Some of us thought the Vietnam veterans were wrong when they said they wanted a memorial and a parade. Didn't they, we scolded, need other things more than granite and glory -- jobs, for instance, and help with their special problems, Agent Orange, delayed stress syndrome?
Well, they were right, it turns out. Their extraordinary memorial on the Mall -- a dark mirror that reflects the woe of those who seek and find that name among the 57,939 inscribed on an angled wall -- has caused passionate divisions within their ranks. But the parade may have been the best idea they ever had.
Naturally they had to organize it themselves, just as they had to raise the money for their wall, just as they had to counsel each other in their rap centers, just as they had to raise the cry about Agent Orange.
In the parade Saturday, the lines were crooked, and even a detachment from Virginia Military Institute seemed infected by the general raffishness and was sadly out of step. Other than in the bands, there was hardly a complete uniform on view. Men had their shoulder patches attached with safety pins, wore jammed-on jungle hats, odds and ends that could have come out of a peacenik's attic. With their beards, their ponytails, they looked like their demonstrating contemporaries of 15 years ago.
"Worst looking bunch I ever saw," said Col. Max Sullivan, a Lutheran chaplain who made the most felicitous speech at the dedication, "and I loved every one of them."
They loved each other, too. Someone was constantly bursting in from the sidelines, shouting something like "67-68, Da Nang" and hurling himself on a marcher in emotional embrace.
Gen. William C. Westmoreland in civvies was up front, leading Alabama marchers -- the order was more or less alphabetical. Nobody, even those who grumbled about "lying generals," seemed to mind. Nobody except the press seemed to notice that the current Commander-in-Chief, who calls Vietnam "a noble cause" but won't visit the memorial, didn't show.
The veterans had their children and dogs with them, and the sense that attention, long overdue, was being paid. What they envied their fathers most was not having fought in a popular and victorious war but having marched down Constitution Avenue.
It was also a chance to get some things off their chest. A couple of Marines wore defiant buttons: "I'd Do It Again -- Vote for Reagan." A funky Indianan carried a hand-lettered sign: "Deceit, Lies, Treachery." It was, he said, "for 20 guys in my unit, blown away in one day."
A grim little group proclaimed itself "Agent Orange Victims of New Jersey." In the Indiana delegation, a man in camouflage carried a sign that said, "Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap. Hire Vietnam Veterans."
In New York, a man carried a huge poster reading "I Need a Job."
A few minutes in the gusty cold on the corner of 10th Street and Constitution Avenue were enough to show how right they were to insist on the salute they had wrested from Washington.
Infantry Capt. William Harris of Knoxville, Tenn., had an air about him. Spectators wanted to take his picture, marchers kept asking him to walk with them and reached over to say "I'm glad you're back, brother." He had bright blue eyes, a jaunty Aussie jungle hat, rows of ribbons, a gold-topped walking stick.
He had been in the First Infantry Division ("The Big Red One") running a mortar crew and came home wounded and profoundly anti-war. Very large on the University of Tennessee campus, he couldn't talk to anyone but Viet vets. He dropped out, got divorced, joined communes, finally got into law school and got it all together. He wouldn't have missed the parade for anything in the world.
He relished it all.
When the California delegation shuffled by, he said approvingly, "Laid back, man." A couple of husky Marines waggled their pinkies at him. "We're all gay, man," they howled.
The Vietnam Veterans of South Boston came along, by their own request, marching separately from the rest of the Massachusetts delegation. In hidebound, clannish Southie, a separate world, they answer the country's call -- except when it is to integrate their high school. Southie suffered triple the national Vietnam casualty rate.
Their leader, Tommy Lyons, a black-haired, blithe former Marine, works for Boston Edison, and to him the war was like any other. He thinks the country is beginning to see it that way. It was his idea to have the parading Southies wear coats and ties and red carnations. They were an island of spiffiness in a scruffy sea, a way of saying, Lyons explained, "that we are in the mainstream."
Harris was wiped out by them. "Hey, did you guys fight the war in three-piece suits?" he shouted. Tommy Lyons laughingly saluted him.
For Lyons, the parade was a beginning. For Harris, an end. "It's catharsis for me. It washes it out, closes the chapter," Harris said.
Lyons won't hear a word against the war. Harris doesn't think there's a word to be said for it, as indicated by the memorial's muteness on the matter.
But for both of them, the sophisticated southerner and the gung-ho Southie, the parade was a need answered, if not for the country, for themselves.