One night shortly after the 1982 dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, someone left a pair of old cowboy boots at the base of the gleaming black slabs.
"They had not been polished or used in a long time," said Jan Scruggs, president and founder of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. "The parents must have left them there. It was just so eerie -- they were kind of all by themselves."
Shortly after that, Eleanor Wimbish, a 58-year-old Glen Burnie, Md., housewife, left a basket of yellow flowers and the first of more than 20 letters she has since written to her dead son, Army Sgt. William R. Stock.
"I had to put something there to bring some warmth to that black wall," Wimbish said. "It was just so empty. And people could look at the names, but none of them had any meaning. I wanted to bring something personal to the wall."
Since then, hundreds of mementos, from Purple Hearts to tear-stained letters, have been left at the memorial, which serves as a kind of wailing wall for the friends and families of the 58,022 whose names are on the memorial, as well as for those who served and survived.
Neither expecting the volume of souvenirs nor knowing what to do with them, the National Park Service periodically collected and stored the items in cardboard boxes in government offices.
Now the Park Service has begun an effort to preserve the most unusual of the memorabilia -- the camouflage jungle fatigues, the yellowed pictures of teen-age soldiers, the plastic roses and childhood teddy bears.
"I think we all came to the conclusion that keeping them in cardboard boxes just wasn't right," said Earle Kittleman, a Park Service spokesman.
There are now cabinets and drawers full of mementos in a 25,000-square-foot brick warehouse in Lanham, adjacent to the Goddard Space Flight Center, where other Park Service property is stored.
The warehouse, known as the Museum and Archaeological Regional Storage Facility, is not open to the public, although the Park Service hopes someday to offer limited tours.
So far, about 1,300 items are in the Vietnam collection -- shut away from rain and sun, stored under controlled conditions where the humidity is kept between 50 and 55 percent. Even the faded plastic roses and the olive-colored cans of cinnamon nut roll C-rations are kept at 68 degrees.
The only authenticity requirement for inclusion in the collection is that the item must be found at the memorial, so the wide-ranging collection includes Detroit Tigers and Boston Red Sox baseball caps, worn Army dog tags ("Anderson, R. C. USMC. 094098. Presbyterian"), crumbling high school football clippings, diaries and a POW-MIA bracelet that says "Ron, you are with us in spirit, always."
There are the post cards and notes. "Dear Dad. I really miss you. Lots of luck to all you B52 guys. I love you," scrawled on freezer paper.
Love letters. "Bob, I bring you a message from Sandy. She still loves you."
And the letter wrapped in plastic that Wimbish left at the memorial in 1983, nearly 15 years after her son's death in a helicopter crash in Vietnam. In the letter she described how she found her son's name on the wall for the first time.
"We had been looking for about a half-hour when your father quietly said, 'Honey -- here it is.' As I looked to where his hand was touching the black wall, I saw your name, William R. Stock," she wrote.
"My heart seemed to stop. I felt as though I couldn't breathe. It was like a bad dream. I felt as though I was freezing. My teeth chattered. God, how it hurt."
Greg Vaughan, a Park Service technician who works at the warehouse where the items are stored, said he periodically gets "a little misty" about some of the items.
"You read the letters and you're right there, up front with the people who were there, the people who lost friends and family," he said. "It's not like history. There's still an immediacy about it."
"This is one very special monument," agreed the Park Service's Kittleman. "I don't think anybody anticipated the popularity of it. So many veterans have been there and consider it their monument, their memorial, their place for reconciliation. The tears, the emotion -- it has all happened there."
The memorial has become Washington's most-visited monument, with 2.1 million tourists from January through May, compared with the next-most-popular Lincoln Memorial, with 1.9 million.
As a result, the quantity of memorabilia left at the memorial has grown significantly, expanding at an estimated rate of 10 percent a month, officials say.
Legally, all items left there are considered abandoned property after 30 days, Kittleman said. At the end of that time, if they have not been claimed, the Park Service must decide what to do with them.
Scruggs said he's glad the items are being preserved. "I mean, 100 years from now, it will be like reading a Civil War infantryman's diary or something. This is part of the historical legacy of the Vietnam War."
"I think it's a great idea, especially for my children and grandchildren," agreed Wimbish. "I think it means part of the love I still feel for Billy will live on."