At the Wall: I Remember, I Remember
Not long ago, while walking from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial on a family visit to the capital, I caught a fleeting glimpse of a swiftly approaching hooded assailant.
He was on me in an instant, but I managed to grab his right arm and fling him to the ground before he could deliver a blow. He bounced up as I tried to tackle him, leaving me sprawled on the ground.
I rolled aside, but he was too fast for me. He dived and landed on my chest, grabbing my shirt at the neck and threatening me with a rubber knife he had hidden in his sleeve.
I yielded, knowing I was beat. Mercifully, this 9-year-old Ninja warrior spared me. He had to. Who else would he attack for the rest of this otherwise “boring” walk?
Danny, my Ninja-obsessed stepson, walked next to me for a while and told me that he really didn’t like living in the United States so much. It wasn’t exciting enough. Japan – that’s where he wanted to live.
After a few moments, he disappeared behind the trees. I went on, wary of a sudden cry that meant I could expect to find him flying through the air with feet and hands aimed at one of my vital parts.
After we had gone around Lincoln on his great stone perch, we headed toward the Vietnam Memorial. I took Danny aside from his sister and brother and told him about the monument, about the wall and how it contained the names of all the Americans who died in the war.
“So,” I said, “treat it like it’s a cemetery. Don’t make too much noise or fool around. There will be a lot of sad people here, O.K.?”
Danny nodded agreeably and walked off, as is his way, to see the wall by himself.
I also went on my own. I found the name Caesar Cavallo in the directory: 28 E was his spot on the wall.
I met Caesar in 1963 at Rockefeller University in New York City, where we both worked. He had escaped from Castro’s Cuba in the late 50’s to come to New York via Spain. He was a passionate revolutionary, but furious at Castro for promising a democracy but delivering a dictatorship. We shared a 1950’s-bred distaste for the red peril.
Caesar also had a passion for blondes.
“Who’s that woman you drive into work with?” he asked me one day.
The war was at a point where every fourth draftee was taken into the Marines. I wasn’t drafted because of a minor physical defect. Caesar wasn’t so lucky. Not only was he drafted, he also got taken into the Marines and was in Vietnam before we knew it.
Soon I was writing to him about the political climate around home – we were still supporters of the war then – and about Diane, my blonde traveling companion.
I wrote less often in the second year of his tour, but I always got word about him from Diane, with whom he had become quite close.
“Hey, Nick,” Diane told me one day in the fall of 1966, “Caesar’s getting out. He’ll be home before Christmas.”
She smiled and raised both hands exuberantly.
The next time I saw her, she told me solemnly:
“They extended Caesar – some kind of big Vietcong offense. He still should be home before New Year’s, though.”
She seemed less sure of herself.
Two days later, a tearful, disintegrating Diane reported:
“Nick, they got Caesar. The bastards, they got Caesar.”
I traced my finger along Caesar’s name on the wall, and felt gentle convulsions of sorrow shake my chest and tears run down my cheeks.
His face looked back at me from the black marble, smiling sheepishly. It was the way he smiled the time I caught him coming back late to work after a lunch hour spent making love to Diane.
I moved on, looking for the name of a man I never knew but whose mother I had met three years ago while having breakfast at a cafeteria in the World Trade Center.
“I’m going to retire in two years,” the middle-aged black woman told me.
I must have looked surprised.
“You think I don’t look my age?” she asked. “That’s what all the girls upstairs say, too.
“If you want to stay young, I tell them, don’t try to burn the candle at both ends. You can’t party all night and then think you’re going to do a good job at work the next day.
“And another thing” – she was sort of lecturing me in a motherly way – “don’t neglect your children. Bring them up yourself. Don’t leave them to somebody else. I had two children. I brought them up the best I could. They were fine children.”
“My son Willard, he’s dead now,” she went on, her voice quivering. “Killed in Vietnam in 1970. That almost killed me.
“When they put up that monument in Washington, the people at my church told me I should go down there and find Willard’s name. But I just couldn’t do it.
“It’s not that I don’t think the wall is a good thing. It was about time. It makes people remember. But that’s one thing I don’t need help with – remembering.
“There’s a young boy, Anthony, who plays trumpet at the church. I’ve been teaching him all that I know about music. Well, one day Anthony says, “Dorothy, if you’re not going down there, then I am. I’ll go find Willard’s name on that wall.”
“So Anthony went down and searched until he found the spot. It’s in Row 13, that’s where Willard’s name is.
“Anthony told me later that he didn’t know why he did it, but all of a sudden, as he was touching Willard’s name, he calls out at the top of his lungs: ‘Willard Kelly, Willard Kelly.’ He said he was crying after he did it.
Then he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around and looked up at these two white boys standing right behind him. One of them says to Anthony, ‘Is that the Willard Kelly who lived in Brooklyn?’ Anthony nodded.
“The other boy said, ‘We were his buddies. We’ve been looking for his mother for years. We were with him all the time over there. We were with him when he died.’ And then they started crying too, Anthony told me.
“When Anthony got home, he gave me their addresses and I wrote to them right away. Ever since Willard died, I had been thinking that I’d like to talk with some of the boys who were with him. If I could only meet one, maybe it would make it easier.
“They wrote back and said they’d come for Thanksgiving and take me out for a big dinner, but I’d have none of that.
“ ‘We’ll have dinner here at my house and I’ll do the cooking,’ I told them. I wanted it to be like a real home, like a family.
“You should have seen them – those two big white boys walking through our neighborhood, and everybody looking at them, wondering what they were doing here. But we had a nice time and ate so much good food. And when they talked about Willard, none of us could keep from crying.
“One of them said, ‘You know, we wouldn’t be here or have made this trip if your son was a bum or something.’ The big white boy was just crying like a baby. ‘He wasn’t,’ he said. ‘He was somethin’ special to us. He was our buddy.’
“You know, every mother thinks that her son is something special. But when that boy said that to me, and I saw the way he still felt about Willard after all those years – well, it made me feel so good.
“One of those boys is a salesman and every time he’s away, he sends me a postcard. And they’ve been to see me twice since that Thanksgiving.
“Last time they were here, we all got together and I said to them, ‘You know, Anthony here is black and he’s my son, and you two are white and you are my sons too.’ ”
Row 13: Willard Kelly.
I found the name, touched it gently and formed in my mind a picture of Dorothy sitting opposite me in the Trade Center cafeteria that morning.
“I remembered, Dorothy,” I whispered.
Danny was tugging at my sleeve.
“Nick, Nick,” he spoke in a low voice, knowing that only whispers were suitable here. I looked down at him.
“Where are the names of the guys who died in Vietnam?” he asked.
“On the black walls here, I replied, gesturing.
“No,” he said. “I mean only the Vietnam guys.”
“Here,” I said. “All across this wall.”
He seemed confused. I knelt next to him.
“Danny,” I said, “there were more than 50,000 of us killed in that war; and it takes this whole wall to write their names down, one by one. Do you see?”
He nodded, his eyes looking from one end of the wall to the other. His sister stood next to us.
“Do you still want to be a soldier and kill people, Danny?” she asked rather sharply.
But Danny was already moving away from us and toward a green field he spied in the distance. In another moment, he was practicing his “moves,” spinning gracefully, his golden hair flying in the bright sun.
I watched him, feeling the encompassing sadness of the wall and remembering being 9. Our heroes then were out of World War II. Every morning we would go to a vacant lot and storm the hill to take “Iwo Jima.” We held stick rifles and tree-limb bazookas and threw dirt bomb grenades.
We were the United States Marines. The enemy fell helpless before us. We, like that magnificent 9-year-old dancing on the hillside, were invincible!
(Published in The Speaking Personally Page, The New Your Times, March 6, 1988)