A shared day of thanks for having survived a terrible war
After a grueling month of preparing and frying birds, I needed to get far away from turkeys. So, following our Turkey Fry Fundraiser, I packed my bags and headed north. There would be no traditional turkey dinner for me, as I departed Thanksgiving morning for Lubbock to visit my vegetarian friend Nicky. An Assistant Director at the Texas Tech Museum and a Professor of Museum Science, she and I had often talked about taking a trip to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Angel Fire, New Mexico, and now, with both of us free of responsibilities, the time was right. I'd visited the memorial once before, but that was in the late 70s, not long after it had opened. In those days, the late Dr. Westphall, the memorial‘s creator, was a constant presence, raising funds and Vietnam awareness through the sale of his book entitled ―David‘s Story. His son, David, a Marine Lieutenant, was killed in an enemy ambush near Con Thien in 1968. Grief stricken, the good doctor built a free-form stucco chapel on a 30-acre hillside overlooking a peaceful valley, a tribute to the Americans lost in battle, possibly America‘s first Vietnam memorial. Nestled in the beautiful Sangre de Cristo mountain range in northern New Mexico, Angel Fire is a holy place, the home of the wind gods, a beautiful, restful, and magical valley. I could imagine no better place to celebrate a day of thanks.
The 6-hour drive from Lubbock was tedious and uneventful, that is until we saw the white peaks on the horizon. After monotonous miles of Texas and New Mexico flat lands, the mountains were a welcomed sight. That it had snowed there a few days earlier was even better. It was below freezing when we drove into the mountains and with snow still on the ground, we decided to stay in Taos overnight rather than attempt to traverse the winding road to Angel Fire, a mere 40 miles away.
After a hardy breakfast the next morning, we continued our journey southwest. Under clear skies, but with snow still on the ground, the beautiful drive was somewhat treacherous. There‘s nothing that‘ll hold your attention like driving narrow mountain switchbacks bordered by ice and snow. When the forest finally unfolded, there it was. Angel Fire. Also blanketed in snow, the valley was postcard perfect.
Much has changed since my first visit. I didn‘t remember the chapel being so small, but then, I‘ve seen a lot since the late 70s. Still, it maintains that quaint feeling of reverence, a spiritual place of honor, a place to heal. Now a State Park, the Memorial has a paved parking lot flanked by a Huey. Named bricks now line the concrete walkways. A small amphitheater lies behind the chapel. And an inconspicuous museum and gift shop now grace the hillside. Small, but impressive, the museum alone was worth the drive. It houses not only a mini-theater and a minilibrary, but an excellent collection of Vietnam artifacts that somehow seem so private. I knew those things. I carried them. Much of the main room is sectioned off with banners displaying interesting quotes such as the one at the beginning of this column. Photos. Paintings. Graphics. Videos. Combat gear. Monument maquettes. Something for everyone. Most items conjured up very vivid Vietnam memories for me, but other than a few chi -com grenades, I saw no weapons. And there, prominently displayed in one corner are two enlarged photos of Harley, our Marine patient from the Kerrville VA Nursing Home. Gutwrenching and emotional, the photos are from Life Magazine, 1968, when Harley, then a helicopter gunner and crew chief, was only 19, strong and healthy, a sad reminder that young men live to fight while old men fight to live. We were just kids.
Since it was cold, the Memorial attendance that day was low. However, the few visitors we met were friendly and inquisitive. The whole place had a family atmosphere, a feeling of brotherhood and acceptance. The only visible attendant was the affable gift shop lady. Also a native of Lubbock, she and Nicky had university friends in common, so that only added to the aura of family. Before departing, I left her a Texas Capitol Vietnam Veteran Monument Dedication program, a Texas Vietnam Heroes Exhibit brochure, and a monument patch for their archives. With more mountains to drive before dark, we headed back to Lubbock. It had been a good day, a shared day of thanks for having survived a terrible war.
Our Kerrville Christmas Turkey Fry is coming up on Saturday, Dec 13, and there‘s much to do. Please attend our upcoming meeting, which will begin at 6pm. Good help is getting harder to find.
See you on Thursday.
Don Dorsey, President
The Austin Chapter of Texas Association of Vietnam Veterans (TAVV) meets Thursday, December 11, 2014 - 6:00 pm at VFW Post 856 — 406 E Alpine Rd - Austin, Texas 78704.