Monday, December 13, 2004

Delayed Report from Tallahassee

This first appeared in the Apalachee Tortoise and is excerpted here.

“Eyes Wide Open” Visits Tallahassee to Remind Us About the Human Cost of War

by Kitty Kerner

When the moving truck pulled up at 6:15 a.m. it was still dark. Despite the early hour, volunteers arrived in a steady stream to help unload the truck and its unusual cargo: bags and bins full of shoes and boots. Dead people’s shoes. At least, that’s what they symbolize – the victims of the Iraq War, both civilians and soldiers. Over the next several hours, Lewis Park was transformed into a vast memorial, a place to come eye to eye with the insanity of war.

For some reason, I felt compelled by the call for volunteers to help set up this ambitiously designed exhibit. And I was pleasantly surprised to see so many others also came, old and young, regardless of their political or religious background. People who, on this day, didn’t care if you were from one side or the other – we were all there to take part in the solemn ritual of setting up the thousands of boots and shoes that represented the fallen soldiers and civilian victims of the Iraq war.

It took almost four hours of steady work from many hands to finish the task. Though the comparison is not entirely precise, being involved in the creation of this specific version of Eyes Wide Open felt a little like making a Mandala. As I bent and crouched over and over to arrange the heels of the boots along a line strung across the grassy park and then measured the spacing between the pairs, the repetitiveness emptied my mind of all other thought.

I tried to connect briefly with each pair of boots I handled, each fallen soldier. Sometimes a name caught my eye, or the young age, or perhaps one of the mementos tucked into a boot by visitors before me: a photo, a plastic flower, a peace button. My hands turned dirty and dry from touching all those boots that had seen plenty of action. Though most of them never touched Iraq’s desert sands (they were mostly army surplus I later learned), it was easy to imagine that they had.

Gradually, as we unpacked and set up row after row of boots and shoes, the numbers really sunk in. At that point, 1122 U.S. soldiers had died in the Iraq War, one pair of boots for each of them. The civilian side is much harder to represent, there are so many… and the numbers are conflicting. The exhibit chose to spread out 1000 pairs of shoes symbolizing the much larger Iraqi losses - a sea of sneakers, loafers, flip-flops, winter boots, sandals and much more. The tiny children’s shoes were the hardest to look at. This was not “collateral damage;” these were real people that had died in a real war.

When I returned to the park just before sunset, there were still many people lingering among the rows of boots. A somber, reflective mood hung in the air, much like a cemetery – which is of course what the whole arrangement is meant to evoke. As dusk settled in, only the white name tags continued to glow in the growing darkness, and yet people seemed hesitant to leave, or to start packing all those boots into their bins again.

I’m glad I went. Eyes Wide Open brought me directly in touch with a war that’s waged far away, that had been filtering into my life only through radio broadcasts and newspaper headlines. Now I don’t ever want to close my eyes again.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Story from Copley Square

Stories keep coming in...this one from Marcia:

I felt a little hand tugging at my leg. I turned to see a girl clutching some flowers, and pointing her small finger at one pair of boots, her face filled with sadness.

"That was the man who took care of me. My babysitter," she said. "I want to do something special for him."

As I saw this girl cautiously move forward and caringly place her flowers inside the boots, I couldn't stop the tears from welling up. The empty boots, the soldier's dog tag; that was all that was left. He was gone from her life, leaving only memories. One question burned in my mind: "Why?"