Six white votive candles are left burning at the base of the wall after everyone has gone. There are only the candles and the flickers of light that dance above them. Lit from below, the names carved into the face of the wall don’t stand out as words. Instead you see fingerprints where a name has been touched, marked by the oils from living skin.
It’s almost 2 in the morning on Memorial Day 2012. Usually the Vietnam Veterans Memorial would have a carpet of mementos and letters in front of it on this, the eve of Rolling Thunder, when thousands of veterans, motorcycle riders, and onlookers congregate in Washington. Indeed, they thronged to the wall earlier and left hundreds of cards, grandchildren’s drawings, and teddy bears plus one rolled-up canvas that might have been a tent or a tarpaulin. But tonight the rangers have cleared everything away by order of the Secret Service. The President will speak here tomorrow.
All of these items are, officially, suspect.
Bernie Pontones got here late, after the sweep-up. Bernie’s a sixtyish guy with a long white ponytail, a veterans’ advocate in Grove City, Ohio. He placed a candle in front of the wall for each of six men who remain in his thoughts.
A teddy bear decorated with uniform name tapes was left by a member of a California chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America.
Photograph from the book Offerings at the Wall courtesy of Turner Publishing.
Ask Bernie about them and he’ll tell you what he remembers or has pieced together: Greg, the kid he knew from church, was killed when a runway was mortared and his plane flipped and burned. Sammy, who’d been in Bernie’s platoon, turned to his buddy and yelled, “Get down!” instead of getting down himself. Gerald, who trained with Bernie at Fort Benning, was in country less than a month when he bought it. Bernie doesn’t know how. The sergeant, who heard a noise and threw his grenade. It bounced off a tree right back at him. His body shielded the blast for the rest of the men, including Bernie. Robert, from high school—Bernie doesn’t know how or why or when, but he died late in the war, when the end was in sight and death seemed particularly cruel. Ron, who had volunteered for active combat. They say he slipped in the rain, fell, and somehow detonated his grenade. Damnedest thing.
Despite the solemn setting, Bernie’s almost giddy tonight, leaving burning sage all around the wall, less because he believes in the herb’s healing powers than because it strikes him as a silly, New Agey thing to do. And he believes in the healing powers of silliness. He laughs, remembering the monkeys that threw rocks at them over there. “Lifer fragged himself” is how he tells the story of the sergeant, the grenade, and the tree.
This candle-lighting ceremony is cathartic for him, he says, a long overdue release: During the war, there was no time to process all the sudden death. As they said at the time, “F--- it. It don’t mean nothing.” You had to postpone your mourning.
“If you were distracted by grief,” Bernie says, “you couldn’t keep yourself safe.” You’re fighting a war. You’ll have the rest of your life to grieve.
Bill Schools is here with Bernie. He’s more interested in conversation than in the wall tonight. Bill’s a Rolling Thunderer who’s here in the wee hours because that’s the only time Bernie will come. Bernie is still bothered, all these years later, by crowds and camera flashes.
So now the members of this small contingent from Vietnam Veterans of Ohio, who drove eight hours to get here, have the wall to themselves.
Chris Smith came with them. He doesn’t look for any names. He kept his distance over there—that’s how he protected his psyche. Chris doesn’t look at the wall for more than a few seconds, even when standing right in front of it. His eyes don’t rest. He doesn’t always come along, but Bernie and Bill persuaded him this year.
The men leave, and as soon as their voices fade, all that remains is their flickering gifts.
Without Bernie to explain them, the candles have no story. They’re six pieces of a puzzle that could depict anything at all.
The wall is about stories. The little ones are told in the letters and objects left behind—eccentric items that speak of matters so intimate they may be indecipherable except to two people—one living, one dead. Bullet casings soldered into a circle. Five cans of fruit salad. A teddy bear, loved threadbare. A harmonica. An ace of spades. A handful of gravel. A model carousel. A toothbrush. Graduation tassels. They’re all pieces of a larger story still under revision, about the meaning of an unpopular war conducted in a small country among three superpowers with competing geopolitical ideologies—a proxy war with inchoate objectives that killed a lot of people and sent others home in varying states of disrepair.
That story is complicated.
Along with this offering was a note: “Left for our beloved only son, Dead at age eighteen.”
Photograph from the book Offerings at the Wall courtesy of Turner Publishing.
But it’s one the National Park Service relentlessly pursues. Bernie’s candles are gathered up by park rangers and put into big blue boxes. The boxes are hand-trucked and golf-carted to a temporary storage room near the Washington Monument, where they await transport to the Museum Resource Center, or MRCE, pronounced “mercy,” a gleaming modern facility in Maryland that houses 40 historic collections from National Park Service sites around the region. The candles get 30 days or more of isolation and are checked for organic matter—flowers, potpourri, marijuana, unsealed food, tobacco, anything that might carry mold. That stuff is “deaccessioned”—thrown out to protect the rest of the collection.
Then the artifacts go into the cotton-gloved hands of Duery Felton Jr., curator of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Collection, a decorated Vietnam veteran who has devoted himself to this work for 25 years.
Felton is a young-looking 65. He’s compact, with a shaved head and a cane he sometimes carries but rarely uses. He works in blue cotton garments that resemble scrubs, and he moves with grace. Give him a mask and he might be a surgeon.
Duery Felton doesn’t want to be written about. Ask him about his thoughts and feelings—how his life would be different if there were no Vietnam Veterans Memorial or what the hardest part of his job is—and he answers the question he wishes you asked instead.
He pauses, touches his fingertips to his closed eyelids, and begins: “I can tell you this one because he has died.” He answers your question about him by talking about others. Even then he won’t give a name or even an approximate year. Part of his sacred duty is keeping the secrets of the 58,282 people named on the wall and their loved ones.
Get him off the record and his face softens, his eyes widen, and he smiles easily. But he’s wary of expressing opinions and thoughts of his own or imposing his meanings on the objects he curates. Being interviewed is part of his job, but he speaks as a representative of the National Park Service, not as Duery Felton.
Profoundly injured during the war, Felton will sometimes tell some of his story and sometimes not. He’ll sometimes confirm or deny what others have written about him, and he’ll sometimes smile and change the subject. Before media and researchers are allowed into the facility where the collection is housed, they must sign a document affirming that collection staffers have the right to refuse to answer questions or give personal opinions.
Which of course they do with or without such a document. But Felton prefers it this way.
There’s no mystery about Felton’s importance to this project. Even a generation later, veterans and veterans’ groups remain mistrustful of the government but not of Felton, who’s their go-between. Objects show up at the wall addressed to him.
“Duery—you will understand,” reads an envelope containing a war diary. When rumors went around that the collection was stored in a leaky room with rats, Felton invited veterans’ groups to see the acid-free boxes and the temperature-controlled rooms where the objects are kept, alongside Clara Barton’s furniture and Frederick Douglass’s piano.
Even now, Felton proudly shows off a tableful of insect traps—used—each with a number denoting where in the facility it was placed. The contents of the traps are entered into a database to track incipient infestations. Felton is guarding treasures.
His insistence on his own privacy, however, has attracted all the more curiosity. In, of all places, Wiki Answers, where anyone can answer any question at all (Q: How many types of rhinos are there? A: Five), one of the questions is “What happened to Duery Felton Jr. in Vietnam?”
It remains unanswered.