A sudden, humbled hush

When you come to Washington next time see the Vietnam Memorial. It is one of the most moving things in America I think. It is just names. Acres of them. When it was proposed it caused controversy. It is not like most monuments built around some splendid temple like the Jefferson Memorial or a thrilling sculpture like the Lincoln Memorial. This is just lines and lines of names, 58,000 of them , carved in slabs of polished black granite, the names of those killed in Vietnam. They went out to far-off jungles at the order of the state and gave their lives.

I defy you to see it without being moved. No artist's image works in this quiet spot; it depends on what you bring yourself. American names . . . Max Liberman, Withold J. Leszczynski, William D. Smith; fighting an unpopular war they didn't understand; they did their duty. Now - save in some private family - they are reduced to the simplest of all recollections, names an inch high.

Washington's weather is at its spring peak. It has trembled on the brink for several weeks. Suddenly now, as it seems, somebody blew the whistle. The snowdrops have come and gone long since. Now the forsythia is out throughout the city, as yellow as butter. Less gaudy but just as thrilling is the gray in the shade trees where all the buds are swelling.

There was a delay. For a couple of surly weeks spring hung in suspense waiting, as it seemed, for somebody to blow the whistle. Hedges were full of birdsong and the world was ready. It needed one firm command to start the show off.

Authorities fix the annual Cherry Blossom Festival long in advance; they do it by the calendar, not by the thermometer. Often the two don't coincide. This year, however, they did. We woke one morning. It was here.

Now for the first time the controversial Vietnam Memorial knows spring, and people can judge for themselves. The affair is quite simple, really. Just a gash in the side of a knoll, open on one side, walled with polished slabs of granite that reflect you as you study the names.

The names seem at first in no particular order, though an attendant can find one for you. I have seen the same reaction several times: Holiday trippers pause and lower their voices. They tell the children to be quiet. They look down the wall of names. People go from stone to stone. It is like being in church outdoors. It is a kind of communion.

So many things have changed in America. Who would have thought this was possible a generation ago? When I was young I was told America couldn't lose a war. It is an ambiguity yet. Statistics don't explain it: From 1968 through 1972 we dropped 4 million tons of bombs on Indochina and spent $50 billion; the conflict went on and on until South Vietnam collapsed in strange slow motion. So what do we have here? All these names.

This week a bulldozer was still padding down new sod. Somebody at a particular spot on the walkway had left a vase with three bright carnations. (There are ways of finding particular names.) A veterans' fund raised the initial money for the memorial and the design was put up to competition with 1, 400 entrants. The judges picked the idea of Maya Ying Lin, 21-year-old Chinese-American student. She proposed a sunken wall wedged into the side of a hill and V-shaped. The memorial would be the names. The Park Service found two acres of land between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It is an ideal place.

You never know, of course, how an idea like this will turn out. This one I think is very moving. The grass and the trees and birds singing and people checking their conversation suddenly after a little shock of recognition. And then all those names, quiet in a knoll on a hillside. I have been there several times and always seen the same reaction - a sudden, humbled hush in the aura of that charged place.

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