My Eyes Are Wide Open
March 14, 2005
By Patricia Mack Newton
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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 email@example.com.