Veteran’s Day
Tucson, Aizona
November 11, 2001

I saw the shopping carts first. In the heart of Downtown Tucson, at the corner of Stone and Pennington, is a small park attached to the main public library. Locals refer to it as Homeless Park. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, Veteran’s Day, the park has a good sized crowd of homeless denizens. They largely ignore the preacher and his message of salvation and doom. Later I learn that no one pays attention to him until the last ten minutes. After his two hour sermon he hands out three five-dollar bills, a couple of sleeping bags, soft drinks, and bags of chips. His last ten minutes play to a full and almost mockingly attentive house.

Driving past I saw two shopping carts on the grass at the southeastern edge. They were typical of the carts of the homeless, packed to overflowing with the meager accumulations of a life. Foam padding, bedrolls, jackets, a plate, assorted clothing, pots, hard Styrofoam cups. Each cart had attached to it, along the handlebars, waving shyly in the afternoon breeze, an American Flag.

I saw the two owners nearby, sitting on the grass reading. They looked like brothers. They were brothers, by choice.

I parked and walked back, wanting to snap a few photos of the flag adorned carts. By the time I got back the larger of the two men was no longer there. The other, reed thin, long blonde-gray beard, skin leathered by too much sun and wind, sat cross-legged in the grass, smoking a hand rolled cigarette and reading Walt Whitman.

“You’re a Whitman fan” I said, a statement not a question.

He looked up, mildly startled. “Not really” he said, “but sometimes I have to page through.”

It was a strange answer but one I chose to ignore, assuming he had some sort of mental problem. I asked if I could take some pictures of the carts. He nodded yes and went back to his book. After snapping a few I sat down on the grass and lit up a cigarette.

Gary is in his early fifties. He’s been “living without a roof” for years now. It’s something he did part time when he would travel around the country looking for work. Started back in the 70’s. After he got back. After he stopped telling people he’d served. He’d pick up a construction job in Montana. Drive a truck for awhile in Alabama. Work the natural gas fields in Kansas. Too many miles and a few too many drinks later it somehow became a permanent living arrangement.

He had a wife once, but “I kept wandering and drinking and she…wandered away. My fault. Good woman. She was a good woman. I didn’t deserve her…or she deserved better than a man who couldn’t sit still.”

He’d been in Vietnam before all that. He’s glad now that he can tell people he had been in that war. For years he wouldn’t… “People didn’t want to hear about it. A lot of folks didn’t think we should’ve been in it to begin with and they could be pretty mean spirited if they knew you’d fought. Call you baby killer and all number of things. Everyone else seemed…ashamed.”

Ever since he and his partner James put the flags up on their grocery carts people had been real nice, honking and waving and coming up and congratulating them and generally being rather kind. James says usually “most people act like you’re invisible if you’re homeless, like if they look at you they’re gonna catch it”.

I ask them why they put the flags up.

Gary said, “You know, to show support. We got people over fighting and we got people over here who died and…we just wanted to do something”.

“We been through what they’re going through now over in Afghanistan”, said James “and we want ‘em to know that even if it’s just a couple of homeless guys that someone’s thinking about ‘em…someone’s got ‘em in their prayers.”

We ramble on in conversation. Talk about favorite places. Talk about living and losing and wanting and drinking down by the river. They both love their country in a way only those who have fought for it and feel betrayed by it can. They are remarkably free of bitterness, though they do wish that the VA did a better job of taking care of them and other veterans they know.

“Takes ‘em forever to decide they can’t give you any medication or treatment. Seems like they could figure that out faster if nothing else.”

Gary gets work now and again as a day laborer. He has bad arthritis in his hands. Two days ago he worked digging a ditch and could have gone back yesterday but his joints were too swollen and tender to hold a shovel a second consecutive day. They’ve gotten a bit less painful but he still struggles rolling his cigarette. James slides over and gently takes the papers and pouch away from Gary and rolls the smoke for him. Gary blushes through the hard brown leather of his skin. It is one of the most tender moments I’ve ever seen.

I ask James what’s so great about America.

“It’s home. It’s the best there is.”

I scowl at this, wanting something more. “Not much of an answer,” I say.

James asks, “You love your wife?”

“Yeah.”

“Why do you love her?”

“I don’t know” I say, “she’s just so…magic.”

“Not much of an answer,” he says.

Maybe I’m looking for the wrong thing. Maybe America is not defined in words.

Maybe it is in the little actions that go unnoticed by most of us. Like two Vietnam Vets still watching each other’s backs. They had lost touch after they got out of the service. Separately they followed similar paths to homelessness and wandering. They encountered each other for the first time in nearly 30 years down in Las Cruces in 1999. They’ve been traveling together since.

“You need friends out here,” says Gary, “and James is a good one to have”.

They had developed their interest in reading during the war. They had another friend back then. He had been a high school teacher and had turned them on to poetry. Nothing spectacular about the guy. No “he saved us all by throwing himself on a grenade” story. He was their friend. He fought. He died.

This old friend had loved, above all other works, Leaves of Grass. Both James and Gary read voraciously to this day, thought not so much poetry. They save the verse for special occasions.

Every Veteran’s Day since, they read from Leaves of Grass.

“Sometimes I have to page through…”

It is a small and sincere way to remember a friend. Gary selects passages at random and reads them out loud. They don’t appear to have any particular significance other than he likes them and they once had a friend who loved the entire work.

James and Gary, according to some signal I cannot catch, get up and begin preparing to leave. They are going to make a long trek across town tonight to get to another park tomorrow where there will be a large celebration of Veteran’s Day. It happens every year and there will be free food and some nice speeches. Sometimes they get school kids to sing hymns and James likes that part in particular.

They ask me if I’ll join them in a prayer for their friend. I tell them I’m flattered but that I am not a particularly religious man and that it may be inappropriate for me to join them. They tell me it’s okay. We join hands.

“Don’t have to say nothing,” says Gary “just remember some who have gone in service of our country.”

“I don’t have anyone to remember. I haven’t lost anyone in a war.”

“What you do then”, he says “you say a little prayer for the ones that are over there fighting now. I’ll do the talking.”

I ask him if he thinks God chooses sides in a war.

“Maybe he does. Maybe he doesn’t. But I imagine either way that he’ll be alright with you asking him to take care of all our boys over there. Ask him to get them on home safe. I’ll leave it to you if you think you should ask him to have us win.”

We join hands and bow our heads.

“Lord, thank you for this day. Thank you for this life. I know you’re watching out for those that didn’t make it out. Lord, please watch out for all the boys [“and women,” James interjects] over there fighting now. I know it ain’t likely but if you can find a way to get ‘em all back safe…”

Gary’s voice trails off with a slight catch and he cannot go on.

I think maybe that’s it. James still has my hand in an iron grip. He starts to speak a few times but nothing comes out. I steal a glance at him and his eyes are glistening.

“And maybe you could see to it that we take better care of them when they come back than anyone ever took care of us.”

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