A schoolgirl chattered playfully with her back to the wall, her sweater a soft pink against black granite. Tourists filed past in souvenir shirts and the fresh green sod was bright under a November sun. Standing alone, a soldier's fiance wept quietly. Pvt. Stephen C. Harrell had been killed in the summertime 15 years ago.
"He had just gone over there," said Pat Mulcahy, through her tears.
In a city of monuments, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is yet another monument, a point of interest for the passing parade of tour buses, school field trips and guidebook-toting families.
Two million visitors are expected to see it this year. But there is something very different about this stop on the itinerary. The memorial is a pocket out of time, out of place. Around it, a community has formed to interact with the names of the dead etched in granite. This monument has taken on a life of its own.
Some come in the night to relive a battle. Some come to grieve for a comrade in arms, a fiance, a son, a daughter. Some come because the war orphaned their emotions and the wall has become home. Some come to serve the lost soldiers.
Every day a thousand encounters take place at the dark chevron cut into the Mall. The cycle of war and remembrance is played out in clear light and veiling darkness, clarifying the role this monument plays in the lives of those for whom the fighting never really ended.
This weekend will mark the second anniversary of the memorial's dedication. A ceremony Sunday -- Veterans Day -- is expected to attract Vietnam veterans from around the country for the dedication of "Three Fightingmen," a heroic-size bronze statue depicting a black, white and Hispanic in combat gear.
It will be a momentous event in the history of a monument sheathed, since its inception, in controversy. But, then, every day is extraordinary at the wall.
During a 24-hour period observed there, it was clear that the Vietnam War did not end with the Paris peace treaty. For those who want to talk geopolitics, as well as those who fought "Charlie" in the jungle, Vietnam lives on.
By 9 a.m. on a cool November morning this week, Edward Azevedo had already begun handing out the bright green brochures that explain the monument to visitors. A long-haired, bearded man of 34, he wore a "Screaming Eagles" T-shirt that announced his affiliation with the storied 101st Airborne Division.
Norman and Rita Willinger of Pembroke Pines, Fla., were standing at the wall looking puzzled. When Azevedo approached them and asked if he could help, they explained that their daughter-in-law had asked them to look for the name of a friend on the wall.
Using his directory to locate the name among the 58,022, Azevedo took a rubbing of Thomas Ciborowsky's name from the wall, a task he and the other volunteers would repeat for many visitors during the day.
For Azevedo, the wall is an anchor. He enlisted in the Army when he was 17, a California high school dropout, and fought during the Tet offensive in early 1968. He was wounded several times and since his discharge, he says, he has spent about three years in the psychiatric wards of Veterans Administration hospitals for treatment of this generation's version of battle fatigue -- post-traumatic stress disorder.
Azevedo first came to Washington when the memorial was dedicated, but the experience sent him into an emotional tailspin. The vivid memories of battle, triggered by the names on the wall, landed him back at the VA. After his recovery, he yielded to the compulsion to see the memorial again.
He became a volunteer, socializing with other volunteers, spending his days at the wall and living on VA disability pay. "As many friends as I've lost in the war, I've gained as many at the memorial," he said.
Such bonds form naturally at the monument. As the morning passed, the visitors followed a recurring pattern, seeking names in directories, finding them on the wall, taking photographs and rubbings. There were poignant scenes among the mundane rituals.
Pat Mulcahy saw for the first time the name of Stephen C. Harrell, the soldier she planned to marry. Judy Purvis, a pacifist from Cleveland who didn't know anyone killed in the war, came to concentrate on the cost of war.
Walking to the vertex of the memorial, where the names of the first advisers killed in 1959 meet the names of the last killed in the Mayaguez incident in 1975, Purvis closed her eyes and her face flushed with emotion.
"Without something like this to help you understand the pain of going through a war, you're not as good a pacifist," she said later. "It's just overwhelming that each one of these names had children, parents, friends -- so much pain."
Toward the end of the morning, Laurent LaChaux, a 22-year-old Parisian, peppered Azevedo with questions about a part of the world the French know something about.
"After the Tet Offensive, after we held Quangtri . . . . I thought it would be ended by September," Azevedo recalled. " It was just such a major victory for us . . . . We won the war during the Tet Offensive. I think if we had public support for the military . . . . All I know is it's very tough to fight a war and know you've got no support at home."
It was a theme that would recur in conversations with some veterans along the wall: Vietnam was a war they could have won.
Others thought only of futility. Dave Harbert, a Vietnam veteran from San Francisco, bent down and laid a rose at the wall. Then he laid another. "It reminds me of the waste, the incredible waste," he said. "Just row after row of names."
The afternoon brought clouds and soon the stone walkway glistened in a light rainfall. Automobiles moved in a blur down Constitution Avenue. Dusk fell and the lighted Capitol dome loomed in the distance.
Scores of small lamps at the base of the memorial flickered on, casting faint individual beams like candles. At the entrance to the memorial, the Three Fightingmen statue, not yet unveiled and wrapped in a white tarpaulin, stood under three strong spotlights.
From the east at 6 o'clock, a bugle sounded three long and familiar notes. Taps. The dark silhouettes of visitors stood frozen. The rituals of night had begun.
"Some dude just stepped out on the sidewalk and played taps," said John Coalson, an Alabama native and Vietnam veteran who was standing vigil for unaccounted-for MIAs. The sound of taps had come from the vicinity of his tent, where the Veterans Vigil of Honor group has been maintaining a round-the-clock watch since December 1982. "I didn't see where he came from or where he went. He was wearing a cowboy hat and camouflage."
It's not unusual for shadowy figures to appear on the periphery of the memorial. Pegi Donovan, a Park Service volunteer, said she often sees them in the evening.
"There are regulars who come down at night," she said. "I have seen guys sitting up here by the seats and not be able to get any further. Sometimes they'll be up in the tree line."
The names on the wall come alive for Donovan, who in two years of working at the monument has seen so many visitors linger in front of them, reliving some fateful day.
"I don't want to say I know every single person up there," she said. "But I feel so attached to so many names. I sometimes go down and I'll say a name off in my mind and I'll remember the one next to it and I'll know a story . . . . Last week there was a guy, I remember it was panel number 38, east wall, and he kept rubbing his hand over the wall and telling me about him. I think his first name was Art. I can't remember the last name. He said, 'Why did it have to happen? He only had three more days left.' "
It was 8 p.m. and Hans Jordan was looking for something. A smile crossed his face. Up on the hill several hundred yards away, candles were glimmering in the darkness. He had found the candlelight ceremony conducted by a George Washington University student group protesting American involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
As Jordan spotted the group, it started moving toward the memorial, into an area that is off limits to protesters.
Coalson, the battle-dressed veteran from Alabama, ran from his tent and shouted, "You can't do that down here!"
The candlelight group retreated.
"No, not here," said Coalson when they had gone. "These people died fighting against communism and for freedom. Those people have no right. It's the same thing that went on with Vietnam, saying we don't belong in El Salvador. But this is on our border now, it's getting closer every day."
Near the Three Fightingmen statue a second vigil was under way, this one conducted for this week only by a society of native American veterans called the Vietnam Veterans Inter-Tribal Association.
Johnny Botone, a Kiowa-Cheyenne warming his hands against the early-morning cold, chuckled, "It's ironic. Our great-grandfathers fought Custer and we all volunteered to fight in Vietnam."
It was 3:30 now and the silhouettes of visitors were gone from the memorial. All but one.
He sat in the grass facing the wall, motionless, with a kerosene lantern at his side. The night air was cold. The lights of the presidential monuments long since had been turned off. The columns of names rose like ghosts from the base of the granite panels. The man with the lamp just stared at the wall.
Suddenly, he shouted a curse. A sob rose from his chest.