What Common Bond, if Any
BY BERNARD EDELMAN
On a drizzly D.C. morning, in the middle
My brother brought me downtown to the
Past the watchful eyes of Lincoln, ‘neath
a weeping summer sky,
We crossed the street to the little green
and visited The Wall.
The first time I heard the haunting
refrains of "The Wall," I was sitting at a table in Ireland’s Own,
a smoky pub in Alexandria, Virginia, quaffing pints with two
Marine buddies, Jim Buckley and Jerry Balcom. The song is part of
the repertoire of folksinger Pat Garvey, who was performing that
night. Jim requested that he sing "The Wall." I found myself
enveloped by the rhythms of Pat’s rich tenor, which amplified the
eloquence of the words he intoned. When the song ended, my
composure about to break, I asked Pat to play it again. And again.
" ‘The Wall,’ " Jim Buckley offers,
"is a tremendous piece of poetry [that] tells the complete story
of the memorial." It is, I think, more: It is one of the most
evocative songs about the costs of warfor those who have fought,
for those who have fallen, for those who have lost a loved one. It
is a song about loss and apprehension, about grief and love and,
ultimately, redemption and coming to terms. It is an ode to the
power of The Wall that is both its inspiration and its
subject. In his book, Battle Notes: Music of the Vietnam War,
Lee Andresen lauds the song as "one of the most memorable songs
about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial . . . [and] one of the most
moving and unforgettable pieces of music I’ve heard about any
I remember I was nervous then, I guess a
‘Cause I wasn’t sure how I’d react at all
To see the names of the servicemen who’d
been recorded there:
Who’d heard the final roll call and
assembled at The Wall.
The song was composed by Tim Murphy
of Massena, New York, a draftee who went to infantry OCS at Fort
Benning. Tim spent a year in Vietnam, September 1968-69, as a
platoon leader with the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry, 4th Infantry
Division, operating in the Central Highlands near Pleiku. He saw
his share of combat. He received a Silver Star. He and his
"people," as he refers to them, served honorably and well. Their
experiences affected him profoundly.
In Vietnam, Murphy learned never to
take anything for granted. During sweeps through triple-canopy
jungle, he remembers thinking, "What I wouldn’t give for a cold
beer or a cold glass of water, or even some clear tepid water;
that would do nicely."
"The hardest part, though," he said
during a telephone conversation from his office at the United
States Military Academy at West Point, where he works in logistics
and supply, "was having to go to Graves Registration to ID our
troops after we’d engaged in significant contact on one of our
sweeps." This wasn’t nearly as difficult, though, as what he had
to do before he even got to Vietnam.
"I’d been a training officer at
Fort Dix in New Jersey. As a junior officer, one of my jobs was to
personally notify the next of kin that their son or their husband
had been killed. Breaking the news to families distraught by what
I could tell them and further distressed by what I couldn’t was
uniformly painful. They were starved for information, and the only
information I could give them was how he had died, and where he
was when he was killed."
Fifteen years later, Murphy’s older
brother, Pat, a West Point grad, a career military man who did two
tours in Southeast Asia, urged him to make the pilgrimage to
The Wall. He felt that the experience might afford Tim a
degree of solace and peace that Pat had found there.
One Saturday summer morning in
1983, Tim joined Pat on one of his weekly jaunts to The Wall.
Someone might stoop to leave a rose, a
letter, or a poem;
A message to a young man loved and lost,
To show they still remember those who
never made it home:
Who built The Wall so long and
tall, and paid the bitter cost.
Pat Murphy sat by the bushes where
the Frederick Hart sculpture now stands and watched as his brother
explored The Wall, seeking out and finding the names of
buddies lost to the war. Tim was, Pat recalls, "pretty quiet" when
he rejoined him.
"That first visit affected me so
deeply," Tim says. "I came away with an abiding comfort which
endures to this day. It was dramatic. It was cathartic. And I felt
I had to write something about it. I wanted others to know this
peace that I’d experienced there." After a pause, he adds, "I have
a lot of friends on The Wall."
What he wrote, Tim Murphy says, he
never intended for anyone but himself. While many of his
compositions are works in progress, for the longest time, " ‘The
Wall’ pretty much stayed the same" from its initial conception.
A week later, he called Pat, who
was living near Washington. "He read me the lyrics. I nitpicked
and he, of course, ignored me, thank God," Pat recounted.
"Sometime after that, he called me again. He had worked out the
music. And he sang ‘The Wall’ to me on the telephone."
Maybe a month later, Pat visited
Tim at his home in Peekskill, New York. As they were driving, Tim
popped a recording he’d made of "The Wall" into the cassette
player. Pat listened. And he cried.
And every name’s a father or a husband or
Or a daughter or a brother or a cousin to
Or a name might be a classmate or a friend
you may recall:
There’s nearly sixty thousand fallen names
still waiting at The Wall.
Tim Murphy felt that "perhaps I had
Brother Pat gave a tape of "The
Wall" to Pat Garvey, who began singing it in the pubs he played at
in and around Washington. And Tim added "The Wall" to his song
list when he performed at venues around the Hudson Valley. The
feedback he received was positive. "Vets would come up to me and
tell me that I took them there, that I took them back thereto a
more comfortable place, perhaps."
A difficult place, too. Because, as
Tim puts it, "Everyone was a soul, and that’s the essence of what
the names represent." And that’s the thematic focus of "The Wall."
He copyrighted "The Wall" in 1985.
It has since been sung by, among others, the Irish tenor John
McDermottit’s on his album Remembranceand by Michael
McCann, a former Green Beret who recorded it on his album,
Which has been so very gratifying
to Tim Murphy. He is no one-note Johnnie, either. His composition,
"The Firefighters’ Creed," is now the official anthem of New York
State’s firefighters. Tim sang it in October at the firefighters’
memorial in Albany, where the names of 366 fallen firefighters,
most of whom perished in the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11,
are inscribed. He has written a song about POW-MIAs; with brother
Pat, he wrote "The Forgotten War."
As I watched the lines of people that
walked by in slow parade,
I read a different story in each face;
And I couldn’t help but wonder at this
pilgrimage we’d made,
And what common bond, if any, might have
brought us to this place.
Two years ago, Tim and his family
visited Canada. One evening, in Cornwall, Ontario, they attended a
concert by John McDermott. "I wasn’t able to see John prior to the
show, but I asked one of his sound men to let him know I was in
the audience with my family, hoping he’d include ‘The Wall’ in the
evening’s repertoire," Tim recounts.
"Early in the concert, John
introduced me from the stage, having me stand by my seat as I was
recognized by the audience. He then began to sing ‘The Wall.’ When
he reached the final stanza, he was having a problem with the
lyrics. Instead of trying to fake it through the rest of the song,
he stopped the band, and said, ‘I know there’s someone here
tonight who can remember the words.’
"At that, he called me down on
stage, turned over his microphone, and told the band to take it
from the top. And I was afforded an amazing opportunity to perform
an original song backed by four world-class musicians. I got
through it relatively unscathed."
The audience rewarded Tim Murphy
with a standing ovation.
There were tourists, and the curious, and
some veterans who came,
Still others who sought an answer to it
But the only thing I’m sure of is: we left
not quite the same,
With our memories alive and well, and
waiting at The Wall.
Lyrics to "The Wall," copyright
1985 by Tim Murphy, are used with his permission.