Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 372:
A VIET NAM MEMORIAL

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 372.

Today, human ingenuity honors the dead. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The traveling Viet Nam Memorial showed up in our city park a while back. An image lingers from the hot summer's afternoon I went to see it. A ragged squad of men and women formed up before the wall of names. They wore old remnants of uniforms, and they seemed old before their time. They stood, intent, for half an hour. Then they drew to attention, saluted, and marched away. They carried themselves with a bruised, indrawn, and soul-wrenching dignity.

Viet Nam veterans were Ishmaelites in a world that didn't want to see them. One army nurse came home from a field hospital to relatives who called her murderer. For years we piled our own guilt on the people we'd sent to fight that nasty war for us.

The Commonwealth of Kentucky recently put up a memorial to its 1084 Viet Nam dead. When they looked for a design, architect Helm Roberts responded with an uncanny wedding of the heart and head. He didn't shy away from the sadness of the memory.

He created a great sundial. The pointer, called a gnomon, is a 24-foot arm of stainless steel. Sundials are troublesome timepieces, because they cast their shadows differently each day of the year. But this isn't a timepiece in any usual sense. Roberts used the sundial's irregularity to a strange advantage. By placing the 1084 names with mathematical precision on the surrounding plaza, he gave his great clock an eerie property.

Each day, the shadow of the gnomon reaches out to touch the name of the person who died that same day, but in a distant year and in that distant land. The names of two Kentuckians who died in 1962 are strewn far to the left. The last Kentuckian died during the evacuation in 1975. His name lies far off to the right. Near the center we read 154 names of those who died in one month during the worst slaughter of 1968. At 11:11 AM, each Nov. 11th, the shadow touches a marker for the WW-I armistice.

The shadow marches among the dead, calling each to remembrance by name as his time comes due; and we read Ecclesiastes:

For everything there is a season ...
A time to be born, and a time to die ...
A time to gather stones together, a time to cast away stones;
A time for war, and a time for peace.
This sundial calls us to leave off mourning our lost innocence and finally to mourn those we sent to die. As the inexorable shadow walks its path, it summons the order of the mind as well as the pain of the heart. It tells us that we can reclaim the creative order of things -- that we can become whole again.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Kentucky dedicated its Viet Nam Memorial at 11:00 AM on November 12, 1988. The Lexington Herald-Leader (Sunday, Nov. 12, 1989) and the Louisville Courier-Journal (Nov. 7, 1988) both describe it.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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