Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Barcelona McKenzie’s mother dreamed of bigger things than living in a Cedar Rapids trailer court with a 7-Eleven clerk. So, Maggie gave her daughter an exotic name to go with her dark hair and eyes and light skin.

Three weeks later, Maggie and tiny Barcelona left Iowa and headed east, leaving Jimmy Ames and his ordinary world behind. By the time the mother and daughter arrived in Chicago, Maggie McKenzie had changed her ex-boyfriend’s name to Xavier and declared him to be a soldier in Vietnam who hadn’t met his new daughter yet. In Rensellaer, Indiana, his name was Raúl, and he was Missing In Action. By the time they hit Syracuse, Sergeant Paciano Ibarra McKenzie was officially a POW.

Of course, it was all too painful for Maggie to talk about, once she mentioned it to everyone she met. And so, because Maggie’s money and imagination ran out, Barcelona McKenzie grew up in Syracuse. Naturally, as soon as she met someone she wanted to marry, Maggie “killed off” the poor Sergeant, and subsequently claimed that she had to get rid of all his mementos. She didn’t want any reminders of that “painful” chapter of her life, except for her beloved Barcelona.


It’s not a big surprise, then, that Barcelona grew up with a sort of chasm inside her. She yearned for her father, the exotic Scottish Spaniard who was imprisoned and later died a heroic death to preserve his country’s honor. She wondered if she had other relatives, maybe aunts and uncles and cousins -- anyone who could tell her about this man who should have played a fundamental role in her life, and actually did by his absence. She couldn’t ask her mother, though. Barcelona guessed that her relatives and Maggie weren’t exactly fond of each other. That’s probably why her parents had to elope.

When Maya Ying Lin created the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Barcelona felt as if it were designed just for her. She had never seen so much as a photograph of her father; now, at least she could touch his name etched in the shiny stone. And so the teenager prepared for her pilgrimage to Washington, DC as if she were going to meet her living father for the first time.

She studied everything she could about the park area, the memorial, and the statues dedicated to the women and the men. She did everything but tell her mother where she was going. Instead, Barcelona told Maggie that she was going to visit friends who’d moved to New York City. She didn’t want to reopen that painful chapter in her mother’s life.

Barcelona boarded the Greyhound with her huge purse full of everything AAA had about Washington, DC. She took the late-night bus so that she’d arrive first thing in the morning. She’d return that night, and save the cost of the hotel.


Washington, DC was kind of pretty, in its own way—at least the touristy parts. First she took photos of the White House, the Washington Monument, everything she could. She didn’t know how she’d feel after she’d spent time at the Wall, and she might not make it this far from home again. After a while, Barcelona noticed that her heart was pounding and her stomach was queasy, and knew she couldn’t put it off any longer. She headed toward the walkway that led to the Wall.

Barcelona didn’t look for her father’s name at first. She saw wives and sweethearts and parents there, touching the wall, meditating, taking rubbings of names, and leaving mementos. Some were crying, some merely sniffling. She started trying to guess how the people were related to the men and women on the Wall. Were they school buddies? Did the men she saw actually fight in Vietnam? Could one of these people have known her father?

Barcelona’s questions stopped as soon as she realized that some of the people she saw were like herself: the children left behind. Finally, she could meet people who would understand her, what she was like inside. Her friends had been taught that the Vietnam War was a bad thing. She could never tell them the truth about her father, or tell them how she felt, what it was like to miss someone you never met. And so she made up an imaginary father in the Midwest somewhere. Divorce, they understood. Patriotism was eating hot dogs on the Fourth of July; it was a local thing that had nothing to do with killing or dying.

Barcelona saw a man with military insignias on his leather jacket. The Marine walked over to Barcelona and introduced himself. For Barcelona, it was like meeting her own long-lost father. Without a word, she burst out crying. The Marine put his arm around her shoulder and took her over to the book where she would find her father’s name and his location on the wall.

After the Marine left the girl, Barcelona watched what other people did until it was her own turn. Since Sergeant Paciano Ibarra McKenzie had two last names, Barcelona first looked under Ibarra and then McKenzie. There were a bunch of McKenzies but only a few Ibarras. None of them were Paciano. Her father wasn’t in either place. He wasn’t anywhere in the book, wasn’t on The Wall. He wasn’t.


Later, after Barcelona returned to Syracuse, her mother would make lots of excuses, and never admit to the truth. It was the government’s fault, or that Lin girl’s, who designed the monument. Besides, and it was all too painful to discuss. So instead of Barcelona’s internal chasm being filled by her pilgrimage, it grew deeper and larger. In her quest to fill it, she would end up with a lot of strange men – not unlike her mother. One didn’t know the difference between reality and Dungeons & Dragons. He was sure he was a wizard; Barcelona was convinced he was a troll. Another would incorporate the experiences of talk show guests into his own life story. Trying to sort out the truth was exhausting. All the while, Jimmy Ames still lived in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, manager for a 7-Eleven store.



No comments:

Post a Comment