I no longer know the Vietnam War. I only feel it.
I am in D. C. for a conference. I’m staying at the Renaissance Hotel on 9th. But I am drawn to Panel 49W, Line 035. Robert O. Bumiller. The Vietnam Memorial.
I walk the length of the Mall from east to west. I’m only vaguely aware of everything around me. Capital Building. Washington Monument. Tourists. Smithsonian. Lincoln. Vaguely aware. I free associate. I remember a lot of guys who died in the Nam. One guy was shot right in front of me. But Rob …
I grew up with Rob. Rob’s mom and my mom went to school together. They stayed lifelong friends. Rob and I, we were childhood companions.
Rob grew up in wealth. But he was crazy wild. Couldn’t stay in school. Finally, he was drafted, and sent to the 1st Cavalry Division. 11B20, infantry rifleman, “straight leg grunt” we used to say. In August of ’68, he had the back of his head shot off. He was just short of his 21st birthday. He lived long enough to call home one last time from a hospital ship. That’s where they sent folks when they were sure to die, a ship. Anyone with a chance got flown to Japan. Rob’s dad picked-up that phone. That call killed Carl, the dad, as sure as a bullet to the brain.
There’s a kiosk just before I get to The Wall. This guy sells all these Nam knick-knacks, bumper stickers, buttons and such. We chat. I notice Vietnam magazine. I’m startled, frankly, because I’m this month’s featured veteran. My narcissism compels me to tell the guy this. Suddenly, I’m signing autographs. But it’s not like it’s flattering. It’s awkward. I’m a pretty obscure writer. I rarely see my writing outside my own study. I’m unaccustomed to signing autographs, and I don’t know how to do this gracefully. So I just stop. One guy shyly looks at me, the magazine in hand. I should offer, but I just walk away.
Panel 49W is about halfway down the right. Line 035 is about half-way up The Wall. I don’t pray.
I touch his name. I remember joking with Rob in the kitchen. Setting off sparklers on the 4th of July. How he hated Oscar, his middle name. How Rob and another friend, Doug, drove me to our high school one snowy day. I let go of his name.
I move down a few panels to 1970, the year I was in the Nam. Hank. Pete. Greaser. Others. I don’t pick-out their names. It is enough to know they are here.
On the way back to the Renaissance, at the corner of 9th and G Streets, there’s a beggar in a fatigue jacket. He stops me, stands right in front of me, stares at my lapel pin, my Vietnam Service Ribbon. He asks, “Brother, do you know me?” I give him a dollar. He thanks me. “But do you know me?”