My Volunteer Journal: Episode 35 – An Erie Night at the Cemetery with a Vietnam War Memorial

img_0267At 11 p.m. on Friday night Matt and I pulled up to the gates of Pierce Bother Cemetery. A chipper round head popped into the window. “Are you here to see the Vietnam Memorial?”

So many ways to answer:

“No, we’re on a date. Just wanted to go to the cemetery.”

“No, it’s 11 so perfect time to steal bodies.”

I leaned over from the passenger seat; to get a better look at the khaki clad Boy Scout who was clearly excited to be up past his bedtime, “I’m here to read names at the Memorial.”

“Great,” he practically jumped and tapped his toes. “You’re just going to drive forward and turn to the right. You’re going to see parking on either side of the road…” His directions went on for five minutes. When we pulled through the gates we saw that everything was set up only 20 yards away. Let it never be said that Boy Scouts aren’t helpful or thorough.

Over the Labor Day weekend the small town of Westlake Village, CA was hosting a replica of the Vietnam War Memorial. As a tribute to the fallen men and women of the war, all 58,261 names on the monument were going to be read by volunteers 24 hours a day for three days or until they finished. I signed up for two late night 15-minute time slots because I’m an insomniac. If I’m not going to sleep then I might as well be volunteering. My uncle’s name is on the wall and I asked if I could read his section, but since there are so many names and everyone would read at a different pace it was impossible to schedule. Volunteer coordinator Pam just signed me up for one of the first night slots and said I could say his name last when I finished my section.

We were told to dress respectfully for the dead. To me this meant a skirt and heals, but the 4 inch platform heals I chose weren’t appropriate for the damp grass of the cemetery. With a little tripping and stumbling I made it over to an illuminated desk, which I assumed was check in, “I’m here to read the names.” I got blank stares and disapproving looks at my shoes. Then another Boy Scout ran up, “You’re here to read names. You see that lady with the clipboard by the stage…” It was hard to miss her since she was standing 25 ft. away, but he continued on for three minutes anyway. Very helpful Boy Scouts.

I checked in with Ann at the side of the small stage where a reader was monotonously saying names from a podium. Ann told me I would be reading rank, name, and military division. Problem- the ranks were abbreviated and since I don’t like war movies, stories, games, TV shows, etc. I had little idea what WO, SSG or SP4 stood for. Another volunteer pointed out that it’s embarrassing not to say the full title instead of the abbreviation. Looking through an example book I tried to figure out the abbreviations as fast as I could, while Matt went to search for my uncle’s name on the wall. For those of you visiting the Vietnam Memorial for the first time be aware that the names are not in alphabetical order they are listed in order of casualty so you have to find the names using a key that is provided at the monuments. A Boy Scout with a flashlight taped to a hat guided Matt to the name. Boy Scouts are a special breed.

My first 15-minute reading was pretty uneventful. I had learned a lot of titles like Private First Class (PFC) and Specialist 4th (SP4). It was hot on stage, and by the end of reading little rivers of sweat were running down my body. Through the sweat and mental gymnastics I realized I was closing in fast on my uncle’s name.

I left the platform and went straight to the example book, which had the list of names. Sure enough if I just switched my reading by 15 minutes I would be the person to read his name. The volunteer in that spot agreed to switch with me and at 12 a.m. I stepped on the stage to read another 220 names. Right in the middle of the list I read, Specialist 4th, Ronald Sanders Colson, Army.

I don’t know a lot about Ronald. He was the oldest child of my grandfather who inspired this volunteer mission. Good looking, funny, and kind, he had asked that if he was killed overseas that his family not be woken in the middle of the night with the news. My mother said she would never forget the morning that the official from the army arrived on their doorstep to say that Ronald would not be coming home. His grades in college weren’t good enough, so he was drafted, and he never came home. He and 58,261 kids never came home.

I’m glad I got to read his name. I’m sure my grandfather had something to do with the uncanny timing.