In June of 1964, Karl F. Perry wrote across his face in my high school yearbook: Remember the Alamo! Then he signed “Karl.” His handwriting was bold and beautiful; perhaps of all my male classmates who signed my yearbook, his showed a stunning display of cursive.
That year he was casually seeing a friend of mine who went on to be a doctor. She was bright, one of the top in our senior class; Karl was in my German class, and based on my foreign language abilities and low grades in Mr. Teeter’s class, Karl was most likely much better than me, but I don’t know for sure. In fact, I know nothing else about him, other than Karl died in Vietnam, just shy of his 22nd birthday in April of 1968. So his yearbook inscription was most prophetic.
I’ve searched and found Karl’s name many times, both on the original Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., and on a number of occasions at the replica, the “Healing Wall” that moves around the county and was recently on Marco Island. At each, I always tear up. I assume that many others do the same when they recognize or find people they know, if not out-right kneeling and wailing at the wall, which I have observed in D.C.
No doubt, most of us, particularly Baby Boomers, are all emotional when confronted with the impact of that particular memorial. Yet, what that emotionality stems from may be different from one person to another, and it may change or reveal itself differently as we grow older. It did for me.
This time on Marco Island, I felt a surge of significant anger as I walked across the grass to the tents and displays, before I got to the information booth and finally the Wall. There, I felt my usual sadness walking along the engraved names: Lost lives, lost love, lost families, lost time. It was that familiar, reverent, quiet moment we experience when honoring the dead, especially soldiers. Yet, when I looked at Karl’s name, I had that surge of anger again, and I wanted to scream out and flail on the ground and beat my arms in major protest against war in general and Vietnam specifically. Why? What jarred me so this time? A deep breath. A silent rage. Confusion. I remember.
Vietnam was a conflict waged without thought and responsibility; it is a poster child for political missteps, fear, ignorance and arrogance that sucked Americans in and took our youth. I was angry at irresponsible politicians then, and leery of them now, sending off young people to far away conflicts, and the sheep of humanity, including myself, not standing up early enough back then, or maybe at all now, to stop any slaughter. After this brief meeting with irrational feelings to make a scene, I composed myself and left, solemn, penitent, yet sanely chatting with people I know on my way out, over the grass to my car, to my life. It was finished; but war never is. I’ve seen it first hand, as it still lingers among the homeless, the jailed, the VFWs, in hospitals and rehab units, in families and through its decedents. Yet, heal we must.
Men bare the brunt of death as the cycle of war continues, just or unjust. Yes, there are “necessary” wars, but young men like Karl Perry die daily somewhere in the world fighting for something either they or their country believe, true or not. And, lest I ruffle any feathers, with a few exceptions, women die too, but more often ancillary to actual combat, or they become collateral damage on all sides of war, along with their children.
The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall does not remove my anger when confronted with the details; it does not remove my sadness or my feelings of collective guilt, which many of us bare or should shoulder. The Wall does, however, help to heal us by encouraging us to remember and reflect, to face the reality of war and to better understand ourselves, our emotions and our nation against its backdrop. So, here’s to you Karl F. Perry, Ithaca High School Class of 1964. I remember the Alamo and you! ‘Till we meet again at The Wall.