The Wall

It stood silently in the mist, the sun struggling to gain advantage - a cold northerly wind blowing, and the fog swirling in hazy patterns across its face. It loomed as an immense and forbidding presence, yet, it beckoned out of the shadows of the past, and Valeri could no longer not come to it. She held tightly to her Grandfather's hand as they walked slowly along the promenade. As they approached, what had been a sliver of darkness on the crest of the grassy knoll, seen from afar and amidst stately oak trees partially hidden in the fog, began to grow. As the sculpted landscape dropped away and down a slight incline, it exposed an expanse of midnight black granite, angular and powerful and calling. Valeri's eyes grew large as they approached, it was so huge. The stretches of lawn were a painterly pastel green, an illusion caused by the low-lying fog. In spite of this the blackness of the granite stood in stark contrast to its soft hazy surroundings. She clutched harder to Grandfather's large callused hand. She felt his warm secure fingers enfolding her hand, but in spite of feeling his protective presence, slowed her steps as they drew near to it.

She didn't know where it was coming from, but the light was diffused and all reddish, with dark sinuous lines branching all across her view. It was warm, and very comfortable, even if a bit crowded. She thought she could hear music ever so often, but her ears weren't hearing well enough just yet to be sure. Then, there were the voices - there was a constant chatter of people talking, and they sounded happy, or so it seemed to her. Of course, there were periods when she was asleep, and then she didn't know what was going on at all.

They were standing at the eastern edge of the monument. As Valeri looked down the brick and stone pathway leading along the face of the wall, she let go of Grandfather's hand. The Washington Monument rose behind them, immense, a silent sentinel half hidden in the silver grey of fog surrounding everything. Grandfather, too, stood in silence, tall and unmoving, steady, his hand ready should she need it, or want it. Valeri was just ten, and this trip was fully her idea, and he wouldn't push his way in or intrude unless invited. Her mother wasn't convinced she should make the trip, but Valeri was so sure. Now, she stood at the brink, stiffened ever so slightly, and brought her shoulders up and stood taller. Then, under Grandfather's watchful eye, she took in a deep breath and slowly stepped forward, her eyes focused on the landing at the bottom of the sloping walkway. She was going to meet her father.

Valeri's mother had always said that she was quite the active one during the last month, kicking and turning, and constantly moving in such a tiny space. She was also late by a week, by the doctor's calculations. Valeri doesn't remember the day she came home from the hospital, but her mother always said she was alert and looked at everything as though it were new; and, of course everything was. She didn't sleep much at first, and when she was awake, she waved her arms and kicked her feet; she was so active - so said her mother. Her mother took a lot of pictures that first year, and wrote a lot of letters to Valeri's dad, something she couldn't share until much later.

The black granite wall glistened under the wetness of the fog, highlighted subtly by the sun still seeking to overcome the silver grey that shrouded everything. As she walked slowly down the incline, she could see out of the corner of her eye, the granite, black as midnight, rise on her right until its straight-edged and level top rose over her head. It felt warm, the wall did, even though the weather was brisk with a stiff northwesterly wind coming in over the topside. It was warm, and alive, because of the names. Valeri knew why these names were here. Grandfather, who had researched the location before they came to Washington, had that morning given her a slip of paper with her father's name on it - and his new address: 23W, 21. Panel 23-West, Line 21.

When she was three, she invited Melanie and Paige and Billy to her birthday party, and it was a lot of fun, and the first birthday she remembers. When Melanie and Paige and Billy were picked up, their moms and dads drove up, and there was a flurry of good byes and thank you and see you again. She remembers this being the first time she asked her mother about where her father was. She remembers her mother crying a lot after that, and she didn't ask again.

Her father, Lt. Jason Lee Combs, had just one more mission to fly before ending his tour of duty in Vietnam. The year was 1971. He had graduated from the University of Nebraska with honors, an electrical engineering major, and even though he had a great job offer, had enlisted in the Air Force in the waning years of the war. People still did that then. He completed his flight training with superior marks, and was assigned to an elite fighter squadron flying support for the B-52 bombing raids, which, toward the end of the war were pounding the jungles of North Vietnam unmercifully, though in hindsight, ineffectually. On this particular mission a Russian made surface-to-air missile came screaming up out of the darkness and through the clouds and slammed into the tail section of his aircraft, and spotters flying behind reported seeing his ship spiraling violently down leaving a trail of thick black smoke. There were no parachutes; pilot and copilot went in with their plane. Valeri was eighteen months old when the men in uniforms came to their front door. Grandfather and grandmother had been visiting for the weekend, and as her mother told the story years later, helped her through the initial shock of the bad news. Valeri could not remember when she first knew that her father had died in the war; it seemed as though she always knew.

Valeri had finally gotten up enough courage one day to ask Grandfather about her father - she thinks that this must have been when she was seven. Her mother loved her dearly, she knew that, but whenever the subject of her father came up, she was never able to say anything; she cried instead. Grandfather got pretty wispy-eyed, too, but he would pick Valeri up and they would go out onto the swing in the backyard, or take a walk down to the drug store for a soda, or just sit in the window box looking out over mother's flower garden on the east side of the house. Grandfather told her a lot of stories about her dad - how they went fishing out at the lake when he was just nine, about his playing football in school, the time he ran out of gas on a date and the two had to walk 15 miles home in the rain, and about his courtship of her mother. He told her of her dad's dreams, that he was quite sensitive and that kind of a man - and of the night that he had called him and told him that he was going to be a Grandfather..

Valeri stopped as she reached the landing at the bottom of the incline, and saw her reflection in the shiny surface staring back at herself. She'd chosen to wear her new dress, the one she and her mother had shopped for several weeks earlier - it was light lavender with purple and light blue ribbons, had small lavender buttons up to her neck, with its hem cut just above her knees. With her hair pulled back, she looked just so beautiful. She could see that her face was a little tense, and she tried to relax - she didn't want to be sad when she met her father. Unconsciously, she reached out and grasped Grandfather's hand - he was right there, and the immediacy of his touch gave her courage to go on. She looked at the wall markers, and saw that she still had a ways to go. She moved on, but slowly now, letting the names etched into the face of darkness beside her flow across the visual fields of her mind. Names - people, just like her dad. People with families, grandparents, daughters - just like her. Stephen R. Chambers. Geoffrey L. Stephanopolis. Terence Brooks. Names. Valeri tried to see the faces that went with each name, and she closed her eyes, and reached out her hand and touched the wall, her fingers feeling the spaces etched out of the granite that was each a person: Charles T. Emerson, III.

Jeremy Barton was a slight boy in Valeri's third grade class. He was dark-haired, a little sickly and pale, and given to a mean temperament. One day he was walking past a group of girls, Valeri being one of them, and called out that her father was a baby killer. Jeremy got that look in his eyes, and laughed and ran off. Hurt and not understanding, Valeri went running into the classroom crying. Her teacher took her aside, but was unable to console her. When her mother arrived, she and the teacher sat with Valeri, and she, with a lot of pain, told Valeri about her father: that he was an airman who flew planes in a war that was now over; that he died on his last mission; and that he loved Valeri very much, even though he had never seen her because he had been away. Valeri asked why Jeremy said her father was a baby killer - and the teacher sighed, and said that some people didn't like the war very much, and thought that those who fought in it were bad people. That just wasn't so, she said...

The black wall seemed to go on and on - the names seemed endless. Valeri stopped and bent her head back to see the top of the granite wall. It reached to the sky, its upper-most edge softened by the lingering fog. The names - there were so many. The names were there, and while unspoken, except at the very first, they told the story of people. She thought of the little girls just like herself, whose father's had gone off to war and who never returned, and she began to feel the ache inside. Tears welled up and moistened her eyes, then rolled down her cheeks. She blinked, and rubbed the tears away with her free hand. Grandfather stood beside her; she looked up and said she wanted to stop for a minute now, and he said, OK. So, he waited. Her shoulders shuddered briefly, and then she seemed to compose herself. She said softly that she was ready to go on.

Trevor Neilson lived on the same block as Valeri for a time. His family had moved into the Ferguson house when the old man died, and the son decided to sell the house and move to San Diego with his family. Trevor was a most curious sort, and troubled. He was very smart and he knew it, and made everyone around him feel really dumb; he had a knack for doing that. He also had a mean streak a mile wide, and bullied all the children in the neighborhood. He teased and mistreated animals in the neighborhood, too, and hurt them when there weren't any adults around. He lied if anyone ever told on him, and held grudges if they did. Valeri learned soon enough to avoid him, when one day he started teasing her that her father was a killer of innocent women and children. Trevor would get that look in his eyes, laugh, and then run off. Valeri told her mother about these incidents, and she would put her arm around Valeri's shoulder and they would sit and talk. Usually, it was her mother who talked, mostly about what made people so mean sometimes, and then she gradually drifted to talking about Valeri's father and what kind of a man he was, and how she would have loved to know him. These were healing times, for her mother as well as herself, and Valeri would forget about Trevor...

Panel 23-West. Valeri breathed in deeply, and squeezed Grandfather's hand. She looked up at the shiny surface, and the names were all a blur, merging one into another. The wall, a deep midnight black, shiny in the subdued and hazy light, shifted into blue-black, then to shades of steel-grey, and back to the deep darkness of outer space. Valeri blinked her eyes and shook her head; she felt a little wobbly. She looked up into Grandfather's weathered face, and his warm brown eyes said, "It's OK." He picked her up in his massive arms and held her tightly against his chest. From her vantage point, Valeri counted down to Row 21, and then looked across the line of names: Edward P. Stewart, Peter Carpenter, Walter J. Templeton, Nathaniel S. Levine, Jason L. Combs - Jason Lee Combs. Valeri looked at the name, and felt as though it looked back at her. She reached out and touched the name - her father. It felt warm to the touch, and she pushed harder against the granite. She asked Grandfather if she could make a rubbing of it to take home. Grandfather said, Of course, and he pulled a piece of paper from his back pocket, and reached into his coat pocket and brought out several crayons he'd brought just for that purpose. Valeri turned toward the wall, and gently placed the paper over her father's name, and as she adjusted the paper just so, a hand reached passed her shoulders and a voice said, Here, let me help. Valeri turned toward the voice, and looked into the steel-grey eyes of her mother. I'd like you to meet your father...