It was one of those summer weekends that Champaign County does so well. At the fairgrounds the Rhythm and Foods Festival lived up to its name with country rock groups providing the music and food vendors serving up something for every palate. And, of course, folks also enjoyed connecting and reconnecting with friends and neighbors.
A different celebration took place north of town. Military Appreciation Day at Grimes Field offered aircraft exhibits and activities including the military helicopter ride my brother-in-law enjoyed. A USO show and “Taps,” among other features, were all scheduled to honor the servicemen and servicewomen who protect and defend their fellow citizens.
Next door at The Moving Wall exhibit, visitors paid homage to those who sacrificed their lives during the Vietnam War. The half-size replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington travels all over, giving people throughout the country an opportunity to remember and reflect on those difficult years.
Fittingly enough, The Moving Wall was welcomed south of town at Freedom Grove where the World Trade Center beam, Bicentennial Bell, Walk of Honor, and commemorative bricks are on perpetual display.
The procession moved north through town past The Man on the Monument, whose bowed head honors his fallen comrades, the 578 Champaign Countians who gave their lives in defense of the Union.
I have already used several words that speak to our reasons for visiting monuments and memorials: honor, homage, remember, reflect, commemorative. The word “inspired” also described my emotions during visits over the years to monuments and memorials in the nation’s capital.
On a 4-H trip in the late 1960’s, I stood in inspired awe at the Lincoln Memorial. The imposing statue of a pensive Lincoln took my breath away, and I silently mouthed every word of his Gettysburg Address inscribed there, the speech I had memorized in junior high. Just as stirring were the words etched above the President: “In this temple as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the union the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.”
And from the memorial’s steps, where Martin Luther King, Jr. defined the American civil rights movement in his “I Have a Dream” speech, I cannot imagine a more breathtaking view than the one I beheld across the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument.
John Kennedy’s abbreviated presidential career impacted my early teens. His youth and vigor caught my young imagination; his assassination during my sophomore year was incomprehensibly tragic. Thus, a visit to his gravesite, located in the National Cemetery at Arlington with its rows and rows of markers, carried special meaning.
I had watched the lighting of the Eternal Flame during televised funeral services. However, the experience of seeing that glowing memorial in person so overwhelmed me that I barely remember the familiar inscriptions also displayed: “Let the word go forth … that the torch has been passed …” and “… ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.”
I also visited the nearby gravesite of JFK’s brother Robert. I suppose I saw the small, grey granite marker and simple wooden cross, but I clearly recall his engraved words: “…history is shaped each time a man…acts to improve the lot of others…” and “What we need in the United States is not division…not hatred…not violence…but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another.”
I first learned about the Vietnam memorial planned for Washington from magazine articles in 1982 outlining several controversies it was causing. From almost 1500 submitted designs in a national competition, the winning choice belonged to Maya Lin, a 21 year-old architect student born in Athens, Ohio, to Chinese immigrants. Ironically, Lin had received only a B in her class at Yale for her non-traditional concept of a black granite structure absent heroic symbols or patriotic insignia.
It was not, however, until my own visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial that I understood the significance of the wall to thousands of visitors making pilgrimages to the National Mall. The chronologically-arranged list of names is impactful in its powerful simplicity.
This memorial is the most interactive I have ever experienced. Images of visitors are reflected in the stone as they search for names, touch names, make rubbings of names – and remember. The growing list of almost 60,000 names etched there serves as eloquent witness to so many tragic losses and also to long-sought healing for the nation. No other inscriptions are necessary.
Another memorial in Washington always fills me with such sad reflection. Its materials are not bronze or granite, but fabric and leather. It is the Room of Shoes in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
An inscription explains: “We are the shoes…and because we are only made of fabric and leather and not of blood and flesh, each one of us avoided the hellfire.” However, words are totally unnecessary. That random pile of long-ago footwear – baby shoes and heavy boots, cloth slippers and leather work shoes – those “last witnesses” provide all we need to know. The sight and the smell serve as stark reminders of millions of innocent deaths at the hands of a sadistic “Führer” and his criminal regime.
Memorials allow us to remember and honor. Monuments provide commemoration and inspiration. Both also help us to reflect – and, hopefully, to learn from the lessons of our history.
Shirley Scott, a 1966 graduate of Graham High School, is a native of Champaign County. After receiving degrees in English and German from Otterbein College, she returned to GHS in 1970 where she taught until retiring in 2010. From 1976-2001 she coordinated the German Exchange Program with the Otto-Hahn-Gymnasium in Springe.