e-mail us

Starting Point

Vietnam memorial to lost relationships


It was over 100 degrees in Washington this particular Saturday evening. While there were a fair number of people out, the Vietnam Memorial was far from crowded. This was my first visit to “The Wall” about which I had heard a great deal. I knew that it was capable of evoking strong feelings -- from anger to grief, from sadness to reconciliation.

I count myself fortunate that I did not lose anyone close to me in this war. I did oppose it, demonstrated, boycotted and so forth, but I had no idea how I would react to being at the monument in person.

The thousands and thousands of names are certainly overwhelming and bring the enormity of the loss home in a most visual way, but still I was not overly moved. Yes, the mementos, the wreaths, the photographs were touching. Whether it was heat-induced lethargy or sensory overload from a packed few days in the capital, I could not say.

A little boy with two twigs would change that.

We were standing, just standing, at the right-hand end of the monument -- people-watching in part, but mainly prolonging the long, steamy walk back to a Metro stop. My companion noticed him first, the same 10-year-old African-American boy we had observed earlier in the sparse crowd in the company of a white couple.

This youngster, now very near to us and alone, was crouched down in front of a panel on which the names had narrowed to four lines or so and he was matching up a dog tag with one of those names. He knelt in silent contemplation for quite some time, and we could not help but wonder about the relationship between this child and one of the dead. Clearly, he was too young to be a son.

Then he left, just as quietly as he had knelt there, but before we had moved on, the boy returned to this same panel and was now attempting to fashion a cross from two twigs he had retrieved from the grounds. He made numerous futile attempts to balance them but the two pieces simply would not comply. I remarked that I wished I had something to offer him with which to bind them together, but I knew, even as the words were leaving my mouth, that I should never have intruded on that private moment.

He was infinitely patient until, by force of will if nothing else, the long piece rested at the lip of the walkway and the crosspiece protruded precariously over the edge. He paused to make sure it would hold, then slowly moved away.

There are 58,196 names on that wall, and I cried for one man and one child I didn’t even know. Indeed they, themselves, had never met, but that is not to say that they didn’t know each other. Whatever the relationship between this Vietnam vet and this boy, love had transcended time and distance and was palpable in that crude little cross.

It came to me that the delicate balance of those two twigs is synonymous with relationship, and that the boy’s patience in achieving the effect he wanted is a model of achieving relationship -- at best, its own delicate balance.

And then, that the symbol of their connectedness would be a cross made of wooden twigs represented to me the ultimate relationship -- Jesus as perfect model of how to love.

This child obviously loved someone he had never met. Yet he knew the one whose name was on that dog tag and left part of himself behind in the shape of a cross.

St. Paul tells us that God is love, but before that means anything to us, we must move beyond the words into relationship through each other with God. I had a God-moment that hot August night. Moses got a burning bush. Most of us meet God when and where we can.

I got a 10-year-old with twigs.

Judy Bromberg lives and teaches in Kansas City, Mo. She is a regular book reviewer for NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, October 1, 1999