Stories from a Wanderer – Where the Time is Out of Joint

A gleaming new blue and white metal building sits just off Highway 180 between Weatherford and Mineral Wells, Texas. It is surrounded by iron fencing with a banner-type sign along it, and a large gravel parking lot. It could be anything – storage facility, farm equipment garage or industrial space. It fits into the scenery so well that one wouldn’t even see it, if not for the Huey helicopter mounted on a pole about 25 feet off the ground. This unassuming, out-of-the-way space is the National Vietnam War Museum, a non-profit museum built and maintained entirely with private donations.

The museum has been in existence in one form or another since 1998, but the building was new in 2022 and is scheduled for improvements this month. The museum’s mission is “To promote an understanding of the Vietnam Era, while honoring those who served.” The location is appropriate, as the old Fort Wolters site is only two or three miles distant. It was Fort Wolters where tens of thousands of helicopter pilots were trained during the war.

The afternoon is cool, breezy, bright and very quiet, so I decide to explore outside first. There are several areas outside for wandering, sitting and reflecting. I am alone.

I read later, on the website, that the museum exhibits are arranged as snapshots. The outdoor exhibits certainly give this impression, and the design fits well with my brief Kodachrome-tinted memories of the era. I remember my Grandpa Wittman sitting in his recliner, the black push-button tape player next to him, listening to my Uncle Jim’s recordings from Vietnam. This memory is suffused with family history, perhaps faulty through repetition: that Grandpa had wanted to serve during World War II, but was not able (I think I remember a metal plate from a motorcycle accident); that Grandpa received an award for his commitment and hours in the factory during wartime; and by the strong impression that Grandpa was very proud of his oldest son for serving overseas. I also remember draft numbers on television, somehow in connection with watching The Wonderful World of Disney. I also remember a New York City Veterans Day parade. When the Vietnam veterans passed, there was an eerie hush, then a few claps and then a rush of steady but somber applause. The men cried. The parade watchers cried. I know I had to have my father explain. These few memories come back as I look at the exhibits.

The most prominent scene, and logical starting point, is the big, battered, repainted Huey helicopter aloft on a pole. There is a long, nostalgic story shared on a plaque, about the helicopter blades being those gifted to a local hotel manager. He allowed training graduates to use the hotel’s pool for a dunking ceremony that had been prohibited on the Fort Wolters grounds after a graduate drowned. I can picture a lot of booze and exuberant young men at that hotel pool, all on the brink of…something. They probably had no idea what at the time. It plays in my mind like a movie scene. Many of the museum’s interpretive plaques are longer than I am used to, but they effectively paint the pictures for the disparate items on display.

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The next item is a re-imagining of a memorial wall at Camp Holloway in Vietnam. The original was begun in 1966 and was made of painted cement blocks with names on plates that were added as the death toll climbed. No one knows for sure what the plates were made of, how many there were, whose names were on them or when the practice ended. The plates were taken off the wall sometime in 1972 and placed in a footlocker, then disappeared. The camp was overrun by the Viet Cong and the wall is gone. The attempt at its re-creation in this space is made of brown stone surrounding stark white painted concrete and gleaming copper-colored name plates. What strikes me is the disconnect – the disjointedness – of a memorial that time lost. The plaques lost. The names lost. The lives lost. Still, the desire to memorialize, to remember something amidst all the chaos and tragedy, remains strong. I wonder if this lost Camp Holloway wall was part of Maya Lin’s inspiration for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington. I remember the controversy over her stark design. I can picture my eighth-grade social studies teacher taking questions from us. It was my first understanding that art can be so meaningful as to evoke the strongest emotions, to the point of division.

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A scaled-down version of The Wall in Washington is only a short walk away. On this day there are several faded offerings and wreaths, perhaps from Veteran’s Day. Plastic and cloth flowers have partly melted in the Texas heat. A pair of small planters at the base of the wall contain plastic lilies, Easter grass, a patriotic painted rock with eagle and flag, a rolled scroll of brown paper and a medicine bottle of pennies. It is almost unbearably personal.

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The next display is a new, slightly larger than life bronze statue dedicated to canine heroes and their handlers. The soldier depicted is barely more than a boy, his cheeks round with baby fat. He pours water into his helmet for a panting German shepherd. The interpretive plaque explains that the dogs were considered equipment and most were euthanized or abandoned in the tumultuous final days of the war. I imagine a once robust shepherd drinking from gutters and eating restaurant scraps.

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Before I return to my car, I cross the lot and glance at an amphibious landing vehicle. I read the plaque explaining the odd visitor center building – a double-wide trailer that was originally used as staff headquarters on George W. Bush’s ranch and later acquired by the museum. There is another helicopter. I look at a brick paver memorial in process, but I cannot discern its significance. A xeriscape style garden walk is somewhere between the hardscape and planting phase.

I have been lost in reflection for a long time, as the exhibits intend, and I decide to visit the indoor museum another day. A temporary photography exhibit, “Lost Children of Chon Thanh” especially intrigues me. It promises a story from a Vietnamese perspective, from people who are approximately my age.

The outdoor displays remind me of the overburdened young Hamlet’s famous line, “The time is out of joint! O cursed spite, / That ever I was born to set it right.” Though nothing can “set right” a war, there is a Shakespearean quality to these scenes that beg the visitor to comprehend the incomprehensible: a statue here, a snapshot there, a story about helicopter blades, a pill bottle of pennies in faded Easter grass; so many names, so many ghosts.

greta ode
Greta Ode is currently enjoying “tiny house” living in Weatherford, Texas. She has been published in Flash Fiction Magazine and is an editor and contributor to Tandeta Journal. Her work can be found on Substack at “Ramble, Bramble.”

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