It’s Sharon Raynor again. I spent my 39th birthday weekend with more than 62,000 Vietnam Veterans and their families at the Charlotte Motor Speedway for the Welcome Home Vietnam Veterans Celebration held on March 31, 2012. Nearly 50 years ago, approximately 216,000 men and women left North Carolina to serve in Vietnam. About 1,600 of them didn't make it home. The ones who did make it back, including my father, never received a proper homecoming. The time had finally come to thank them for their service and sacrifice. (For some background, see my earlier posts about my oral history project, "Breaking the Silence: The Unspoken Brotherhood of Vietnam Veterans.")
As I was driving from Duke to Charlotte on Thursday, I heard a radio broadcaster say that the final preparations for the celebration were underway. He asked motorists traveling through Charlotte on I-85 North to move aside if they saw the motorcycle and police motorcade that would be escorting a replica of the Vietnam Memorial Wall (the Traveling Wall) to the Speedway. I couldn't help but feel a bit sentimental — the big day for Vietnam veterans like my father was almost here at last.
For months now, this event, said to be the largest gathering of Vietnam Veterans ever assembled in the state of North Carolina, has been the topic of conversation in our homes and at the Raleigh Veterans Outreach Center. The ten-day Heroes Homecoming for Vietnam Veterans hosted by the city of Fayetteville in November 2011 built anticipation for the much larger gathering in Charlotte. My family and the veterans I work with reserved tickets long ago and started making plans. On Friday, as veterans from out of town were making their way to their hotels in Charlotte, we were packing our cameras, beverages, snacks and lawn chairs for what was going to be a memorable and emotional day.
We started our Saturday at 6 am, determined to make our way through all the expected traffic and get to the Speedway. After a quick bite to eat, we grabbed our umbrellas and bottles of water and stepped out into the pouring rain. It was 7:30 when we parked at the Speedway. The gates were opening at 9am for festivities that started at 11 am. My father reminded me that today's weather was nothing compared to being in Vietnam during monsoon season, when it could rain for up to three months at a time.
As we entered, chatting with the other early risers, a huge display screen showed the young faces of men who served. We made our way around the Speedway and saw helicopters, military weaponry and model cars on display. Rolling Thunder opened the ceremony with a grand entrance and local motorcycle clubs were a conspicuous presence, as well. VA services were present to assist veterans and their families and the Montagnard were there, as well. A wreath was laid at The Wall for all those who perished in the war. There was a military flyby that astonished the crowd and there were paratroopers, who received thundering applause. The musical performances by the 82nd Airborne Choir and George Clinton and the Parliament Funkadelics had the crowd singing and dancing.
Amidst all the ceremony and display, there was a tremendous outpouring of community spirit. The sentiment of the day, shared with friends, acquaintances, and strangers, passed between double amputees who made the trip alone and veterans who came by the bus load, was "Welcome Home, Brother. I'm glad you made it back." Veterans exchanged handshakes, hugs, laughs and tears; they were welcomed home by strangers and by cards from children across the nation. Families everywhere watched as their veterans were reunited with long-lost friends and comrades. Sprinkled throughout the crowd were familiar faces from the Raleigh Veterans Center.
For many years, my father longed to find a veteran he served with or who at least served in some of the same locations. Luckily for him, a man named Jimmy drove by on a scooter with a sign that read, “Bearcat 1968, 5th BN 41st Artillery Brigade.” The two of them sat and talked, sharing memories of Bearcat and looking at old photos of young soldiers. It was a highlight of the day.
The event was a wonderful tribute to those who sacrificed so much for our freedoms. Sadly, late in the day, it was also the scene of a tragic accident. As festivities ended and people were leaving, three motorcyclists were involved in a collision on the Speedway and two of them were killed. One was an Air Force Vietnam Veteran. It was an extra note of sadness on a day that was already too full of reminders of how precious and short life can be.
For us, the gathering continued at the restaurant where we had Sunday breakfast, as veterans found each other for more conversation. There were stories about growing up on a farm in Oxford, NC before leaving for the war. Two men who had served in the same unit in Vietnam were reunited after 40 years. We made our way out after many rounds of hugs and handshakes, only to run into more veterans outside the restaurant.
The weekend was more than just a long-overdue homecoming for Vietnam Veterans, it was a time of remembrance and healing for everyone whose lives have been touched and affected by war.
Articles and Photo Galleries
Lauren Zalla, a senior who has collaborated with the Haiti Lab on several projects, has recently won the Davis Projects for Peace Award, which provides $10,000 to a recipient to design and carry out a grassroots project for the summer of 2012. Lauren will undertake a project that addresses an immediate and life-changing need for Haitian women: the lack of access to sanitary materials. Lauren is writing a thesis on the history and culture of breastfeeding in Haiti. Read more on the FHI website.
“We can no longer have this old Marxist confidence that we know
where history is going. History is going into an abyss.”
- Slavoj Žižek
We may, perhaps, map the abyss. And we may, perhaps again, be consoled or inspired or transported by the mapping. This is Jason Cohen, Humanities Writ Large Visiting Faculty Fellow, and that’s what I discovered a few weekends ago at a workshop sponsored by Duke’s BorderWork(s) Lab, and what I’m here to dilate.
The workshop was called “Cartography and Creativity in the Age of Global Empires.” Its participants came together to consider maps and counter-maps, narratives and counter-narratives, and the visual cultures of cartography. I won’t try to summarize the full day’s events - that would lead me, like the scholar whose attention is fixed on successively smaller details in Borges’s spectacular map, to unending meditation - but I will offer a few reflections on some of the shinier facets of the day’s discussions.
In the first panel of the day, Pedro Lasch, John Pickles, and Ben Schmidt touched on the broad issue of national borders and security, often in tightly connected and provocative ways. Lasch has regularly used the border as a site of artistic inspiration, and the piece “Latino/a America” (below) interrogates not only the northern bias that the US assumes with its appropriation of “America” as a national adjective, but also the very country, region, and state borders (and their negotiation) the piece intentionally obscures.
Pickles’ focus was on the border as well. His discussion of Eurozone protections was frankly intimidating for the scope of surveillance, security, and containment measures it revealed — FRONTEX, project Sea Horse, the Schengen economic area and other programs that span the continent. The most shocking detail, at least for me, was the extension of the “border” to include vulnerabilities that are far from any legally defined border and tied instead to the boundary between desirable and undesirable sources of social change. The “border,” according to this mindset, encompasses the remote routes, locations, and economies of perceived security risks.
In its historical vein Schmidt’s fascinating paper, “Exotic Pleasures,” traced the images and implications of cartographic exoticism. His particular focus was the allegorical cartouche image of “America” as a woman (or man) protected by a parasol. Like Pickles and Lasch, Schmidt was also interested in tracking the movements of these material and imagined objects across national, affective, and conceptual lines.
Katherine Harmon, Neil Safier, and Dennis Wood anchored the day’s second panel. Harmon’s presentation, I think, gave us all a sense of the vast range and appeal that map art continues to generate in the US and globally. I laughed, for instance, when she told us “It never takes long to get to the moon” with Geogoo (see image below), a playful website that riffs on the superabundance of map tags, geo-referenced information bites, and the proliferation of maps themselves across contexts.
Safier asked us to rethink the sertão – the Brazilian equivalent of frontier / wilderness / backwoods – and, along with it, the judgments that enter into determining the extents of civilization, whether through colonial or indigenous perceptions.
Wood’s frame of reference — perceptions of the riparian map of the Cuyahoga River as it flows through Cleveland to Lake Erie — was whimsical but acute. His map contained his own history. Its site of recollection was his childhood home in a now dilapidated housing project called Lakeview Terrace during the 1960s and 70s, when the Cuyahoga captured national attention by catching fire a few times and went from being “the crooked river” to being “the burning river.” In a city that answered NYC’s “apple” campaign with the questionable reply, “Cleveland’s a plum,” the name stuck as a point of odd pride — as late as 1999, I played ultimate frisbee on a Cleveland-based team called “Burning River.”
From nostalgia to creativity to historical recollection, the panel explored ways of recapturing maps of the imagination. I came away with a refined understanding of the relationship between the material map and its reconstructions in the mind of an individual or culture. Sometimes, it seems, the contours of cartographic recollection are the most direct way to access the past.
The day’s final session focused on John Selden’s Map of China at the Bodleian library, which Robert Batchelor came to discuss. Batchelor brought the map from obscurity to recognition in early 2008 with the assistance of Bodleian librarian David Helliwell. In his talk, Batchelor laid out his analytic framework for reading the map, comparing his approach with the Chinese encyclopedic tradition. He followed with contextual notes on trade, ecological motifs, cartographic errors and revisions, and most notably, the map’s singular inclusion of trade routes on its sea surfaces.
I was one of three respondents to Batchelor’s presentation. My comments focused on the international context in which the map circulated — I talked about commodity exchange, sovereign vectors on the sea, the power projected across maritime spaces, and the relationship between central administration and coastal merchants. Jonathan Ocko’s response offered more focused reflections on Chinese history and culture. Victoria Szabo’s comments on the digital life of the map, however, were the most provocative. She helped us to think about how we interact with the map in real time and about the limitations, potentials, and challenges of the digital-humanist paths we were following in our intellectual pursuit of the map.
It was the Greek debt crisis, seen as symptomatic of a general breakdown of neoliberalism, that gave rise to the characteristically drastic comment from Slavoj Žižek quoted at the top of the post. His bleak certainty about the present state of liberal economic and political institutions is, perhaps, understandable. But by offering the abyss without contemplating its shapes or contours, he relinquishes the territory of the counter-map, counter-narrative, and micro-history. Perhaps, our colloquium suggested, even an abyss can be mapped according to contexts supplied by art, history, and experience. Žižek’s conclusion may be inescapable but in the absence of clearly legible cartography, charting its implications could be an unending proposition. To move across spatial metaphors, that position might avoid a check, but whether it can escape checkmate remains obscure in a game already being played.