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
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
The shadow marches among the dead, calling each to
remembrance by name as his time comes due; and we
For everything there is a season ...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.
A time to be born, and a time to die ...
A time to gather stones together, a time to cast
A time for war, and a time for peace.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds