The wall pulls you in, each step drawing deeper and deeper in the cavern of polished black granite.
Sunday morning sun reflects off each slab at the Vietnam Memorial and, for a moment, makes the 58,195 chiseled names seem to glow.
Cameras beep. Tour groups chatter in Chinese and Russian. The rumble of a jet arcing into the cloudless sky from Reagan National Airport dulls the conversation on the eve of Veterans Day.
The name is deeper.
A swirl of wind sends leaves scratching along the path. The sweet smell of late fall mixes with cigarette smoke and wiped-away tears. There is a wreath from West Point’s class of 1956. A map of the Ia Drang Valley. Red, white and blue poppies.
One middle-aged woman stretches upward to make a rubbing of a name.
“He’s from a little town not even on the map,” she says.
A yellow-shirted volunteer reminds the woman to treat the rubbing with hairspray or cooking spray to avoid smears.
Go further, until the wall towers over your head. The trees coated in deep red and yellow and pumpkin orange disappear. The sun is so bright that you can almost see your reflection against the names.
A bunch of wilted red roses rest at the base of panel 8W. So does a white rose wrapped in plastic. Beads of condensation fill the inside. Thirty-eight rows down is James R. Kalsu.
Among the sea of names, among the stories, among the lives cut short is the lone active NFL player to die in Vietnam.
Stand on your toes and you can just run your fingers across the 11 letters of his name.
Men in jean jackets with “Rolling Thunder” emblazoned on the back walk past others wearing hats with the names of long-ago units.
A mortar shell took Bob Kalsu’s life on July 21, 1970, at FSB Ripcord in Thua Thien, Vietnam. The former All-America offensive lineman at the University of Oklahoma played 14 games for the Bills in 1968. A year later, he was in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne.
By the time the 23-day battle around the base ended, Kalsu was among 75 American dead. He lived 25 years.
The sacrifice is as real as the black granite another yellow-shirted volunteer polishes as visitors walk past.
This is a world away from the pseudo-military ethos that swarms through football today where nothing is more glorified, no compliment higher than a player as a warrior. Play through pain. Risk your health. Battle. Fight. Attack.
Where in a few days Northwestern University will wear Under Armour-designed uniforms against the University of Michigan that are “inspired” by a distressed American flag, but, instead, look as if blood splattered over the helmet, gloves and shoulders. When flags age, they don’t look as if they’ve been covered in blood. No, they fade. All this is supposed to support the Wounded Warrior Project. Supposed to honor veterans. Hyper-patriotic splatters.
Where well-intentioned special-edition adidas cleats autographed by Robert Griffin III to benefit the Operation Renewed Hope Foundation come with a dog tag and are packaged in a replica of an ammo can.
Where players tuck in camouflage towels the same way they tucked in pink ones last month to remind us about breast cancer.
Where salutes, instead of dance moves of questionable taste, celebrate touchdowns.
Where the NFL boasts an “official military appreciation sponsor.”
The message isn’t subtle: This is much more than a mere game.
“Our cultures are similar in so many ways,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell told a group of West Point cadets last year.
The wall tells another story. Games end. They are a diversion, an escape. The wall swallows you.
Down the way from Kalsu’s name, a white-haired man in baggy black slacks and a windbreaker strains to start a rubbing.
“Let me get that for you, sir,” a volunteer says.
“This is my list,” the man says, holding a palm-sized piece of paper covered with names. “This is all of us.”
“I get all choked up,” he says. “I don’t know why.”
The man flicks open a knife to sharpen his pencil.
The volunteer pats his back. She tells him the tears are normal. They are good.
Nearby, a wrinkled piece of paper leans against the wall. The wind can’t seem to move the scrap.
“In the end,” the paper says, “there is only the memory of the dead and the sound of old soldiers weeping.”