Sun beat down upon the decaying pavement as I padded towards the water’s edge. The air was clear and the skies moved about with the changing island breeze. I had walked this way many times before, and today, with music filling my ears of piano and violins, I slipped away from my busy world. My arms found their way in a swinging motion, like snow-skiing across the vast concrete before me. I was out to replace my previous walking time, and my steps became urgent with purpose. But the truth was, I was distracted by a sudden change in landscape. I tried to push the thought of the island’s transformation out of my head, and raced on past the military patrol boats in the harbor and the once vibrant military buildings that now looked all but forgotten.
Out in the distance the clouds rolled in over the mountains and rain showers replenished the earth with much-needed water. Smiling, I marveled at the vibrant rainbow that soon followed. Still, the sun bore down on my shoulders and beads of moisture dripped from my brow. I loved to walk here on this hallowed land that once experienced perhaps the greatest tragedy in American history. The smaller island found within the confines of a larger one was full of secrets and surprises, and it was perhaps this reason I so enjoyed my walks here on Ford Island.
Today this side of the island seemed quieter than usual. The tourists had all but disappeared and families residing nearby were nowhere to be seen. The Oklahoma Memorial stood like a forgotten ship upon land, while the USS Missouri clanked against the dock, reminding itself that it remained as strong as it ever was.
Like a long-lost friend, the old banyan tree with its names proudly etched upon it, welcomed me as I made my way up the street past the house with nineteen cats. Its foliage shaded my overheated body, and as much as I wanted to stop, I did not. For not but a few steps away lie a beautiful memorial of white, and its appearance was always changing depending on the day. I looked forward to seeing the USS Arizona each time I walked, and today was no different. Its flag flew strong and vibrant against the island trade winds, reminding me once again of those that had fallen in time of war.
I did not stay long to recall the reason for the memorial, for still I was haunted by the change of landscape found within the confines of the island. Moving past the deserted playground with the sun blurring my eyes, I knew it wouldn’t be long before I was upon the site that most troubled me before my walk.
With the sidewalk bending its way through uncut grass, I found myself suddenly upon the main road. Long and straight, hot and silent. I stopped as if at Arlington or Punchbowl to take in the sight before me. Boots. Not just one pair or two, nor twenty or one hundred, but thousands. Each with a name tag, photo, Date of Death and an American Flag. Stopped like a wooden statue, my eyes scoured the main roads in and out of the island. As far as I could see, they were all still there, boots… calling to me to pay attention, to stop and read and remember those that gave all.
My phone found its way out of my pocket and I lowered myself to the level of the first boot. Taking a photo, I stopped suddenly, remembering that this was not just another photo-op of history but a memorial to a real individual. A Marine who gave his life in 2004. He was young, like my own son… Catching my breath, I righted myself and watched as cars moved slower than usual down the once WWII runway. How strange to have a boot of a fallen soldier upon the same soil of fallen WWII airmen.
As I began to walk, my eyes caught each ghost soldier, sailor and airman’s eyes as they followed me down the long stretch of black now radiating heat greater than usual. I zigged and zagged across the street reading names and learning about loved ones who would never forget their lost brother, sister, husband or wife. Replacing flags and righting boots I mourned for those left behind.
And then I saw them. Two boots laced together, a husband and wife. Choked up, my hand could not bear to take a photo. Three boots of MP’s, buddies till the end… Four boots, forever together. I began to run along the road, seeing for the first time the faces of people standing in a long line waiting for something…. Their vacant eyes searching mine, their smiles urging me on. Not a runner, my breath was not labored nor quick, but steady as I passed each individual. They reminded me of my freedoms, my family, everything that was good in my life. My eyes moistened and my brain began to scream at the horrors of war. And then I stopped, crying in the street with lone boots at my feet. I would remember. How could I not? I would remember them all as I should, as we all should…. And why wouldn’t we?
As I turned towards my car, I stopped and glanced one last time down the two long roads before me. Boots stood at attention as others followed my footsteps, reading, remembering and crying. The boots won’t be here for long, but the memory of them will be here forever.