My first proper Odyssey trip in 2018 was to San Francisco for four days and a run of three shows: one at UC-Berkeley, one as part of a Humanities West weekend-long program on Archaic Greece, and one at a private high school.
After arriving on Thursday night, I made my way from the airport to the Union Square area of the city and to the site of the Humanities West program which doubled as my accommodations for most of my stay, The Marines' Memorial Club and Hotel.
The Marines' Memorial Club was founded just after World War II to "honor the legacy of military service through a living memorial and programs that commemorate, educate and serve Veterans of all eras." It's housed in a beautiful early 20th century building complete with hotel rooms, meeting spaces, a 500 plus seat theatre (in which I'd perform on Saturday), and a top floor restaurant with a beautiful view of the city.
On Friday, I woke up and headed to that top floor restaurant for breakfast.
Clothed in jeans and a t-shirt, sporting a solid bed-head, and groggily fussing with my phone as I picked at my eggs, I became aware that the room had filled up with people wearing lanyards and badges. I looked more closely at the badges and realized that almost everyone in the restaurant was attending a gathering of Gold Star Parents, parents with children who had been killed in action while serving in the military.
Along with this realization came the recognition of a palpable heaviness in the air, a mixture of sorrow, pain, weariness, love, and remembering. The very epitome of pathos.
One father, absentmindedly petting a golden retriever therapy dog that sat beside his table, wore a shirt that proudly displayed what I assumed was his son’s name (Joseph A Graves), rank (Sgt), and the notation “KIA.” There was something so heavy about his countenance I had to look away.
The grief in the room and my awareness of it became nearly suffocating.
I returned to my room downstairs and googled “Sgt Joseph A Graves” and discovered he had been killed in 2006 in Iraq. There was also a story about his father (the man I saw petting the dog) and some of the things he had done in honor of his son, to try to fill the void left by his son’s death: joined the military, founded a charity.
Quietly, sitting by myself in my room, I began crying for those parents, for their children, and for the sorrow war brings upon humanity.
I realized I needed to pull myself together to get on the train to Berkeley for my show, which was for a Classical Myth class at noon.
This was my second time at Berkeley (after a show in 2016) and my host, the gracious Professor Mark Griffith, greeted me as I strolled into his office.
We caught up for a bit and then headed to the classroom, a big lecture hall with sloped-style seating and an expected audience of over 150 students.
Singing without a microphone, I channeled the emotion I’d experienced that morning into my song, a song of a soldier who survives his war but witnesses loss and violence of a sort likely outside our modern comprehension. The discussion after was excellent especially for an audience that size.
As I rode the train back to the city I thought about that room full of grieving parents that morning. It dawned on me that in the Homeric epics we see representations of Gold Star parents: Priam trying to reclaim his fallen son’s body from Achilles. Antikleia so wrought with grief at the thought that Odysseus has perished at war that she dies. These characters stretched forward through time, through a seemingly endless number of wars and fallen soldiers and grieving parents to the 12th floor of The Marines' Memorial Club and the parents of Sgt. Joseph A Graves and the numerous others gathered to mourn a loss that is seemingly as old as our oldest stories.
I was snapped out of my thoughts as the train pulled into the Powell St. station. I rode the escalator up to street level and began the half mile, uphill, walk back to The Marines Memorial Club in the sunny but cool late afternoon air.