Despite rain and temperatures in the high 40’s, it’s Memorial Day weekend. The weather outside certainly doesn’t beckon barbeques and outdoor parties, but that’s not my first thought on this sacred weekend. Instead, I’m going to share a story that took place two years earlier, on June 22, 2019.
A week before that June date, I saw a Facebook post. I’m a teen author and this was a post from Betsy Partridge, also an author. She had written a non-fiction book on the Vietnam War, Boots on the Ground: America’s War in Vietnam. The Facebook post said, “One spot left to help clean the Vietnam Memorial Wall. Meet at 6:30 am on June 22, 2019 in Washington D.C.”
I got to the National Mall early, at 6:00, because it’s large and I wasn’t sure where the taxi would leave me. I was a short distance from the Korean War Memorial, so I walked to it. With no one around at that hour I was whisked a world away and saw the real soldiers wading through the endless rice paddies. I wanted to stay longer, but I had to go—I had a wall to clean!
The National Park Service (NPS) has the responsibility of cleaning the wall and they do it once a week. When a group has a good cause, the NPS oversees them doing the washing. Betsy Partridge’s book won an American Library Association (ALA) award, and she was in D.C. to receive it. (In fact, all the rest of the group were attending the conference. I was the only one that flew down just to wash the Wall.)
Cleaning the Wall
I couldn’t hold a brush (you need two hands to do that), so I thought I’d be perfect spraying the water. But the woman who grabbed the hose wasn’t giving that up for anything! So I ran around making sure the hose didn’t get kinked up.
We worked from 6:30 until nearly 8:30 am. The NPS finished the washing early so the public has virtually uninterrupted access to the 58,220 names inscribed on the Wall. We were packing up the brushes and buckets in the ranger’s car to the west (in the direction of the Lincoln Memorial), when a woman walked up to me. She had a name she needed to find, but she had no idea how to do it.
I was Witness
As we walked along, I told the woman that the panels were laid out west to east. The furthest panels, at either end, were 70 West and 70 East, each having only a single row of names. But by the time they reach center, they stand 10 feet in height. The war starts in 1957 at 1 East and the names run outward to 70 East (in 1968). Then they wrap to 70 West and lead inward. At 1 West the final names of those lost in the war are listed.
We were heading to 9W, very close to the center. He was her friend’s brother, she explained. His name was on the tenth line, so it was relatively easy to count down. He must have been one of the later names on the line, because she was quiet for a time, and then she gasped and wept.
I was witnessing something so deeply personal, and she needed the space and time to grieve for this man on her own. I quietly left her at 9W.
She found me later, and she thanked me for all that I did. I look at her, and I realized that two hours earlier I was as much in the dark about how the wall was laid out, as she was. But I didn’t say anything. She was thanking me for being her witness—I stood by her when she found the name of her friend’s brother and wept for him. She was very welcome!