My final trip to the National Mall started, innocently enough, as a trip around the corner to Starbucks for green tea. But I do admit to the fact that I had a feeling my journey wouldn’t end at Starbucks, hence why I grabbed my camera before I headed out of the dorms.
Starbucks was closed for some reason, so I automatically turned and headed south to the National Mall. I couldn’t not go. This was my last night in D.C., and I knew I wouldn’t live with myself if I didn’t go one more time to say goodbye.
I walked, soaking in everything I could and trying to feel grateful for the opportunity to go to the National Mall at all rather than feel sad that this would be my final time for a while. My heart actually felt heavy, like a weight had been dropped into it. I walked and passed the Constriction Garden Pond, the beautiful park, the Vietnam Memorial. I continued on my way to the steps between the Lincoln Memorial and the Reflecting Pool, to the very spot I was going to miss the most.
I don’t think I mentioned this in my last few blogposts, but last night, when I went to the National Mall to revisit the Lincoln Memorial, I met a very nice man and his wife right beyond the Vietnam Memorial, at the edge of the large open space between President Lincoln’s great monument and the Reflecting Pool. The man was there selling books – not that I would have guessed by the way he talked to me. Last night there was no mention of his books at all. I told them I was from Arizona and was here studying “abroad” but would be traveling to London soon. Apparently the man’s wife is from London, so we talked about that for a while before they wished me well and I went on my way. They were so, so sweet.
I passed the couple again tonight and stopped to greet them. I didn’t think they would remember me, but the kind man immediately said, “Didn’t we run into you last night?”
“Yes! Yes we did!” I said. We talked about my study abroad trip some more, and when I happily told them we were packing up and going to London tomorrow, the man’s wife nodded and said she remembered this piece of conversation from yesterday. How amazing was that? This couple must have spoken to hundreds of people that day, and yet they remembered me.
“I’m going to miss this place,” I said, nodding over to the Reflecting Pool which was a little bit away from us. “This spot is my favorite in all of D.C. You really have the best place here.”
“We do, we do,” the man said. “And you’ll come back soon.”
After a few more minutes, we started to part ways. As I turned to leave, the man said, “Tell London we said hi.”
“Okay,” I said cheerfully. “Who should I say said hi?”
The man smiled. “You can say it was Ray.”
I introduced myself and shook his hand and that of his lovely wife’s. I told them I couldn’t wait to come back soon. The man chuckled and said, “Well, we’ll probably still be here when you do, selling my books. You’ll get to come back before long.”
I looked over to the neat stacks of books on the table they had set up. There were pictures of soldiers on them. “Did you – did you write these?”
“I did. They’re about the first few soldiers to die during the Vietnam War.” He saw me looking at the books curiously and picked one up to show it to me. I looked at the pictures on the cover as he told me of his research. And then he said the words.
“When I was in Vietnam…”
I cannot for the life of me remember what he said directly afterward. Those five words were so unexpected. Stunned, I looked at the author’s name on the cover.
It read Master Sergeant Ray Bows, U.S. Army (ret.).
This kind man had served in Vietnam. Upon reading the back of his book, I learned that he not only did this, he served 20 years on active duty with the U.S. Army, 16 of which were spent overseas.
Tears started to pour down my face. I asked him if I could buy one of his books, and he immediately sat down to sign one for me, looking concerned as he said he hoped he hadn’t said anything to make me cry. His wife nodded at me understandingly as I tried to wipe my tears away. “It’s very overwhelming, isn’t it?” she asked as I stood sniffling.
“Yes,” I managed to say. I gestured to the Vietnam Memorial, just behind us. “All the names – just… all the names – ” I couldn’t finish, but I didn’t need to. They both understood completely.
Master Sergeant Bows read me the message he had written for me, gave me my book and said it had been great to meet me. I believed him. He was so genuine and simply one of the nicest people I believe I have ever met. I shook his hand and thanked him again and again for his book and for his service. I bade he and his wife farewell and they wished me all the best. I promised I would say hello to London for them.
I walked to the Lincoln Memorial. As I tried to pull myself together, I re-read my message:
“To Alexis: It was wonderful to meet you in D.C. – so glad you came back! Wishing you all the success that life brings. My very best wishes, Ray Bows.”
I looked out at the Reflecting Pool and the Washington Monument. The sun was setting behind me, and the entire area – the most magical part of Washington, D.C. – was immersed in beautiful, golden light.
I collapsed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial with my new book in my hands and cried.