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One Washington Morning: The Viet Nam War Memorial

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I simply wasn’t “getting” the Viet Nam War Memorial.

 It was sunrise on a grey Washington DC day. The sun looked down on me with murky indifference as I stood there, the only human being in the entire world currently at the Viet Nam Memorial.

You’ve seen pictures of it, right? It’s a shiny wall, engraved with the names of every soldier who died in that conflict – or disappeared in action.

I tuned my iPod to suitably sombre music: stuff by Bach and Mozart and walked up and down the wall. My mind understood the horror represented here: that so many people left home and family and wound up murdered in a far away war. My mind understood it all.

But my heart was looking at all those names and shrugging.

“It’s a war,” my heart said. “So what’s the big deal?”

I knew I was missing something. I’d seen umpteen pictures of grizzled bikers wearing colors on their backs tenderly touching names, grief eloquently etched in hunched shoulders.

I’ll be honest: I really wanted a picture like that. I wanted a veteran to appear and talk to me about one single name on the wall: to transform letters into flesh. I really wanted to know something about even one name, because I just wasn’t connecting with this place and I wanted to.

My friend, Peter Rice, who had gone with me first thing in the morning, had headed off to work. But before he left, he told me that on Veteran’s Day, the bikers stand around a statue of three Viet Nam soldiers, holding hands and remembering.

I wasn’t expecting a bunch of bikers. I would have been delighted to see one. Just one.

So there I stood: willing a biker to appear. Never happened – and the whole time serious music was playing in my ears. I walked up and down the wall, trailing my finger along the names and wondering who they might have been.

But it wasn’t working. I still wasn’t getting it.

I texted my friend Alan Shapiro in New York, telling him what I was doing and what I was listening to.

It took about a minute and a half for him to respond (which is one of the many reasons he is my good friend) and he told me I should turn off the classical crap and listen to ZZ Top.

So I did. I listened to ZZ Top’s Tush…and then some Stones…and before I knew it, I was standing in front of all these thousands of names with tears rolling down my face. It was a wave of emotion. The music lifted sterile names off the wall and sent them thundering right into my heart.

Why? This was their music: the sounds they listened to in boot camp and later on bloody muddy fields. It took their music to bring them to misty life for me again.

Alan knew exactly what to suggest – which is the other reason he’s my friend.

It was a powerful morning, sending shockwaves through my entire day.

I tried to figure out how to show this to you. Photographing names and fragments of names didn’t work. Photographing the busloads of tourists who came tromping in front of the memorial, posing only for smiling “Howdy to y’all back in Iowa. Look where I’m at!” pictures.

Then I pointed the camera at the wall, allowing the names to blur into the distance and shot my own face reflected there.

In this shot I am listening to the ever vibrant and always irreverent ZZ Top, and thinking about some other men, tragically young men, who did the same…and never came home.