"Great Souls"

The Sangre de Cristo mountains had been veiled with grey shreds of clouds just the day before, and at sunset the same clouds were backlit with rays reaching to the heavens like a blessing. Today, though, this Memorial Day morning began clear, with the New Mexico sky a heartbreaking blue overhead.

We gathered outside, in twos and threes, in tight-knit groups, all brought together by memory and remembrance. Hispanics, anglos, Native Americans, blacks, all here, all present. The Chapel rose gracefully in front of us all, looking like an ethereal dove, a wisp of white smoke, a symbolic caress of ivory. As we walked across the grass, starred with early wildflowers, towards the others already there waiting, the band broke into "The Star Spangled Banner." The remembering, the confirmation of these special men and women called Veterans had begun.

The baseball hats proclaimed "Vietnam Veteran and Proud." The T-shirts, the denim jackets, "Never Forget." US Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, flying colors and Division patches and heads held high in the mountain air. The aspen trees surrounding us were spangled with spring green leaves. These men and women, friends, family, all bound by one word: War. The War that had touched us all somehow, some way, changed our lives, brought us here, pulled us together.

I listened to the microphone-launched words of those who knew absolutely what it meant to lose--lose your innocence, ideals, naivete, youth, friendship, love. I heard the words of healing and comfort and justification that we would always remember 'Nam and those who had been there. The words caught in my soul and psyche and took root. They began to grow like a glowing spark, a belief, a beautiful reality. I felt their power and watched the faces of those around me and saw this wisdom surround those who carried hurt with them for years, decades. It was good.

Then the music came. A deep rich voice, one that brought to mind sweet molasses, dark chocolate, warm night wind, and he began to sing from the heart. The song was one of overdue welcomes and apologies and love for the soldiers, nurses, all who left home and returned home, if they did, with very different scars on their souls.

The tall man beside me began to weep, and all I could do was put my arms around him and hold him. Hold him but wishing I could do more, wishing I could exorcise the sadness that I knew he carried inside. I had already seen it in his eyes, seen it in another man's eyes not so long ago. So I wrapped my arms around him and held on, held on for dear life and hoped my friendship would warm him somehow and melt some of the sorrow and grief from his heart. Maybe, just maybe, I hoped it would melt some of the sorrow and grief from mine.

The mountain winds swept off the highest peak and rolled across the valley. The blasts buffeted bodies and blew the tears from eyes that had seen too much in a mere lifetime. The wind was cold and cleansing. I pulled the Army fatigue jacket hood over my head till my eyes were shielded and remembered then what I had read in a Tao Buddism book...that immense winds blow whenever great souls pass over.

And I felt the absolute presense of great souls, both alive and dead, all around me on that Memorial Day.

Later that evening, when a veil of fog rolled into the Moreno Valley and softened the lights and buildings of the Memorial, we walked up to the Chapel. Hearing music and seeing candlelight spilling from inside, we came to the door; and I stopped stock still, then moved away. For inside, one man, alone in his grief, played music and joined in with harmonica and sobs. We left him to be alone in the palpable anguish we could feel even from outside.

My friend and I, held together by the War, by camraderie, by loss and love and honor and memory, we held onto each other in the grey fog outside and listened.

"........has anybody here, seen my old friend John? Can you tell me where he's gone? He freed a lot of people, but it seems the good die young.....I just looked around, and he's gone....."

The night winds swirled around us like a benediction, my head on his chest, his chin on my head. We were warm in the circle of memory.

Robyn Slayton

copyright © 1997 by Robyn Slayton, all rights reserved

Robyn can be reached at: robyn@lowell.edu