The White Pole
It is a bridge between earth and sky, this white flagpole,
a bridge between past and present. Fashioned from a Douglas fir,
it rises 103 feet above the street. From its top, you can see
the islands, sitting like dark emeralds in an inland sea. Feel
the peace spread through your soul like the warmth of a fire on
a cold night.
I look at the names, all the young men our town and the surrounding county has lost in America's wars. I stand in blue pants and a red jacket, and I'm wearing a blue baseball cap.
I'm not wearing the ubiquitous green of long ago. There is no homogenization of the military distilled into the singular purpose of kill or die.
I'm a civilian now. And, I can't bring myself to attention, can't bring myself to salute these fallen men. I don't want to appear foolish or strange, be stared at, or be found out as a former military man of the Vietnam era.
"Are you Vietnam-era veterans ashamed?" a woman friend once asked.
"Why do you ask that?"
"Well ... you lost the war."
I thought for a minute. We were a generation raised on the concept of duty to country, but the concept gradually eroded with the steady stream of body bags over the years, unlike the mere months of the Gulf War. That fueled the growing antipathy of society to the Vietnam involvement, and the backlash was felt by American servicemen and women, who carried with them a burden of shame.
They did their duty as America's leaders saw fit. But our leaders were slow to admit a mistake. America had never lost a war. More men would win the day! So the body bags grew, a small hill at first, then into a mountain of dead futures.
They are all lost loves now, mere memories in mothers' minds and lovers' thoughts, never to be made solid again with the spark of life. "Yes, I remember that you lived," one mother wrote at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. "I have cried many, many tears ...."
Sometimes I'll drive alongside the bay and think back to 24 years ago. I was in the Marines. We were a rowdy bunch, thinking and dreaming of women. One day, we got our orders in Staging Battalion, Camp Pendleton, California, for Da Nang, Red Beach, Republic of Vietnam.
It finally hit us. No more uncertainty or rumors. I remember sitting on a small knoll. An unusual quiet settled over us. Each of us wondered how he would come back to these United States. Would it be on two feet, in a body bag, or worse, back as a paraplegic, quadriplegic, or a vegetable, where love will not and cannot happen again?
I had wanted to go to Vietnam. Call it a young man's foolishness. But I had injured my back while in training, slipped a disc. The naval surgeon took one look at that and said, "You're not going anywhere." And so I looked on Vietnam from the sidelines. "It was the best place to be," my wife of future years said.
I look at the names. They do not have the years that I have now. Do not have the love of a wife, the stretch and strain of muscles, the mortgage, the sweet, innocent sound of children's laughter, the music that walks away with your soul (oh, remember the music? they are oldies but goodies now), and the measured pace of days that run headlong into old age. They do not have the peace I get hiking along a mountain trail, or by craning my neck to gaze at the stars, or by looking out over the bay where land and water define a soft seam of a horizon.
They died in war, not in peace, amidst the clatter of machine guns, exploding shells that scissored the air with shrapnel, died hooked up to tubes in hospitals, died lying in their own excrement, died young, each with a lust for life cut short. They were old men in young bodies who knew none of the glory of war, only the bitter despair of death.
I am once more walking down to 12th. and Mill. The sun is out. The white pole is bright against the blue sky. I gaze at the names again, particularly those of Vietnam. Twenty-six names from Whatcom County. They were such a long ways from home, halfway around the world ... halfway through my life now.
I try not to appear self-conscious. People are walking about, cars stream by on the streets, two men are across the street at the bus stop, watching me. Suddenly, I don't care. The present is their concern. The past, this past, is one of mine.
I cough. Then I straighten, put my feet together, bring my hand up to my brim, hold the salute for two seconds, and snap it out. Tears form. The Vietnam War so defined our generation. These men spelled out its meaning. I wish them peace, and I hope they have found it.
[Abridged from an article that first appeared in the Seattle P.I., which was subsequently reprinted in the Fairhaven Gazette. This version was published by the Bellingham Herald. The original article won first place in its category in the 1992 Washington Press Association Communicator Awards. A copy was tacked to the flagpole.]