Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Drifting on a Memory

No one has ever accused me of patriotism.

At best, I am fascinated by "the Grand Experiment" for all of its spectacular aspirations and the mass delusions that result from its failings. At worst, I have been told that I should probably find a new government to render taxes to. I've never pretended to be Hulk Hogan. But I could hardly be called John Walker Lindh either. I think I'm like a lot of people in my peer group: I'm fatigued by the gross simplicity of what I am told America is supposed to be, yet I remain intrigued by the vast potential of it all. Which assumes, of course, that all has not been squandered already.

(It hasn't. Not yet. Although it's closer to half empty than it is to half full.)

Before Memorial Day in the year of our Lord two thousand and ten, I had never literally celebrated or even really honored Memorial Day. I had always done some combination of the drinks and BBQs and movies and families and drinks and friends and shopping and parties and drinks thing. But never any actual memorializing. After running through HBO's The Pacific earlier this month, I decided the least I could do this year was to visit the National Mall. Out of curiosity as much as for any sense of paying tribute.

I arrived late on Monday afternoon as the setting sun had finally decided to release all the tourists and other visitors from its crushingly hot grasp. The space between the monuments to Presidents Washington and Lincoln was predictably littered with people. Visitors from countries in Europe and Asia. Bored pre-teens being ushered by social studies teachers. Joggers and bicyclists. And, of, course, a few remnants of Rolling Thunder.

If you've never been in or around the Washington, DC area on Memorial Day Weekend, you may not know what Rolling Thunder is. The short answer is that it's a much more somber, focused version of Sturgis. Hundreds of Harleys rumble through our nation's capital every Memorial Day Weekend so their riders can pour out a little liquor for their fallen comrades. I don't think Rolling Thunder is comprised exclusively of veterans, but hella former service people on super fat hogs set up camp throughout the Potomac region waving American flags and celebrating the memories of those who never made it home. It's the kind of thing you need to see with your own ears.

Another thing you need to see with your own ears is the WWII Monument. There's a massive fountain at the center of it which envelops all other sounds. It mimics the two oceans that young Americans had to cross in order to help save the world from the ambitions of Hitler (the racist), Mussolini (the fascist) and Emperor Shōwa (the opportunist). I started my Memorial Day jaunt at that fountain. It was not my first visit. I shuffled between freshly placed flowers and notes declaring "We Will Never Forget". Bravery, courage and service rated as the most memorable acts accounted for by the amalgalm of papers and roses and other detritus spread thoughtfully around that monument. I couldn't tell whether obligation or sincerity hung more heavily in the air. Maybe both mixed together inextricably.

After taking a few photos of the Pacific and Atlantic portions of the monument, I crept along the Reflection Pool toward the great statue of a seated Abraham Lincoln. I heard music. A youth choir from a church in Oklahoma City had set up shop at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial. They sang songs about Jesus and America and they played instruments made of cleaning supplies. They weren't playing for any reason other than they could. The show -- like all the others on their 15-day tour of the Eastern Seaboard -- had been self-funded.

I left the singers to sing and bounded toward the Korean War Memorial as the pretty blue sky showed its first signs of turning into night. I wanted to snap a few photos before I lost all of the day's natural light. Ahead of me was a man who looked just like Ben Stein. Who was, in fact, Ben Stein. I had a quick thought to ask him for a photo or shake his hand or something before my Los Angeles self piped up. You don't bother celebrities when they're out in public. For any reason. Unless, maybe, you're asking them whether they're keeping that parking spot or not. So I left Mr. Stein alone in order that both of us could soak up the monument to the brave SOBs who fought and/or died during the course of the Korean War. I don't know much about that war. I guess I'm still waiting for HBO to tell me how it turned out. Although, my spidey sense says that Hyundai and Samsung were probably on the winning side.

Individually -- or together -- the various memorials and monuments on the National Mall are pretty impressive pieces of work. Each clearly strives to evoke something. But that effort, when made thousands of times every day, seems to go just a bit dull. Where the war monuments are concerned, you kinda get the point pretty quickly. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, a buncha dudes died in some great conflict between the Stars and Stripes and the awful flag of some other country that was (or stood in for) the enemy of Democracy. It sucks that they had to give their lives. But they gave their all for a good cause...right?

I suppose that hope is supposed to be born out of the shared mourning that happens every day on the National Mall. I suppose that patriotism is what forms around that hope. I suppose that patriotism ought to be an external exercise born of an unwavering internal commitment. I fumbled through a lot of different thoughts as I exited the Korean War Memorial. Not the least of which was, "What would I have to do win whatever money was in Ben Stein's pocket?"

My journey, as I had planned it, ended at the Vietnam Wall. It's a brilliant monument that tapers gradually to deposit you into 12 feet of names etched into reflective black granite. For even the most unsentimental, the design has a raw power to it that is difficult to deny. I'm not in the habit of denying, but I'm not much on sentiment either. Not usually.

When I arrived precisely at the midpoint of the Wall, I snapped a couple shots to try and capture the scale of that portion of the monument. I paused to read through a few names and admire the designed experience. Reflecting back at me, a young kid outfitted in Army's dress greens had stopped on the granite panel immediately to the right of mine. He leaned in to get a closer read. Stepped back. Saluted. Dropped his right arm. Extended his right index and middle fingers to touch a certain spot on The Wall. He whispered, "Thanks, man." Then disappeared behind me.

That scene may have taken 90 seconds to play out. Maybe less. I watched it all via the reflection in the granite. I wanted to take a picture of it. I wanted to shake the kid's hand. I wanted to do anything but stand frozen. And I certainly didn't want to feel sweat (tears?) streaming down my cheeks.

But that shit stopped me cold, man.

Somewhere behind all of the politics that goes into separating history from what actually happened are the people to whom the history happened. Some of them made choices. Some merely succumbed to circumstance. They're all a part of the story, though. The dates and titles of the things that happened don't get scribbled down without the actors being present for them. Some of those actors did not survive the thing itself. After we squeeze the thing into a larger narrative, the actors can be overlooked or their roles can be minimized as the grand scale weighs the collective impact of the thing. That tendency is neither bad nor good. It's an inevitable consequence of trying to keep our own TV show on the air.

Every once in a while -- sometimes on days marked for official observance -- the echoes from the actors who tragically departed stir. Sometimes, they speak to us via the people who couldn't forget. And sometimes, they make themselves known to people who wouldn't ordinarily be bothered to remember.