The black metal of the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall is polished to a gleaming reflective finish. When you look at the 58,260 names etched onto it, you see yourself looking back. • People who visit the memorial tend to use one word to describe it: Overpowering.
"It's unbelievable how many died. You don't really get a perspective until you see it," said Nancy Patterson of Clearwater Beach, who found the name of her younger brother, killed in an ambush near Da Nang at the age of 20.
The wall, a 3/5-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., continues to be on display today and Monday in the Carpenter Complex just north of Bright House Network Field.
A steady stream of people are making pilgrimages to it. They drive up in Harleys, minivans, Porsches and beat-up pickups. They have McCain and Obama bumper stickers.
In the outfield of a baseball diamond, they solemnly walk the length of the wall. They make pencil rubbings of the names of sons, brothers, fathers, friends. They leave poems, flowers, cigarette lighters, bullet casings.
They stand and stare, trying to take in the enormity of all those names: Clyde Evans. Luther Chappel. Brendan Turner. Armando Ramirez. Martin Owens. …
A lot of people leave in tears.
Bill Gray, a big, tall, long-haired guy from Palm Harbor, broke up after seeing the names of a high school buddy and two men he knew in Vietnam after he got drafted in 1970.
"I spent six months, 24 days and 14 hours there. You could get killed at any minute," said Gray, 59. "I remember camaraderie and fear. Smells and sounds bring it back more than anything — diesel fuel and helicopters always remind me.
"This is moving, that's all I can say."
• • •
The original Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened a quarter-century ago amid much controversy. Its abstract design wasn't like our traditional monuments — majestic-looking Greco-Roman piles of white marble. Some veterans complained that it looked like an ugly scar in the ground, reflecting the stigma attached to their war.
But the stark simplicity of the wall serves as a powerful metaphor for visitors who walk its length.
Like the war itself, it starts small, rises to a peak, then tapers off again. The listing of the names, dating from 1959 to 1975, begins slowly and grows in magnitude. Visitors gain a renewed understanding of the trauma that gripped the country during the Vietnam War.
The Washington, D.C., memorial draws millions of visitors a year and has inspired the construction of several traveling replicas like the one that has come to Clearwater.
• • •
Displayed near the wall in Clearwater is the "Some Gave All Traveling Tribute," a series of polished metal panels honoring Americans who died in Operation Desert Storm, in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Like the Vietnam memorial, it's a simple, elegant listing of their names.
"I'm glad they included my generation," said Paul Finfera, 26, of Clearwater, who recently returned from a second tour of duty in Afghanistan. On the panels, he read the names of people he had known over there.
"I hope that one day they can have a permanent memorial in D.C."
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.