ESSAY- Walls of silence: Memorializing the heroic fallen

They gaze at me from my newspaper, the young men and women fallen in Iraq and Afghanistan, 153 of them this month. Their eyes meet mine, smiling, proud, intent on bright futures now forever extinguished. They have sacrificed their young lives for their country, while I have been asked to give so little in return. Another Memorial Day approaches. How do I thank them, honor them, create for them a lasting memorial?

I'm reminded once again of a visit, many years ago, to the "Moving Wall," the scaled-down, portable replica of the Vietnam Memorial that was spending a few days on a local high school's football field. As I drove out to the site, I doubted whether a pint-sized version of "The Wall" could move me as deeply as the genuine memorial on the Washington Mall had done many times before. How could merely staring at photographically reproduced names of men I had known in Vietnam possibly match the experience of running my fingertips over those same names etched into massive panels of earth-rooted polished black granite? Real memorials, I thought, should be permanent and grand, not lightweight pretenders hauled from city to city in the bed of an 18-wheeler.

I was wrong.

She approached me as I walked across the football field. She carried a cut-glass vase containing two yellow roses, and she spoke to me as if we'd known each other for years.

"I was hoping I wouldn't find his name here," she began, "but I did."

As we walked along together, she adjusted one of the roses so it stood straighter in the vase.

"All these years, I kept hoping he was missing in action, not gone," she said.

"At least now you know," I managed to say.

"Look at what I've done," she said with a proud smile, lifting the vase and gently parting the rose stems to reveal a tiny brass insignia pin stuck in one of them.

"I was a Marine," she said. "He was Air Force." She tapped the insignia pin with the tip of her finger, smiled again and said, "I'll leave this here for him."

Then she was gone, walking briskly toward the place where she'd finally found her friend, the pair of yellow roses nodding the way.

They looked like sisters, the two women who were gazing at the columns of names before them, speaking to each other in solemn whispers.

They were old enough to be searching for the names of sons.

"I had no idea it would be like this," one of them said.

"It just goes on and on, so many names," said the other.

"Just boys," the first one said, "so many boys."

He was alone, sitting on the grass in the middle of the football field, his face buried in his hands. As the others and I walked past him on our way back to where we'd parked our cars, none of us stopped to ask if he was ill, if he needed help, what he was doing sitting there in the hot afternoon sun.

There was no need for such questions.

For in the shadow of "The Wall," in the reflection of our own faces behind the names of the dead, we had come to know what we needed to know about him.

Soon I'll close the morning newspaper, put it aside, toss it at week's end. But not until I've stayed with these fallen heroes long enough to remember them, their young faces, the look in their eyes. Stayed with them long enough to raise a permanent and peaceful memorial for them in my grateful heart.

Vietnam veteran and current Monticello interpreter David Ronka won the Hook's 2005 short story contest.