Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Heroes – Memorial Day 2009

My latest novel, completed but not finished editing, changes title every few weeks. The current favorite is: Unwanted Heroes. It is a story that highlights the plight of the homeless, and in particular, war veterans.

Today is Remembrance Sunday in the UK and will be Veterans Day on Wednesday here in the US. The following passage from Unwanted Heroes is in honor of our war vets.


It is a gray, cloudy Bay Area day in the Presidio: as it should be. James meets me for an early lunch and then drives me to the cemetery. We ate in near silence and I realize this isn’t easy for him. But he never hesitated in agreeing to come. James was a soldier, still is.

The nearest I’ve ever come to witnessing military funerals have been Hollywood dramatizations. I’m immediately consumed with the intensity as the honor guard solemnly makes their way to the graveside. These young men so polished, so precise. I wondered whether this is a chore for them or whether they truly see it as an honor, a tribute to a fallen comrade they never knew.

The wind whistles through the swaying pines. For a moment I fancy I hear a voice: voices on the wind. He was one of us…We are brothers-in-arms and one day, we will all meet here.

The casket is lowered and I glance over at Tzu, his hands in the pockets of a thick coat. He stands still, every facial muscle straining, I think, to do its duty. Their children aren’t here. I doubt he even asked them to make the trip. Only his wife stands by his side; she gazes down at the casket of a man she’d never known existed.
What thoughts are going through her head? Could she have helped? Could she have made the difference, tipped the scales? Could this so easily have been her husband if they had never met? Or some point in the future?

But nothing is revealed through the heavy lines of Chinese history etched across her face. As I look at her, I prefer to picture the laughing Mrs. Tzu, siding with Jane and Tabitha to bully me, and chiding me for not writing to my mother.

The 21-gun salute abruptly jolts me from my thoughts. Birds soar from nearby trees. I cringe with each volley and feel James take my arm. I resist looking at him, he might not want me to, but I make room for his hand on my upper arm and his fingers grip tightly.

The flag is folded with incredible precision and offered to Mr. Tzu. He takes it solemnly, stares at it and then caresses it to his heart. I think I see tears in his eyes, it is hard to be sure: my own are blurry.

And then the bugler plays the Taps. His notes ring out and rise to the tops of the pine trees, up into the swollen clouds, and out towards the partly shrouded Golden Gate Bridge. Then, just as abruptly, it is over. The few people in attendance are all Asian, save for the honor guard, James and myself. We hold back as they pay their respects to Tzu, shaking hands and occasionally a stiff hug.

When only Tzu and his wife are left, I introduce James. I tell Tzu that it was a beautiful ceremony and that I’m sure his brother would have been proud. He nods and Mrs. Tzu smiles and thanks me for coming.

Tzu and James exchange words. It is code to me: numbers of units, of places where they’d fought. Then James glances to the grave.

“You buried him away from the last line. You wish to reserve the adjacent plots?”

“You cannot reserve spots, other than for a spouse,” Tzu replies softly. “But maybe when my time comes, it would be nice to be near him.”

James nods and looks back at the newly dug grave. “I have friends. I’d be happy to put in a call. Would you mind?”

Mrs. Tzu answers for her husband. “My husband would appreciate it, thank you. You have a wonderful daughter. You must be very proud.”

“Oh I am,” James replies and his pride shines through the gloomy weather.

Mrs. Tzu nods theatrically at me. “Just not sure of her taste in men,” she adds lightly.

“She gets that from her mother,” the reply comes smoothly.

As I turn with Tzu away from the grave, the conversation vanishes instantly from my mind.

They stand in two rows, a different guard of honor, leaving a corridor for Tzu to walk through. Salvador is first and there are about twelve of them; come to pay their last respects to a colleague, a brother from the street, a friend who fought the good fight for as long as he could.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Jewish Student Center, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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