Friday, July 29, 2011

Colorado II

The dream of honoring these memorials is old. I cannot pinpoint the exact date of its birth, but in 1989 I drove from Maryland to Fairbanks, Alaska and took my very first pictures on that trip. So, it began sometime prior to then.

One of the places I stopped that summer was in Denver, Colorado. I had a couple of hours between flights and decided to check out what the city might have to offer.

I walked out of the old Stapleton Airport and got into the first cab in the long line out front. I said to the driver, "Take me to the Vietnam Memorial" As we drove along he told me his story. He had been in medical school and failed to file his deferment papers on time. Nine months, or so, later, he was in 'Nam. A story we have all heard too many times.

He drove me into town and pointed to the memorial. As I left the cab, he said, "Hey buddy, can I go with you? I have never seen it up close." We walked over and there enclosed by the pillars of a tall building was the monument. We stood gazing at it, trying not to weep in front of each other. We were only moderately successful. I took a number of photographs and we returned to the airport so I could make my connection. As I left the cab, he shook my hand and said he would like to have a copy of my book should I eventually complete it.

Over the next 20 years or so, I continued to dream and think about this project. Waiting until retirement from my school system to be able to begin in earnest. As I planned my journey I remembered the pictures from Denver and wondered if I could use them. I knew that this project would take a lot of time and probably more money than I anticipated. So, if I could use old pics, it might save me a trip and therefore, some money. Interestingly, I found all the photographs from that trip except the Denver shots. I searched and searched and they are just gone. I have no idea (or memory) of what might have happened to them. So, I began to research the memorial and try determine its location so that I could photograph it, once again. I could find nothing. Not one word, one picture, one mention, of this memorial in all of my searching. I spoke with friends who lived in Denver for many years and they were not familiar with the site. They even tried to locate it for me on a visit to see their grown children in Denver. Nothing.

The time arrived for my trip to Colorado. I figured I must be able to find someone in the city who knew what I was looking for. Upon arrival, I called the local VFW and talked to a guy who was very helpful, but did not know the site. He called me back the next day, after checking with his own contacts, to tell me he was unsuccessful. He gave me some other numbers to call. During this process I left several messages around the city.

As I was driving through the town, my cell rang and it was someone from the Adjutant General's Office returning my call. She was very kind, enthusiastic and bent over backwards to help me. But, she did not know the memorial I was seeking. We had several phone conversations and email exchanges, but no monument. During one call I remembered that the memorial had been at a very tall building that seemed to nearly encompass an old Catholic church. There was dead silence on the other end of the line, she said, "Mike, you're not going to believe this, but that was my church many years ago. I know exactly where it is!" She gave me the address and I was less than two blocks from the site! I called her back a few minutes later to report that I was standing in front of the memorial, once again, trying not to weep! I thought it had been lost to me, but there it was; on the corner of 19th and California, next to Holy Ghost Catholic Church. It reminds me of some scripture I heard, probably as a kid, about "...the lost being found..." It turns out that the sculpture was donated to the church by a 'Nam vet. When I saw it, more than 20 years ago, there was a large American flag suspended above it. The flag seemed to be getting lowered to cover the poncho clad soldier. The flag is now gone and no one seems to know why. The sculptor suggested that it is probably as simple as budget cuts and efforts to save money. I miss that flag. It gave me the chills when I first saw it. Some might suggest that there may be some connection between the monument and its location. As the world's greatest skeptic, I have my doubts, but who is to say?

I took a bunch of pics and was very pleased that it had finally all worked out when just an hour or so earlier I was ready to admit defeat and leave Denver. Little did I know that this story was not over!

My contact called me back and said she had talked with the sculptor, who was excited about my project and wanted to talk to me.

After a couple failed attempts, we finally hooked up, and more of this amazing story, unfolded.

It seems the sculptor made a model of the statue to enter as a submission for a competition to choose the New York City Vietnam Memorial. When something else was chosen, he consigned the model to a spot in his studio. The church's benefactor happened into the shop, saw the model and commissioned the sculptor to create the statue that now stands outside the church. The sculptor, by this time, had decided to make the piece a more general and inclusive war memorial (which may help explain why I had so much difficulty locating it while looking for Vietnam memorials) The benefactor, later, had a second copy placed at the Riverside National Cemetery which is also the home of the National POW/MIA memorial. (I will be at Riverside in August and will post more about it at a future date)

Well, now the story takes an interesting twist!

Jump to Ireland a few years back. Declan Hughes, a well known Irish writer and as it turns out somewhat of an activist, is given a ring that the Vietnamese government had given a visitor to the country. The ring, it turns out belonged to an Irish citizen killed in 'Nam. Hughes began a search to find the family of the ring's owner. During this process he began to wonder if more than one Irishman had died in 'Nam. His research turned up quite a few! 19 men and one woman were identified as KIA. He then asked those responsible for the Traveling Wall to bring it to Ireland. You can read a more complete telling of this part of the story, here;

The wall traveled to Ireland and one of the places it rested was on Adare Manor in Limerick. Adare Manor, quite unbelievably to me, is owned by the church's and riverside's benefactor, the same guy who commissioned the first two statues! He had a third statue commissioned (the maximum the sculptor will allow) and had it placed at Adare Manor to honor the visit of the Traveling Wall to Ireland!

It interests me how a simple visit to a memorial, more than 20 years ago, can lead to such an fascinating and ever evolving story and how what amounts to a desperate phone call to the Adjutant Generals office in Colorado actually made it all come to light. I cannot thank the people (you know who you are!) in the Adjutant's Office enough for their on going interest and support of this story and as a result my whole project. Their professionalism assures me that Vets in Colorado are well served by people who care and really get it!!

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