One thing that makes it rather enjoyable to work for a newspaper in Spokane is that you can count on hearing from people.
Especially if you feature some sort of “local mystery” – the collective knowledge of this community always amazes me, and I love to hear the stories.
In my column on Wednesday I mentioned a commemorative plaque I’d never noticed before. Located at Veterans’ Court, off the north end of the Monroe Street Bridge in Riverfront Park, it honors veterans and peacekeepers who lost their lives during an attack on the U.S. Marine Corps barracks in Beirut, Lebanon in 1983. No matter who I called, I couldn’t find out any more about it.
Sure enough: Wednesday morning an e-mail from John S. Custer popped up in my inbox.
Custer is past state commander of the VFW and the current VFW District 9 chaplain – and he is one of the people who undertook the fundraising and helped design and make the plaque after the terrorist attack in 1983.
“I don’t believe anyone from Spokane lost their life in the attack,” says Custer, when we meet by the plaque in the hot midday sun Friday. “But people from other parts of the Inland Northwest did.”
A couple of marmots watch low to the grass, pressed flat by the intense heat.
Across the river the city is steaming.
“Back then, after the attack, I got together with a couple of people and we all felt like we needed to do something,” Custer says about how the fundraising began. “We made 3-inch red ribbons with a B on them and raised $1,500. But the cost of a memorial is high, so we scaled it back to this.”
At the time, Custer was working at Anderson Welding in Palouse. The company donated the sheet metal, and employees – many of whom were Vietnam veterans like Custer – donated the work.
“I asked what they wanted for their time, and they said cold beer,” Custer says. “They didn’t really want anything. It was veterans caring for veterans.”
There was a dedication ceremony in mid-October 1985.
“I think it was the Sunday prior to the actual anniversary date,” Custer says, pausing, remembering. “This whole place was full. The Gold Star Mothers were present. Many of the people who were here are gone today.”
There was a write-up in the paper, Custer says, measuring out a few inches with his thumb and forefinger.
“It was the typical cold recognition of veterans’ causes you get here in Spokane,” he says.
The plaque blends in with the low wall it’s mounted on. It’s got paint on it, like someone painted over graffiti, or maybe an overzealous maintenance worker got carried away with the pressure painter the last time the wall got a coat of light gray.
We stand there for a bit. Does the plaque serve its purpose, I ask.
“Yes it does,” Custer answers firmly. “It’s a reminder that us service people, that we are more than just numbers.”
Custer, who’s 58, made three tours to Vietnam before he turned 23.
“I figured three tours was enough in two years,” he says, like it’s no big deal. “It was typical of the time, you know, we went because we believed.”
I ask how the location works for Custer.
“We’d like to move it,” he says, “up to the southeast corner of the Arena, by the Purple Heart memorial.”
It would be hard to remove the plaque, though.
“They need to take a grinder to it, to grind off the heads of the bolts,” Custer says, grinning.
“Or you’d just have to take that piece of wall down.”