I am inspired by my friend Marijean to use this blog space for personal memoirs. Below is a remembrance that I wrote in 2003, on the eve of our invasion of Iraq. We have all since learned to live with the sense of dread that time has made a part of our lives, but the sheer sadness does not go away.
NAMES LIKE RAIN
He looked around uncomfortably at the young men and women gathered to hear him speak. It mustn’t have seemed that long ago when he was their age, yet he sensed that they eyed him with suspicion. His own teenage son would be eligible for the draft in just a few years, so he was very much on their side, but they were the ones fighting this war.
Still, as they lounged on the grass in their jeans and t-shirts and vests, he must have looked just like “the man” as he stepped up to the lectern in his suitcoat and tie .
Some in the crowd were listening, but many kept talking or laughing nervously. Too many speeches had already been given, and speeches had stirred action, and action had stirred violence, and so the time for speaking seemed past, yet nobody knew what action to take.
How had it come down to this? How had it become about right and might, peace and war, objectives and campaigns? How had people who looked like him — white men in suits with close-cropped hair — forgotten that they were sending young men who looked like them — young men of all colors with long hair — to a miserable spot halfway around the globe to fight a war against political forces that nobody really understood.
He knew that another speech about who might be right and who might be wrong in this conflict would accomplish nothing. He needed to make men who looked like him sit up and take notice, to comprehend the harm they were inflicting, and he needed young men who looked like them to realize that men in suits understood.
In his hand he held a stack of plain index cards, the kind you would find in any office. Once he knew what he had to do, the information had not been hard to gather. He was a newspaperman, after all; he made his living writing words, but he understood deeply the importance of images.
He held up a card for the crowd to see. Many of those who had been talking stopped and turned, the picture of this patient man in a dark suit holding a single white card catching their attention.
“William Stearns, Washington High School class of 1966, killed in action January 1968.” Then, with a practiced flick of his hand, he sent the card sailing out into the crowd, watching it spin and flutter and finally nosedive into the grass just a few inches from a young man who picked it up curiously.
He held up another card. “Jeffrey Haines Jackson, Irvington High School class of 1965, killed in action November 1967“. This card sailed out a little further, flying and twisting and settling gracefully down several feet away.
Another card. “Michael Klein, Hayward High class of 1966, missing in action in a fire fight, October 1967, body never recovered, presumed dead.” A quick twist and the card flew away, causing someone in the crowd to duck as it sailed over their head.
Another card, another name, another death, another quick flick of the wrist. Then another. Then another. All young men from local schools, all shipped off to Vietnam, all killed or presumed dead, all coming to rest on the grass in front of the lectern.
Names, like rain, fell from the sky.
Some in the crowd picked up the cards, reading the names quietly to themselves, only to find another landing nearby. They hesitated, wondering whether to gather more, not wanting to let go of what they had. Others only stared, watching the cards sail down. Many wept.
Still they came. More names, more cards, more young men coming to rest. He was reading faster now, his quiet fury punctuating his words, his anger propelling the names into the air. Soon, the cards outnumbered the gathered crowd, cards landed on cards, small piles resting ingloriously upon each other. His arm started to get a little sore, but his voice never wavered. Another name, another name, another name…
There was mostly calm now, the crowd hushed by numbness, the weight of the cards too much to bear. At last he finished, one final card dropping fitfully down, the sudden silence awful in its finality. Without another word, the speaker strode away, and the people bowed their heads. Those assembled understood the terrible truth; that the speaker had not run out of names, he had only run out of cards.
(I was seven years old that late summer day when I saw the names fall from the sky. The man in the suit was my father. My brother never had to go to Vietnam.)