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May 31, 2004

A Pilgrimage

Vietnam Wall - A few years ago I gathered myself for a trip I knew I must take and had too long avoided. I flew into BWI in the late Spring and took a shuttle into the heart of the District where I had booked a hotel room hard by the convention center. The next day I started walking and passed by the restoration of Ford's Theater (where our greatest President was cut down). Lincoln at Antietammaking my way to the Navy Memorial. There I looked at pictures and histories of the ships that I had sailed in, (most of which had long since been made into razor blades). Fram-II Destroyers I talked one of the cordial staff into letting me wander the corridors of the executive offices where were some really fine oils of famous old ships that I had read about long before I entertained the notion of joining the outfit.

USS Kentucky
I crossed over to the National Archives where I looked again upon my Constitution and my Declaration of Independence. The building was packed with school-kids and tourists, all of whom seemed to sense that they were in a cathedral and behaved with unusual decorum, speaking in hushed tones. I was encouraged to witness this.
US Constitution Manuscript - Preamble and Article I
From the Archives I made my way to the National Gallery to visit my Monets. They were still there, and every bit as beautiful as I remembered. Monet's Waterlilies painting I was able to see but a fraction of the treasures housed in that building. I regretted not being able to set foot in any part of the Smithsonian, but I will return and revisit it some day(s). I started up the Mall to the monuments. Capitol Mall
The Washington Obelisk was in its final stage of renovation so the scaffolding had been removed, but they were still working on the interior and no one was allowed inside.Washington Monument I walked around to the right of the Reflecting Pool and took my time to summon some strength.

The Vietnam Memorial Wall The Wall was bigger and longer than I had imagined, but it looked just like the pictures and replicas. At the ends were the names of the last to die in that unnecessary war, but I was headed for the point where the two wings come together. This is not a symbolic "V" for victory. Make no mistake; this war was a mistake, and there was no victory here commemorated. At the juncture of the two wings I knew that I would find Panel Number 1, and the names of the first victims. It seems odd that of the more than Fifty Eight Thousand names on that Wall the only one I knew personally was the first naval officer to die in Vietnam. I did not know him that well. We were shipmates at Navy OCS in 1960, and he was chosen as a Company Officer. I have only the memory that he was a stand-up guy and a good officer, which is a sufficient epitaph for any man, I suppose. I ran my fingers lightly over his name and cried a bit for him, and for me.

Panel 1 (1959 on) Vietnam Wall


Lincoln Memorial exterior
I left the Vietnam Memorial so filled with grief and loss that not even a visit to Mr. Lincoln's Temple could cheer me up. Then, as I sat on the steps leading back down to the water I remembered a friend's words from a few months earlier when I mentioned to him that I would soon go to Washington. He had described his favorite spot, so I headed in that direction, as I had never been there. Sure enough, right across the street from the Vietnam Memorial, just where my friend said it would be, was the headquarters of the National Academy of Science. In front, in a spot shaded by some trees was a larger than life statue of Einstein. He looked quite approachable, as he is said to have been in life if you were a child. Feeling a trifle childlike as one is wont to do in that presence, I went and sat at his feet and found myself very small indeed. A while later, I got up feeling much better and went on.

Einstein NAS Statue

Looking back, I realized that by crossing Constitution Avenue I had journeyed from the nadir to the zenith of our species' accomplishments. So near, and yet so far.

Agent Orange Defoliant Spraying by US Aircraft in Vietnam Albert Einstein later years photo

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