Friday, November 7, 2008

Veteran’s Day: Tombs of Honor

At the beginning of the year, I took a three-month break from editing Oilspill Dotcom and wrote the first draft of a 90,000-word novel, They Returned As Heroes (tentative title). I wrote everyday for at least an hour and the story just poured out of me onto the page (well, into the word document). In recognition of Veteran’s Day, I would like to share a scene with you.

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

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

We leave the 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?” His question is posed without him 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 and they 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.”