Most people have a pretty shallow view of my hometown’s political stripes and may have no idea how pro-military the history of San Francisco is. In the era of first European contact, the Presidio of San Francisco, the Spanish army’s garrison, was the city’s very first establishment (1776). Once California was admitted to the Union in 1850, San Francisco’s presidio served as the headquarters of America’s western army and was the headquarters of the 6th Army until the base was decommissioned in 1994. The city also served as a primary station of the US Navy’s Pacific fleet and the US Coast Guard. There are 3 Air Force bases in the greater Bay Area as well.
Many of the region’s past and current residents were first introduced to San Francisco as servicepeople, shipping to or from deployments overseas. There is genuine and heartfelt pride in the armed forces here, which have the San Francisco Bay Area as an area of particular recruitment focus.
My dad also served in the Navy as a ship’s engineer, during two wars. So, I have a more personal connection to those seafarers.
People who don’t know that history of connection might be surprised at the size and enthusiasm of crowds for San Francisco’s annual Fleet Week celebrations. This year’s event, just concluded, was no exception.
Each Fleet Week, in addition to public tours and the parade of ships from the navies of many countries including our own, we San Franciscans have become accustomed to the roar of the Blue Angels swooping and buzzing our city. Thousands turn out to line the waterfront for a glimpse of the F/A-18s in performance.
We had a couple of special guests in from out of town this past weekend, so we took them down to the Ferry Building for some good eats and a chance to see the Blue Angels up close. The show, of course, didn’t disappoint. It never does. The embarcadero was packed with folks trying to find the blue and gold air machines as they whizzed by, the roaring sound trailing them by several seconds. If you like crazy-fast speed and the sound of loud engines, this particular show cannot be beat.
But life sometimes reaches out in unanticipated ways to remind you of the importance of perspective, of the difference between entertainment and more important things.
I noticed the sound at first, in between the teeth-chattering roar of the jets; it was the whine of an old stringed instrument; a sound both familiar and foreign. I turned to see an old man in a old suit jacket hunched over an oud, playing something that reminded me more than a little of the old Greek and Turkish music that filled my grandmothers’ homes. The coffee can at his feet had a few scattered tips from passers by.
At that moment, the jets overhead became the distractions, this man the center of my attention. I walked nearer, listened more closely. And it was beautiful and moving. When he took a short break, I offered him a little cash and asked him,
“Turkish? From Turkey?”
“Syria,” he replied. He began to say a bit more when the Angels roared by again, causing him to wince a bit. When the noise diminished somewhat, he looked down and started to play another song.
I’d always loved watching the Blue Angels, been excited by their skill, thrilled by the speed and the roar of their engines. At that moment, though, I wondered what Fleet Week looked like through the eyes of this Syrian man playing the oud far from home. What feelings did he have looking at the parade of warships passing by his perch on my hometown’s waterfront? As the Blue Angels zoomed by, would he be thinking of loved ones being bombed back home? Did he know that half a world away, the Kurds in his homeland were at that very moment being betrayed by the American president, even as thousands wearing American flag t-shirts and baseball caps walked by him?