Once a year outlaws gather in the capital — black leather on harleys, V8s on two wheels roaring down Constitution Avenue to commemorate those whose lives were changed, ended (stolen?) by the Vietnam War. This year there were a reported 300,000 bikes, thunderous to say the least. Some of these bikers carry more than logos and chrome, they carry scars from those days, now more than a generation past. A truck full of white haired nurses from the days before women carried weapons into combat joined in the parade. Men with white hair, touching the wall, tough men whose broad shoulders and chests have slipped to a swelling above the belt, teary. How did they get to be so old?
All of us who lived through those days bear scars from those days – the country, the vets, those of us who experienced the war as an unreal warm up act to Laugh In and Disney. No one came away from it without their trust in government impaired. Some scars naturally ruminate deeper than others. When I told my 30 something hairdresser about my trip to Ho Chi Minh City, she told me about her father. He came home from the war (when she was a toddler) covered in Agent Orange sores on his arms. Those and other less visible sores never healed. Sores that caused him to abuse drugs, his family. Caused a divorce. He died of cancer in his forties. Logic (but not Dupont, of course) would blame his early death on those sores, too. His name, along with so many others, never made it up on the wall – but it should have.
How did they get so old???? Those white-haired men, my peers. Michael’s son Max is studying the Vietnam war in history class. The war of my school years – all of them – is now a history lesson taught in late May. We look at the telephone thick book of 55,000 names of the dead and missing. The deaths span 19 years. If the Iraq war were to go on that long, Benny, Danny and Scottie, my toddler grandsons, two of them playing chase under the trees aside the memorial wall could be drafted to serve. Chilling thought. What we should have learned is that it is a whole lot easier to get into these conflicts than it is to end them.
DC is so crowded with war memorials, we’re running out of room to carve the names and numbers of the dead into granite. Arlington Cemetery is overflowing, too. When there is no more room, will that be the end of it? Would that were so.