"Facing the Past"

By Sally Griffis

When my two daughters and I arrived in Washington, D.C., it was late but still daylight. We picked up the rental car, a map, and directions to the hotel. I thought we were ready for this adventure; but, from that point on, I had kissed control goodbye.

About 10:30 p.m., we stopped once again to ask for directions to the hotel. We were so hopelessly lost that there was no turning around and backtracking. Sarah and Mitty thought the homes around us were so quaint until the light from the few remaining street lamps showed graffiti on the walls.

We stopped at an open gas station and asked for help. A well-groomed man, with a pager on his very "with it" slacks; a crown on the backdash of his late-model, squeaky-clean car; and "the ryt 1" on his chained-lined license plate, was kind enough to lead us back to "E" Street.

The girls were very excited when we passed the White House. They slid over so they could get a better view out of the car window. Later, they were still excited when we passed the White House again going the opposite way; so, they slid back. The third time we passed the White House, I told them this was not a good sign.

Eventually, I hailed a cab and asked him to lead us to the hotel. He laughed and did. I knew we were in for a wonderful weekend because he wouldn't accept any money and wished us a nice visit in D.C.

After unloading the car, we tried to call Corky. The original plan had been to take her to dinner, but we were about two hours late. She was at the Wall. The girls and I decided to "pack it in" for the night. Being lost and disoriented can be frustrating.

I couldn't sleep much. When I did, it was of short duration. So, I dressed at first light and walked to the Wall. I was grateful I hadn't attempted it in the dark. I turned the wrong way out of the hotel. But, I had my trusty "place mat map" and soon oriented myself to the area and made it.

The early morning air was cool, almost chilly. It held the smell of exhaust fumes from passing cars and coffee from the vending trailers. Cities are so loud. No bird sounds.

I crossed the street; and stepping up to the curb, I saw the sign pointing the way to the Wall. Strange how, after all the planning and traveling over 1,000 miles, I wanted at that moment to run away. I almost did. For a few minutes I heard nothing, smelled nothing, felt nothing, as I watched myself walk down that path to find Bill's name.

At first, I couldn't find it. I had gone to the East panel rather than the West one. A volunteer helped me to locate it. Then, with kindness and respect, she stepped away--but not too far. I looked at his name and touched it.


No longer wrapped in numbing "nothing," I felt defenseless to the pain of accepting how deeply I cared for him. I walked around the ponds and sat and thought. At some point, I began to feel at peace. I could hear the birds and traffic, smell the smells, and was aware of the soft murmur of voices as people began to fill the park.

I walked up to the "Friends of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial" (FVVM) tent looking for Corky. I was looking for a blond--she looks blond in her picture. I couldn't see a blond anywhere, but there was the cutest redheaded lady with Corky's unmistakable voice--the very first VWAR-List person I had met. Many of the people on the List had encouraged me to make this trip with the girls.

I walked back to the hotel without getting lost. Mitty was up and wanted to go to the Wall; so, we walked down together. As we got closer, she became quiet. I showed her how to find her daddy's name in the books provided at the Wall.

We started down that path, stopping to read what had been left at the different panels. When we reached 14W 62, I showed her how to locate the name. Mitty stood there in silence for a minute, then walked off muttering that it was just a name on the Wall of a man she didn't know. She felt guilty because she had no tears.

We walked over to the FVVM tent so she could meet Corky and the couple she was to interview for her TV report: Dawn, the daughter of a vet, and Frank, who had known her father. Mitty seemed to be very interested in their stories.

After the interview, we walked back to the hotel to pick up Sarah and drove to Quantico to have lunch with their dad's best friend.

Chuck and Zandy were waiting for us with stories and pictures. Chuck had stories about Bill dating back to their time as midshipmen, about our courtship, the cookies I faithfully shipped to them, about Sarah and their oldest son playing together. Mitty was surprised when I told her that we were sitting and eating lunch right where her christening party had been.

After lunch, we all drove to where we had lived before Bill left the last time. The girls were appalled to see a condemned sign in front. It hadn't changed a whole lot, just a little more paint peeling around the windows.

I recalled a picture the girls love of Bill on all fours with a neighbor's child on his back and several others watching. I showed them the very spot where that had taken place. Then Chuck led us inside, and I continued the "picture" tour for them. Of course, none of the pictures included Mitty because she hadn't been born when we lived there. But I was able to show her where she had been conceived. She was totally embarrassed and grinned from ear to ear. I asked her to step into that space and took a picture of her.

In addition, we now have a picture of Sarah in her room and of me in the kitchen. We stood in Bill's study and talked about how Sarah used to sit in her little chair and talk Vietnamese with him. (He assured me she was speaking to him in Vietnamese). We talked about the fun things that had happened there. Such funny, sweet memories.

Then we drove out to Basic School. Chuck told them what they did out there, and we took a lot of pictures. After that, we went back to Quantico to the Amphibious Warfare School. It was locked, and we couldn't get in; but we talked about their class and how many of them had died in Vietnam.

After leaving our friends, my daughters and I drove to the very first apartment Bill and I lived in...the Graham Park Apartments. I described the floor plan as having at least 400 square feet. We took more pictures.

Then we drove to the townhouse I bought after Bill was killed. It was vacant and for sale; so, we were able to press our noses to the windows and look in. Sarah remembered it, but Mitty was only an infant; so, she remembers only the pictures she has seen of us there.

The drive back to D.C. was full of lively conversation and questions. They had a lot of questions about their dad, and I was finally willing to talk about him. That night, we ate where Bill and I had eaten often--the Old Ebbit Grill. It had changed since I was last there (after 24+ years, haven't we all), but the girls were interested in the occasions that took us there. After dinner, we had the taxi (I'm getting smarter) take us to the Memorial.

This was Sarah's first trip down that path. When she found her daddy's name, she cried like the little 3-year-old child she had been. Mitty's response was again to walk off. She had looked at the names on the panels and imagined them as bodies piled up, and we were standing in blood over our heads. That night the girls stayed up late talking.

Sunday morning, I went for my walk down to the Wall. Each visit was different for me. Early morning felt private, and I preferred it.

We had planned a trip to Annapolis, Maryland, so the girls could see where Bill had gone to school. Before we left, we got to meet Polecat (a VWAR-L person and Vietnam helicopter pilot) and his wife Judy. What a delight these two are! They had decided to stay and watch the Rolling Thunder parade (bikers) so Jim (Polecat is his nom de net) could search for his old crew chief. The girls and I left.

Sarah drove (I had been lost too many times and didn't want to drive anymore), and I was the navigator (that's scary isn't it).

Annapolis was charming; and Mitty was asking if they had a TV station, she liked it so much. I had forgotten how awesome the academy is, and we walked everywhere allowed to the public. I told the girls what I could remember of the traditions and such, and they located Bill's name on the Honor Roll in Bancroft Hall. We appreciated the quiet, cool, peacefulness of the chapel; and, of course, we took a lot more pictures.

Sunday evening was an event I had especially been looking forward to...the VWAR-L party in D.C. at the "Nam Viets" restaurant. Sarah and Mitty were going to a party for the "Sons and Daughters in Touch" (SDIT)--same place, different tables. We took a taxi.

What a wonderful evening!

After a little hesitation, the girls were drawn into the warmth and welcome that Corky seems so able to create. The girls finally met others like themselves and found out they weren't alone or different. Their experiences were similar to the other sons and daughters.

I met, for the very first time, another VN War widow, Wanda Ruffin. We didn't have a good chance to talk, but I look forward to future correspondence with her.

VWAR-L folks were there also: bsmart, Lydia, Curtis, Corky (of course), Polecat and Judy, and Terminator and Mary Beth. Faces fit the names. What a treat! I took a lot of pictures.

Ari, one of the sons, drove us back to the Wall after the party. Other sons and daughters went, too. Ari's dad is on the panel next to Bill's. I stepped back and watched the 'kids' talking, going to one panel then back to the other, then going to the panel of someone else's dad...talking quietly, occasionally a hug, seeming to be so at ease with where they were, and sharing their stories, though I couldn't hear them.

I'm not sure what I felt, standing there in the still dark, watching these young men and women, seeing Bill's name. I had to walk away. I found a bench and sat. I realized that I didn't want to leave this place, but I'm not sure why. I cried.

Sarah, needing some time to herself, walked away from the group to return to the hotel. Mitty, Ari, and the rest of the group were still there. I rubbed Bill's name before I left; Mitty came and stood beside me. She touched his name and said it wasn't just a name anymore; it was her Daddy.

Monday we were to have eaten breakfast with the cousins/nieces but "no one" got up. So, I met Ari, and we had breakfast. Talking with him helped me to understand how Mitty and Sarah might have been feeling all these years. He said some things that sounded very familiar. Funny how they're easier to hear from a "non-family" person.

Feeling a huge need to keep things running smoothly, I ran upstairs after breakfast to make sure the girls were up. They were on their own time schedules; so, Ari and I went to the FVVM tent at the Wall.

Ari wanted me to meet his mom. So, he had invited her to the memorial service; and, to his surprise and delight, she went. I learned from her that her husband had been killed ten days after Bill.

The Wall area was very busy. I walked along and read the things that had been left, looked at photos, cried, and left a song and sheet music that Mary Garvey (VWAR-L) had sent to me, requesting that I leave them there. Beautiful words and melody. I watched the people and took pictures.

Then I noticed that Mitty was there with the cameraman. I watched her interview Frank and Dawn, Jan Scruggs, and some of the speakers. I had never seen her being a "reporter." Then I noticed this very striking young woman in a white pantsuit and a hat. It was Sarah.

I had always known she was beautiful; I just hadn't seen her (really seen her) as a woman. She was so poised and self-assured. Obviously, she had been for quite awhile; I guess I began to see differently--with open eyes.

Corky asked her to be one of the representatives for the Sons and Daughters and place the wreath at the Wall. Before the service started, Mitty came and got me. We made a rubbing of Bill's name. We both cried. She said he wasn't such a mystery anymore and thanked me for taking them on this trip to meet their dad.

Later, the girls and I had dinner with Ari, his mother, and stepfather at their home. We soon realized that Bill and Ari's dad had been killed in the same province, Bien Tuey.

Ari's dad had graduated from West Point. His stepfather, Lloyd, had graduated from the Naval Academy in the class after Bill's. Lloyd was so nice. He told the girls about the academy and gave them the yearbook from Bill's class of '64.


Mitty told me later that when she had finished her TV report at the Wall, she left her script under Bill's panel. Sarah said her experience was something like finally going to a funeral. I think both girls felt good about their participation in the memorial service that day. I am sure they will tell their story in a different way, but I hope they will tell it.

I don't know what the speakers had to say that day. I couldn't keep my mind on it. I kept thinking about the weekend with the girls and our friends--old and new. About how fortunate I was to be able to see my daughters be there in that place in their own ways. I knew most certainly that Bill was watching.

One of the pictures I took of the Wall has my reflection on it. I didn't notice it at the time I took the picture. When I left, my reflection left.

But, on my heart and soul there is a reflection of the Wall and all it represents. There will be times when I don't notice it, but it will never leave.

copyright 1994 by Sally Griffis, all rights reserved

Bill in the field