The Soldier’s Box of Memories

Miles and I had a strange bond: I was a conscientious objector and he was a Special Forces guy. He took some shrapnel in Vietnam and walked with a limp. After the war, Miles became a wandering man for years on end, spending time in homeless shelters up and down the East Coast.

Short Story by George Wynn

Last night, a well-dressed lady with glasses cleaned out his studio apartment down the hall. I had only known Miles for two months. Too bad about him overdosing on Oxycontin. He seemed like a decent guy.

We were friends. We were both fair-skinned and of medium height, except that he was solid muscle and a year younger than I. And I had a head of salt and pepper while he had a lot of dishwater-blond hair.

I had just retired from the post office as a mail carrier. Most people in this downtown senior building keep to themselves. A couple of mean ones formed a clique to say negative stuff about other tenants.

Miles and I had a strange bond: I was a conscientious objector and he was a Special Forces guy — Army Ranger, I believe. He took some shrapnel in Vietnam and walked with a limp. The pain was getting worse but he rarely grumbled about it.

After the war, Miles became a wandering man for years on end, spending time in homeless shelters and veterans centers up and down the East Coast. He said he couldn’t adjust to civilian life. Landing out west after endless years and reams of paperwork, he finally escaped the shelter system by getting into this San Francisco building on a physical disability.

Me, I did two years of community service back east as a conscientious objector, setting up an alternative school for Puerto Rican and Dominican children and teaching their parents English in the evening.

My old man had spent three years in prison during World War ll. It must run in the blood. He instilled in me from an early age the idea of opposing any institution that espouses violence.

It hurt Miles when he overheard one of the mean tenants, a woman, say, “He comes from the world of filth. What’s he doing here? He should go back to those filthy streets he escaped from. Will you look at those unwashed jeans and the holes in his shoes? Oh my, long hair past his shoulders. One of them druggie hippies!”

He had a cigar box decorated with sea shells that really caught my eye on the glass table in his living room. I loved that cedar wood box. It had an earthy smell, not a city smell, rather a heady nature smell.

It was late afternoon and I was sitting drinking tea and eating rice cakes when I heard the knock on the door. I opened the door and saw a petite brunette around fifty. It was the lady who cleaned out Miles’ room. “I want to give you something,” she said and handed me a bag.

I opened it — it was the cigar box.

“I want you to have it,” she said. “Everything in it is just as he left it. I found a note in it that said you were the only friend he had in the building and you really liked the cigar box. I’d be pleased if you maintained his memory with this gift.”

“I certainly will,” I said. “It’s a wonderful gift.” I pulled out a chair, and said, “Please sit down.”

“I really have to be going.”

“Please,” I said, with pleading and determined eyes.

“Okay,” she said and sat down.

“I’m a plain guy. Can I offer you tea and rice cakes?”

“Of course,” she smiled. “I’m a plain woman.”

“Oh no, you seem quite elegant.”

“Thank you,” she said with a gentle smile as I grabbed a cup from my tiny kitchen and set a plate of rice cakes and poured tea. “Did he ever mention me?”

“You must be Margie,” I said. “He said he only had one sister.”

“Yes.”

“One afternoon me and him went trout fishing out at Lake Merced and he said he taught his sister to fish out here.”

“That’s a fine memory,” she smiled.

“He said that, after a few trips, Margie caught more trout than he did.”

She laughed.

“He said you were the only one who ever stuck up for him — he being the black sheep of the f-amily.”

“He had his moments when he could be sweet,” she mused, twisting some strands of her hair. Abruptly she stood up and said, “I really have to be going. My flight to Phoenix leaves in a few hours. The whole family lives there now.”

I opened the door and watched her walk down the hall to the elevator. She turned and waved saying, “Thanks again, Vito.” There was a slight smile on her pink lips and a tear or two in her eye.

I remembered that night I got off the elevator and was greeted by the sight of five and ten dollar bills and quarters strewn on the floor in front of my apartment door. He lay there moaning, hand extended toward a brown cane a few feet away.

“Let me help you up,” I had said.

“Thanks buddy,” he slurred. “My room’s to the right. Here’s my key.”

I opened his door.

“Why didn’t you take my money?” he said, slouching down in a sofa chair by the door.

“It’s not mine.”

“I congratulate the last honest man,” he said, tapping the armrest. “I owe you.”

“You owe yourself,” I replied.

“What?”

“To take better care of yourself.”

“What’s your name?”

“Vito.”

“I’ll be seeing you. Name’s Miles.”

And he was true to his word. He would wait for me in the lobby almost every morning, Chronicle in hand, with a troubled look that would not let up even when he was joking. That first day, I walked into the lobby. He stretched out his cane and declared, “Vito I’m taking you to breakfast. Accept my invite. I ain’t taking no for an answer.”

What could I say except, “Let’s go.”

Art by San Francisco Print Collective

 

We walked past Tenderloin homeless streets and past Union Square world-class hotels, then turned up Grant Avenue to a crackerbox Chinatown eatery that served damn good bacon and eggs and home fries, just like my old man used to stir up when I was a kid.

Our Chinatown breakfast jaunt would become part of our morning ritual. We’d continue walking down towards the water, usually sitting for an hour or two at Aquatic Park, just relaxing and taking in the fresh San Francisco Bay air while staring out at the boats and freighters.

Miles never put me down for being a C.O., unlike my high school friends back in South Jersey who were in the service. They’d say things like, “You were damn lucky you were a draft resister.”  Or, “Remember Petey and Johnny in Print Shop? Well, they didn’t make it.” And I’d feel guilty for days on end.

Miles just said, “We all face situations in life in our own way.”

Miles seemed so alone with his conscience. One afternoon he blurted out, “There’s no sunshine in my life.” Then he sighed, “I wish I had never seen Vietnam. I did some bad stuff.”

“You can’t live yesterday today Miles,” I told him. “Life’s too short.”

“I don’t live in your world. I live in my head.” Whatever he was feeling, I could see by the tense veins in his neck that his psychological reality wasn’t bearable. “I’ve had insomnia since I returned from ‘Nam.” He slightly shook his head. “I’ve felt more dead than alive.”

Suddenly a slight smile appeared on his face. “Remember last week when we took in the Legion of Honor Museum?”

“Yeah, sure do,” I said. “Love those Impressionistic paintings.”

“Well, I saw a Chagall painting and for a few days, I never slept so well in years. It was as if I was inside that painting, floating in the clouds with the angels in perfect bliss.”

One day, we were walking down Bay Street near Trader Joe’s and Miles pointed to a building. “That’s where Cost Plus used to be,” he said. “My first job when I was at Galileo High School was there as a wrapper. I’d take out Asian statues to people. Then I lied about my age and saw the real Asia with a gun in my hand.”

Miles avoided Fisherman’s Wharf. He preferred to stroll around Fort Mason and Crissy Field. “Fisherman’s Wharf is one damn tourist trap reeking of rampant consumerism,” he said.

In the afternoon, we’d get a burger and fries and sit in the stands at Aquatic Park, then walk out on the pier. He’d often say how he missed the old San Francisco, like the old-timers — the Filipinos — who used to love to fish out here.

While reliving these memories, I opened the cigar box Miles had left and found a small brown leather journal with blue lined paper. One of the middle entries caught my eye:

“Before I met Vito, I’d sit in coffee shops by myself reading the Sporting Green over and over with absolutely no desire to get out of my seat and do anything. The box score in my head always read: World 1, Miles 0.”

Then I read his last entry:

“I often think about the long plane trip back to the U.S.A. Should I have stayed and died in Vietnam? Would I be better off? I lost everything back home. That I could live with. Losing myself — that I cannot live with.”

I closed the cigar box and stared at it for a long, long time.

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On Filling A New National Cemetery

by Claire J. Baker

They unload the trucks of

newly-numbered dead

who fight in wars that bring no end to war.

They plant them side by side and foot to head

these heroes for a nation to adore.

This country lad, too young, deserves a tree

above him—rare in graveyards needing space

where stone on stone on empty stone will be

granite symbols sun and wind will trace.

 

We walk the hallowed ground in search of one,

our own who died, and then we see them all

alive and loving, singing in the sun,

a rock band playing — not a bugle call.

 

Each month the trucks arrive

(the dead have tears).

All the graves are filled in these short years.

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