Few things made my father cry, and Sarkis was one of those.
Sarkis is forever-20 in my head. He was killed in Viet Nam on a day that I cannot forget. That day was one of renewal for the Armenians living in Los Angeles. It was the Summer of 1970 and for the first time, a group of dancers and musicians had journeyed from Armenia to fill our hearts and souls with the ancient culture. We were at the Wilshire Ebell Theater (Los Angeles) and it was a crowd akin to a rock concert today, with their enthusiasm and joy. I think it was Levon Gasoyan dancing Zourni Dringi or perhaps the Shepherd’s dance, when he demonstrated his acrobatic coordination, set to an Armenian tune and beat. It was the same dance I had seen Sarkis perform many times before his deployment to the war. Sarkis danced in the Jora Markarian Ensemble with my parents at the time.
That afternoon in the Ebell theater Sarkis’ father loudly applauding and cheering the Armenian dancer, probably remembering his son as he watched this demonstration from the homeland. It was on that day, later, that we found out that Sarkis had died in a grenade attack.
The details didn’t matter to my dad. He’d never really talk about it to us, his kids. But we would see the pain in his eyes.
A couple of times a year, we would go to honor our family dead at the Inglewood Park Cemetery. Both my grandfathers’ graves are at this cemetery and later, my grandmothers would be buried there as well. There was a ritual we’d go through – purchasing flowers at the cemetery florist, driving to the grave, searching the park trying to find the tombstones. We’d find one grandpa, clean the grave, place the flowers in the metal cup, say a prayer and listen while grandma would remember her husband. Then packing everyone in the car, we’d head over to the other grandpa’s grave. Same gestures of grave-cleaning, placing flowers, offering prayers, while the other grandma would have her turn to reflect here.
Before 1970, that was the end of the ritual. But things changed after Sarkis’ death. My dad would stop the car at Sarkis’ grave just before we left the park. We didn’t understand it quite well – after all, this dead person didn’t belong to us, why clean the grave? Place flowers? Offer a prayer? But dad had the keys to the car and he made the decisions. So we made this stop. There we would offer the same formula-prayer, but no grandma to talk, instead we’d see my dad cry. It was a silent witness to the big injustice of war. He couldn’t reconcile the notion of a young life being gone for a war no one understood. He’d shake his head. One time, I vaguely remember him saying something like “the grandpas died when they were old. There was no reason for Sarkis to die.”
We didn’t realize that there was more to my dad’s tears than Sarkis’ loss until many years later. It was at a local parade, when a group of soldiers and veteran’s marched by that my sister told me dad was crying away. He’d swell up with emotions over the loss of life during war.
My turn came at my dad’s funeral. I remember making it fairly well through the speeches and services both in the church and at the gravesite. But at the end of the service, when they removed old glory from the top of my dad’s casket, folded it and handed it to our mom, I lost it. They presented it to her saying, “This is for your husband’s service to his country.” My dad served as a medic in the Army during the Korean War. He never talked about it. He just was proud to be an American, understood the sacrifice to stay American and hurt that some people never had a chance to enjoy the fruits of their labor and sacrifice.
I know it was more than Sarkis that made him cry. It was the price of freedom. It was the nonsense of war. It was the injustice of the pick –the poor and naïve fought the wars brought about by the rich and educated.
This morning I heard that Obama was going to go through the Veteran’s Day ritual of placing a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. The newscaster may or may not have taken a breath before reporting the next story that Obama would then meet with his “war council” to deliberate about the Afghanistan war and US options. Today is Veteran’s Day. We honor the Veterans of all wars. Formerly it was called “Armistice Day” marking the end of the First World War. Either way, it’s connected to something for which we need to find a solution for the sake of our tears, for the sake of our lives.