Tuesday, February 16, 2010
The Black Ditch of Shame
It appears as though snowmageddon has passed and perhaps life can begin to return to some sense of normalcy. It is difficult when there is still about two feet of snow covering much of the city and substantial areas, including most of the national mall and memorial parks, have not been cleared! The metro is running again, however, and it appears that I will be able to continue to use it to get to work during rush hour and will not have to walk through the snow and slush again!
I did succeed in making it in to work all three days of the holiday weekend and was amazed to find how many people were coming to the park despite the weather and the snow covering most of it.! School season has officially begun. I saw soooo many school groups come through in the last three days, and I am given to understand that it is only going to continue to increase from here as we move into spring and the blooming of the cherry blossoms!
I was at FDR on Saturday and spent much of the day working to chip out and remove ice that had refrozen over the path during the previous night. I did have a few good moments of connection and interpretation with visitors though, despite the fact that 95% of the memorial was inaccessible due to snow! The most notable of these was a family of four (parents, their daughter, and her husband) who had recently moved to New York from South Africa. They had a great understanding and appreciation of American history, far more than most Americans, and were very interested in FDR and the park in general. I spent 45 minutes taking them through the memorial and setting the context for FDR, what happened during his 12 years in office, and the way he fit into the journey and development of the American idea. It was great for me to have the opportunity to give that long of a talk and to make the connections myself so that I could communicate them to someone else. Rather than simply disseminating information, I was able to paint a picture of something far bigger, grander, and more valuable than the man that was Franklin Roosevelt.
I then spent both Sunday and Monday at Vietnam. On Sunday we had seven volunteers so I had much less to do in terms of interacting with visitors, but used the opportunity to speak to the volunteers as well. Many of them are veterans themselves, who come here to DC from all over the country to give their weekends over to helping people understand the significance of the wall and what happened in Vietnam. There is something so much more significant and moving about a veteran showing visitors the 7 panels that represent the 3600 men who died during the ten months that he served in Vietnam and telling the stories of his friends and comrades that are forever immortalized as letters etched into polished granite alongside 58, 253 of their brothers and eight of their sisters. It is something that I can never hope to equal myself, having no such connection or personal understanding as these men do. But in watching and learning from them, I am not only better prepared to represent the memorial myself, but am moved to be a better man, one who has a greater understanding of the power of brotherhood and sacrifice, and a far more personal and significant meaning to the words "freedom" and "liberty."
Indeed, as I went back to wall on Monday morning I found that I was joined, not by another ranger and seven volunteers as I had been the day before, but rather by a single volunteer, a 78 year old woman who retired in 2000 and then joined the peace corps in 2002, spending two years in South Africa in her early seventies in order to help and better the lives of others, to give of herself that others might know and experience love and compassion. She has been coming to the wall for more than ten years and has a wonderful gift for helping people to find the names of loved ones that are etched in the granite wall. I too was given an opportunity to help in this task on several occasions. The one that remains fixed most prominently in my memory is of a woman who had come to the wall hoping to identify the name of the fallen spouse of a cousin who has never remarried and never been to the wall or seen her husband's name listed amongst the fallen. Knowing only a last name and a home of origin we found Howard R Cody on the very first panel, one of the first to die in a foreign land. I had the privilege of accompanying them to the wall, helping them locate the name, and then climbing up a ladder which I had brought with for that purpose (the first panel is 10' 3" tall so one needs a ladder to reach the higher lines of names) and taking a picture of the name as well as making a rubbing. As I returned to the ground i was met with tears and an embrace and told that the rubbing and picture would be framed and presented to widow and assured that I had helped to bring peace and healing nearly fifty years after Howard had been lost.
As I remained down at the vertex of the wall I spoke to many others, helped them to understand what they were seeing, and explained anything I could. Among those who I spoke to were three teenage girls who approached me to ask what the diamonds and crosses signify on the wall. In my answer I spoke of the reason why so few of those who were missing had ever returned and that led to further conversation as they asked why we were there in the first place. I soon found myself immersed in an explanation that took my back into WWII in order to set the context and help them to understand why 58, 261 American names are listed on a granite wall in Washington DC. In the course of the conversation I discovered that these girls had no idea what the Soviet Union was, and little understanding of what the words "cold war" meant. But much more significant to me than their lack of knowledge was their curiosity and willingness to learn and to understand. I talked to them for more than half an hour, and the conversation only stopped because a chaperon came and said they had to keep moving.
These places are filled with deep meaning and significance and I have the opportunity to help teenage girls and South Africans gain a better understanding of why they have the freedom they do and what it really means, and to help an elderly widow in Mississippi find peace about a husband that was taken from her half a century ago in a foreign land for reasons she did not understand.