Offerings At The Wall

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The POW issue has been a powerful stimulant to the imagination. The redemption of the film hero John Rambo, a misfit veteran turned POW rescuer, has proved so resonant that the family of a real-life Rambo listed on the wall, Arthur John Rambo of Montana, had to appeal to the Park Service for help in halting all the rubbings being made of his name. More recently dog tags purportedly belonging to MIAs have been sold in Vietnam to veterans who later deposited them at the wall.

Wherever pilgrimages become popular, industries proliferate to make and sell devotional trinkets, and Duerv Felton has lately seen the same process at work at the wall. The cause, he believes, is the newfound prestige of the Vietnam veteran; the result, a boom in ersatz insignia, patches, uniforms, and other accouterments of the Vietnam grunt, including Zippo lighters newly “antiqued” in Vietnam. So the multitude of Vietnam experiences contained in the collection’s objects and words has come to include the pseudoexperience. But that makes sense. Pilgrimage sites are, in the words of the anthropologist Victor Turner, “cultural magnets, attracting symbols of many kinds.” They lie outside the normal bounds of society, where the real and the unreal can flourish side by side. Along with the pre-aged Zippos and the Rambo name rubbings, the wall has begun to attract fortyish nonveterans who arrive for holiday weekends fully arrayed in the uniforms of Vietnam service. Nearby the POW/MIA vigil draws clusters of fatigue-clad youths who never knew anyone listed as missing. Just beyond the memorial are trucks run by Vietnamese immigrants who sell hot dogs to former GIs. One senses, in all this, an attempt to close a circle around a reality still as elusive as Vietnam’s ever was.

For most people who regularly come to the memorial, the annual cycle of birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries defines an unrelenting reality: more than fifty-eight thousand deaths. (Vietnam puts its own dead at one million; its missing at three hundred thousand.) News of marriages, divorces, births, and deaths takes up the thread of narratives broken off a generation ago. On Father’s Day 1994 rangers picked up a double brass picture frame. One side held two blurry sonogram images; the other, a handwritten note:

Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.

Here are the first two images of your first grandchild. . . . Dad—this child will know you—just how I have grown to know and love you—even though the last time I saw you I was only four months old. . . .

Another letter accompanied a small handtinted photograph of a Vietnamese man and young girl:

Dear Sir,

For twenty two years I have carried your picture in my wallet. I was only eighteen years old that day we faced one another on that trail in Chu Lai, Vietnam. . . . So many times over the years I have stared at your picture and your daughter, I suspect. Each time my heart and gutts [ sic ] would burn with the pain of guilt. I have two daughters myself now. One is twenty. The other one is twenty-two, and has blessed me with two granddaughters. . . . Forgive me Sir, I shall try to live my life to the fullest, an opportunity that you and many others were denied.”

As curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, Duery Felton tries to keep his professional distance from the emotional content of the letters and mementos. He has, however, observed in them a tone of deepening continuity, as the Vietnam generation gives way to multiple generations. And they in turn show every sign of remaining part of a larger, ongoing Vietnam experience.