Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Other Decembers

There’s a rest stop at mile marker 100 on I-85 southbound in North Carolina, roughly between the towns of Thomasville and Lexington. Once upon a time these were furniture factory towns turning out tons of beautiful wood pieces every year. People came from across the country to shop the outlets and factory stores for everything from end-tables to bedroom suites, and enjoyed the local BBQ in bustling Southern downtowns. Today most of the factories and outlets are deserted, and there are more empty storefronts than not. Like a lot of industry in North Carolina, furniture making has gone elsewhere, or gone so upscale that you don’t need many people to produce the few pieces you sell every year.

But back to the rest stop, where you can stretch your legs, grab a Coke and some Cool Ranch Doritos, use the facilities, and pop your back after a few hours on the road. While you’re there, you can also visit the North Carolina Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Yes, Readers Mine, at the rest stop. Just a little bit beyond the bathrooms and vending kiosk, there’s a brick walkway leading down in a series of broad steps to a kind of tumulus of banked earth formed into a grass-covered toroid, open at one end. Here there is a low stone dais over-flown by the national, state and POW/MIA flags:

“Dedicated to the 216,000 North Carolinians who served and the over 1600 who were killed or missing in the Vietnam War.”

I was there on a chilly fall day, when most of the leaves had already blown off the trees, and the wind was enough to make me turn up the collar on my pea-coat and pull my watch cap down over my ears. It was mid-afternoon, and the rest stop was moderately busy, but there wasn’t a soul in the memorial. Inside the earthen walls, the memorial is a great circle with a brick walkway running around the circumference, small brick benches placed here and there and a central field of grass already turning yellow-brown in preparation for winter. At the far side of the enclosure from the entrance is a brick wall, maybe 10 feet high, and inscribed on the inside bricks of this wall are some 1620 names, arranged alphabetically. At my feet as I stood before the wall were more bricks, these inscribed with the names of the 100 counties of North Carolina, all of which had sent native sons and daughters to war.

It wasn’t exactly quiet there – I-85 was just a couple of hundred yards away – but the sounds of the interstate and of kids released from cars to expend some of their built up energy was muted by the earthen walls. About as peaceful as you’re going to get in such a setting. I found out later that the land for the memorial had been donated by the state’s Department of Transportation, which went some way towards explaining the location. Plus, I’m sure, the same state crews who take care of the rest stop also tend to the memorial grounds, so the memorial may well be more sustainable over the long run than others. Still. An interstate rest stop. Oh, there’s a big statue-memorial in the state capital, Raleigh, but this is the official state memorial. At a rest stop.

I’m really not one to get overly emotional at memorials (though I defy anyone to make the long walk down the length of Maya Yeng Lin’s national Vietnam memorial in Washington, D.C. and not be moved), but I think it’s good that there are such places. Good to remember those who served and those who died or disappeared, perhaps especially so in the days before the all-volunteer military and in a war that seems so horrifically pointless. I admit I’m a bit irked at the placement of this memorial. It seems… disrespectful somehow. I could be wrong. In fact, being at a rest stop on a major North-South route may well bring the memorial more visitors than it would get otherwise. Probably does, as a matter of fact.

I’d like to think that the reality would be different though, that people would want to travel some distance to visit the memorial, take the time to make a deliberate trip and stand before the wall, read some of the names. I’d like to think that we’re better than we are, and that we’d make a point of remembering and, yes, honoring the people whose names are on those bricks, and all the rest who, thank God, don’t have to be listed on bricks or in polished black stone because they made it back home alive. That maybe we’d take a minute to ponder what causes or interests are really worth 1620 lives, and dedicate ourselves to the proposition that such bloody currency only be spent with the greatest reluctance, most meticulous care, and deepest grief.

In December of 1968, there were 540,000 American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines deployed in Vietnam. By the time the last serviceman was withdrawn in 1975, some 58,000 Americans had died there.

To absent friends, past and present.

Good luck, and Godspeed.

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