Night Rounds--A Visit to the Vietnam Memorial

By Marilyn Knapp Litt

It was Sunday, Veteran's Day weekend 1996; and earlier that day, I saw the Vietnam Memorial for the first time. Several people had attempted to explain to me how the names on the Wall were arranged chronologically. I looked at the dates and the names on the panels but couldn't grasp it. I tried to listen, but the part of me that could process that information was busy with other business. The Wall was higher than I had imagined and longer and infinitely more terrible.

It was well into evening now as I walked along the Wall again, this time with a friend. As you make the long pass from one end to the other, you reach a slight bend in the middle. We didn't walk as far as the bend, but only walked along a short section of the Wall before turning to retrace our steps.

There weren't as many people at the Wall as there had been during the day; and everyone spoke softly, if at all. Veterans will tell you not to go by yourself and to go in the evening. It is usually veterans there after dark.

We just walked and didn't have much conversation. I was cold and tired and overwhelmed. My friend was a veteran who served as a nurse in Vietnam and had been to the Wall many times. She carried a small flashlight; and, her head down, followed the small circle of light that slipped along the ground a few feet in front of us.

As we passed certain panels, she somehow knew where she was and would stop and flash the light briefly up to the Wall, illuminating a small section to read a name. Then, almost as if reassured the name was still in place, she would drop the light down again and stroll slowly on, not even looking up, before stopping again to swing a soft arc of light over more names.

We didn't walk the length of the Wall or even very far along the Wall before we turned back to view again the same set of panels. Sometimes she would stop abruptly and go back a few feet to find a name or she would break the slow rhythm of our pacing and pause to give a name extra scrutiny.

Then, as we made the short circuit for perhaps the third time, she started to quietly explain about the dates. The Wall is linear, but the dates make a circle. The dates on either end of the memorial are not from the beginning or the end of the Vietnam war. To follow the names in chronological order, you start in the middle of the Wall at the bend and walk to your right all the way to the end, then loop back to the left end of the Wall and follow it until you are back at the center. As you do this, you complete the circle and gradually come to the understanding that the Wall, like the war, does not have an end.

copyright © 1997 by Marilyn Knapp Litt, all rights reserved

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