My first visit to The Wall came shortly after it was erected. My cousin Joe is one of the "Keepers of The Wall" as an employee of the National Park Service. He volunteered for the duty, as his brother, my cousin Alexander (Sandy), was killed in Nam and Joe wanted to help out with the memorial.
Sandy and I were the same age, born within weeks of each other. We lived in the same house in Brooklyn for the first five years of our lives and attended kindergarten together. There is hardly a family picture of one of us that does not include the other. But there the similarities ended.
Sandy grew up to be a "hawk," a gung-ho patriot and a staunch conservative. He volunteered for the Army and was shipped off to his death straight from basic training and AIT. I was the family black sheep. I was an anti-war demonstrator, a pacifist and a draft resister. I refused to register. I was (and am) a conscientious objector to ALL warfare. I was arrested at a protest in New York at Whitehall Street Induction Center the day he was shipped out. I never even said goodbye as our relationship had deteriorated badly by then.
He was killed in 1969 at the age of 21. I was badly shaken for a while, torn between revulsion for the war that had taken him and hatred for those who had sent him.
When The Wall was erected, I went to say goodbye to Sandy and to all who had died so senselessly. I stood before his name and held hands with his brother Joe as we prayed for him. Somehow this memorial to the futility of war and to the bravery of those who had died was a healing place.
I saw men and women, some holding small children, touching the names on The Wall as if to commune with their dead. Like John, I saw photographs of children, wives, lovers and friends intermixed with flowers, poems and letters. Mostly I saw love, love healing grief, love assuaging guilt, love comforting loss.
I have been to The Tomb of the Unknowns, to Flanders Field and to ground zero at Hiroshima. None had the effect on me of this simple edifice. Unlike other walls, Maya Lin's monument divides no one. It joins together those of opposing ideas and philosophies and unites all in a sense of awe and introspection.
© copyright, 1998, Peter Prunka