Wednesday, February 3, 2016

A walk through time and memory

Martin Luther King Jr. statue by the Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin.
As a man of a certain age and generation, I’m not alone in realizing how much like my father I have become. We were opposites – opponents – during the 1960s. He rooted for Liston, Ali became my hero. He liked crew cuts, I wanted long hair. He was indifferent to civil rights, I embraced the idea. An army officer during World War II, he told his pals for years that I was West Point material. When I said I’d defect before I’d go to Vietnam, he said, “Your country calls, you go.” My mother had to pry us apart.

We reconciled as he aged. He became my biggest fan, and I came to admire his bravery, honesty, reliability and calm. Now I’m almost 70 and he is nine years gone, but I know he lives in me.
Nevertheless, I was unprepared for his visit the other day.

Legend on monument reads: 'Out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.'
It was Saturday in Washington, D.C., one week after the blizzard. My wife Monique and I had set out on a sightseeing tour, starting with a cab ride to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial on the Tidal Basin.

The memorial was dedicated 4½ years ago. The Chinese sculptor Lei Yixin created the statue, and a San Francisco design firm planned the park around it. The effigy of King emerges from a huge block of Chinese granite much as the four presidents jut from the face of Mount Rushmore. Behind the statue the panels of a 450-foot wall bear quotations from King.

The wall is crescent-shaped, or arc-shaped, as a National Park guide pointed out to us, suggesting one of King’s most famous statements: “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

The words are familiar but inspiring, a reminder that King was an orator of renown – maybe the last one in a country once famous for oratory. The memorial’s emphasis on words suits the man it honors. It fits with America’s history as a country created and shaped by written and spoken words.

King stands on an axis between the Jefferson and Lincoln memorials. He stares sternly across the Tidal Basin at Jefferson, who wrote, “All men are created equal,” the test of King’s time and ours. To his back is Lincoln, who issued the Emancipation Proclamation and pronounced “a new birth of freedom.”

It was, of course, from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial that King delivered his “I have a dream” speech in 1963. “Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred,” he beseeched the throng on the mall.

Monique and I walked next to look for the place where King stood when he spoke. Inside the Lincoln Memorial a veteran ranger leaning on a cane told us there was a marker but could not remember just where. We did not find it but would have, of course, had it occurred to us to use our iPhones. We did see the landscape King had seen, now barren of humanity and covered with ice and snow.

It was on the last leg of the day’s journey that my father showed up.

I cannot go to the west end of the Mall without visiting some of my names on the Vietnam wall. It had been a few years since I was last there. We went to the books of names, protected by Plexiglas. In the early years, visitors lined up before them, but not last Saturday. It stands to reason that fewer visitors have ties to men on the wall. Monique helped me scribble my names and their locations.

I was drafted 50 years ago. Rather than take my chances of winding up in the infantry, I enlisted for four years with the hope of avoiding combat duty in Vietnam. It worked, but I lost friends and acquaintances in the war. Assigned in 1970 to a support company at Fort Gordon, I also roved Georgia and South Carolina on a funeral detail firing squad, burying Vietnam dead.

Twenty-five years later, as a journalist looking for a column for Memorial Day, I contacted the family of Robert Louis King, one of the men I had helped bury. He was an Army specialist killed in Pleiku on July 5, 1970. He had just turned 21. I did not know him, but after speaking with his family, I felt I did. I certainly remembered his funeral in Anderson, S.C.

Posing with Nick Ut after a discussion at the Newseum. He took the photo of a girl running from a napalm attack in Vietnam. 
When I visited his name on Saturday, Vietnam was fresh in mind. Monique and I had just attended a discussion at the Newseum in which four journalists talked about covering the war. One of them was Nick Ut, who took the photo of the naked 9-year-old Kim Phuc fleeing after South Vietnamese planes napalmed her village. Before turning in his film, Ut took her and the other children in the picture to Saigon for medical treatment. Kim Phuc nearly died of her burns. She now lives in Canada, and Ut has stayed in touch with her.

I thought about this as Monique and I descended into the memorial to panel 9W and counted down to line 122 to find Robert L. King. Whenever I go to the wall, I think: The presidents and statesmen who escalated and perpetuated the war knew early that it was unwinnable. For nothing, they continued to sacrifice American men and even more – far more – Vietnamese citizens into a cauldron of death.

Snapshot of Robert King (right) posted on
website for Vietnam Veterans Memorial
And now, more than 20 years after I observed the 25th anniversary of Specialist King’s death in a newspaper column, here I stood, alive and relatively well, having enjoyed 45 years of life that was denied him.

I stooped and ran my fingers across his name. Straightening again, I turned to a volunteer who stood by to assist visitors. I started telling him I had fired the 21-gun salute at Robert King’s funeral. But I lost it – I lowered my head and sobbed and I could not stop. The man said nothing. He edged away, possibly to give me room. Monique put an arm around me, then gripped my hand.

Maybe the first coherent sentiment I uttered to her was: “I’m becoming my father.”

Dad ran a cemetery. One day he had an epiphany while staring into the fresh grave of a young man killed in Vietnam. He had already buried a few, all around my age. For some reason this one was one too many. He changed his mind about the war.

The older he got, the more Irish he became, by which I mean the more sentimental. He teared up often. He wore a First Cav baseball cap and went to Memorial Day services in the Florida heat even in his late 80s, when a friend had to go along to hold him up so that he could salute.

At the wall on Saturday I visited other names, too – boys I knew. Like my dad, nearly all their parents are ancient or dead now. The wall will always be a powerful symbol, but it is becoming a historical symbol – understood to honor 58,000 victims of folly but less likely to revive their faces in memory.

It is mainly contemporaries like me who can still see the cheerful, big-toothed Rusty Ford and the wiry, curly-headed Terry Newkirk or hear the weeping of Robert King’s family. While age can steal and distort memory, it can also enhance its power. I saw this in my dad, and now it’s my turn.

The King statue stands with his back to Lincoln and his front toward Jefferson.


  1. Moved me to tears...beautifully done!

  2. You are not the only one. I read this with tears in my eyes too. Darn you DAD

  3. I just reread your piece about soldier, citizen King; I thought it would be appropriate, in a small way, to remember at least one victim of that tragedy even though I didn't know him.

    The victims of that horror keep mounting; at latest count, I have lost 3 friends from suicides related to their depression about their service. That's 3 persons over 40 years after discharge!

    My goodness, "When will they ever learn."

    Willie from DLI