Democratic Underground

My Eyes Are Wide Open

March 14, 2005
By Patricia Mack Newton

If you've ever visited the Viet Nam memorial wall, then you know the feeling. You can try to prepare yourself intellectually but your emotions remain as vulnerable as a raw nerve; the pain is instant and searing.

The Eyes Wide Open exhibit (sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee) honors each military casualty with a pair of boots, and Iraqi civilian casualties with a pair of shoes. All kinds of shoes - baby shoes, sneakers, slippers, sexy shoes, orthopedic shoes.

The deceptive beauty of Grape Day Park in Escondido, the warmth of the sunshine, and the squeals of children playing, camouflaged only for a moment the trepidation that enveloped me as I approached 1,514 pairs of boots on the ground. Even in death, their characteristic orderly discipline was evident; reminiscent of headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. The sheer volume was stunning.

The Wall of Remembrance honors the fresh young faces of our fallen heroes. Strolling among the rows is heart wrenching. The first thing that struck me was how young they were. 19, 20, 21, 24...

Then the personal items, the very special mementos family members have chosen to commemorate their loved ones, begin to appear, inviting me to come closer, to get to know a little something about the person who had occupied these boots.

Nearby, a patriotic teddy bear promises to salute if I just move his arm to his forehead; I couldn't abide him because I couldn't look more closely at the then-smiling widow and toddler's photo attached to his red, white, and blue ribbon collar.

She carefully places flowers wrapped in a yellow ribbon inside one of them, giving the barren husks some semblance of life. I wonder, does she weep for her husband? Brother? Father? Maybe even her sister or best friend. I look away for fear of invading her privacy in this suddenly uncomfortably public place. But for her there is only one pair of boots in this sea of boots.

"Where ever this (sic) boots may travel my broken heart will follow. God Bless America, Ricky's Mom", is inscribed next to a baby picture of her fallen hero, Private Fist Class Richard H. Rosas, 21.

I notice a woman, a volunteer, walk over to straighten up a gold-framed photo next to a pair of boots. She fusses with it until she is satisfied it is as it should be. Back in her booth she notices something and walks back to adjust the smaller photo tucked into the lower left-hand corner.

Her indecisiveness becomes evident as she tries to decide if the long-stemmed roses look better lying across the bottom of the picture or leaning vertically against it. And the card on the left, no matter what she does, just won't stay put. Now there's a smudge on the glass that requires her attention.

As she walks back past me I see she is crying softly. On her sweater is a red, white, and blue ribbon around a button with the same face as the young man in the gold frame. She makes her way back again and it becomes clear to me she is doing what mothers do; if things were different, perhaps she'd be straightening his tie before he goes out, or telling him to stand up straight. I will never forget her anguish and the futility of her fussing.

Unless you actively look you won't see or read about the Iraqi civilian casualty numbers. Estimates range between 14,000 to over 100,000 dead. Here, in this lovely place, there are some names on plaques, but mostly there are shoes, hundreds upon hundreds of anonymous shoes.

I imagine the laughter of the little girl who would be excited to wear her "bunny" slippers or the physical pain of the old man whose soles were so unevenly worn. The brand new pair, holding so much promise for the future, sits idle. How do survivors cope? Are they alone? Their dreams as shattered as the countryside, will they ever dare to dream again? I can't stop staring and imagining.

I am not a mother. Selfishly, I am grateful I don't recognize a pair of boots with my family name. But I intend to leave a legacy; one of hard work aimed toward peacefulness so that boots go out of fashion, new shoes wear out and bunny slippers are outgrown.

Learn more about the Eyes Wide Open exhibit at www.afsc.org. Patricia Mack Newton can be reached at patti@ricochet.com.

 Print this article (printer-friendly version)
Tell a friend about this article  Tell a friend about this article
 Jump to Editorials and Other Articles forum