Temporality in Memoriality

At 6:48 this morning, a chilly sun rose over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall.  Present were members of some local veterans groups, a group of cadets from the Civil Air Patrol, and one actor and two techies from One Red Flower.  First Saturday of the month, from April through November, the veterans and cadets grab hoses and buckets and wash the wall.  Local vet Bill Gray had invited us to join them when he saw ORF last month.

The most moving part of the Vietnam Wall is its unavoidable presentation of the personal reality of the war:  At any time during the day there are people taking rubbings of names, leaving memorials, and looking up friends in the index books.  These are not just 58,260 names, they are friends and family of people still living.  Most of the docents were there, serving alongside the people represented in marble.

Eventually that will no longer be true.  What will that mean for the meaning of the monument?

Someday it will be just a list of names.  Grandparents, great-grandparents, people you never knew, names you never heard.  Died of gunshot, or claymore, or sepsis or electrical fire on a helicopter, they gradually become anonymous.  The list of names still has weight, but without the immediacy of people still alive showing their pain to we whose parents were not called up, it begins to fade into the grand collection of monuments on the mall.  Lincoln, a great man (unless Sondheim was right: Traitors just get jeers and boos/Not visits to their graves/While Lincoln who got mixed reviews/Because of you, John, now gets only raves), but far removed from any reality.  Even the shiny new dub-dub-two monument evokes as much a feeling of architectural impressiveness as it does a true sense that the war really was in color.

So we took the opportunity to join the old guard and the new guard in the monthly cleaning.  It’s a smooth marble surface; it doesn’t hold much dirt.  The process is as much for the vets as for the monument.  And if you want some hairy war stories, there’s them at the washing who are happy to tell them.  Plus, the sun is low and the compositional possibilities are many.  A group of kids in camo fatigues with buckets, backlit by the sun.  Gruff looking men with brushes, scrubbing the sidewalk.  A lone bicyclist on the hill, watching from a distance (she rode off before I could catch her; that’ll have to be a song).

Here’s Jenna and Andrew ready to get to work.  I’m a little disappointed that nobody else showed up (Tim!).  The weather was really not bad, and it was definitely worth getting up at oh-dark-thirty.  Even getting the WTF arm gesture from the cop as I pulled out of the street closed to traffic for the cherry blossom parade (yes, when you arrive at 6:20 AM, the streets haven’t been closed yet) didn’t spoil the moment.

Andrew even had to leave in time to get to Gaithersburg for a morning matinee of Willy Wonka (in which he’s playing Willy).  That’s the kind of dedication I like to see!

It did help that the sakura blossoms were doing their thing.  We had a quick walk over to the tidal basin for some flower-sniffing after we were done.  Next month will be warmer, but less cherryful.

The washing itself is pretty mundane, if you don’t think too much about what you’re washing.  But it’s hard not to.  I do feel like an outsider, but the Vietnam vets who came to see One Red Flower all said it was beautiful, and have been very welcoming to us.  We may have to go back and do it again.

2 Responses to “Temporality in Memoriality”

  1. 1 Squeak

    Ooooh. Lens ‘flair’ worthy of another ‘Verse!

  2. 2 Kevin

    Yep, that’s me, makin’ abstraction out of accident for over 40 years! Composition is what happens while you’re making other plans.

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