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23 November 2006 @ 12:34 am
Supernatural Gen Fiction: Memento Mori  
Title: Memento Mori
Author: HalfshellVenus
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."

x-x-x-x-x

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.






 
 
 
octavia_boctavia_b on November 23rd, 2006 09:04 am (UTC)
Added to memories to read soon, I hope. Just wanted to let you know that.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 24th, 2006 06:31 am (UTC)
Thank you. :) I'll be interested to know what you think of it.
(no subject) - octavia_b on November 28th, 2006 03:10 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on November 30th, 2006 02:06 am (UTC) (Expand)
When it is darkest, men see the stars.: Flagwitchofthedogs on November 23rd, 2006 01:15 pm (UTC)
Thank you.

I just... That was...

Thank you.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 24th, 2006 06:36 am (UTC)
Oh, I hope you liked it. I very much see John having been part of that war, and all of the fear and conflict and fallout that resulted for it's soldiers.

The Wall had a history of controversy in our country for so long, but the initial negative reaction to it fell away for those soldiers and their families who visited it. It's an experience, not a scupture, and that makes all the difference in the world.

A very happy birthday once again to you, witchy. I felt this might speak to you the way this topic speaks to me. :)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 24th, 2006 06:37 am (UTC)
Thank you, Claire! I need to add some author's notes on The Wall for non-Americans. The initial controversy over it was so ugly, but once it was built and people went there they came back feeling it was perfect after all.
the lady is a tramptheladyscribe on November 23rd, 2006 02:22 pm (UTC)
That was beautiful. The Wall is my favorite monument in DC (although I haven't seen the WW2 monument yet). It's so elegantly different from all of the others there.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 24th, 2006 06:43 am (UTC)
That was beautiful. The Wall is my favorite monument in DC (although I haven't seen the WW2 monument yet). It's so elegantly different from all of the others there.
:) Thank you so much. I'm glad to find there are other people that this resonates with. It is such a deep part of my cultural past.

I haven't seen the WW2 monument either, but The Wall is my favorite DC monument. It's an experience more than just a monument, and it isn't fully understood until you go there and are among others who feel those losses so personally. It's a communal place of mourning, more than anything else.
Pheebs1pheebs1 on November 23rd, 2006 07:30 pm (UTC)
Gosh this was really lovely. John has many things he deals with , as well as what they currently hunt.

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. I love the contrast here, between his innocence before, what he thought wasn't innocence after, I guess, but now, after another realisation he knows was. Gosh I am not making sense, but I love the difference between the two wars John has fought in his life.

He fingered the dog-tags he still wore, an emblem of survival or maybe a reminder of those who hadn’t come home. Perfect to bring these in - it obviously is/was important to John. The boys knew that, because that's what they buried of him.

Really lovely.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 24th, 2006 08:02 am (UTC)
John has many things he deals with , as well as what they currently hunt.
His background as a soldier alone is complex, without adding the tragedy of Mary and all the Supernatural layers of what happened when he'd thought life was finally good. :(

love the contrast here, between his innocence before, what he thought wasn't innocence after, I guess, but now, after another realisation he knows was. Gosh I am not making sense, but I love the difference between the two wars John has fought in his life.
No, you caught exactly what I was going for here. He'd thought his greatest loss of innocence, back then, was the war itself. But now, he sees that he had more still to lose. Discovering a whole new world of unexpected and unending terror-- disconnected Evil took his wife away for no fathomable reason-- that destroys your faith in the Universe as a whole. :(

I'm so please you liked this, Pheebs. I had thought this might be of limited appeal, partly because this particular was is so much a part of my personal culture (country AND age), and it carries a weight and legacy that extend far beyond what the surface would suggest.

(no subject) - pheebs1 on November 24th, 2006 08:17 am (UTC) (Expand)
Blonde on the inside: sn in my time of dyingstormcloude on November 23rd, 2006 08:25 pm (UTC)
What a perfect day to post this wonderful story.

Happy Thanksgiving.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 24th, 2006 08:04 am (UTC)
Thank you! And I'm so glad that I'm not the only one who felt that the underlying theme worked well with Thanksgiving. Remembering sacrifices, and being thankful for what you still have... there's a part of this holiday that is all about reflection, and I'd hoped that would work for readers as well as for me. :)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 24th, 2006 08:10 am (UTC)
Ahhhh. This is incredible, hon.
Oooh... It's incredible to me that so many people outside the U.S. find this meaningful-- it's so personalized for me and a lot of other Americans. I hope I conveyed all of those feelings well enough for others to understand what John would have gone through.

*wibble*
So many endless, true stories just like that one in this war. The U.S. activated the Draft for it-- pulling in so many men who had no desire to be part of it, and many of whom had no means of getting out of being summoned (their families were poor, and they couldn't invent other options).

Oh, that's perfect. So John, and... I don't know, made me smile, just a tiny little smile, a little bittersweet, which ended this story on the perfect note for me.
:) That really seemed very John-like to me as well (years of dodging it, and after he finally does it he has to admit that Bobby was right). And 'bittersweet' is the perfect description for it-- a touch of humor and that grudgingness is so very John, and it makes you think of who he's survived to be rather than all the things that tried to destroy him.

So glad you liked it! *dances* And thanks so much for the lovely comments. :)


(Deleted comment)
the seagull is totally pete: son of adamtrinity_clare on November 24th, 2006 10:36 pm (UTC)
Oh, this is lovely. Thank you.
(no subject) - trinity_clare on November 24th, 2006 10:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on November 25th, 2006 07:22 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on November 25th, 2006 07:22 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Still Waiting For My Jetpack: supernatural - john (dogtags)azewewish on November 24th, 2006 07:05 pm (UTC)
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.

Absolutely perfect paragraph. War really is the worst on those who survive it.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 25th, 2006 07:24 pm (UTC)
War really is the worst on those who survive it.
It really is. It's horrible for the people fighting it, but to be left with all those sounds and images in your head-- or to have lost someone you love to it-- is harder still.

Thanks for reading. :)
the only blowup doll bobblehead on the internetimpertinence on November 24th, 2006 07:15 pm (UTC)
The Wall is one of two memoirals I've ever visited that have to be felt as much as seen--one of my sharpest memories is of visiting the wall for the first time, and my growing horror as I walked the length of it. It's a sobering experience for anyone, but the idea of John going there, knowing that the Vietnam War is almost the lesser of the two wars he's fought, is incredibly moving. This is a lovely piece of writing. ♥
the only blowup doll bobblehead on the internetimpertinence on November 24th, 2006 07:31 pm (UTC)
*memorials and the Wall. I swear I passed high school English. *facepalm*
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on November 25th, 2006 07:27 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 25th, 2006 07:32 pm (UTC)
That was absolutely beautiful! I have not been to Washington, but when I do get to make the trip, I will definitely go see it. And the note at the end was very telling and helpful (particularly, not being from the States).
Oh, I'm so glad that helped with the context of the whole story. It was a terrible war-- both for what it did to the United States and to the war's soldiers-- and The Wall, which seems so unremarkable in concept, provides an amazing healing experience for those who visit it.

For those outside the context (different age or different country), the responses of the other visitors are what really come through.
cindy: spn - dad and boys (by kiraboshi)tsuki_no_bara on November 24th, 2006 07:24 pm (UTC)
i remember vaguely when the wall was commissioned and built, and i didn't get what the big deal was until i was actually there, and then i thought the people who'd argued against it were wrong. it's a memorial - not necessarily to honor the folks who died or to glorify the war they fought, but so people will remember their names. that's what really hit me in this fic, the things john remembers about the guys he knew and watched die. they're not just names to him, they're people, and he needed to say goodbye.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 25th, 2006 07:37 pm (UTC)
I remember vaguely when the wall was commissioned and built, and i didn't get what the big deal was until i was actually there, and then i thought the people who'd argued against it were wrong. it's a memorial - not necessarily to honor the folks who died or to glorify the war they fought, but so people will remember their names.
And that's the part that was so misunderstood initially. The Design Committee (which included veterans) had the whole picture from the artist-- what the memorial was to DO and not just how it was to appear. But when you look purely at the design, and know that the other wars have monuments to bravery and such, I can see how veterans felt they were being slighted (and then there was the ugly factor of people responding merely on the basis of the creator being a young Asian-American female. Ugh.)

But The Wall is more memorial than monument, and one of the things I love is that it marks all the individual sacrifices of those who died. They are not some brave, faceless mass. They are people, and their loss should be felt on an individual basis. And what an extraordinary difference that fact makes to their families and to the other soldiers who knew them. People rub tracings of names off of The Wall, they leave things behind. It's a hugely individualized experience.

Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Cindy. :)
Ladyhawkewenchamok on November 24th, 2006 07:42 pm (UTC)
Beautiful. Perfect characterization of John. I really could see his image reflected on the marble. And I think his military service shaped a large part of his later character -- for better or for worse.

I'm still amazed how f#^ked up so many Vietnam soldiers were and are. My uncle was a Marine sniper in Cambodia when the U.S. government wasn't officially in Cambodia. He's not been quite the same since, according to my mom (I was born in '75, so I completely missed the war). He won't go into clearings in the woods, and he always carries a knife or two with him. I sure wouldn't want to startle him in the dark. But compared to so many other soldiers -- broken bodies, shattered minds, substance abuse -- he's been lucky.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 27th, 2006 06:49 pm (UTC)
And I think his military service shaped a large part of his later character -- for better or for worse.
Oh, me too. I also wonder if he didn't go willingly, as part of a dynamic he had with his own father. Something in John embraces the soldier where others reject it. So many interesting possibilities.

He won't go into clearings in the woods, and he always carries a knife or two with him. I sure wouldn't want to startle him in the dark. But compared to so many other soldiers -- broken bodies, shattered minds, substance abuse -- he's been lucky.
These are all the things soldiers built up to help them survive that particular war, and shedding survival behaviors is hard. Some people just can't do it. But as you say, because he's generally functional then he's doing better than most of the soldiers who returned.

Thanks so much for reading and commenting. :)
(no subject) - wenchamok on November 27th, 2006 06:59 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - halfshellvenus on November 27th, 2006 07:44 pm (UTC) (Expand)
arliss: Winchesterarliss on November 24th, 2006 08:41 pm (UTC)
I was there, and you got that part of it right. You got the John and the boys that I know right, too.

Thank you.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 27th, 2006 06:52 pm (UTC)
These comments mean more to me than you can imagine-- I've been to The Wall myself, and tried to recapture that experience but add in all of the far more important parts of what it would mean and seem to someone who'd survived that war. And still make it be John and the boys-- not just any random soldier.

Thank you so much for reading and commenting.
a rearranger of the proverbial bookshelf: John - strongembroiderama on November 24th, 2006 09:12 pm (UTC)
Wow, this is very moving. I really like that you explored the issue of the war he fought back then as compared to the war he fought later, and I like what you did with the Wall itself.

I went there for the first time when it was newish, but I was too young and not knowledgable enough about the history behind it to understand why my mom found it moving. I went back to see it again a few years ago, after leaning a lot more (largely though research for writing fanfic, ha), and it meant a lot more.
The Coalition For Disturbing Metaphors: Johnhalfshellvenus on November 27th, 2006 06:55 pm (UTC)
I really like that you explored the issue of the war he fought back then as compared to the war he fought later, and I like what you did with the Wall itself.
Thank you! That means a lot to me. :)

but I was too young and not knowledgable enough about the history behind it to understand why my mom found it moving. I went back to see it again a few years ago, after leaning a lot more (largely though research for writing fanfic, ha), and it meant a lot more.
The war was an entire piece of our country's history that changed many of us forever. And that aside, a monument that remembers individual people who died in the war and not the random bravery of a faceless few is such a hugely different experience. Somehow it seems more appropriate than the usual approach.