A Visit to the Viet Nam
ANGEL FIRE, NEW MEXICO
It's been over two years since we found ourselves driving in a high valley in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. This is a memoir of our visit to the DAV Viet Nam Memorial near Eagle Nest one winter day.
The morning dawned cold and clear in Angel Fire, and we headed straight for the white sail we'd caught sight of the evening before high on a mountainside near Eagle Nest Lake. We wanted to find out what this beacon was that soared alone above the valley. We wound up a tiny road to the top of the hill, where we found an empty parking lot and a low structure. A few hundred feet away was the sail. "It's a building of some kind," I said, but the wind whipped my words away over the mountains.
The edifice in front of us seemed deserted, but when we neared the door, a woman appeared. "Come on in," she said. "We're working on the floor in here, but if you don't mind the mess, you're more than welcome." We stepped inside, and as our eyes adjusted to the interior dimness, we made our way around the mop buckets and saw that we were in a sort of museum.
Large photographs hung on the walls. They were images of Viet Nam, of soldiers and children and girls in pretty dresses, of guns and mines and hand grenades. Suddenly, unexpectedly, I was drawn back into the war that never really ended, that still sears wounds into the souls of those who served.
It was never my own conflict. I wasn't draftable, nor did I have a friend, a father, a brother, a lover who was. No one close to me perished, and those veterans I did know spoke little. It was a newspaper story to me, a catalyst for campus unrest, a political stance. It was distant, impersonal, somebody else's war.
The photographs in that room changed all that. In that quiet space, surrounded by images of intensity, of fatigue-clad youths laughing and staring and dying, I could no longer distance myself. Viet Nam was no longer thousands of miles away. It was here in the mountains named for the blood of Christ. It was now.
The place was a visitors' center for the sail, and the sail, we learned, was a chapel built by Victor Westphall. He started working on the project five days after his son David, a Marine infantry officer, was killed in Viet Nam in 1968.
After we looked at the pictures, we turned up our collars and faced the wind again. We followed a path down a slope to the chapel, which was small and round. Inside, narrow windows framed views of the mountains, and a photograph of David Westphall hung on one wall.
We weren't alone. A man was sitting on one of the stone tiers that form benches facing the center of the sanctuary. We sat down next to him. As I turned to look, I saw a tear steal down his cheek. It was matched by a tear on my own, and when I looked at Mark, his eyes were glistening, too. And so we sat in silence, listening to the wind, letting it wail for the fallen, letting it howl for the pain of those who returned.
I can't tell you what transcendent spirit lives at Angel Fire, and no one could tell us how the place got such a haunting name. I can't tell you why being there evoked not only sorrow and despair, but also healing and hope. I can't tell you why, as I write these words, tears again fill my eyes. It's as though the absolute worst and best of humanity is distilled there, waiting to bestow comfort and light on those who are willing to embrace the shadow.