The speeches and parades are over, but still the people gather at the black granite wall inscribed with the names of the men and women killed in the Vietnam War. In a city of monuments and memorials, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial seems set apart, resembling the scene of an eternal funeral, a private place to grieve and to remember.
Mothers and fathers; brothers, sisters and distant cousins; neighbors, friends and friends of friends; comrades in battle and former high school classmates, an estimated 700 to 1,000 visitors -- who come from as far away as Hawaii or as near as an office building on Constitution Avenue -- stand each day before the memorial on the Mall that was conceived by a Vietnam veteran from Bowie, and built by contributions from Americans everywhere.
They seem alone and vulnerable, their faces a study in anger and bewilderment and love and sorrow, all the emotions exposed. Their words, murmured to themselves or to others, mingle and mix and become as one song, a part of the memorial itself:
"When did Dickie die?"
"That was someone Daddy knew."
"Whenever I think of Bobby, I think of him sitting in the kitchen with a hangover when he was home from Fort Bragg."
"All those names -- what a waste."
And the voice of a 40-year-old truck driver, Dan Goode:
"Howard was a good friend, a good cousin. He only joined the Army because I joined the Army . . .
"He was just a kid, always running behind me. He was 19 when he got killed. I was there when they brought his medals to his mother. I go in the Army, he goes in the Army. He gets killed, and I'm home. How do you explain that to his mother?"
Goode drove up from Dale City yesterday with his 14-year-old daughter to find the names of five young men from his hometown of Mount Vernon, N.Y., who were killed in the Vietnam War: his cousin Howard Griffin, another cousin and three close friends. As Goode searched for five names among 57,939, he met another veteran, Fred Fant Jr., an ex-marine from Suitland who came with his wife and two of his four children to find the name of a friend with whom he had served.
Panel 32 East, Line 46: Clarence W. Obie III. Hit in the chest by an armor-piercing rocket in 1967, dead at age 21, a father who never saw the son born while he was in Vietnam.
"Obie was the kind of guy, he'd be here if I'd been up on the wall," said Fant, a 34-year-old Metro station attendant. "All those names for nothing . . . ."
As Goode and Fant alternately traded war stories and stared at the names on the wall as if to call back the faces of the dead, their children watched solemnly, perhaps awed by something that had begun long before they were born and that now, many years later, was making their fathers look so sad.
There are rituals at the memorial, two 247-foot long walls that meet in a wide V-shape and point toward the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument, each wall composed of 70 separate inscribed panels, with the names of the dead listed in the order in which they died. Volunteers with thick guidebooks that list the names alphabetically help those who have only a name and no date. The visitors find the name, run their fingers along the letters, photograph it. Some stand before the name for a moment and then walk away, others stay for an hour or more, lost in memories.
Some of the visitors complain that this memorial, sunk into the earth, seems too cold, too stark, comfortless. And so they bring offerings, red roses and carnations laid on the ground before the wall or stuck in the spaces between the panels, small American flags, a basket of flowers with a handwritten note, still there last week, sodden from the rain: "With very special thanks on Thanksgiving from a grateful American."
The memorial was conceived by Jan Scruggs, designed by architect Maya Ying Lin and dedicated three weeks ago when thousands of veterans from all over the country participated in a week-long National Salute to Vietnam Veterans. It was an event carefully avoided by a 34-year-old unemployed railroad worker named Pat Murphy, who spent the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector hanging out with the flower children in San Francisco. But the name of Murphy's best friend from high school -- Jack Curry -- is on that wall, and so he came to see it last week, traveling by train from his home in Clinton, Conn.
"His father, his grandfather and his six brothers were in the Marines," Murphy said. "So he was gonna join the Marines. He figured he was gonna be John Wayne. I'm not sure when he died, I just remember it was December. I think it was in '69. In September we heard he had stepped on a land mine and got both his legs blown off. He was sent to a hospital in Japan. Then we didn't hear anything else. In December we tried to send him a telegram wishing him a Merry Christmas. He was dead."
Vietnam veteran Paul Holmstrup, a big man in blue jeans, boots and a cowboy hat, wept before the wall. The 34-year-old Conrail clerk from Secaucus, N.J., had planned his vacation just so he could visit the memorial, where he found the name of Donald Napier, his friend and comrade. "We were in a firefight, and he just got killed. He was 19, I was 21. He was a nice kid. He wanted to get his high school diploma, and we were helping him study for the GED."
Like so many others, Holmstrup considered the inevitable question: Had Donald Napier lived, what might he be doing now? "He'd be working in a coal mine," he said. "He was from Kentucky."
John Catalano, an Army supply specialist from Pueblo, Colo., was in Richmond last week on business, and yesterday he and his wife Nancy made a special trip to the memorial. They stood before West Panel 20, on which is inscribed the name Sam Catalano Jr. "He was my nephew, my brother's boy," Catalano said. "He was 19, killed in 1969."
Sam Catalano Jr.'s name is on the eighth row from the bottom of his panel, between David E. Carter and William R. Dickey, names that the Catalanos had never heard before, names that for the first time yesterday they began to wonder about.