Offerings At The Wall

PrintPrintEmailEmail

The faces of the American Dead in Vietnam” was Life magazine’s cover story on June 27, 1969. Photographs and brief biographies of the 242 Americans killed in action during one week, from May 28 to June 3, marched on for pages. When the issue appeared, American troop strength in Vietnam was at an all-time high; President Richard M. Nixon had begun the secret bombing of Cambodia in March, and just days before press time he had announced plans to withdraw twenty-five thousand troops from Southeast Asia.

 
 
“I SEE YOUR NAME ON A BLACK WALL. A NAME I GAVE YOU SO CLOSE AFTER YOU WERE BORN, NEVER DREAMING OF THE TOO FEW YEARS I WOULD HAVE WITH YOU.”

The article both tapped and fueled a surge in antiwar sentiment that culminated in that fall’s massive antiwar demonstrations. Exactly a quarter-century later a copy of that Life was left at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. No explanation was attached. But in some way that yellowed issue spoke more than adequately for the continuing effect of the war on whoever left it.

The issue joined nearly forty thousand other offerings that have been left at the memorial since its dedication in 1982. Service medals, candles, combat boots, letters to dead lovers, dog tags, poems, unopened sardine cans, insignia, newspaper obituaries, prom pictures, wedding rings, birthday cards, Desert Storm memorabilia—it is a collection of writings and objects at once highly personal and yet so emblematic that it calls to mind the groupings of things that have been buried in time capsules.

Instead these items all go to MARS, a drab brick behemoth down the road from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in Glenn Dale, Maryland. MARS—for Museum and Archaeological Regional Storage—houses more than forty collections of objects from local parks and historic buildings in the National Park Service’s purview. Most of the twenty-five-thousand-square-foot warehouse, however, is taken up by the rows upon rows of steel cases, white acid-free Hollinger boxes, and rolling carts that hold the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection.

The collection is an anomaly worthy of the experience it reflects. Everything left at the memorial—which includes the black granite wall and two newer statues—has been picked up and preserved by the Park Service, save for live plant matter, which is thrown away, and unaltered flags, which go to civic groups. Splintering Popsicle sticks with illegible inscriptions are logged in alongside expert stained-glass likenesses of combat insignia. Yet the National Park Service has defined MARS as a storage facility and keeps it closed to the general public.

The sheer volume of new accessions has meant an unending backlog of uncatalogued items for the collection’s curator, Duery Felton, Jr., himself a seriously wounded Vietnam combat veteran, and his lone assistant. Since the Park Service formally began accumulating things from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1984, their numbers have steadily inf creased to an average of nearly a thousand a month.

That this flood tide of artifacts and documents shows no sign of ebbing even as the war itself recedes into the past testifies to the insistent role Vietnam continues to play in the national imagination. As that role has evolved, the memorial itself has become a combination of holy shrine and secular bulletin board.

Even before it was built, the designer Maya Ying Lin’s sunken granite chevron, conceived as a project for a Yale seminar in funerary architecture, inspired comparisons with a grave site. Its multitudinous detractors sometimes went much further: The veteran and author James Webb predicted the memorial would become “a wailing wall for future anti-draft and anti-nuclear demonstrators.”

It was initially so controversial that most political leaders, including President Ronald Reagan, refused to attend its dedication, in November 1982. But the emotional outpouring that accompanied that event was unprecedented for a public ribbon cutting; Washington absorbed the greatest influx of veterans since a Grand Army of the Republic encampment ninety years earlier. When the last speech ended, a hundred and fifty thousand people surged over the crowd-control fences and into the memorial’s embrace, weeping, searching, reaching, stroking the names engraved on its black granite arms. Thousands stayed on through the night.

Dozens of unusual mementos were left that weekend. Jan Scruggs, who first propounded the idea for the memorial, particularly recalls “a very haunting pair of cowboy boots. No note, no nothing. You could read your own story into it.” A couple of days later Tony Migliaccio, a National Park Service grounds supervisor, found a teddy bear, the earliest of at least forty stuffed bears left at the wall. It later became known simply as “the first bear.” No policy existed for dealing with boots, bears, letters, and other such things, so Migliaccio mentally labeled them lost and found, put them in a cardboard box beside the lawn mowers and lime sacks in his storage area, and figured the phenomenon would pass. It didn’t.