A couple years ago, I was biking with a group of friends over the Golden Gate Bridge to Sam's Anchor Cafe where we would sit on the huge deck, enjoy the views across the bay of San Francisco and cocktail. When it was time to go home we wouldn't even have to bike back - the ferry would take us.
I've done this ride many times before and since. However, this particular ride happened to be on Memorial Day weekend.
As we embarked en masse on our journey, I had not given a thought about why we were all doing this on a Sunday. All I cared was that tomorrow was a holiday and there was fun to be had.
The ride takes us through the Presidio, a stunningly beautiful piece of land at the base of the Golden Gate that had been a military base since 1776. On this property there lies the Presidio National cemetery.
The image I remember is glancing over and wondering 'why all the flags'? 30,000 war veterans and their families are buried there, from the Civil War on, and each marker was adorned with at least one small American flag.
This year I made it to the ceremony over an hour early. Just a few yards from the entrance there is a small administrative office. As I wondered in I saw on the wall a list of the 50 Congressional Medal of Honor recipients buried there. Then in a back room I heard a man's voice. At first I thought he was recording something for the radio. Then I realized he was practicing his speech that he was to give later at the ceremony.
I listened to these words of honor, valor, bravery, duty and sacrifice then exited, misty eyed, into the bright sunshine. There I scanned the hilly acres of headstones and American flags large and small.
It was a powerful way to start the day.
About half way up on the left side there were two men in full Civil War regalia. The grave next to them was adorned with potted flowers and large flags. The man buried there was named Truman Head and these men were there to tell his story.
Truman joined the Grand Army of the Republic when he was 52 and became a member of the U.S. Sharpshooters - the first elite corps in U.S. Army history and a precursor to today's special forces. Truman became something of a legend during the war for his marksmanship. After the war he became a local San Francisco legend. There were photos and an era rifle to add to the tale.
I continued up the hill heading towards some of the larger headstones and monuments. There I literally bumped into the tomb of Thomas Cowan Bell - one of the founders of my college fraternity - Sigma Chi. There, I also came across a couple winners of the Congressional Medal of Honor. Their graves were adorned with a separate blue Medal of Honor flag, in addition to the American flag. There also was a potted flower bouquet. The reverence for these men and for what they had done was unmistakable. The care taken to continue to honor them after so many years...inspiring.
There are monuments to fallen shipmates placed by the survivors and other assorted plaques of interest.
I wondered down to the bottom and started walking towards the beginning of the parade route. By now there were more people arriving. As I walked down the street I saw an old man with a cane, walking by himself with three large medals hanging from his chest. I crossed the street and asked him if he would tell me about the medals.
His name is Sam Bobu. Probably in his mid 80's now, Sam was in the Navy. When he was 18 he was aboard the USS Chicago
on his way to Guadalcanal when she took 7 torpedoes from Japanese planes. Sam was in the water for 5 hours before he was picked up.
At that moment, I said "You don't want to know what I was doing at 18".
Sam added that he was supposed to receive a Bronze Star, but after the war the military ran out and he never received his. Later that day I met another veteran who works for Veteran's Affairs and he quickly agreed to help me get Sam his medal.
Sam and I continued walking up towards to entrance until another man about Sam's age approached. His name was James and he was wearing his old uniform with a chest full of medals. James and Sam greeted each other and spoke like lifelong friends. Sam complimented him on fitting into his uniform and James joked about sucking in his belly. Only when Sam introduced himself did I realize they'd just met.
After a few minutes James said "After all these years, this is still hard" with his voice breaking at the end. Sam said "I know" and the two men embraced.
I walked Sam to a seat at the ceremony and left him with some other new friends.
While talking with a couple other Korean War vets, they directed my attention to the lone man sitting on the stage named Michael Thompson. "He has two
Distinguished Service Awards" they told me. It was obvious, they would not have been more impressed had Michael Jordan been sitting there. Actually on this day, I might have been unimpressed also.
By the time the ceremony started there were several thousand people. The organizers were delighted.
The first order of business was the laying of the wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A large group followed the wreath back up the hill where SF Assemblyman Leland Lee gave an asinine and wholly inappropriate speech about the need to end all wars. Nothing like setting your sights high. I know I'll sleep better knowing that Assemblyman Lee wants to end all wars.
The Color Guards presented the flag. We sang the National Anthem. Then for the first time in years I said the Pledge of Allegiance. The twice decorated Distinguished Service Award winner led the group.