The heat of the Kansas City summer had yet to set in on Monday as the sun sat heavily in the sky above the World War One Memorial. Across the lawn overlooking Union Station, couples and families spread blankets for picnics and tossed Frisbees, laughing and sharing scattered conversations as they basked in the surprisingly fair day.
Above, under the shade of the trees lining the walkway leading up to the memorial, the scene was much different. Men with grey hair leaned on their canes and their families as they slowly picked their way across the lawn. Mothers and fathers led their children towards the right side of the memorial. Some stopped at a tent station to pick up a piece of a paper and a few pencils, to inquire about a certain name. Some laughed, shook the hands of old friends. Others looked lost, their eyes tracing the ground as they slowed their gait, afraid of what they would find today.
On May 25, as a special event to commemorate Memorial Day, the World War One Memorial hosted the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall. The wall is a three-fifths scale replica of the memorial wall in Washington, D.C., which bears the names of the American soldiers who gave their lives fighting in the Vietnam War.
For many Kansas City natives, this was their first time seeing the names of their husbands, sons, fathers or units etched into a wall. Entire families drove in from hours away, from the middle of Kansas and Missouri. Old military friends reunited loudly on the grass of the memorial, shaking hands and laughing, introducing one another. But when each individual approached the wall, they quieted, stirred by some deep understanding of the gravity that each of these names held.
Some came for closure. Some came to pay respect. Some came out of pure curiosity. But most came because a part of them refuses to forget what happened, all those years ago, in Vietnam. These are their stories.
A Family's First Introductions
He leaned over, squinting at the small white words, trailing a finger across each indent, each name.
"The lady said they would be around here," he murmured, tugging lightly with one hand at his baseball cap. He moved onto the next column. His eyes dropped to three of the bottom rows, and a smile filled his eyes. "Here. Here they are."
He crouched on one knee, looking over his shoulder at the two women who stood behind him, their hands clasped behind their backs.
"Come on over," he said, waving them on with his left hand, that same smile crinkling his eyes at the edges. "I want you to meet the guys."
They crouched beside him, pushing their sunglasses onto the tops of their heads to see better, to soak in the names that he pointed at with a single, trembling finger. He points out the first name of his unit.
"That was our chaplain." He nods once, looking up at both of the women before letting his gaze fix somewhere else, somewhere slightly farther away. "Funny guy. A really funny guy."
He looks back down at the wall, reads another name aloud, then another, then another, finally introducing his family to the unit he lost.
The Best Man She Knew
"There he is!" she yelped, jabbing her pointer finger at the name tucked into the left side of the column. "Right in the middle of everyone. There he is."
Her friend sidled up behind her, almost afraid to get too close, squinting at the screen of her digital camera as she took one, two, three pictures of the name. The woman left her finger alongside the name, half-way covering the first letter with a turquoise-painted nail. Her bracelets jangled against one another as her arm shook slightly.
"He gave me away at my wedding, you know." She smiled softly with an unspoken memory. "He filled in for my father like it was easy, like it was nothing. He was the best man I knew."
Her friend took another picture, then one more. She dropped her hand, allowing her to take one final picture of the name, on its own among the rest of the names. She smiled again, reaching back up to touch the name, her finger trailing against every letter. She took a step back. Her smile dropped for a moment, and she sighed. Then she curled up the corners of her mouth again, shaking her head quietly, folding her arms behind her, and walked away.
A Friendly Face
"How are you doing? Fine day we're having today, so glad you all came out."
He stood like a greeter at the end of a long reception line, gripping an information sheet in his left hand as he doled out handshakes and warm hugs with his right hand. Someone stopped to ask him a question, directions to the bathroom, and he pointed easily towards the nearest Johnny-On-The-Spot.
"I don't work here, but I don't mind helping out," he said. "This day's long enough and hard enough for most people, you don't need to worry about not knowing the way to the toilet."
The day didn't seem hard at all for him. He rocked back and forth from one foot to another, asking passerby if they were looking for someone, if they found their person, where they fought, what unit, how their day was going. Any question that came to mind, he asked.
"Today is beautiful," he said. "It's tragic, but it's beautiful. Today exists because of tragedy, so you can't be sad it about it, no, you can't be sad at all. Because today is today, and we are living, and that is something to be happy about."
He rests one hand against his cheek, his palm pressed flat against his skin, staring at the wall. Every few seconds, he takes in a breath that is deep and trembling and vulnerable. He is trying not to cry.
His eyes are following the lines of text. He is not searching for a single name. He is just looking, looking at the sea of first and last names. If he lets his eyes unfocus, detach, the letters blur into a single white block. The block repeats itself it neat rows, neat rows that continue down the wall in both directions, stretching for yards either way.
He turns his head to one side, then the other. He rubs his fingers against his cheek. He sucks in another breath.
"It wasn't supposed to be this hard," he mumbles, and he is speaking to no one in particular, to everyone around him, to anyone who will listen. "It wasn't supposed to be this hard."
A Life Told In Pictures
He notices our cameras first. He sidles up alongside us. He eyes our cameras for a few long moments as we continue to take pictures before clearing his throat.
"Is that film you're shooting on?" He points to the camera in James' hands. "The old-fashioned way. I like it. That's the way to go."
It only takes a few minutes for us to realize that pictures are Arnie Swift's life. First he asks what we're used to shooting on. Then he asks why we're shooting. Then he begins to talk about his cameras, and his pictures, and the way that his voice softens as he speaks of the click of the shutter and the intricacies of proper lighting illustrate that this is far more than a hobby for Arnie.
He is here with the helicopter. Arnie and several other Vietnam veterans tour a Huey 970 helicopter around Kansas and Missouri. They take it to elementary schools and memorial events, towing it behind a truck on a flat bed trailer. Today, the helicopter is positioned at the end of the drive that leads up to the World War One Memorial, respectfully spaced away from the traveling memorial. Little boys clamber eagerly into its belly as teenagers snap quick selfies of the massive aircraft. Arnie stands at a distance, smiling and watching.
I point at the bill of his hat and ask if he was in the cavalry. He nods. He says that he was in Vietnam for two years, in the military for six.
"That's all I want to say about it," he says. "It's hard enough having to think about it."
So we ask more about his pictures.
He tells us about the ones he took in Washington, D.C., how he used a double exposure when he developed the film to transpose two statues over one another. He tells us about the trip he took to Colorado, that he loves nature photography the most, that he finds the world inescapably breathtaking and that he adores the way that photos can capture a moment's beauty.
And eventually, he tells us about his pictures of war.
It is slow, the way the stories come out. They are interspersed between other stories, effortlessly woven into the narrative of the rest of his life. Arnie tells us that he loves to take pictures of insects on his mountain trips, and then suddenly he is telling us about the bugs in Vietnam, how they were huge, longer than his finger, how he would get down on his belly to take pictures of them, laughing and scrabbling away when they got too close to his lens.
Then he is back to telling us about his family here, about how they have dogs and how he always loved to photograph them, how they were almost as expressive and dynamic as people. And that reminds him of the dogs in Vietnam. He tells us how those dogs weren't allowed to come home, too mangled and infested by Vietnamese diseases to be safe in the States. He tells us that his friend, a doctor, took a picture of one of the dogs, with its ears ripped and its nose bleeding deeply. He says these are not the dogs we are used to, that they were almost wild.
And then he is telling us another story, a story that isn't about Vietnam. Yet it is amazing how these two years have injected themselves into his life, how each story finds a little piece of Vietnam in it.
Arnie still shoots on the same film cameras he carried with him through Vietnam. He kept the pictures he took, of his unit and of the jungle and of the people they met. It was the people, he tells us, that he loved the most. The people didn't have any reason to trust the soldiers, any reason to talk to them. Yet they did. He found himself falling in love with the countryside, with the people, their villages and laughing children and unrepentant joy.
"I would give anything to go back, just for a few weeks," he says. "It's beautiful there, really it is. Beautiful."
We ask him if he ever took pictures of battles. He shakes his head. He says that seeing it is enough, remembering it is enough. He wanted to take pictures of things that he wouldn't mind remembering.
"Besides," he says, and his voice drips with cynicism. "Most of the men didn't die in the battlefield."
For a long time, Arnie was assigned to write letters home, letters expressing condolences and sympathies to the families of the fallen. Often, he didn't know what to say. These men weren't dying valiantly. They were dying stupidly, unnecessarily, inconsequentially.
He tells us of a captain who hopped off a wall, high as a kite after smoking marijuana, and landed directly in front of a helicopter rotor. The blade decapitated him in seconds. When Arnie wrote home, all he couldn't find words to explain the tragedy. The truth was too awful; a lie was treasonous. Instead, he stuck to an apologetically vague explanation, knowing that many didn't even read the letters, tucking them away where they couldn't be seen.
"It was a strange war," he says, nodding, as if he speaks only to himself. "A very strange war."
He stops talking, his words freezing, when a man begins to play a trumpet at the base of the World War One Memorial. "Taps." He is playing "Taps."
Arnie stiffens, turning his shoulders to face the source of the music, and raises one hand in salute. His eyes are narrowed, his stance rigid. The song ends, and he slowly lowers his hand back to his side.
He says he is happy now, that life has been wonderful to him since Vietnam. He loves his family, his photography, his community. But he says that some little part of himself was left over there, left in the two years he served in the jungle.
"I shoot on the same cameras, and I guess it's because it was there that I learned to love pictures," he says. "They save a part of life that can easily be taken away. People can die, jungles burn down, but my photos - my photos I have forever, and I look at them, and I know it was real. It was all real. My unit was real, Vietnam was real, and I will never forget it. I have my pictures. I will always have my pictures."