Memorial Day 1997
My soldier, Captain David Gray Jr., came home in March of 1973. I'd been hanging on to that relic ever since, always wondering what I should do with it, wondering how to return it to its rightful owner. Twenty-five years later, a query for POW/MIA on the Internet's Yahoo search engine delivered me to the doorstep of the "Vietnam Veterans Home Page" (VVHP) and Bill McBride, its webmaster semper fi. Three days after that, I had Captain Gray's address, the bracelet was on its way, and the VVHP had adopted me as an honorary member of its "Platoon."
"Every year we gather for a special service at the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) Monument in Angel Fire, New Mexico, for Memorial Day," Bill told me. "Why don't you plan on joining us this time?"
I accepted without thinking.
The months between then and now flew by in a blur of too much work, too many social commitments, culminating this week with an impromptu visit from my mother, and a relationship that ended badly. It's no wonder I felt nervous boarding my flight in San Francisco and no surprise that my suitcase went on to Kansas City while I got off the plane in Albuquerque. Still, as I pulled out of the rental car parking lot, I knew somehow everything would be okay.
Early on Sunday, I set out for Angel Fire. Spring came early to New Mexico this year. White barked aspens, lush fields of dandelions, and enormous wild lilac bushes tumbled over high adobe walls on either side of Highway 64 East.
From Taos, the road winds through the Carson National Forest and grove after grove of tall, green, Ponderosa Pines. The air grows thinner and cooler, the sky alternately more blue then cloudy as I climb toward my destination twenty-four miles away. The peace and quiet and natural beauty of the place hypnotize me, and I understand once again why they call New Mexico "The Land of Enchantment."
When I come out of the forest, I can see the DAV monument off to my left. A large, white, abstract structure, resembling the surrounding Sangre de Cristo mountains, glints in the morning sun. The monument was established in 1971 by the Westphall family to honor their son David who was killed by an enemy ambush in Vietnam in 1968. Two rows of the biggest American flags I've ever seen stand stiff in the breeze, lining both sides of the short driveway up to the Visitor's Center.
The parking lot is crowded with cars, trucks, and motorcycles. The license plates are from as far away as Texas, Missouri, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and California. The vehicles all display smaller American flags, the black and white POW/MIA flag, as well as various bumper stickers identifying their owners as Vietnam vets. The platoon from the VVHP has already gathered inside the Chapel. Roger Herrick and his wife Cindy recognize me immediately though we have never met. I feel like I am among friends and in a familiar place though I have never been here before.
At 10:30, the service begins. John Rossie, from Littleton, Colorado, leads off...
"Remembering isn't something that happens only once a year. I'm here to actively memorialize, not just today but the 364 other days of the year as well. I'm here to do some of the good that my brothers might have done if they were still with us."
I think about my own friends and family, those who have passed away, whom I haven't consciously and actively remembered in too long.
Cindy Herrick goes next. Dressed in her black leather motorcycle gear, her pose and calm infuse the tiny space. She tells the story of her own POW bracelet, the year she was a junior in high school and on the school newspaper.
"You see that picture back there?" she asks us. "I owe that guy just about everything in my life, and I've never even met him."
Cindy's article about her POW in the school paper inspired the young man's brother to telephone to get to know her better. Twenty-three years later, she and Roger are still married with two kids of their own.
Ed the Saint, a retired vet and native San Franciscan, takes the floor after Cindy. His gravelly, booming voice echos off the rough stucco walls. Three small candles burn behind him.
"Why are we here?" he asks us.
In a moment of deep silence, each person must answer that question for himself. Ed speaks our thoughts aloud.
"We are here," he says, "to remember. In twenty-five years, it'll be fifty years since Vietnam. How many will be here to remember then? In fifty years? In seventy-five? Who will be here to remember the 58,000 men and women who gave their lives for each of us?"
We shift in our seats and the sun moves out from behind the clouds. A long shadow falls from behind the tall white cross and the Chapel is filled with a clear, brilliant light.
"We are here," Ed closes the service, "to remember and remember now. It's our job to remember NOW."