Judith Arcana


When the Bush administration invaded Iraq, I began to have frequent flashbacks to Vietnam. This was not because there've been no other US-made wars since then; there've been plenty. The flashbacks came, I think now, because this war, right from the jump, felt so similar—perhaps most of all in its miserably predictable prolonged history. When I began to write about war, then, this memoir essay was the first thing to come out. Now the Obama administration is struggling with ratcheting up Afghanistan, after and despite the Russian experience (something like ratcheting up Vietnam after and despite the French experience, no?). So here's the war essay, still (maybe always) relevant; the names—o, all the names!—may be changed; not much else will be.

Last time I was in the District of Columbia, I went to the Vietnam Wall and copied down names in my notebook. I'd been there before, and what I did each time was walk along and read the names, walk along and watch the other people, listening to what they said, seeing what they did. The first time I went I read the names to myself, inside my head, like when you read a book. After that, I sometimes whispered the names, like if you move your lips when you read; sometimes I said them out loud, not real loud, but people could hear me if they were nearby. I did it on purpose, wanting to say the names out loud, wanting to hear them spoken.

That last time, without meaning or planning to, I started writing them down. I don't know why I did this. At first I just picked out names I liked, names that made me think I could see the person. I guessed, pretended I could tell what they looked like from reading their names. Then I got the idea of having a cross-section, making groups of names like in a Hollywood war: names in Spanish, Italian and Polish, names that were apparently Jewish and Irish, names that lots of Black men have—that sort of thing. I knew I couldn't really tell, but I did it for a while anyway. On the next memorials, of course, there'll be more names like Sayeed and Ng, but in those days, if you use the Wall as evidence, there weren't many on what is generally called "our side."

I wrote down names that made me think up stories, imagine hair colors, hear dialects. Knowing I was probably wrong in my guesses and stories, I wrote the names down anyway: Blaine Pittard, Austin Teeth, Sasa Ute, Lars Olssen, Dick DeGraf, Tony Palacios.

Then I wrote down only last names for a while: Zomberg, Littlejohn, Swafford, Lacy, Boyd, Easley, Almanza, Candelaria, Junkins, Dunkenberger, LeBeau, Kidwell, Toschi, Preddy, Starkweather, Cayce, Lozano, Terhune, Cutshall, Nazarino, Bixby, Duplechain, Hertler, Shank, Shay, Marcus, Czernota, Rouska, Flournoy, Lovelace, Garside, Varner, Boots, Epperson, Bodgett, Rocha, Hipke, Martell, Clegg, Lapochonsky, Jacobson, Tolleran, Allenburg, Hoskins, Guyer, Mainardy, Pritikin, Matusek, Kinkaid. I have more, but you get the idea. All together they sound like a choral recitation, a prayer, even; we could recite them along with—or maybe as—our pledge of allegiance.

And then I wrote down only first names: Simmie, Ennis, BillyRay, Nelson, Winston, Donald, Domingo, Paschal, Pedro, Maurice, Vernon, Clayborne, Gerald, Earl, Mack, Curtis, Cyril, Amalio, Burdette, Rogelio, Clarence, Toler, Raymond, Angel, Zane, Wade, Elton, Dewey, Joel, Ivars, Reynold, Troy, Delbert, Aster, Youssef, Calvin, Terry, Noah, Quentin, Upton, Clyde, Homer, Darius. This variety thrilled me because the daily preponderance of Bob and Chuck and Tom and Richie and Juan and Jose and Roosevelt and Kwame had limited both my expectations and my imagination, despite the influence of experience.

I started to write the first names from some with the last names from others, wondering what this might say about who Americans are, as a people, if we are a people. But then I thought that would be disrespectful, so I stopped. I did not want to disrespect those dead men and boys, or the people who come to visit their names. They come to the Wall as if to a grave, to visit the person whose name they're looking for; and so did I, in a way. I was visiting them too, thinking about who they were, remembering how I saw them on television every night for years, at six o'clock and ten o'clock; every night their lives were on tv and we all watched. We saw them running through fire. We saw them cleaning their rifles, taking showers behind khaki curtains in the jungle, being loaded onto helicopters in stretchers; we saw them smoking cigarettes. We saw them killing small communists dressed in black. Sometimes we saw them beat people up, saw them smoke dope instead of Kools. Like Yossarian, whose made-up story got very popular during that war, they all knew somebody was trying to kill them.

My brothers, my husband and friends were the ones who would go or not, sign up or be drafted, get a deferment or a good lottery number, cross the border, lie to doctors, scream out in the streets of drifting tear gas. I was a high school teacher then and knew that some of my guys would go, would kill people, would die. Our school had tracks, like a lot of them do, and I taught all the tracks. I taught Honors classes every year, and sometimes Regular, and I liked those well enough, but I asked for what was called Basic. The kids in Basic called it Dumb Track. Except for my friend Janie and me, teachers pretty much didn't want Basic. Janie and I thought the kids in there were smart, because they were. The boys who took apart cars and motorcycles sometimes planned to work for the phone company; the girls who wore thick mascara and ratted up their hair often worked the checkout at Family Foods. The girls and boys of Basic knew that more of them would go to Southeast Asia than kids from other tracks. They knew how the system works.

In December of 1969, my husband was still betting on his seriously bad eyesight and flat feet; my younger brother was making jokes about psychiatrists, and my older brother's wife was pregnant. At school, we'd had three teach-ins organized by kids who feared the lottery as the end of their college deferments, while some of my Basic boys figured the lottery might keep them from going. Others had already gone. Why not get it over with? Lloyd Jenkins asked rhetorically at the next graduation, when I startled at the news that he was leaving in two days.

I'm not saying I was looking for Lloyd's name, or any other of those boys I taught. In fact, I wasn't. When I visit the Wall, I never do that; I never read the book and I never have anyone I know in mind when I read the names. I've never come across a name I know, either. But of course they must be there, those boys, even if I never saw them on tv.

To this day, not one of my uncles or cousins has ever said a word about WWII or Korea—not a one of them; but one man told me about Vietnam. He told me about guys who openly disobeyed their officers, turned their backs when the lieutenant said, Thompson, check out that hut, or: Jefferson, Go ahead, scout the next hill. Or: You two—Gomez, Rosenbaum—go into that cave and check for VC. In 1972, when we lay on the mattress on the floor of his one-room apartment, that man told me about fragging, which had made big news at six and ten o'clock when he'd been over there. He said this wasn't the first war when soldiers killed their officers, or even the first in which they simply disobeyed. But maybe it was the first when everybody knew about it and lots of them thought it might be all right.

So some of the men and boys I was copying into my notebook had refused to obey orders; some of them had given orders nobody would follow. Some of them died in jeep accidents or fell out of helicopters or drowned—things that could have happened to them in Oklahoma or Delaware.

I recorded names with three parts; I decided these could have either three full names or two and a middle initial, or a Jr, Sr or number at the end. The length and composition of those three part names carried a weight I could feel; saying them out loud was incantation: Bobby Lee Wheeler, Frank T. Nevidomsky, Carlos Guzman Carbajal, Larry Gene Whitehead, Ronald Z. Katz, Dewayne M. Selby, Jimmie Dee Cook, Jerry Roe Grubbs, Billy Bob Leyerle, John A. Keepnews, Harlene E. Millette, Ronnie Lee Eckenroad, Jesus Robledo Jr, Kernell P. Bradsby, Leon T. Culverhouse, Donny Ray Chastain. I know you can see what I mean.

There are also names with four parts, like Willie F. Oxendine III and Everett E. Woolums Jr; these are such impressive names I imagine them written in gold leaf on office doors, in calligraphy on diplomas, in raised ink on formal business cards.

The last thing I did was, I wrote down some names just because they charmed me: Arman Grushenkian, Frederick Mezzatesta, Rufus Sirmany, Victor Boochko. My love of these names may come from my training with grade books: every year, every semester in those years, I got new lists of names like these. From the beginning of my teaching, which was right around the beginning of people in the USA knowing about war in Vietnam, my fascination and affection for high school Scarlattis and Finkels was strong. My class lists were filled with Antoninis and Greenbergs, punctuated occasionally with colonial exotica: Smith, Carpenter, MacGregor, Lawson. The cultural composition of Niles Township High School, notably skewed, must have seeded my affection for names that carry imagery, music and story.

One thing that happened last time at the Wall is that people asked me questions; they asked me for information, like how the names were arranged, and how to find a name you were looking for. I told them mostly common sense, like no, the numbers on the bottom couldn't be years, because we weren't over there in all those years, like 1949. The French were there then, not us, I said to one man and he smiled and said, Yes, right, that's right, these couldn't be years. I told them all to look for the ranger, who would know the answers I didn't. And he did; I heard the ranger answering people up and down the line, sending them back to the books at each end, where all the names and locations are logged—sort of a memorial address book. No other time at the Wall did anybody ask me these questions, and I think it was because of the notebook. They saw me writing things down. I looked like someone who knew something.

Occasionally, though, I'd stand still and cry. No one asked me questions when I was crying. Even though I was a browser—writing in my notebook, finding names that appealed to me, wondering about lives I could only fictionalize, a visitor whose attachment to those thousands is generational and generic, not personal and specific—I cried. I wonder if my crying would've been different if I could make myself believe they all died for a good reason—for liberty, for justice—any good enough reason. I wonder if I can think of a good enough reason. I wonder if anybody can think of a good enough reason.

—Judith Arcana

First published in VietNow 14.2, 2004 (most recent edit: February 16, 2010).

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