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Gotta Light

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I'm crossing the Daley Center Plaza at midday.

The remains of the city's Christmas tree, a towering frame now stripped of greenery, is ringed by municipal trucks. The Cor-Ten steel of the Picasso and the Miesian architecture behind are rusting familiarly

Something's different, but I don't notice it until I'm about 60 feet away from the memorial for Vietnam veterans, the familiar eternal flame and the inscribed stone bounded by a discreet metal fence maybe ten feet square. Within the installation lies--what? A human figure, face down.

The cold keeps everyone moving: passersby rushing to and fro dressed for the weather. As the wind rages, a Chinese man in his 20s also stops for a better look.

From the rear, where we stand, we see a tall, slender, bareheaded man. He wears a gray windbreaker so stained and intricately discolored that it resembles an enormous grease spot. His posture is ceremonial, nearly motionless. Bare hands to the granite, he looks stuck in mid-push-up, frozen in the bitter wind. It appears that he's thrust his head directly into the flame.

"Do you believe it?" I say to my fellow observer. We wonder why we're the only ones on all of Washington Street viewing this spectacle.

The act could be a gesture of tenderness, or a ritual of private remembrance. I think of the Vietnam memorial in Washington. D.C., where children, families, and survivors of the war leave offerings of letters, photos, poems, flowers, even food.

Here in Chicago the man could get arrested for trespassing, regardless of his intentions. He's inside the fence. "Hallowed ground," the Chinese fellow remarks. Words that sound weird anywhere except in the Gettysburg Address.

The Chinese and I move up closer. Now we're staying head on at the man, who's still suspended prone above the eternal flame. It's been two minutes, maybe three.

The whole time he's been trying to light a cigarette! The wind has been flattening the flame away from the business end!

"He has some nerve," squawks the Chinese.

The prone man doesn't hear a word. Rising, successful at last, he takes a long draw on his smoke before vaulting with surprising nimbleness to the public side of the railing. He walks with hunched shoulders toward Dearborn Street. As the Chinese guy and I leave the memorial, the flame is still a fierce blue slash, hovering over the ground.

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