The Moving Wall

The Moving Wall in Hastings, NY
The Moving Wall in Hastings, NY

I went with some friends to a park in Hastings today to see the Moving Wall.  It was an extremely hot day, but another friend who is a Vietnam vet was volunteering at the traveling exhibition, and his wife was working it as well.  So we drove down in air-conditioned comfort to view it.

The Moving Wall is a half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC and has been touring the country for almost 30 years.  Even at half size it is somber and sobering.  All those names, starting in 1959 and going forward year by year–it’s overwhelming in some ways.  I have never visited the memorial in Washington, but I can see it would be an even sadder but fitting tribute at full size.

I was talking with Jose and some of the other volunteers as we stood under a tent to escape the sun.  They asked if I knew someone whose name was on the memorial.  I started to say no, because none of my family members had died, and my high school class was the last one to experience the draft, but none of them were called up.

Then I remembered.  I had a POW bracelet when I was in high school, and I remembered the name on the bracelet.  It was Col. Gregg Hartness, an Air Force pilot, shot down over Laos and missing in action.   Had he ever come home, or was he on the list?  I looked in the directory, and there he was.  Jose helped me find his name on the wall.

It really took me back to those dark days when the war was winding down, but people were still dying, still going missing.  I had sent off to get a POW bracelet to make my stand clear–anti-war for sure, but remembering the soldiers who were sent off to fight a senseless war.  I was so grateful that my own family members were spared.  And I was in high school, so I had that unpleasant adolescent smugness about making a noble gesture.  I remembering thinking, “Well, the war will be over soon and he will come home, so I won’t have to wear it long.”  Then I found out Col. Hartness was missing in action.  He never came back.

I still have the bracelet with his name on it.  It was strange to stand in that sweltering park and see his name again.

High School Daze

In high school I thought life was happening somewhere else, not in the rural backwater where I lived.  A lot of it happened on TV; I saw it every night.  I spent those years getting ready to be somewhere else.  And then I was afraid to go.

The black high school and the country high school were closed down, and we were all
bused into the white town high school for our sophomore year. I rode the bus for an hour and a half each way, every day.  There were 3000 students in the school.  One day there were rumors of a race riot.  I think two kids had a shoving match in the hallway.   One of my best friends was black.  The other black kids hated her; she was very smart and very sarcastic.  She designed her own clothes and was the first person I ever saw wear clogs or knickers. Years later she got into the New England Conservatory by threatening them with a lawsuit.

I wrote poems and stories.  I read Jane Austen’s novels for  the first time.  I read a lot of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and wondered what the missing parts were like.  I thought Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a sap.

I named my black cat  “Firecat” after the Cat Stevens album.  My mother changed his
name to Tom.  She said I couldn’t name him something she was embarrassed to yell out the back door.

We lived across the state line from Ft. Campbell, Kentucky.  Helicopters were always flying over our farm. My senior year was the last year of the draft lottery.  I got a POW bracelet two months before the cease-fire.  But my officer  was MIA in Laos, and he never came back.

When our new high school opened I only had to ride the bus for 45 minutes each way. Our school colors were green and gold, green from the country high school and gold from the black high school that had closed.  Our mascot was the Viking, so of course “Valhalla” was our song.  Our school was 60% white and 40% black.  We had black cheerleaders, band members and football players, even student council members.  We thought we were cool and only rednecks were racists.  A few years later drugs destroyed the school.    They
put a chain link fence with a guard post around the school.  Every week German shepherds sniffed through the lockers.

I had braces and bad skin for most of my high school career.  Then my senior year things started to change, but it was too late to become popular.

A lot of other things happened that merit more discussion, like my dad’s heart attack, and how Latin changed my life (really, it did).  More on those later.  But my high school days ended at last with graduation.

I was the valedictorian of my class.  The title of my graduation address was, “The Meaning of Life.”  I think it had something to do with service to others, which seems unlikely for me to have made up

Before my brother's wedding, 2 years after graduation

.  Four of my classmates got married on graduation day.   Then there was just a long, dull summer to get through, and my new life could begin.