A Vacation Detour to Vietnam
There are two main reasons why people spend the night in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan: to drop off or pick up a kid who attends Central Michigan University, or to shorten their lives and personal worth by spending time at the smoke-filled Soaring Eagle Casino and Resort. Not many, I suspect, make the trip to the very center of the Mitten to pay their respects at the Michigan Vietnam Memorial.
Honestly, we pulled off Exit 143 from US 127 simply to spend the night during a whirlwind two-day trip up to Cadillac and back. But the small sign posted at the exit noting the memorial with an arrow pointing to the right stuck with us. None of us had ever heard of such a memorial in Mt. Pleasant and before pulling out the next morning we took a five-mile detour to Island Park where we found the site, apart from the ballfields and picnic tables. It was not the sunken V of the national memorial in Washington D.C. It stood as proud and erect as the soldiers once did before they made the sacrifice that qualified their names for inscription on the brick-mounted tablets.
Names such as Von Der Hoff, Topolinski, Allen and Ball. They were better suited for marriage and fishing licenses, mailboxes and diplomas…and young families.
A few steps down the path the heartbreak of lives lost to a hopeless and foolish cause is slammed home by “War Cry,” a sculpture of a distraught soldier holding, caressing with love and despair the a wounded comrade who just a few hours earlier, may have told of his plans to start a family, buy a sports car, eat a cheeseburger or hug his mom.
Every moment of that era passed before me as my family and I slowly, slowly, took in every name, every flag, every monument dedicated to a time that colored the lives forever of those of us who came of age then. I recall marching on the Oswego, N.Y. Coast Guard station to protest the mining of Haiphong Harbor. I remember giving up the last month of my freshman year at Oswego State University to the 1970 student strike against Vietnam and spending that time attending seminars and speeches to learn more about that conflict and the history behind it.
The sculpture dedicated to the men and women who paid the same price during the first Gulfwar brought home the idiocy of the fact that humankind hasn’t evolved or learned enough that destroying other people continues to be the choice to settle differences among a so-called modern society.
A prominent place on my bookshelf at home is taken by a thin paperback with the journal kept by reporter Michael Herr during his stint in Vietnam. It’s called “Dispatches.” I bought it in 1978 at the suggestion of my wonderful professor George Ridge at the University of Arizona Journalism Grad School. After returning home earlier this week I was drawn to pull “Dispatches” from the shelf to search for just the right way to sum up my feelings sparked by my unexpected visit to Michigan’s Vietnam Memorial.
It’s this: “Vietnam. Vietnam. Vietnam. We’ve all been there.” The madness is, we keep returning.