They called it "The Wall." Not the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, not the monument. Just "The Wall."
And when they said it, in Seattle, then Minot, then Chicago and on east, their mouths tightened and they stared harder through the windows of the train hurtling them toward Washington. Voices sank, beers were lowered onto shaking dining car tables. Fifty-eight thousand names, memories waiting on the Mall at the end of the line.
"Oh yes, I'm afraid of the wall," Scott Sperry said very, very softly at 1 a.m. Friday, his weathered face bathed in the white fluorescence of the club car on Amtrak No. 440, his bright blue eyes reddened by tobacco smoke, fatigue and the drinks he downed to steady his nerves.
A former Marine patrol leader, still fighting lean, Sperry smoked his cigarettes down to his fingertips as the small towns of Ohio flashed by outside. "I've got 15 names I'm looking for. I saw them go. I'll find their names."
They called it the Reunion By Rail. Two dozen men, lured by notices in their veterans' newsletters, decided to make the trip to Washington this weekend for the dedication of a new statue at a memorial many had heard of but few had seen. By noon yesterday, they had arrived, wary and elated, at Union Station. Oil rig roustabouts and engineers from North Dakota, a trucker from Washington state, a cop from Chicago, dairy farmers from Wisconsin, Sioux soldiers from Montana, they'd been strangers except for the common memory.
Pilgrims in camouflage, most sat up the entire trip -- the sleeping car was too expensive. Not that anyone would have slept much anyway. Many had hesitated at the train station just before boarding, unsure. But they'd come aboard, and there was no turning back.
Some were antiwar, others convinced the war could have, should have, been won. They'd been thinking about the trip for months; it was the first time many had cared to leave home since the return from Vietnam.
In the black granite on the Mall they hoped to find a coda to a war they are still fighting.
"I'm hoping after I go to the wall I'll get the grieving out of the way, do it the way it should be done," said a wiry North Dakotan named Daryl Kuhnhenn. "Somebody got blown away, you didn't have time to grieve. If you lost it then, you could die."
"For these men," said Lillian Bland, the wife of a veteran, "touching those names, it's like touching a heart or a soul."
SEATTLE, Tuesday, Nov. 6: The trip was Rick Covert's idea. Covert, a big bear of a man, a 43-year-old former drill sergeant who served in '67-'68, then again two years later, stood in the Seattle train station at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday with two buddies. Three vets in early middle age with shifting hairlines and waistlines, buttoned into fading camouflage fatigues.
Covert drives a mushroom truck now, and he helped found the Olympia, Wash., chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America two years ago. Since then, he's put the angry years behind, the years when the only tape in his truck was the soundtrack from "Apocalypse Now."
He thought four days on the train would allow for a decompression, for the talking that most vets, shipped to and from Vietnam by jet plane, never got the chance to do back then.
In Olympia, they get together almost every night. They talk. Unlike the World War II veterans' clubs, they don't do any drinking. And no drugs. Just talk. "I don't know how many times I've held Adrian and listened to him cry, and he's done the same for me," Covert said, nodding toward fellow vet Adrian Vaaler.
"Now we've got to find the other guys. There are thousands of them. We have to find them. They need to talk about it. And for the first time, we aren't being told to shut up. We used to wear camouflage to disappear, we were ashamed. We chose to drop out. No more. No more hiding. We're a brotherhood. All we have is each other."
Most on the train put the number of postwar Vietnam vet suicides at 60,000.
No one knew where the figure came from, but everyone knew of a suicide or two. Covert's chapter lost one in Aberdeen this summer. No warning. "We lost him, the first one since we organized," said David Bland of Olympia. "He didn't give us any warning. He hung himself in the living room after his wife and kids went to church."
"We're losing them," Covert said.
So, like a fisherman trawling troubled waters, Covert kept the nets out all trip long. "Welcome home, brother!" he said as each man got on board, clapping him in a bear hug. And when awkward silences replaced conversation, it was Covert who revived it.
"Here's to Richard M. Nixon and Ho Chi Minh, two very special people without whom this little reunion would not have been possible," he roared late Wednesday night after the North Dakotans climbed aboard and an initial burst of camaraderie dwindled to a temporary, but awkward, silence.
"And may the sweet bird of paradise dump on them both," Daryl Kuhnhenn, of Rugby, N.D., shot back with a grin.
HAVRE, Mont., Wednesday, 12:20 p.m.: Through dusty railroad towns where the only color is the red stop sign at the crossing, Dave Bland is dozing. He enlisted in the Army right after high school. There were no jobs in the Yakima Valley, and the military seemed an honorable way to go. He shipped out to Vietnam when he was 18, with the 5th Battalion of the 7th Regiment of the 1st Air Cavalry Division. The world turned upside down shortly after:
"One day we came down into this field, and we charged in. We had orders to clear the paddy so we could lay some mines, so we were yelling at these people to clear out. This 16-year-old Vietnamese kid," Bland said, voice rising, "I swear to this day I think he was just scared, I don't think he could understand English. But he wasn't moving. So this NCO grabs a machine gun and blasts him. Atrocities. They happened all the time.
"We were just kids and they had us playing God. We went from begging the hometown wino to buy us beer to defending our lives. We couldn't even tell who the enemy was. The damned Vietnamese hated us as much as they hated the VC."
The memories have an ugly way of mocking the present.
"You're taught you believe in God, you don't harass anyone, you don't kill," a North Dakotan said the next day. "You have some values, and all of a sudden it just don't mean nothing."
RUGBY, N.D., Wednesday 10:05 p.m.: In the flat, brown land of eastern Montana and North Dakota, Amtrak Train No. 8, the Empire Builder, stopped to let on several weathered, middle-aged men with light eyes and cowboy boots. They had courtly Western ways to go with their twangs.
"I was back a week and a half, and I had a brand spanking new Plymouth Roadrunner that I'd ordered at the PX," said Kuhnhenn. He'd enlisted during high school, expecting to fight communism and return to a hero's welcome. Things were more complicated than that.
"I went to the Tastee Freez, I had my jacket on, the one that said, 'Yea though I Walk In the Shadow of Death I Fear No One for I am the Meanest Son of a Bitch in the Valley.' A lot of guys wore them. The Indians used to sell them to the GIs.
"And I had a peace symbol on the car. This girl looked over at me and she said 'You're nothing but a goddam hypocrite . . . carrying a peace sign when you were over there murdering women and babies.'
"I flat out didn't talk about Vietnam after that." Two years ago he started talking again, at a local veterans' counseling center. "My nerves couldn't hold it no more."
Kuhnhenn woke up on the train early Thursday morning and decided to watch the sun come up so he could describe it in a letter to a friend who couldn't come along. "She wanted to go real bad," he said. "So I'm showing it to her through my eyes."
In Minot, N.D., this summer they had a parade, and for the first time, the Vietnam Vets were included: "One hundred and two degrees and I could feel goosebumps on my arm," said one vet.
TOMAH, Wisc., Thursday, 10:28 a.m.: The tangerine and turquoise skies of the rangeland sunset have given way to pale Wisconsin blue. The veterans, up until three the night before, are quiet.
Adrian Vaaler, trumpeter, first-class whistler and graduate of the University of Oregon -- he got his degree in German, thinking it might keep him from being drafted, but it didn't work -- is remembering a recent visit to the parents of a high school friend who died in Vietnam.
There was a lot of gore you couldn't tell the folks at home, he said, and sometimes even the more pallid details were hard for a family to accept:
"They had had a big portrait done of him the year after he was killed. The artist asked them for a lot of pictures. They had one from Vietnam, in his uniform, but they didn't like the way his eyes looked. They brought the photo out. I said, 'I know that look. That's the 1,000-yard stare. He'd already seen too much death.'
"They didn't like that look, so the artist used the uniform from the Vietnam picture and the eyes from a picture taken in high school."
COLUMBUS, Wisc., Thursday, Nov. 8, 12:19 a.m.: Three shy Sioux, veterans, sit quietly, staring out at the fading green fields of Wisconsin. The night before, in Wolf Point, Mont., they'd slipped aboard the train. Baptists, nondrinkers, careful, quiet men with worn, shiny cowboy boots, they were carrying paper to make rubbings of memorial names and two flags -- a tribal flag, and a blue satin square that read:
"Franklin D. Chopper Post No. 61. In honor of the one Indian on the Fort Peck reservation to die in the Vietnam War. Chopper was drafted as a teen-ager, along with five others, including the reservation's high school math teacher. There wasn't a welcoming committee to greet his casket."
"The people on the reservation, they didn't give him anything," his brother Abe Chopper said. "I went to brush off his grave on Memorial Day. They didn't even give him a flagpole. Nothing."
Somewhere in Ohio, early Friday morning: A new group of veterans got on in Chicago, and they stayed up drinking in the club car. Most are older than the Westerners. They seem angrier, and the mood is volatile. They fairly explode with stories of rejection, bungling politicians, infuriating war protesters.
But in the din of voices and rattling metal, Scott Sperry is speaking softly. "Just put this down," he tells a reporter. "Just put this down. I've been going to this group thing at the mental health center in Beloit. All vets. It really helped me. The counselors get you talking. You might only talk once in three months, but my counselor really helped me. I'm gentler. I'm better. Put that down."
In a corner of the club car, a large blond man has been brooding. He walks over and sits down heavily. "Don't talk to the media," he says angrily. "The media screwed us then, they'll screw us now. Don't talk." When Sperry keeps talking the man interrupts again. "Let me shake your hand, you're a sucker."
CUMBERLAND, Md., Nov. 9, 11:15 a.m.: Since Randy Olson came home to Williston, N.D., some 14 years ago he has read every book on Vietnam he can lay his hands on, and he includes short history lessons in the newsletter of his VVA chapter. He knows when the French lied and to whom. Ditto the Americans and the Vietnamese. All the mistakes, the death, the stalled careers and lost youth.
This weekend is bigger than that, however. "We're coming out. Out of our holes, and shells. Out of the closet, I guess. We have to talk and find out what happened to us. We're not going to find that in the history books."