In honor of Veteran’s Day, I would like to offer a week focusing on the issue. Here is an excerpt from my latest manuscript, Unwanted Heroes. The novel highlights the way we treat war veterans in the US. It focuses on the struggles of an Asian-American Vietnam war vet who tries to put the voices at bay before his whole life falls apart. The scene below takes place at the War Cemetery in the Presidio, San Francisco.
Here is a quick intro to the characters.
Narrator – Will – a young Englishman who has come to San Francisco to write. Works as a barista.
James – his girlfriend’s father. Also a war vet and a mentor to Will
Mr. Tzu – Vietnam War Vet. The funeral is for his brother, also a war vet. He never told his wife that he had a brother.
Salvador – a homeless ex-philosophy professor.
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 eat in near silence and I can only imagine how tough this must be 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 movies. I’m immediately consumed with the intensity as the honor guard solemnly marches to the graveside. These young men are 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 casket is lowered and I glance over at Tzu, his hands deep in the pockets of a thick coat. He stands still, every facial muscle, I think, straining to do its duty. Their children aren’t here. I doubt Tzu even asked them to make the trip. His wife stands by his side, gazing down at the casket of the brother-in-law she never knew 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 at some point in the future?
But all I can see are the heavy lines of Chinese history, lines of suffering etched across her face. As I look, 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 3 Volley 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 Taps. His notes ring out, rising to the top of the pines, up into the swollen clouds, and out towards the partly shrouded Golden Gate Bridge. Then, 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.
“It was a beautiful ceremony,” I say to Mr. Tzu, “I’m sure your brother was very proud.”
He nods and Mrs. Tzu smiles and thanks me for coming.
Tzu and James exchange words. It’s code to me: battalion numbers, battlefields. 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 a friend. I’d be happy to put in a call. Would you mind?”
Mrs. Tzu quickly answers for her proud husband. “Husband appreciate very much, Mr. van Ness. Thank you. You have 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 raising an eyebrow.
“She gets that from her mother,” his reply is smooth.
As I turn with Tzu away from the grave, the conversation vanishes from my mind.
They stand in two rows, a different guard of honor, wearing uniforms of faded, tattered layers. They leave 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 of the street, another homeless hero who fought the good fight for as long as he could.
Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist (now available on Kindle) and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at www.alonshalev.com