Monday, September 21, 2009

American heroes, too

The part of it that knocked the breath right out of a guy came just after sunset Sunday when the generators were cranked up, giant floodlights hired to illuminate The Moving Wall at night were turned on and its surface sprang to life again.

The name of each Wayne County boy inscribed there was spoken. After each name, the bell at old New York Church tolled.

Then a colour guard salute, Taps, dismissal and silence.

It was a way to say a collective goodbye heretofore undreamed of out here in the corn fields east of Allerton and something that none of us lucky enough to be there is likely to forget or experience again. Most I’d guess, and there were a few hundred of us, held at least one young life, lost long ago, in our hearts.

A few hours later, after 10, the lights were dimmed, the flags lowered, the panels dismantled and packed and now those fields belong to the crickets and cicadas again.


This was such a great story that I couldn’t leave it alone. Four visits over the course of three days --- no problem when Allerton is only a 35-minute drive away, but it seemed excessive to some.

Part of it was ceremonial as parts of all our lives are, rituals to create the idea of order where there often is none.

Years ago the fourth stanza of British poet Laurence Binyon’s World War I-era “The Fallen” stuck in my head:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

I wanted to remember that way, given the opportunity, and so I did --- at sunrise one beautiful morning; at sunset on another.

Running late because of another commitment Sunday, I broke a couple of speed limits to get there by 7 p.m. for the closing ceremony and almost made it. Rounding the next to the last curve on dusty gravel, dodging deer on the back roads down from Corydon, the great red ball of the setting sun came rolling directly down the middle of the road at me. Other evenings, that sight alone would have been enough.


Other times I went to watch and listen and talk, trying to understand what was going on here, marveling at the vision, organization, giving, love and hard work invested by hundreds of volunteers in Allerton and its neighbors to launch and sustain the wall’s four-day mission.

How intimately we related to those panels which, after all, aren’t really the Wall, just a reproduction. Everyone touched them, some with finger tips, others with both hands laid flat. Some leaned foreheads against the panels. Others bent themselves into painful configurations to photograph or take a rubbing of a name. I ran two fingers back and forth across a friend’s name --- on two occasions.

Most seemed to have come, and thousands did, some from remarkable distances, to touch at least one name.

But who would have guessed without observing that even that intimacy between people and polished aluminum would require a small army of volunteers armed with large dark cloths who patrolled the wall periodically, always respectful of visitors, polishing away the smudges, restoring the mirror-like surface.

And the dust, inevitable in gravel-road country. Volunteers in trucks watered the roads to the site, then watered them again --- time after time. No visitors were troubled by dust, nor did any reach the Wall.

Parking could have been a problem, but volunteers patrolled long lines of parked and parking cars offering rides to all. On Saturday, the heaviest traffic day, most visitors were diverted to a parking lot at the athletic field on Allerton’s east edge, then brought to the site by tractor and wagon.


Then there was the level of respect in a disrespectful age, not only for the Wall itself but also for the visitors. Most of us were greeted at the entrance by volunteers and ushered briefly --- some by Legionaries in immaculate uniforms, others by the Patriot Guard, boots and leather and Harley t-shirts, souvenir-encrusted vests, some looking as if they had just come in off the road, as some had.

Wheelchairs in formation awaited those who couldn’t make it on their own down the graveled avenue of flags to the forecourt, then around it to a table where another small volunteer army awaited to help visitors find names, around the Wall itself, into the forecourt just to look a while and finally back. The men who pushed those wheelchairs were the hardest workers of all, laboring time after time over rough surfaces with their charges.

It all seemed flawless, effortless, to those of us who visited --- and a friend who volunteered confirmed almost flawless, but quickly relieved me of any misunderstandings I might have had about effort.

I came in Sunday evening half way through the recognition of volunteers and was sorry about that --- I had wanted to hear more about those who had worked so hard.

I suppose I could go on here --- school kids flooding the site Friday morning, delivered by buses from various districts; how well the Wall fitted in amid corn fields and endless sky surround by Iowa icons --- country church, country school, the round barn itself; the peacefulness of it all. But this is enough.

The Moving Wall and the names on it were the focal point Thursday-Sunday and the story behind the Moving Wall is an inspiration. It was fascinating to watch people interact with the Wall. But the heroes in this small corner of Iowa in this instance were those who envisioned the Wall’s visit and then made it come true. Is it possible to be any prouder of your neighbors?

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