A lot more than just names on a wall

“The Wall That Heals,” a traveling Vietnam War Memorial Wall, was in Taylor three days last week.

It’s a scale model of the “real” wall in Washington, D. C.

But it’s real enough. Trust me on that.

I arrived, along with a 20-mile per hour cold north wind, just after the opening ceremony was concluded Thursday morning.

I knew what to expect. I’d seen a scale model wall before, two years ago in San Angelo. My son, Mark, then a student at Angelo State, was one of the volunteers helping people find names on it.

The wall affects different people in different ways. To my left an elderly couple embraced and stayed that way for many minutes, no doubt seeing in their minds a young man who never came home.

A bit further away a tiny girl skipped along trying to keep hold of an American flag as the north wind did its best to blow her and the flag into the former Walmart parking lot.

Tommie Joe was 23, Petie 22 when they died in 1968 and 1969. Tommie Joe was 23, Petie 22 when they died in 1968 and 1969. Some of the National Guard members who had participated in the opening ceremony, still in their fatigues, were milling about.

A few of the older ones were swapping war stories. They were good natured but with an edge.

One guy had a tripod. It slipped out of his hand and clattered to the ground. We all sort of jumped.

“Drop and give me 20!” one of the reservists said. We all laughed.

“I’m Nav y,” the tripod guy replied. “We’ll drop anchor anywhere we want!”

We all laughed some more.

The laughter was genuine, and needed, but a bit forced.

It’s hard to feel jovial in the presence of all those names, names etched on more than the aluminum which stood in for the black granite in Washington.

You can never get away from those names when you’re standing so close to the wall.

Names like Tommie Joe Clark and Howe K. “Petie” Clark of Rockdale.

They were two of the first Rockdale men to be killed in the Vietnam War. Despite their last names they weren’t related.

Petie was related to the large extended family whose homes occupied half the block where I grew up in east Rockdale.

I knew Tommie Joe slightly. He married a girl who was in one-act play with me at Rockdale High School.

I searched for, and found, their names.

When you search, the sheer numbing enormity of loss comes into focus. Petie’s name was on the 82nd line of a block. You intuit that every name on the 81 lines above his was mourned by someone I’ll never know.

Tommie Joe died Dec. 16, 1968. Petie died May 23, 1969.

A long time ago.

Driving back to Rockdale I let my mind wander. If things had turned out differently they might both be in Rockdale when I got back, I thought.

Petie would be 62. Tommie Joe would be 63.

What would they be doing today, I wondered, watching grandchildren show animals in the Milam County Junior Livestock Show, competing for Rockdale in a track meet or baseball game?

Instead they are names on a wall.

No, I thought, that’s not right. They’re a lot more than that.

And the “Wall That Heals” is a lot more than that, too.

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2010-04-01 digital edition

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