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Capital City Chronicles: Three Trips to the Wall

My Journey to the Nation’s Capital: Part 1

by Donovan Wheeler

Donald Trump wants to build a wall, and it’s apparently going to make America “great” again. People build walls for all kinds of reasons I suppose. The four surrounding me right now serve a rather obvious purpose as does the little retaining wall next to the swimming pool outside.

But there’s this one wall that changed my family.

I had just turned 17, and my parents dragged my belligerent, defiant ass to Washington, D.C. for a “much-needed” family vacation. At the time, I was caught up in my own “matters of state” which struck me as vastly more important than whatever it was Tip O’Neil and Ronald Reagan were bickering about back in 1986. After wrecking my car—twice in the same fender—I had finally gotten it back on the road…again. It was bit out of alignment after two dingers. The left front tire hugged the yellow line and the back right tire trailed into the white line on the shoulder. It shimmied violently once it reached 60 MPH, but it got me where I needed to go. And where I needed to go was this cute blonde girl’s house located six miles deep into some of the windiest, woodsiest back roads anyone has seen since Deliverance. She was interested in me, I was very interested in her, and now I had a car I could use to do something about it.

But instead I went to Washington. I don’t remember when I began phasing out of “snotty-stupid kid” mode and started transitioning into “awe-inspired young adult” mode, but I know exactly when that transformation had fully taken effect.

It was when we went to the wall.

My mom’s brother was killed in Vietnam two years before I was born, and his presence clung to every molecule in the air around us when I grew up. My grandparents never got over it. Neither did mom. While my parents only rarely talked about it when I was little, I was too oblivious to catch on. But by the early ‘80s, when I was a tad more observant, they had themselves one enormous 15-rounder. It ended abruptly when Mom softly tried to explain that “we didn’t lose the war.” Dad disagreed. Loudly.

Now we were at the wall. I was already numbed by D.C. The Air and Space Museum pushed my crooked car and the cute blond girl out of my head, replaced now with that prickly, goose-bumpy sensation you get when mythology suddenly becomes tangible. John Glenn’s capsule, the Kitty Hawk Flyer, and The Spirit of St. Louis seemed about as tangible as it could get.

But now we were at the wall.

Mom pencil-etched Uncle Jim’s name from its spot, just a little too high for her until she got on her tip toes. Panel 20E; Row 21. She cried quietly at first, then she sobbed convulsively. Dad had no words and tried to hold her as best as a blue collar man who grew up in the 1950’s could. On the way home he whispered one statement: “All those names.”

Public Domain Photograph.
Public Domain Photograph.

I went back to the wall almost a decade ago, and I tried my hardest to recreate the ’86 event. I stood somberly, thoughtfully and tried to touch Uncle Jim’s name—still just out of reach. But the past wasn’t happening. My own family stood around me, aware of the significance of the memorial but totally detached from the anti-climax playing out before them. It wasn’t their fault. They weren’t there two decades earlier. I couldn’t make me into mom. I couldn’t make them into me.

Last month I returned for my third visit. A couple of twenty-something, slick-haired, Sperry-wearing, Izod-covered, Twitter-babies carried on about their cell phones’ battery lives…or their “newsfeed”…or the senator they were all interning for. I don’t remember what they blathered about, I only remembered that they blathered. Loudly.

I had already dealt with enough 21st century groupthink on this trip. I watched a small town’s worth of people wading their feet in the WWII pool (even though the signs said not to out of respect). I listened to another hundred deafening conversations at the Lincoln memorial (even though those signs requested silence for the same reason). By the time I worked my way to panel 20E, I had endured all of the variations of blatant disrespect and cheaply cosmetic attempts at it that I could stomach.

Then I reached it. Panel 20E. Still on Row 21, still just out of reach. “Do you want to make a copy of his name?” my fiancée, Wendi asked me. I assumed during the trip to Washington I would. I guess I thought I’d give another shot at repeating ’86. But I wasn’t feeling it, and I didn’t want to pretend that I did.

“No,” I said to Wendi. Mom had passed away only a couple months before, and I was over twice the age Uncle Jim was when he died. When I looked at his name I didn’t feel any tears coming. I didn’t hear the somber notes of a John William’s soundtrack, either. I did feel pride though. A lot of it. It took me three trips to the wall for it to happen, but when I walked away the last time, I smiled. The blabbermouths were still going on some hundred yards beyond us. I glanced over to them, and figured that maybe in some weird way this is what memorials are supposed to do to our grief.

So, when I hear Donald Trump tell us that his wall will make America great again, I think he’s too late on that idea. We already have a wall for that. It’s done an amazing job.

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About Donovan Wheeler

Wheeler proudly teaches AP Literature and AP Language to some bright and lovably obnoxious kids in a small college town. He is the senior editor for the craft beer website Indiana on Tap and writes to ISU's STATE Magazine. Since putting in a pool he can now dive in head first (with goggles), and he has mostly stopped throwing golf clubs, but he still hates to fly.

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