A Day at The Wall

by Brian Delate, actor/filmmaker/veteran

It’s a late sunny afternoon when my daughter Tirsa, now in sixth grade, arrives home from school. She runs in, drops her school backpack, and heads upstairs to my home office in Pennsylvania. She gives me a brief, energetic hug and steps back. “Hey, Dad, were you in a war?” I turn and point to the pictures next to the window that overlooks the front yard.  She notices a small framed snapshot on my desk from Vietnam and says, “Who’s in that picture with you?” “That was a good friend, Buster, but we called him Boysahn because he didn’t have to shave.” “Wow, Boysahn’s cute, but so you were, Dad.”

I mumble 23-W to myself. Tirsa says, “What?” “Nothing.”

Tirsa glances at the other pictures, along with a couple of certificates I received, and asks, “So, then you’re a veterinarian?” I laugh and add, “No, sweetie, I’m a veteran.” Now she laughs and then points to a framed photograph of The Wall in Washington, D.C. This picture is special because my mentor and good friend Ellen Burstyn shot it and gave it to me as a present. At this time, I was developing my play Memorial Day at the Actors Studio. Ellen was a phenomenal guide. “Dad, can we go there?” “To The Wall, sure.”

Fast forward – my wife, Karen, Tirsa, and I head for D.C. to see Karen’s cousin for a long spring weekend with those magnificent cherry trees in bloom. Late morning the next day, Karen and her cousin are off to the Smithsonian as Tirsa and I head to The Wall. It’s overcast and close to seventy degrees. Karen and I had been to The Wall before, and I’d visited it on other occasions. This time felt different, and Tirsa was curious. “When did they build this, Dad?” “1982.” As we neared the site, we could see people gathered, but couldn’t see The Wall yet.

The vendors nearby were selling everything from ice cream and Americana trinkets to war memorabilia. We stop at a long table covered with stacks of military baseball caps and unit pins. “Which one is yours, Dad?” “See that pin with the blue shield and four white stars?” She nods. “That was the unit I served in, the Americal Division.” I touch that same pin on the collar of my jean jacket. “Would you like one, T?” She smiles.

“Excuse me, how much is that pin?” The chubby and exhausted-looking woman says indifferently, “Ten dollars.” I start to boil and focus my glare on her. ‘What the…’ My daughter sees the emotional darkness in me about to erupt. “How dare you charge that much?” Now I see fear in this woman’s face. As she tries to regroup, “I… I just work here, sorry.” As I’m about to turn the table over, Tirsa gently takes my arm and says quickly, “Dad, you have your pin, that’s what counts.” She pulls me away, and I’m glad, but now I’m angry.

As we approach where you begin the walk from one end to the other, I start to tremble and shake all over. I freeze. ‘Oh, shit, what’s going on?’ My experiences here prior were solemn and quiet. Now I feel my vulnerability and hidden heartbreak rise to the surface. I don’t understand; I’ve been working through all this post-war madness with therapy, timeless rituals with other vets, and my theatre work. I learn that at this moment, there is no graduating with this event that has left me and many others forever changed. But now, the deep affection I feel for my daughter is somehow colliding with this moment.

“Dad, are you okay?” As we stand together, I can’t look at my daughter. “I… I’m…” My throat locks up, and my breath shortens.  ‘Oh, Man…’ I look down along The Wall, and I see a hulk of an African American man, about my age, who I feel might be watching me. He wears a Vietnam Veteran hat. With large sunglasses on his face, I wonder, ‘Is he looking at me?’ “Dad, do you want to go?” “Umm… Well, I…” Then, this bear of a man walks up to us and reads my situation immediately. He smiles and puts his hand on Tirsa’s shoulder. “Is this your Pop?” “Yes, yes, and he’s a veteran.” He extends his hand to me and says, “I’m Wilson, a volunteer here. With your Pop’s permission, I’ll tell you about this very special place.” As I reach out to shake his hand, “Please, take over.” My breathing gradually returns.

The three of us begin the walk along The Wall. Wilson extends his arms, which point to both ends of The Wall. “This end of the wall points directly to the Lincoln Memorial, and that endpoints to the Washington Monument.” I’m relieved. Wilson is kind and polite with Tirsa, and she welcomes this private tour. Then he turns to me, “Would you like to look anybody up, or have you done this before?” “Thanks, yes, I have.”  We continue to the names for the years 1969 and 1970 when I served. I have things to add here, but not today. Tirsa pauses and steps close into one of the higher panels in particular and is taken by her own reflection. ‘Oh, my goodness…’

We arrive at the other end, and Tirsa puts her hand out, “Thanks, Mr. Wilson.” Wilson smiles, “No, honey, my first name is Wilson. And you’re welcome.” As Tirsa pulls out her camera, “Can you take a picture with my dad and me?” “Sure.” A sharply dressed woman with red hair sees we need someone to take the picture. She hands her the camera.

Tirsa pushes herself between Wilson and me, and we all smile. Snap, snap, snap, and the woman hands the camera back to Tirsa. I lean into Wilson, and eye to eye, I say softly, “Welcome Home, Brother.” Wilson takes this in, and as we embrace in a strong hug, he replies, “Welcome Home!”  Tirsa notices this private exchange, “Why are you guys saying, Welcome Home?” Wilson glances at me to see if I want to tell her, and I defer a look to him. “When your dad and I came back, ‘Welcome Home’ is what we didn’t hear.” 

Tirsa eyes us both and says, “Can I say it? Wilson and I nod. “Okay, then, Welcome Home! Welcome Home!”

As Wilson gives his attention to other visitors, Tirsa and I walk away. “He was a nice man.” “Yes, he was.” “Dad, is your friend Boysahn there on The Wall?” I stop and look briefly back to The Wall, then at my daughter. “You just happened to stop in front of the panel where his name is. 23-W” “Oh,” she says and takes my hand.