It was a weekend road trip, just three friends on a four-day junket to Washington DC to shoot pictures of old soldiers visiting the various memorials on the National Mall. My old friend Larry McDonald is the photographer in the bunch; I usually just haul the extra equipment so he can be free to shoot.
They come by the thousands, most of them gray-haired, some in wheelchairs, some on prosthetic legs, walking a bit like Robert Duvall, most of them accompanied by younger family or other veterans. Almost without exception they slow to a stop when they draw near to whichever memorial conjures their own past. They get quiet, solemn, deliberate. Reverent. You don’t have to talk to very many veterans to know that what affects them is not the memory of horror and misery and fear, nor the genuine love of God and country. It’s not even personal cost; these men wear their scars like medals. What haunts them is the name of a buddy on the Vietnam Wall, a face embedded ghostlike in the ebony of the Korean War Memorial, a faint voice that seems to echo from the granite walls of the World War II Memorial. The names, the faces, the voices come clear and present. And personal— a joke Murphy told while cooking rations in a helmet, a cigarette shared with Wilson under a poncho in a monsoon, or Grady, the kid who tore the hooch apart looking for his girlfriend’s picture. In this place a thousand yesterdays melt away and leave the memories burning bright as this morning.
Shooting pictures somewhere on the Mall, Larry lost his wallet and doubled back on his own to look for it. As he was retracing his steps through the World War II memorial, something caught his eye and piqued his curiosity. An old man was holding on to the arm of a girl, as if she were guiding him. She led him up to the wall, and then, with a few whispered words of description, raised his hand and placed it gently on the inlaid statuary that rings the wall, telling the story of the men who fought and died in that war.
The girl stepped back and left him alone for a while, watching from a distance. The way she had helped him, and the way his fingers crawled over the display, left no doubt in Larry’s mind that the old man was blind, and yet he preferred to visit the past alone. They were his memories; he could only go there alone.
Larry watched him for a while and shot a couple of pictures but he didn’t speak to the man, didn’t dare break the reverie. He just watched the old soldier’s hands reading the wall like braille and wondered what faces he was seeing, what voices he was hearing. In this place, that unique silence lay heavily on this man, and Larry came away believing he’d seen a hero.
Moments like that are gifts, and nobody knows it better than a photographer. He can’t make them happen, he can only pay attention and wait. It was pretty clear how Larry felt about that particular moment when he told me about it later.
He kind of bit his lip and said, “Thank God I lost my wallet.”
© Dale Cramer 2010-2015 All Rights Reserved. Photography by Larry McDonald. Site design by Pulse Point Design