For the Birds Radio Program: The Vietnam Memorial
The Vietnam Memorial’s marble is as cold and black as the hearts and lies of the people who sent young men and women to die. But the wall is also as cold and black as the night sky, a place you can look to when you’re feeling loss and if you don’t find peace and quiet, you at least feel closer somehow to God and nature and other things bigger than yourself. And you have the feeling that even with the birds singing overhead, or maybe because of them, if you whisper very softly, the person you’ve lost will hear you and know that someone still notices that he’s gone.
I come from a family of Veterans. My grandpa fought in World War I, my father-in-law in WWII, three of my uncles in the Korean War, and my big brother in Vietnam. When I told my grandpa how proud I was of him for being a brave soldier, he told me he hadn’t been brave at all—he only went because he had no say in the matter. He said the way you judge the people who do have a say in these matters, the ones making the decisions that force the military and the people to make big sacrifices, is by how carefully they considered their alternatives before sending people off to die. He said it’s easy to die for your country—all you have to do is be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The hard thing is living your life for your country, trying your best to place the common good above personal selfishness. My grandpa also said that birds were way braver than we humans—they never sent anyone off to fight or die for them. When a bird had a territorial battle to wage, it got to work and fought its own battle, and stopped the moment it had made its point, without that peculiarly human impulse to destroy and humiliate.
I thought a lot about my Grandpa’s words this summer when I found myself in Washington, DC, walking along the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on a sunny afternoon. House Sparrows hopped at my feet, cardinals and robins sang from the trees, and an occasional Great Blue Heron or Black-crowned Night Heron flew overhead on its way to or from a nearby pond. Some of the birds I saw directly, others reflected in the black marble as I searched for one particular name—the name of a boy I sat next to in several classes in 7th grade—Jim Califf. He was a very nice boy, and I wanted to touch his name in the marble and somehow make a connection. But there are 57,685 names on that wall—searching for Jim was like searching for one particular daffodil in a huge field of daffodils. When you enter the Memorial, there are only a few names on the wall, but as you descend the walls grow deeper and deeper, filled with name after name after name of boys and men and women who never got to grow old, who were all in it together over there and are still in it together here and now, bound as one forever in stone.
Every now and then as I searched for Jim’s name I found myself looking into my own eyes mirrored in the wall, with a name caught in the reflection, the name of a boy or man who isn’t a real person to me but sure was to himself and the ones he loved. Names are so particular, so personal, and yet so anonymous. I was overwhelmed with the sadness of so very many names.
Finally I discovered a directory—a book thicker than the Chicago phone book, with the names arranged alphabetically, and there was James Patrick Califf, from Northlake, Illinois, born September 15, 1950, died February 21, 1971. Today, Veteran’s Day, is my own birthday—I’m 52. Jim never even saw his 21st birthday. He was too young to drink a beer the day he died for his country. He wasn’t the kind of boy who planned on going to college, and he sure didn’t have any connections, which is how he, like my own brother Jim, ended up in Vietnam in the first place. But his eyes wrinkled when he smiled, he laughed at all my jokes and made me laugh at his, and he was one of the nicest kids I knew.
Even after the directory pointed me to the right section of the wall, there were so many names to search through. The wall appeared blacker and yet strangely more mirror-like when the sun came out from behind the few clouds, and the reflections of the flying birds and robins running on the lawn were muted in color, as if they, too, felt somber knowing that there are too many names carved into that stone wall, the marble as cold and black as the hearts and lies of the people who sent them there. But the wall is also as cold and black as the night sky, a place you can look to when you’re feeling loss and if you don’t find peace and quiet, you at least feel closer somehow to God and nature and other things bigger than yourself. And you have the feeling that even with the birds singing overhead, or maybe because of them, if you whisper very softly, the person you’ve lost will hear you and know someone still notices that he’s gone.