Monday, July 6, 2015

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial: Washington, DC

While purchasing gas, a couple of young teenage girls approached me asking if they could clean my already clean windshield for a donation.  They were collecting for a school trip in 2016 to Washington DC.  I gave her a $20 bill - the only cash I had.  Her eyes got really big so I assume that no one else was giving that kind of donation.  And I didn't make her clean the windshield. 

If I had known then when I know now, I might not have donated at all.

School groups were pervasive in DC.  Everywhere you go, there they are.  Observing them you know they are only there because 1) They can be so why not? 2) They get to stay in a hotel with their friends and without their parents 3) It provides an opportunity to hook up with someone, to goof off, act a fool and do all of the things teenagers do when they are away from constant supervision.  I know there are some exceptions but most of them do not care about the history of this country.

I know there are chaperones but let's be realistic...1 adult per 10 or more kids is not enough.  I know from experience.  When I was 15 my softball team went to Durant, OK for a tournament.  There were about 13-14 of us girls - all between 14-16 years old - and 3 adults.  We were traveling in 2 vans.  One of the vans had mechanical problems just south of the Texas/Oklahoma border.  Two of the adults had to go into a nearby town to get parts leaving all of us girls there with our coach Roy.  Someone, I don't remember who but certainly not me, convinced my friend Kim to moon the next person driving by.  So me and another girl stood between Kim and the coach and she did it.  The man stopped.  We went and hid in the van while Roy dealt with the irate man.  We also threw ice in the elevator at a hotel in Houston when the doors opened and then we ran away.  So again, I am not guessing.

Back in DC, they are everywhere and there are a lot of them around The Wall when we arrive.  The Wall was #1 on my list of things to see in DC.  I "know" someone listed on there.

Panel 12E, Line 18, first name on the line:  Thomas L Blackman.

Tommy was my mother's husband.  He was not my father and he died before I was born but he was a presence in the house I grew up in all the same.

Tommy was 21 when he died on November 4, 1966.  He and my mother had been married a short 15 months.  His son, my half brother, was 6 months old.  He was killed in a non-combat related fire, along with 7 other sailors, aboard the USS Franklin D Roosevelt "in South Asian Waters".  

I have been thinking about this time in my parent's lives more than usual and have been interviewing them about various details.  I always knew about Tommy.  My brother was never adopted by my father and he always carried the Blackman name.  I have seen Tommy's picture.  The flag from his coffin is still in my mother's house.  I have read the telegram they delivered when she was notified of his death and the one that was delivered to Tommy when his son was born.  I spent more than a few weekend days playing in Tommy's parents backyard so my brother could visit his grandparents and his cousins.  I attended Tommy's parents funerals when they died.  I have been to Tommy's grave more times than I can count.

I had never been to The Wall in DC.  I had been to a replica in Pensacola but the size isn't the same.  And maybe because I have been talking to mom about this more lately than I ever have before, it felt different.  My colleagues promised not to make fun of me if I cried and they even hung back and gave me a little space once we got there.  I told my mom I was going and she said, "touch his name for me" but I couldn't.  It is too high.

The Wall is higher in the middle and then tapers down to a few inches off the ground on either end.  Just like this boy who is taking a rubbing, someone would have had to sit on my shoulders to get to Tommy's name.  The park service said they have ladders they can get out during the day when it isn't crowded but I never had the opportunity to do that.

After being at the panel with Tommy's name for a little while, I walked down to the east end of the memorial and waited on my colleagues to catch up.  I am trying not to cry (at The Wall and also right now) but am failing (at both).  Two older teenage boys approach me and say, "What is this called again?"  I couldn't believe it.  There are signs all over the place that tell you what each thing is.  The Wall is right by the Lincoln Memorial, the World War II Memorial, the Washington Monument and the Korean War Memorial.  Apparently, reading isn't being taught in high school anymore.  Or maybe it is common sense they are missing.

But more than that it strikes me that this memorial means so little to them, nothing really, that they don't even know what it is.  They weren't born during Vietnam.  At their age if they had a relative on the wall it would be a grandfather or great uncle.  But this Wall means everything to some people, like my mother.  But maybe you don't understand why my mother's husband's name on here would have an impact on me at all when he wasn't my father.

For me, the hard reality is that other people come here and mourn the loss of a loved one, someone they miss every single day.  But in my case, if Tommy's name isn't on that wall, I would never have been born. That is very difficult to reconcile.  I cannot even imagine how horrible that time was for my mother.  Her high school sweetheart was taken from her.  The father of her child.  She was 18 years old  when he died.  But if she had never gone through that awful time, I would not exist.

I know she can't choose between two lives but I can't help but wonder if she could, what would she choose.  And mom, if you are reading this, I know there is no right answer.  But I still wonder.  How could she not want Tommy to live?  Knowing that if he did, I wouldn't.  My younger brother wouldn't.  Our children wouldn't.  

We have all heard someone say that they believe there is only one right person out there for them but I don't believe that.  I can't.  If I believed that what would that say about my mother's feelings for my dad?  Or for Tommy?  My mother and father met not quite a year after Tommy's death and were married soon after.  They are still married today.  I know my mother loves my father but I also know she loved Tommy.  Still does.  Always will.

I know there are others out there like me.  People who would not exist if war didn't exist.  What does that mean?  Does it mean anything at all?  It is still happening now, today, will likely always be happening.  The answer for me is yes, it means something.  Something I cannot adequately explain.

On this memorial alone there are 58,272 names.

My father went to Vietnam when my mother was pregnant with me.  Once again, I can't even imagine how my mother felt during that time (or my dad either).  For a second time, she is pregnant and the father of her child is called away to Vietnam.  The stress must have been nearly unbearable this second time.  

This statue of 3 soldiers (the other is behind these two, this is the best angle I could get for this photo because of the massive herd of teenagers standing around it) was created to honor those that came back.  People like my dad who returned when I was 2 months old.

These 3 soldiers face The Wall, I assume as a tribute to those that didn't return.  Like these 3 my dad always has and to this day continues to honor Tommy.  He even cleans his headstone whenever they visit the cemetery.

I am not sure I can ever fully have peace in the knowledge that for me to live, my mother, Tommy's parents and siblings and others that knew and loved him had to live through so much pain.  When Tommy's father died some of us walked down to Tommy's grave which is nearby and my older brother, Tommy's son, was standing there looking at the headstone.  Even though I had been there lots of times before it never really felt the way it did that day to watch him looking down at that stone knowing his father was down there.  Someone he has no memory of.  Maybe it is even harder to consider since my dad is one of my favorite people on this earth.

So I visited the wall to pay tribute to a man I never knew.  To think about what his name, and all of the others here, mean to me.  To all of us.  May his memory live on in those who loved and knew him and maybe even a little in some of us who never had the opportunity.

Rest in Peace
Thomas Lee Blackman
February 10, 1945-November 4, 1966

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