Touching “The Wall” – the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. – proved to be one of the most profound and most agonizing experiences of my life. We did not go to Washington solely for that purpose, but visiting The Wall to find the name of a childhood friend was among the things we set out to do during our week there.
Bobby Grooms, 1st Lt. Robert L. Grooms, was killed in Vietnam Sept. 12, 1971. He was 24 years old. The phrase “childhood friend” utterly fails to convey the person he was to me or the way in which he shaped my life.
I had hoped our visit to The Wall would provide some comfort, or at least some closure, to the shock and bitterness than had simmered in me for years and years, but it did not. Because I could not touch his name.
Located adjacent to the National Mall in the heart of Washington, The Vietnam Memorial is an ascending series of panels that form a shallow V-shaped wall. Engraved on its panels are the names, in chronological order of their death, of more than 58,000 military men and women who died during their service in the Vietnam War.
Bobby’s name was high on the panel that listed the names of those who were killed in 1971, far too high for me to touch it. Names of others that I knew were within reach. Being able to touch the name of someone you have lost is an overwhelmingly powerful moment. There is no possible way to describe or explain it.
I could not touch Bobby’s name that day in Washington, and I desperately needed to touch it as a payback of sorts for the time he put his arm around my shoulders.
That day, some forty years before, was a making-of-a-man moment. In the small Midwest town where we grew up, baseball was everything. Baseball was everything in every small town in American in those days. Every boy had one dream: to be a great player, to play major league baseball, to win the World Series, to become one of those flannel-clad heroes we worshipped from March through October.
The best players in our town were minor deities. We were awed by their speed, power, poise, prowess. They could hit, run, catch, throw, pitch – even hit the curve ball. Hard. All the talents one could possibly need in this life.
To this day I vividly remember a play Bobby made, playing third base in a high school game. The batter laid a perfect drag bunt down third base line and sprinted toward first. Bobby charged the ball, picked it up with his bare hand and made a sweeping cross-body throw to first, all in one liquid-smooth and lightening fast motion. The runner was out by a step. It was pure athletic grace. God-like.
When he was a senior and I was a sophomore, he was playing third and I was in left field in an intra-squad scrimmage. I made a good play, running down a long fly ball, making a diving catch over my right shoulder, and hanging onto the ball when I crashed onto the turf and then slide into the outfield fence. Bobby was waiting by the third base bag when I came running to the dugout. He put his arm around my shoulders and said, “You can play on my team any time.”
I was too amazed to speak. He had admitted me to the heights of Olympus. It was one of those moments in life when you think: “I am someone special. I will grow up and be a good person. I will do great things.” There are not many of those.
You rise to new expectations and greater visions, all because you have been touched by a god. But gods are immortal. They do not die. And Bobby died in Vietnam.
Every life has a hundred deep hurts – all of which must go through a long healing from open wound, to closure, rawness, and finally to a scar which fades in time and comes to memory only when it aches on days of weather change or hard use. So we learn to say, “Time heals all wounds.” But that is not true. There are wounds that never heal. Not in a year, or twenty years, or fifty years.
When we lose someone who has shaped our spirit and character, there is some small part of us that becomes locked forever in that time and place, stranded and no longer able to move forward through the progressions and changes of our life. This is especially true during the days of our youth when people and places and experiences are sculpting the person we will be, and doubly true if that person lost is also young and vibrant and promising and cherished.
In that locked part of my psyche, it is always going to be a warm afternoon in May, in a small-town baseball park, with the pungent smells of fresh-cut grass, leather gloves, horsehide baseballs, pine tar, sweat, and bubble gum. The pistol-shot crack of the bat when its sweet spot meets with the heart of the ball, the rocket flight, the break, the run, the diving catch. Breath knocked out, shirt streaked with grass stain. The ball gripped like a priceless treasure in the webbing of the glove.
And most of all the smiling face of a demigod who says, “You can play on my team any time.”
The story would end here except for a chance encounter with a classmate of Bobby’s – Bernie Pontones, also a Vietnam War veteran. After too many glasses of wine at a wedding reception, I told Bernie about my experience visiting The Wall. Unknown to me, on his next trip to Washington, where he serves as an advocate for veterans, Bernie went to The Wall and made a pencil-on-paper rubbing of Bobby’s name. He sent it to Mike Rainone, a mutual friend. Mike and his wife Donna had it matted and framed, wrapped it, and presented it to me one evening.
Having no idea what it was, I unwrapped it, turned it over, and saw the ROBERT L. GROOMS rubbing on the Vietnam Memorial letterhead paper. I touched Bobby’s name, said “I’ll be damned,” and burst into tears.
Another moment of closure. Last fall my wife Patti and I received a letter from Ron Grooms, Bobbie’s younger brother. He told us that when the new baseball park was dedicated in our home town, a plaque honoring Bobbie’s memory was erected. He included a photo of the plaque, which I have tucked into the corner of the framed rubbing of Bobby’s name from The Wall.
It hangs in my clubhouse – the room over my garage where I spend much of my time now that I’m retired. In front of it I have placed my old baseball glove with a brown and battered baseball still clutched tight in the webbing. I don’t know why this should bring me any sense of peace or resolution, but it does.