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

Archive for the tag “Presidio”

Veteran’s Day – An Excerpt from Unwanted Heroes

Unwanted Heroes will be released in the new year. The galley proofs are back in the hands of the publisher and I have just seen a first rendition of the cover. 

Unwanted Heroes brings together an old, battle weary Chinese American war vet and an idealistic and pretentious young Englishmen, who share a love for San Francisco, coffee and wine.  They soon discover they share even more when repressed memories bring them together in a gripping climax, finding in each other, an unlikely ally to free themselves from the tragic past that binds them both.  

In recognition of Veteran’s Day, I would like to share a scene with you. Mr. van Ness is Will’s (the protagonist) girlfriend’s father.

—————– 

Mr. van Ness downs the rest of his cognac in one gulp and stands up.

“I want to show you something, Will. Come.”

We leave the country club in his black, shiny Mercedes and drive about twenty minutes to the military cemetery in the Presidio. There are stunning views of the Golden Gate Bridge, and I stare silently as we pass through the tall stone and iron gates. The cemetery, like most of the city, is built on a hill. Rows of white tombstones stand in perfect, military symmetry, each defined by straight grass borders, like a white and green chessboard. A huge flag blows in the wind as I follow Jane’s father to a section of graves.

“What do you think the average soldier dreads when he goes off to war?” He asks without looking back at me.

I think for the moment. “Death, captivity, maybe never seeing his loved ones again?”

Mr. van Ness nods. “That’s about it. What about an officer?”

“The same?”

“Yes, but there’s something else. The officers see the young, fresh faces when they join the unit. Sometimes, if we’re embarking together, we see their parents, wives, girlfriends, and children. They hug and cry, while the family steals surreptitious glances at the officer, silently pleading: bring my boy home, my lover, my father.

“And a shiver courses through you. You are not God, probably not much of a soldier either. You know you cannot protect them, but still you swear a silent oath; to try and bring them back alive, as many of them as you can. Fuck the war, the politics, the drive to serve your country. All you want is to bring your boys back. You’d rather face a thousand of the enemy than one of these parents, wives or children at the funeral, or remembrance service.”

We stop by a tombstone and he crouches down, tenderly cleaning some dirt that has gathered there. I crouch with him as he takes a deep breath.

“The last time my wife entered my den was about fifteen years ago, Will. She shouldn’t have, but her motives were no doubt innocent. She found a small black notebook, almost full. I had written a list of names, mainly women. The names reappeared regularly and there was a column with dates and another with dollar amounts. She found a checkbook from a bank she was sure we didn’t use.

“That evening she confronted me. We didn’t hold secrets from each other, financial or otherwise. Who were these women? Ex-lovers? Illegitimate kids? I roared back that it was none of her damn business, how dare she enter my den and I yelled other absurdities. We’d never raised our voices to each other like that and have never since. Totally out of control, total rage.”

He points to the tombstone.

“My first sergeant, Pete O’Reilly. He died in my arms. The last words he heard were an oath from my lips to take care of his two young kids. Their mother received monthly checks from the bank, anonymous. When his oldest daughter was eighteen, she received a letter from the bank about a trust fund for her and her brother to pay for university tuition. The youngest graduated from Stanford a few years back.”

We move on to another grave. “His family’s all devout Catholics. I swore that they’d never know how he died. He’s buried here as a hero, and so it’ll remain.”

At another grave, he seems lost in thought, buried memories resurfacing. Then at length he turns to me. “Jane doesn’t know this, neither does her mother.” I nod, understanding the unspoken and he continues. “I worked in intelligence as well. I oversaw the recruitment and training of a spy network, of sort. Nothing glamorous. We gave the alcoholics and junkies money for booze and drugs.

“They gave us information, basic stuff like troop movement, nothing too significant. Crumbs. They were the dregs of their society and they knew little. But sometimes they knew enough to prevent some of our troops dying. If we thought we could use methods and intimidation to get more out of them, we never hesitated. If it saved one more life…

“I didn’t care, I could justify it. Not for the great United States, or for freedom and democracy, but to get my boys home alive. If this piece of shit’s confession could save just one of my boys, let him scream.”

He took a moment to compose himself. “They were handled by Asians, usually Asian-Americans recruited over here. These people had it hard. They may have nothing to do with Vietnam, born thousands of miles away, in a different culture, a different language. They were doing their job as loyal Americans, no different from the rest of us.

“But they were seen as different. Yellow skin, slit eyes aroused all the wild fears and prejudices that permeated the white and black soldiers. They largely hung out together and felt betrayed.

“Then we returned home. To some we were heroes, but many felt uneasy, as they’d heard of the horrors we’d inflicted. For the Asian-American soldiers, it was twice as bad. In civilian clothes, they were just another immigrant, just another who looked like the enemy. They received no honor, no respect from their peers. Sometimes they were even rejected by their own.”

He pauses again. I watch his warm breath escape as he exhales into the chilly air.

“There are two of these men still alive, physically at least. They’re both loners, pariahs. They’ve never held down jobs, never married. They wander the streets, allowing themselves to remember only enough to ensure they return to a hostel of sorts that feeds them and gives them beds. They are luckier than the homeless you talk about, Will. Their officer turned out to be a rich bastard who cares. Their tabs at the hostel are taken care of.”

There is silence and we stand up stiffly, both staring around. I search for something to say and put my hand on his shoulder. “You’re a good man, James, a generous man.”

He turns sharply and looks at me incredulously. His voice becomes sharp and loud. “I don’t do it for them! I do it for me! I do it so that I can live, so that I can continue. I do it to keep away the nightmares, to prevent the faces of widows and orphans staring at me at every turn.”

He begins to walk towards the car.

“You’re still a good man, James.” I shout after him, my voice shaking with emotion. He turns to face me. My arm sweeps in the cemetery and, with considerable effort, I steady my voice. “They all know who you are and what you did. They still think you’re a fucking hero. So do I, sir, even if I can’t understand it all.”

He stares at me for what feels like hours and I walk slowly towards him. He is breathing heavily; I see this even though the winter coat he wears. When he speaks, his voice is quiet, but steely.

“Find your boss, son. Find him and help him if you can: his brother too, if the poor bastard’s still alive.”

—————————————————————————————————–

Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. His next novel, Unwanted Heroes, is due out in early 2013. 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).

Help for Homeless War Vets Day 2

Swords to Plowshares is a not-for-profit organization that was founded in 1974. It provides “counseling and case management, employment and training, housing and legal assistance to veterans in the San Francisco Bay Area.” In addition, they work to promote and protect the rights of war vets through advocacy, public education and partnerships with local, state and national entities.

From their mission statement: War causes wounds and suffering that last beyond the battlefield. Swords to Plowshares’ mission is to heal the wounds, to restore dignity, hope, and self-sufficiency to all veterans in need, and to significantly reduce homelessness and poverty among veterans.

This exciting announcement came from their website.

Homeless Veterans May Get A Place Of Their Own

In what looks to be a win-win proposition for San Francisco, the Planning Commission has cleared the way for conversion of a surplus city building into a permanent living space for homeless veterans.

If all goes as planned, the historic-but-underused property will be used to get 76 older veterans off the streets and into a home where, as one project backer said, “they can age in place.”

The nine-story building at 150 Otis St. was the city’s first Juvenile Hall and Detention Center when it was built in 1916. From the 1950s through the 1980s it was used as office space for the Department of Human Services. Since the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, it’s been little more than a storage space and temporary seasonal homeless shelter.

Plans by the Chinatown Community Development Center and Swords to Plowshares, a veterans’ support group, will convert the building into permanently affordable studio apartments, with space for a resident manager and a variety of on-site veterans’ services.

Swords to Plowshares runs a similar property at the Presidio.

The commission unanimously agreed to allow the affordable housing in an area previously zoned for public use and recommended that the Board of Supervisors approve the plan.

Plans call for renovation of the building to begin this November, with the first tenants arriving in summer 2012.

****

The concept of men and women who fought for their country  struggling for their own basic needs is hard for me to understand. I lived in Israel for two decades, a country in which every man and woman serves in the country’s defense forces. Citizens wounded in service to their country receive the best medical and psychological help available, as well as an array of social services. Perhaps this is one of the few advantages of national service. When everyone serves, it is inconceivable that your country’s heroes are left by the roadside begging for a dollar.

Hopefully, thanks to organizations like Swords to Plowshares, this shame will become a thing of the past.

——————————————————————————————————-

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

Veteran’s Day 1

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

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).

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: