Sunday, April 02, 2006

My Vietnam Doppelganger

The continuing controversies over the design of the 9/11 memorial at the ground zero site in New York City include a battle over the arrangement of the names of the victims. Designer Michael Arad favors a random sequence, intended to embody the randomness and chaos of the attack itself. Others say that the rescue workers should be listed separately, or that family members, friends, and colleagues should be grouped together.

This recalls one of the small brilliant choices that make Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial on the Mall in Washington, D.C., so effective. Lin rejected the general assumption that the 58,000 names of those who died in the war should be listed alphabetically. As she pointed out, listing twenty consecutive Robert Johnsons (the actual number--including no fewer than three Robert Lee Johnsons) would reduce the sense of individuality attached to each name and turn them into identical faces in the crowd. Instead, the names appear in the order of their dates of death, from 1959 to 1975. If you want to find a particular person, you look up the name in a directory which tells you the panel and line where it appears.

I visited the memorial shortly after it was completed in 1982. Not having lost a friend or family member in Vietnam, I flipped idly through the pages of the directory for a moment, then decided to look up my own name--Karl Weber. Sure enough, there was a Karl Weber who was killed in Vietnam. And spookily enough, we shared the same birthday--May 15.

You can read the basic stats about my Vietnam doppelganger, Karl Edwin Weber, right here. He was from Two Rivers, Wisconsin, and was one day shy of being eighteen and a half when he was killed in Quang Tri on November 14, 1968. He'd arrived in country just four weeks earlier. He wouldn't have been old enough to cast an absentee ballot in that year's election, in which Nixon was elected president. (The 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from twenty-one to eighteen, wasn't passed until 1970.)

And on this page you can read a few brief messages from people who knew him. The most touching one was posted in 2001 by his buddy Clark Jordan:

I never have forgotten you. I constantly think of you and even after 33 years still miss you so much.

Clark lives, or lived, in Jackson Heights--a neighborhood in Queens where Mary-Jo and I and our kids used to go to church. Maybe we passed him on the street some time.

Karl Weber, dead at eighteen. There but for the grace of God. It's a strange world.

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