The fence came down for a few hours yesterday at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the Mall. In came a lot of new sod and about 50 people. Nobody tried to stop them.

They walked down the gently descending walkways in front of the polished black granite. They stopped and faced their reflections and the names of 57,692 dead.

Larry Dendtler and Dottie Cunningham, who are in the real-estate business, saw that the fence was down and strolled in after lunch. Dendtler had a friend back in Chicago who had been the quarterback of the high school football team, and he was looking for his name.

He couldn't find it.

People were in a nice, relaxed mood as they walked in front of the memorial. They were looking for specific names, but few could find them. That is because the master directory has not yet been installed to give the coordinates for each name.

What made it sad was that all the names on the wall -- varied and interesting American names, names crowded with vowels, names consonant-quick, names redolent of place, city names and country names, border names and heartland and southern and northern names, names such as Jose M. Galarza-Quinones, Yvon E. Girouard, Gary O. Griffin -- were there because they were dead. They died in that order in the chronology of the Vietnam war, and that is how they are listed. Not by alphabet but by final anniversary.

Terrell Wilkinson was the name Nancy Lawrence was looking for and couldn't find.

"He was killed in action in 1967," said Lawrence, strolling with her mother, Mrs. Raymond Neff of Manchester, Tenn. Manchester is where Nancy Lawrence is from, although she now lives in Burke, Va. It is also where Terrell Wilkinson was from. "He was killed by shrapnel," she said. "He was a friend of my older brother." Her daughter, Alysia, 5 1/2, ran up the ramp.

Pat Shannon and her husband were in Washington from Cincinnati to visit their daughter. They dropped by the memorial on the chance that it would be open, and slipped in when the snow fence was down.

Michael Reilly was their name. He was 18 years old, the son of a friend, and he was killed by a misfire of one of our own weapons, Pat Shannon said. But without the directory, they couldn't find him.

"It's a handsome memorial, and the reflection is beautiful," she said. "You see all the names of the boys who died for nothing, sent to die by men, but none of the men who sent them died," she said with a clear look in her eyes.

Francis X. Shannon, standing a little way off in a grove of trees, did not hear exactly what his wife said. "I was in the other war. There was another one," he said, smiling. "It was called World War II, and there is no memorial for us." He shrugged. "I myself would prefer a statue of a man on a horse."

"We can fight about that on the way home," said Pat Shannon, nudging him playfully as they turned toward the Constitution Gardens lake.

At 3:30 the snow fence was put back up. Nancy Lawrence and her mother were let out by the project manager, a large man with a tolerant air. He opened a piece of the fence and smiled under his hard hat.

Technically, the memorial is still a construction site, with a policy of restricted access. The new sod needs time to take root. The statue and flagpole have yet to be installed, and the directory of names is still to come. There is a fence all around. The opening is set for Nov. 10.

"It's hard to turn them away, though," the project manager said, "if they've come all the way from Arizona or someplace."

He was leaning against the fence as a well-dressed man came up. "My brother was killed in Vietnam," the well-dressed man said.

The fence opened from the inside, and he went in to look for the name.