It is a familiar scene repeated dozens of times a day, hundreds of times a week, thousands of times a year.
Of the more than 58,000 names on the Vietnam Memorial Wall, someone finds the name they're looking for, presses a piece of paper against it, scribbles with a pencil and produces a "granite rubbing" to take back home.This has been going on for 16 years now, since the Wall was unveiled on the National Mall in November 1982.
It's hot, real hot, and the couple from Illinois, rubbing the name of a friend from the '60s, moves fast, before the granite burns their fingers.
Holding the paper as her husband rubs, the woman scans the length of the Wall.
"A lot of boys lost their lives," she says, shaking her head.
"And for what?" adds her husband.
It's a rhetorical question of course. In the case of the Vietnam War, it's THE rhetorical question. The question that sparked Kent State, and the Berkeley riots, and border crossings into Canada. That inspired perfectly fit men to fake knee injuries.
There may not be a more notorious "For what?" war in history.
The man says it innocently, like someone saying "he lived a good life" at a funeral.
Not here. Not now.
Less than three years after we all stood and completely butchered "Climb Every Mountain" at graduation, two high school friends of mine died in Vietnam.
Coincidentally, they died within a week of each other in 1969. Kim Fitzgerald on March 23 and Bret Crandall on March 30. Since the Wall lists the casualties in chronological order, their names are on the same granite plate. Both were spec fours in the Army. They may have died in the same campaign.
When I look up their names in one of the roster directories that adjoin the Wall, it is still with a measure of disbelief - surprised that they really did go off to war, and they really did not make it back.
They were good guys. I can attest to that, just as I can guarantee you that when we were all in high school, wondering if we'd ever survive algebra, none of us could have found Vietnam on a map.
In the summer of 1998, 30 years removed from the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and Lyndon Johnson's deciding not to run for re-election because of the mess in Vietnam, remembering the Vietnam War is back in vogue.
Here in Washington, the Wall gets plenty of attention. Even on hundred degree days.
I personally find it fitting that it is such a difficult memorial to figure out.
With the names in chronological rather than alphabetical order, it's a chore to find who you're looking for, and at high traffic times the lines back up from the directories and move about as fast as the old draft day lines.
To add to the confusion, the chronology begins in the middle.
The war's first casualty, Army Maj. Dale R. Buis, who died on July 8, 1959, is listed on the first line of the east wall, while the war's last casualty, Air Force Lt. Richard Vande geer, who died on Mar. 15, 1975, is listed on the last line of the west wall, right next to Buis' name.
Why they didn't flip-flop the walls, so it would make more sense, who knows.
The whole operation has "Vietnam" written all over it.
But poorly organized or not, there is no arguing that the intent is honorable.
In that way the Wall is like the war it remembers - a war whose shortcoming wasn't being on the wrong side, but in having a game plan worse than lousy.
Before I leave, I pay tribute to the more than 58,000 names, and in particular to Kim Fitzgerald and Bret Crandall, Vietnam casualties I knew personally, both of whom I prefer to think died for a very good cause.