional dam broke wide open. All of the pain, the regret, and guilt that I had bottled up for so many years poured forth and streamed down my cheeks in a sudden torrent.

I don’t know how long I had stood there with my hand against the wall with tears streaming down my face when I felt a hand gently touch my shoulder. I slowly turned my head and through my tears I saw the warm loving eyes of my wife.

“I thought this was where you were,” she whispered gently. “I will leave if you want me to, but I’m here for you if you want me to stay.”

With extreme effort I pulled my hand from the wall and put my arms around the woman who has loved me and comforted me after my nightmares for over seventeen years. “It’s all right now.” She whispered as she put her arms around me. And strangely enough, it was.

If you would like to contact the author, or visit his homepage, his URL and icq number are listed below. 

John A. Wilson -

                            ICQ# 15286075 

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