Oct. 24, 1993, was the perfect fall day. The air was crisp and clean, the sky was blue, not a cloud in sight, a glorious day. My wife, mother-in-law, and an aunt and a cousin from Tar Heel land (North Carolina) went to D.C. But this was to be no ordinary adventure to our nation's capital.
Walking past the White House, there was an immediate reality check. Across the street, "Freedom Park," aka Peace Park. People of all ages and hues, men and women were living out of plastic bags . . . an American failure. Having anyone on these shores having to sleep under the stars because of no job, no food, no education, no hope; as human beings, the response to (( their challenge should be, "no way."
On foot we went from the White House to the Washington Monument. As we got closer to the Capitol, we realized today was not an ordinary day. Presidential buntings were draped over the balconies of the Capitol along with Old Glory in the middle. The strains of the robust marching tunes of John Philip Sousa could be heard through the Mall.
Suddenly, the clear air is shattered -- boom, boom, again and again, 50 times. The smoke and smell of cannons and howitzers. The military honor guard sending the special salute across the mall, filling me with a mixed sense of pride, history and responsibility. . . .
As the smoke drifted over us, the smell of war and death was unmistakable. Looming ever present was the reality that before this afternoon was over, I would be visiting one of my best friends and someone whom I have never met but who has been a part of me along with other MIAs, on my wrist, for close to 30 years.
The president was in the Capitol and had addressed the Mall in celebration of the Capitol's Bicentennial. "Freedom," which had been removed for renovation again, took its place upon the dome of our Capitol. What's $780,000? Just think how great it would have been to get the money donated for Freedom so we could feed, clothe and provide health care to those in their own "Freedom Parks" across the United States.
. . . We headed back to the car to go to "The Wall" and the Lincoln Memorial and their celebration of life, death, equality and freedom. I wondered what it was like to be there with Lincoln, but I lived "The Wall."
Vietnam -- a war that tested everyone of us. For me, it meant losing friends, making deep commitments that would affect my life forever, not the least of which was serving in the U.S. Marine Corps (Res.) after drawing number 52 in the lottery, while being against the Southeast Asian involvement. But my sacrifice was small compared to others, like Harold Bennett and Thomas "Tommy" Albert Dolan. . . .
My buddy Tom, was W-3, Line 127 and Harold was 1E-1, Line 79. That's their Wall address.
Tom was from Baltimore. Harold was from Perryville, Ark. My bracelet reminds me of how far we have yet to go in effective communicating among ourselves so that violence and death and pain will be in the past, not a prologue to the future.
Tommy and I were close friends. I was best man in his wedding. He was a devoted husband, father and brother. Yes, we raised a little hell together during high school and at the University of Maryland. . . . At the Wall, I remembered the look of helplessness in his eyes and Linda's, his wife, when he got drafted.
All those people at "The Wall," blocks of polished granite with the names engraved. My heart was pounding. I was about to see Tommy again and share time with a new/old friend, Harold G. Bennett. I've had Harold as part of my life since the '60s when I got his POW-MIA bracelet. I'm just coming to terms where I'll be able to get Tommy's. Overcome by the task of finding their names, a sigh of relief was realized, thanks to "The Book," an alphabetical catalogue on the Wall.
Towards the bottom was Thomas Albert Dolan -- suddenly, like magic, just as when his wife, his brother Jeff or his kids would come around, I could hear his laugh, voice and see his face. Although I never met Harold Bennett, standing at the Wall, I could sense the personal connection because of the bracelet. The pilgrimage for me, like those around me, was highly personal, leaving college sweats, flowers and messages. I left notes for Tommy and Harold.
As I left the Wall with my family to go revisit Lincoln, I could not help but wonder what Lincoln would have thought about Southeast Asia. In the time of our civil conflict, he was a healer, the great emancipator, perhaps that is why he presides of the south end of the ellipse, saying to all everything will be OK.
As a postscript, last April, I went back to Washington. I found myself again walking through Freedom Park looking into those faces, reaching into my pockets to give and asking myself the same questions.
Today would be different because while awaiting the train to come home, I would step into the time tunnel of the Holocaust Memorial Museum. I know that, like the Wall and Freedom Park, (( the memorial holds the secrets, smiles, horrors, tears and unfulfilled dreams and youths of my family. Their presence wraps my soul like a shroud.
Like the polished cold black granite of the Wall, the same polished cold granite greets you at the Holocaust Memorial. A giant headstone that invites one into an incredible journey, states, from the book of Isaiah 43:10, "You Are My Witness."
While I can't speak for my family, my "Freedom Park" is landscaped by hopes, dreams and the sobering reality that we must never give up on each other. . . .
Stuart Jay Robinson is an attorney in Bel Air. He also hosts public affairs shows on Comcast Cable of Harford County.