The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
October/November 2004
FEATURE
 
 

What Common Bond, if Any
 

BY BERNARD EDELMAN

On a drizzly D.C. morning, in the middle of July,

My brother brought me downtown to the Mall;

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 warfor 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 war."

Amen.

I remember I was nervous then, I guess a little scared,

‘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 a son,

Or a daughter or a brother or a cousin to someone;

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 something here."

He did.

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 thereto 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 McDermottit’s on his album Remembranceand by Michael McCann, a former Green Beret who recorded it on his album, Soldiers’ Songs.

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 all;

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.

   

Visit The VVA Veteran archives
to locate back issues.

E-mail us at TheVeteran@vva.org


     Home | Membership | Publications | Events | Government Relations | Contact Us
Press Releases | Benefits | Meetings & Special Events | Collectibles | Contributions and Sponsorships | Site Index

Vietnam Veterans of America ® 
8605 Cameron Street, Suite 400
Silver Spring, Maryland  20910-3710
301-585-4000, Fax 301-585-0519, 1-800-VVA-1316  

Copyright © 2005 by the Vietnam Veterans of America. All rights reserved.