Characters: John (Gen)
Rating: PG-13 (Subject matter)
Summary: John makes a long overdue pilgrimage to The Wall.
Author’s Notes: This one is a late birthday present for the lovely witchofthedogs. She doesn’t follow Supernatural anymore, but I think she’ll understand this story better than anyone. "Memento Mori" is usually translated as "Remember that we must die."
They came to Maryland for a Black Dog, tracked it for days before they finally brought it down.
The whole thing was messy and somehow tedious, and all of them were glad when it was over. They celebrated over five kinds of pancakes at an IHOP— against John’s protests, but he owed the boys once in awhile. Then John found them a hotel in a safe but shabby neighborhood, and told the boys to lock up tight while he spent the afternoon on an errand.
"Why can’t we come?" Dean wanted to know. Sam’s eyes held the same question, behind a scowl directed at his knees.
"I need to do this one alone," John said. "You boys are old enough to stay here by yourselves, so long as you remember not to talk to anyone. I’ve left you some food, and the newspaper for research. I might be gone until dark, but don’t worry. And don’t open the door unless—"
"You tell us Mom’s favorite hymn in Latin," Sam finished in a bored voice.
"That’s right." John chose to ignore Sam’s tone. "See if you can find us our next job while I’m gone."
He closed the door on Dean’s dispirited face, and left before the boys thought up another tactic he’d have to refuse. Maybe tomorrow he’d take them to see the Capitol’s monuments. Or maybe they were too old for that now.
It was after one o’clock when he reached the Mall. He wasn’t entirely sure what he was doing there, but Bobby had talked his ear off about it just two days ago. "You have to go, John. To pay your respects, if nothing else." He’d had the chance a couple of times over the years, but he’d never done it—never thought it’d make a difference.
So here he was, now. Standing on the outside looking at some sort of battle-scene sculpture that wasn’t… didn’t… it seemed impersonal, unreal. Generic, like it could be any war and not his.
He saw the edge of the walkway, saw the black tip of the marble in a rising triangle that disappeared around the corner. The pictures of it from above looked like an inverted ‘V,’ and that made no sense to him. How was that a monument, when it looked like practically nothing? He still thought he was wasting his time, that this was meaningless, the whole damned trip.
But Bobby’d insisted, and Bobby wasn’t often wrong. So he went in. It wasn’t going to kill him.
The wall got taller as he walked down the path, the dates of years becoming apparent, and an endless number of names. These weren’t his years in this section—too early. He hadn’t come into the war until near the end.
There were flowers here and there, other things like teddy bears and photographs and medals. A navy uniform hat lay next to a pair of baby shoes, and he felt there had to be a story there, or maybe two.
Further and further down he walked. So many people were crying, some of them old, some in uniform. It was so quiet down inside there. Traffic noises were barely audible anymore, and the silence was broken by sniffling and an occasional whisper. He reached the highest point, the names climbing up overhead where he could hardly read the top few rows. The sky was bright enough to light up the wall’s surface as his gaze drifted on down. He saw himself, reflected back off the marble. Like a ghost behind those names, though the thought bothered him for some reason.
Still not far enough along in the chronology of the war, so he turned thoughtfully and kept on looking. 1971… 1972. He stopped, his chest suddenly heavy.
This was his year. This was when his part of the story began.
He looked for men he’d known in all those names traveling across stone in silent reproach. They weren’t alphabetized, he realized. When he found Hawley West, the order made sense.
West was the first to die in their unit, the first of three in a skirmish at Binh Tuyen Ridge. Sniper fire from the valley on the far side had surprised them, and West had gone down right away. Mayner and Brody had died of their injuries later, their names right here alongside West’s.
John’s unit had passed bodies in the jungle the week before, but that had been different. Those were VietCong— the Enemy. It had strained John’s stomach, but he’d held on, hadn’t shamed himself in front of the other men. The other— losing people he’d marched alongside for weeks, people he’d shared watch with in that mosquito hell of a swamp— that had turned his legs to jelly, seeing how still and empty they looked afterwards.
He remembered it, that helpless feeling. Remembered the weight of Brody’s body as they carried him off toward the chopper for the last time.
His eyes wandered down, searching slowly. Robert Rhodes—Bobby was what they’d called him. He’d come from a small town near Lubbock, and at night he’d whimper in his sleep with dreams he wouldn’t admit to during the day. A grenade took off his left leg, and John had held him while Armejian tried to form a tourniquet. But it hadn’t been enough, and all of them had known it. Bobby had been so scared, so terribly scared. He’d died afraid, and there was nothing they could do.
John touched the letters, wondering how Bobby would feel about being called Robert here. Was it more dignified, or was it like whoever’d collected the names hadn’t known him? John had known him—not his history, but he’d known who Bobby was.
He read on, past so many others. James Whitbrook had been in his squadron, a bookish kid whose family had no money. James had been real smart, could’ve gone to college maybe. But he hadn’t, and smart didn’t keep him from getting killed in an ambush in the Mekong Delta. John had held onto James’ copy of To Kill A Mockingbird until he could turn it over to be shipped back to James’ family. He’d written a note in it—"You would have made a fine Atticus, James." So much potential, lost before anyone knew what it would become.
Isaac Bomberg was further down the list, and Leroy Williams right below him. Williams had been a kid from the Chicago projects, a whole lot of attitude up front and a strange sort of quiet underneath. He’d been a track star in High School, but it didn’t help when the chips were down. Nobody can outrun a bullet. Williams had died only six weeks in country.
Izzy had made it to nine weeks before setting off a trip-wire bomb. He’d been a nervous type who told jokes to keep the nightmares away, but the men had liked him and he’d kept their spirits up. He hadn’t deserved to go like that—blown in half by the blast, panic on his face that would define him forever and erase the memories of his laughter. John could still smell the sulfur and scorched flesh, still feel the sickness in the pit of his stomach from when he’d witnessed the whole thing. Crouched down near the ground, he found himself tilting forward as the moment replayed itself. His forehead touched the wall, slowly soothed by the cool calm of the marble.
He’d been lucky to make it out. So many others hadn’t even come close.
Randall Sinclair. Gerald Smead. Lincoln Jones. Harold Lowder. He touched the names in turn, remembering faces, stories… deaths. As the war went on, he’d begun trying to keep his distance. Men came in, and went home in body bags short weeks later. It got harder and harder to see those faces and know that most of them wouldn’t even make it to the next season.
Sometimes he’d gotten close in spite of every effort not to. Once you’d known a guy for a few months, had slept on the ground next to him and done point rotation with him on recon, you had a definite sense of who he was. It didn’t matter if he liked the same things you did—didn’t matter if you had the same politics or background or skin. You put your life in his hands and kept guard when he did the same, and you formed a trust that was more than words or ideas.
No way to explain that, to someone who wasn’t there. Any soldier would understand it, but it wasn’t something rational. It was deeper than liking or logic.
John’s knees and back ached by the time he’d reached the point where his tour had ended, but he kept on going until the end. There were men who’d still had time left to serve when he'd shipped out for home. Some of them hadn’t made it. Not all of them were a surprise to him, but there were a few he didn’t expect to see listed there in the death toll.
So many people who’d died, too many he’d known himself. It had changed him, living through that. John remembered how innocent he’d been before, when he’d signed up because it was his duty. But even after, with deaths on his hands and screams and tears and gunshot filling his dreams—looking back on himself as he was then, back when he’d thought that evil was something created solely by men to make other men’s lives miserable… he’d still been so innocent and naïve. He hadn’t known then that evil was bigger than humanity. That sometimes it came without being called, because it could and because there was something it wanted.
John blinked that thought away—no sense dwelling on it when he’d made that war his own so long ago.
He followed the walkway up outside the end of the monument and stopped. The sky had shifted while he’d been down inside there, and the light was fainter now.
John was tired and emotionally drained. But he felt different— like a weight had been lifted inside him. Not that he’d thought there was anything wrong before—the war was long over, he’d made it through, and that was the end of it. But in keeping himself from thinking about it all these years… it seemed like he’d forgotten to let go of it. He fingered the dog-tags he still wore, an emblem of survival or maybe a reminder of those who hadn’t come home. Still part of who he was, and always would be. But he’d left something behind here today— laid it to rest with the names of the soldiers he’d known.
Getting late, he thought. The boys had been alone for hours, had probably gotten bored and edgy by now. Not that he was eager to face the possibility of attitude or moping, but they were good boys and he asked so much of them. No need to worry them any longer than he had to.
The ride back seemed so long, dusk and taillights until he finally reached the hotel.
Dean answered, after they went through their ritual with the Latin. His eyes searched John’s face with a hint of sadness, but he didn’t press for information. Dean never made things hard for John, and he really ought to tell the boy once or twice what a relief that was.
Sammy went the other route, avoided looking at John entirely. Typical. Whether Sam was mad because John left them or mad because he came back was anybody’s guess. Sam was always so extreme, either sweet or stubborn. These days he seemed angry more than anything else.
He is who he is, John reminded himself. And I’m lucky to have them both.
Dean cleared off the table, pulled out a chair for John to sit, there next to the remains of lunch or dinner. "Did you finish what you needed to?" Dean asked quietly, careful not to demand more detail than that.
John laid his jacket on the dresser, feeling through his words. He’d done it for Bobby this morning, or for the men they left behind. Not for himself, he’d thought then. No need to fix what wasn’t broken.
But he’d been wrong and Bobby had been right, and he hated that… but there it was. "Yes I did," he said in sudden honesty.
All these years later, I finally did.
------ fin ------
A/N: For those outside the United States, here is some background on The Vietnam War and the Veterans' Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C.
The Vietnam War was one of the most divisive events in United States history. Over time, the country's citizens vocally pleaded for the war to end while the country's leaders ignored them— even requiring compulsory service to provide enough soldiers for battle. The U.S. lost some 50,000 men and women to this war before it ended. Most of those who returned were haunted by the experience, some destroyed by it. This war was the first to combine several emotionally destructive components: around the clock fighting, concealing terrain turned to the advantage of guerrilla warriors, and subterfuge from some of the citizens the soldiers thought they were protecting. The unending peril required continuous vigilance to survive, and that survival-behavior proved hard to let go of when the soldiers returned. All of the things that are so terrible for soldiers of war were moreso with this particular war. And once they returned home, there was no-one they could tell about the horrors of what they'd lived through. To our country's everlasting shame, many people took out their hatred of the war on its veterans, further displacing them emotionally once they returned.
The Vietnam Veteran's Memorial in Washington, D.C. was commissioned by veterans of the war. The design infuriated many of those same veterans, who felt that the proposed monument did not celebrate the soldiers' sacrifices, and that it didn't have the air of dignity that the surrounding memorials did. Its creator had a larger concept in mind: the Wall would be a place of healing, a place for people to mourn the loss of those who had served. That is the part of the memorial that cannot be explained from drawings or photographs. It is an experience more than a piece of art. And moreover, it is absolutely effective in accomplishing what it was designed to do.
One might say that where other monuments celebrate the bravery of the soldiers who fought in a given war... The Wall honors the individual sacrifices of those who died. It reminds us that people— not all soldiers, not all willing— died for that War, and that they are missed by those who survive them.
For the curious, there is a good entry on the Vietnam Wall Memorial on wikipedia. And for younger Americans who want a feel for this War on film, I can recommend "Platoon" and also an incredible small-budget movie called "84-Charlie Mopic" that is raw, intense, and very realistic.