Fifty-seven steps above me, behind twelve great pillars, President Lincoln sits impassively, looking out from his memorial chamber toward the Washington Monument, illuminated against the dark backdrop of night like a needle pointing heavenward. The very top tip blinks red to ward off airplanes and, perhaps, low-flying angels.
In the reflecting pool, the monument points directly at me.
I look back at Lincoln. For the moment, he has company enough—busloads of school kids and vanloads of families. A gaggle of middle-schoolers in red sweatshirts that say “Redwood City, California” race past me, the adults looking every bit as anxious to get up the stairs as the kids.
Instead of following them, I peel away toward the south, toward the Korean War Memorial, just a few hundred yards away.
I come up behind a slightly larger-than-life soldier cast in stainless steel. Draped in a poncho, he carries a hand-held radio and has a rifle slipped over his left shoulder. He looks a little surprised, a little worried, like I caught him off guard with my approach.
He’s one of eighteen such figures trudging through a narrowing triangle of juniper bushes and granite slabs. Spectral white light shines on each figure. They wear vague disquiet on their faces. Their eyes are hollow.
A smooth wall of black granite flanks the men on their right, and etched on that wall are faces, large and small, of men and women who served, who defended “ a country they never knew and a people they never met.” Maybe they’re the ones who went on before. Maybe they’re the ones who didn’t make it back. Now, they keep watch—and they remind me what the memorial means by its inscription “Freedom is not free.”
On the opposite side of the reflecting pool, along a different black wall, I find a watcher of a different kind. He describes himself as “one of the vets who walks The Wall.” I don’t catch his name, but he tells me he has held vigil at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial almost every evening for the past year and a half. “Even before that,” he tells me, “I’ve been coming here at least once a month since 2001.”
On this night, he’s the only veteran at the memorial, but a park ranger later tells me there are several “regulars” who walk The Wall and answer questions and tell their stories.
This vet, in his early sixties, doesn’t tell me about his service in Vietnam, though. Instead, his fight has been with the Veterans Administration. He’s been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and lung cancer from Agent Orange, he says, and the V.A. keeps denying him benefits. He’s hopeful that his latest appeal will get approved, he says, though it won’t be until May. Maybe then, he hopes, he can get the treatments he needs.
Until then, he spends his evenings at The Wall until eleven, when he can retreat to the homeless shelter he stays at. “They kick me out of there at six in the morning,” he says.
He doesn’t ask for money. He just asks to be heard. But then his pocket rings, and he pulls out a cellphone. “Hopefully it’s my buddy ready to pick me up,” he says.
We part ways, and I walk to The Wall’s far panels. In the dim light, I read names like David H. Whitchill and Jessie C. Alba and Nicholas S. Viankovich. There are so many of them. How often do they get read? How often do they get remembered?
The Wall is devoid of the memorabilia I’m used to seeing along the bases of the panels. At the bend in the wall stands a wreath of red, white, and blue flowers sent by an elementary school in Indian Valley, Virginia. Otherwise, there are no flowers, no photos, no teddy bears. The rangers must’ve picked everything up for the night.
On this night I also visit the largest of the mall’s war memorials. It’s the toughest for me to visit, too, because both of my grandfathers served in the war. As actor Tom Hanks once said, their generation did no less than help save the world. That was a pretty big thing for my grandfathers to be a part of.
The World War Two Memorial is comprised of fifty-six columns that form two semicircles—semi-ovals, really—around a rainbow pool alive with fountains. Each column represents a state or territory that sent men into action. A large pillared entryway on the north side of the plaza symbolizes the Atlantic theater of war while a similar entryway to the south, where I enter, symbolizes the Pacific theater.
And at the east end of the memorial, with Lincoln’s memorial as a backdrop, stretches a wall with 4,048 gold stars—each star symbolizing more than a thousand of the men who died during the war. “Here we mark the price of freedom,” it says.
My throat catches. I can’t help it. My father’s father wanted so badly to see the completed memorial, but like many of his comrades-in-arms, he died before it was finished. At the time, more than a thousand WWII vets were passing away every day—a rate, according to the Associated Press, that continues to this day. One study suggests that by 2020, all of the veterans of that war will be gone.
The memorial, as proud and sweeping as it is in its grandeur, with its wide granite plaza and magnificent fountain and inspiring words, hardly feels like it’s enough.
I walk back to the Lincoln Memorial to pay my last respects before heading to my hotel. I climb the steps, past the immortal words of Martin Luther King, Jr., inscribed on one of the plateaus to commemorate one of America’s most powerful dreams. I usually stop and stand on that spot, but tonight, something else pulls me.
Near the top of the stairs, I see a sign that says, “No sliding down banisters.” I chuckle because that sign means someone, at some point, thought sliding down the banisters was a good idea and probably learned, the hard way, that it wasn’t.
I pass between two of the pillars and into Lincoln’s memorial chamber. The soft light reflecting off white marble makes Lincoln glow.
To his right, on the chamber’s south wall, the Gettysburg Address looms large, but it’s the north wall I always find myself drawn to—to the closing words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.
“With malice toward none, with charity for all…” Lincoln said. He hoped for reconciliation and hoped to move forward with healing, “to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
That just and lasting peace has seemed elusive at times. But that’s what Lincoln and his army hoped for. That is, I think, what the veterans of World War Two, Korea, and Vietnam hoped for, too.
I cannot think of a finer memorial.