Monday, September 24, 2007

Chance Meeting - Monumental Result

Land Rover Expedition Time: Late April 1998

I am not much into boats, but most girls like a sailor. So, when the New Zealand Embassy invited TH and I to a function at Baltimore Harbour, I jumped at the chance.

The Whitbread Around-the-World Yachts had arrived and, while there was no specific New Zealand entry into the race that year, New Zealand crewmen were serving on nearly every boat. The function was to welcome these New Zealanders and celebrate our nation’s "can do", prowess. J and N were also invited, as were F1 and F2. We responded with apologies for F1 and F2, saying they were due to arrive in the next few days. Well, we hoped they would be arriving. We still didn’t know where they were, or even if they were going to show up for our own function.

Our Embassy also kindly offered a place on their guest list for the PR representative from Land Rover North America. TH and I were invited to be her personal hosts for the night, which was a real privilege.

The evening opened with a powhiri (a formal Maori welcoming ceremony)

TH and I accompanied our Land Rover guest (Nancy) within the group of guests/visitors to be welcomed by the New Zealand Ambassador and his staff, so I could explain the ceremony to her, as it unfolded.

Many of the Embassy staff were Maori and several were in appropriate ceremonial dress. One of these, a strapping young man of great height, performed the wero (the challenge). During the wero, which is an ancient ritual, it is customary for a strong warrior to approach the visiting party in a war-like way. This includes brandishing a weapon (such as taiaha, or spear) chanting and poking out of the tongue. This is a demonstration of strength to signal that the visitors are welcome, if they come in peace. If not, the hosts are prepared to vigorously defend themselves.

At that stage, I had not seen the powhiri performed outside of New Zealand. The effect on many of the American guests, who had never seen a powhiri ever before, was fascinating. Nancy, buoyed by her own personal guides (TH and myself) either side of her, was thrilled and appreciative. The others were all interested, as expected, but many looked quite nervous. The most terrified looking of them all was the Mayor of Baltimore, who was a huge black American.

As "chief" of the guests, he had been appointed to accept the "offering". This is a vital part of the wero, where the challenging warrior lays down an item, often a piece of fern, as an offering. If the visiting chief does not want war, he will accept this offering by picking it up.

The Mayor, despite looking like he might run any moment, was well briefed. When he crouched down to accept the offering, he never took his eyes off the warrior, which was the exact protocol. However, I could see the fern frond shaking in his hands as he stood up again.

As soon as the offering was picked up, a warming song of welcome burst out from the hosts, which we (as the guests) responded to with a song of our own. The two sides then happily intermingled, there were the usual speeches and then the food was served.

Towards the end of the evening, after Nancy had left, I met a man who was the region’s department head for the American equivalent of the Ministry of Labour. When he discovered I was a tourist, he asked me to call him Jim. Then he enquired if I had visited any of Washington DC’s monuments yet. I said that we planned to do that the next day. He asked which one I would visit first. My reply was instant – The Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There are a lot of monuments, many of great significance in Washington DC.

I imagine that not many tourists would name the Vietnam Veterans Memorial as first on their list. Jim looked surprised, but pleased as well. I knew immediately that this memorial was a special place for him.

He asked me why I wanted to visit this one. I told him about our expedition’s major sponsor, the CEO of Repco New Zealand, Bob Wyeth. Bob had told me about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial when he last visited Washington DC. He described the three key components of the memorial - the Wall of names, the Three Servicemen Statue and Flagpole, and the Vietnam Women's Memorial.

Bob described "The Wall" in great detail. It starts as a short panel with the name of the first soldier killed, builds up progressively to taller panels, which list the names of more and more dead soldiers. At full height, this wall is well above a tall man’s head, and it stretches out, like a black wedge in the land, for many long paces. Then, the panels get progressively shorter and end with one short panel again, inscribed with the name of the last soldier killed. In total, there are over 58,000 names! At the base of each panel, still grieving family and friends leave flowers, poems and gifts.

Back in New Zealand, big, tough Bob had tears in his eyes, when described to me something that had happened during his visit to the memorial. An elderly man had shuffled along "The Wall" and stopped just past the halfway point, where Bob was standing. He fingered a name etched on the black, marble panel. Then, the man bent down and gently placed an old-fashioned penknife, one with a bone handle, at the base of that panel.

As the man turned away he announced, to no one in particular, that he had given his son that knife for his twelfth birthday. Bob asked the old man to tell him about his son. The boy had grown to a tall 18-year old, had enlisted in the US Army and was sent to Vietnam. A short while later he was posted "missing in action". Over the years since, the old man had kept the knife to give back to him when he returned, and had never moved house, so his boy would know where to find him. But, ill health and old age had now forced him to sell or give away most of his possessions in order to move into a small room at a retirement home. The man said he’d never given up hope, until now, that some day, some how his son might return. He added sadly that, even if he did, there was no house for the boy to come home to anymore.

I had tears in my eyes, too, as I finished telling Jim this story. Jim patted me gently on the shoulder and thanked me. He then told me that he was the Chairman of the local chapter of the Vietnam Veterans. He had been a helicopter pilot. TH and I talked a while longer about the memorial with Jim. He asked a lot of questions about our expedition and said he would like to know more.

It was getting late in the evening and the Embassy bus would soon be leaving to take us back to Washington DC. I suggested that he attend our Embassy event. Unfortunately, he would be away on business. With J and N’s permission, I gave him their contact details. He was due back in town on the day we planned to hit the road again. He promised he would find a way to get in touch, shook mine and TH’s hands and left. I thought I would never see him again.

But, the day before our departure a week later, Jim telephoned. He was flying back to DC the next morning and he asked if he could visit us at J and N’s home before we left.

We agreed. His plane arrived on time and he came straight from the airport. He brought three gifts with him. He presented me with a gold Vietnam Veterans Memorial commemorative coin, in a red velvet box. From our conversation at the function in Baltimore, he knew that TH was interested in military aircraft. So, he gave TH a squadron badge from his own unit. He also gave us a small package to give to Bob Wyeth, on our return to New Zealand. He told us that it was a letter and another commemorative coin. He said that, in his letter, he thanked Bob for sponsoring us as, through us, he was able to hear Bob’s memories of his visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Jim told us that he’d also written that we were worthy ambassadors for New Zealand, and our sponsors, and how proud Bob could be of having two such people representing Repco around the world.

We were quite overcome. But, it gave us a terrific boost. This was just what we needed when setting forth once more on the great adventure and after a comfortable rest stop.

© Eventful Woman, 2007
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