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A Monument to Survival



Near the corner of Polk and Oakley, on a block with several houses that Lavicka has rehabbed, is a 50-foot-wide grass-covered lot with flagpoles flying an American flag and flags from the four branches of the armed forces. On each corner of the lot are antique lampposts. To the left of a water pump are two red metal benches. To the right are two enormous stone gargoyles mounted on top of column capitals painted bloodred and topped by weed-filled wooden buckets. They guard a concrete slab on which are crimson tile letters that read "Vietnam Survivors Memorial. 1960-1975. America's Longest War." Behind the slab is a path of marble stepping stones that leads to the back of the lot, where ten cast-iron columns, also bloodred, surround a concrete slab with a black granite map of Vietnam, the names of major battle sites, and more tile messages, including the words "Welcome Home Veterans." There's also a faded address and a plea for donations.

The memorial was Lavicka's idea, conceived after a 1986 parade for Vietnam veterans. He owned the 25-foot-wide lot and didn't have any immediate plans for it. He gathered a committee of Vietnam veterans--including his friend Tom Lampa, novelist Larry Heinemann, and the late Rob Mier, at the time the head of the city's planning department--to help plan the memorial and raise funds for it. The gargoyles came from a torn-down west-side church. The columns were reclaimed during the renovation of the Page Brothers Building at State and Lake, and the marble was part of a discarded load from the Amoco Building. The memorial was dedicated November 7, 1987.

In 1989 the Illinois Medical Center Commission told Lavicka that it wanted another state-owned lot, about 25 feet wide, that abutted the property to use for parking. But Lavicka got 400 Vietnam veterans to send a petition to Governor Jim Thompson asking that the state deed the lot to the memorial instead. The state did, and Lavicka added the flagpoles, more grass, and a backdrop of trees.

On a cold December day Lavicka stands shivering at the edge of the memorial with his friend Brenda Doherty, who heads the post-traumatic stress disorder clinic at the Veterans Administration hospital on Damen. She says that Vietnam vets often come to the park. "Veterans see it as a special piece of property. They go there and they feel that it's peaceful, that they can sit down and reflect and think. I think some grieving goes on there, some healing goes on there. It's a private place for them. When they come back from visiting, they don't go into a whole lot of detail of what exactly they did there, but that they were glad they found it. I think there's real respect and gratitude and relief that someone did do it, and that it was one of their own."

"A lot of the vets carry a lot of baggage," Lavicka says. "I was an engineer. I didn't shoot nobody. I didn't kill nobody." His face begins to quiver. He puts it in his hands and starts sobbing. "I get all moved," he says.

Doherty puts her arm around him. "It's a great thing you did, Bill."

Slowly he stops crying. "It's kinda funny," he says. "There was kind of a big peak for Vietnam people about ten years ago. Welcome home and that stuff. You do something nice for your own kind. I catch plenty of it from my wife, especially when times get a little tough. "You know the money you spent over on the Vietnam memorial? We could maybe use it now.' But that's the way it goes. You gotta make somethin'. We had a friend from the Windy City Vets who one day brought in a guy who didn't have much left in one leg. Put him down here."

Lavicka starts to sob again. "Turns out the guy was serving right next to me. Oh, God. There's also what you call a survivor's syndrome. There are some who are a touch more positive. I'm a little beat up. Trying to sell these damn houses too. It's a happy place to visit--and here I'm cryin'."

Later in the car Lavicka says, "There's a lot of Vietnam vets done very well in their life. You carry the baggage, but the baggage isn't that heavy on a lot of people. It sort of tempers them for the rest of their lives. To some degree, if you can make it through Vietnam you can make it through just about anything."


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