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A Farewell to Sarge 

by KEVIN TAYLOR & r & & r & & lt;span class="dropcap" & "O & lt;/span & n behalf of a grateful nation ..." The two young airmen somehow made their way to the front of the pews where they stood in crisp dress blues with an American flag stretched so tightly between them that one could imagine a quarter bouncing high off the cloth.





They snapped the flag into thinner and thinner rectangles, then into triangles, moving in silence with intricate foot and hand movements.





The funeral service at Central United Methodist Church in late October attracted about 100 of Spokane's homeless, street people and those who work with them.





The homeless live in a shadow world hidden in plain sight. Sarge and his barrel-chested companion, Dog (pronounced "dough-j"), had been storied figures for decades in this landscape. They wandered among transient camps downtown and along the river and in all the places where the homeless might gather to knock down a beer and swap stories. Dog, the big Rottweiler, was in the chapel this day, his large head resting on crossed paws. Sarge took a fall onto his head on Oct. 7 and died eight days later, never regaining consciousness.





Sarge had a brief stint in 2001 working at the House of Charity's sleeping program, but he ran the 108-bed men's shelter like boot camp, says shelter director Ed McCarron, laughing at the memory of Sarge trying to instill discipline upon a company of homeless men who epitomize rowdy independence.





"We had to let him go. He was trying to be too much the squad leader," McCarron says.





Aside from that brief interlude, Sarge was one of the hard-core homeless who never "went in," as they say.





He chose the street, a harsh world ruled by secrets and masks. Personal information is guarded as tightly as the amount of money in a pocket, or how many cigarettes. It's about survival.





One after another at his memorial service, people who may not have known Sarge by any other name, or any of his history beyond the streets, stepped to a microphone near the altar and painted a group portrait through heartfelt anecdotes. The man was judged by his stories, which were detailed and rich, by his personality and his character.





Sarge could be obnoxious when he was drinking, his friends tell, but he was also a protector, even an inspiration. Sarge, known among peers as a Marine who had suffered terribly as a heavy combat vet in Vietnam, patrolled the dark spaces around transient camps at night on a mission to keep the homeless -- vulnerable as babies when sleeping -- free from predators and harm.





"His war never ended," Robert, an intense man in cammo pants, said, warily circling up to the microphone. "I still walk with Sarge."





And Michael, a young Iraq War veteran offered this remembrance: "I was 16 when Sarge stayed at my house for a while. I decided to join the Marines because of Sarge. And in Iraq, through the crappiest times, I would think about Sarge going through worse in Vietnam ... and about how Sarge was going through worse in the street."





When Michael returned from war, he gave Sarge his Marine Corps' emblem -- the Eagle, Globe and Anchor -- to signify their bond.





"He died with it on his chest," Michael said, holding it aloft. "I never expected to see it again ... but now that I think about it, it's a little piece of Sarge's soul. Semper Fi, Sarge."





& lt;span class="dropcap" & A & lt;/span & mber Neff, who was not at the memorial service, did not know Sarge as a Marine, or a heavy combat vet, or a protector of the homeless.





She knew him as Dad.





"When I was 4 years old I remember walking into a room and seeing my dad holding a gun to my mom's head," she says, recalling an angry father who, his military records show, was never in Vietnam. He enlisted in the Army in 1975 -- when the war was over -- and was discharged inside six months, records state.





Amber, now 26, had not seen her father, Ken Neff, for two decades, ever since her mother finally fled seven years of repeated violence.





"What I'm hearing now and the man I knew then are two different people. The man I knew was angry and bitter ... and he did not treat his family very well," Amber says from her home in Western Washington.





Reconciling Sarge and Ken Neff has been difficult, Amber says. After decades of bad memories and abandonment, she got the surprise phone call last month that her father was at death's door.





Twenty years of silence. Twenty years of sorting fragments of memory, hoping they'd make a whole portrait of a dad.





"A lot of what I remember is bad," she says. But not all. "I remember he made really good meatloaf. And good enchiladas, and that I helped. We had a little duplex, and he worked security when he was with my mom. He didn't drink then."





These are a child's recollections of calm amid a gale of anger and of fists and of being hustled off to relatives' houses for safety. Then would come tearful pleas for forgiveness. It was a classic cycle of domestic violence.





"I remember once, right before we left for good, sitting on a kitchen counter and he was crying ... asking us not to leave," she says.





There was too much hurt to stay. There was also hurt in 20 years of leaving. "Why wasn't I so important to him that he didn't try to find me?"





Amber found money for Amtrak and arrived in Spokane on the midnight train, Oct. 12. She went straight to the hospital.





"People say he never treated me bad ... but he treated my mom bad and I had to watch it. It stuck with me a long time.





"Right up to the moment I walked up to that hospital door, I was angry," Amber says. "Until I saw him."





& lt;span class="dropcap" & "W & lt;/span & hen I walked into that hospital room, his eyes were open but they said he wasn't really there, that he was more like a vegetable," Amber recalls.





"At first I was shocked. At first I didn't want to pull the plug because if his eyes were open, maybe he could come out of it ... They said no."





She rushed to a bedside chair and tried to talk with this dying man who 20 years ago had been Daddy. "Then I broke down. I told him, 'Soldier, don't you give up.'"





Amber was embraced by Sarge's crew.





Doc was there, and Momma Doc. And Steve, known as the mule for the size of the bedroll he packed around. Lonnie was in the room, too.





And there was Joyce Pedersen, the energetic woman who ran a cleaning service. Joyce had reached out to Sarge and other homeless people, offering work and even housing.





She had become part of the tight circle of friends around Sarge and all of them were telling stories to Amber.





"All these people were telling me these wonderful things," Amber says. "I was talking to Doc and I said, 'You guys are more like his family than I was.' I was glad to hear these good things. All my life I was angry and bitter because I didn't have my dad."





And now she was hearing about Sarge. Amber hasn't absorbed all of this yet. There's a lot to take in, including siblings she didn't know she had, she says. She couldn't afford to stay more than a day in Spokane, but was struck by Sarge's friends and made a plea to hospital staff.





"I said, 'Please don't let him die alone. Let people in the room whether they are family or not.'"





Sarge died on Oct. 15.





& lt;span class="dropcap" & T & lt;/span & he memorial service the next week was almost too much for Doc, who had caught Sarge's dying words -- "I saw. I saw." He hung back during the testimonials.





"I was hurting. I was hurting so much," he says.





But when the two young airmen of the honor guard began the ritual folding of the flag, Doc launched his bearish body away from the wall and rolled front and center.





"I don't need this microphone," he said. "All veterans stand!"





There was a rustling among the crowd and a dozen men and one woman rose to attention.





"This is to you, Sarge!" Doc drew breath and seemed to grow even larger as he snapped a salute and bellowed: "Order arms!"





And so they did, each veteran offering a salute, facing the flag. And they held this salute in a long silence for one of their own -- a chronically homeless man of the Spokane streets.





Long-haired and bearded, they stood, hair graying where it spilled out of bandannas. Faces weathered, hands rough, boots scuffed, they stood in sweatshirts that smelled of cigarettes. Wrapped in surplus greatcoats that resembled scarred carapaces, they stood at attention... Some trembling at the strain, they held the long salute.





The young military man in his crisp dress blues and white-gloved hands dropped swiftly to a knee in front of a surprised Joyce and presented the folded American flag -- a triangle of stars brilliant against the dark blue fabric.





"On behalf of a grateful nation ..." he said.





"Oh! ... oh! ... oh!"





Joyce's hand flew to her mouth but she could not still the sobs that came hammering out as the line between the living and the dead was visible and undeniable at that moment.





Snoopy on one side and Lonnie on the other leaned in to offer solace and, in an instant, there was a rush of others to rub her shoulders or touch her knee, touch the flag, touch for one final heartbeat the man they all knew as Sarge.





& lt;span class="dropcap" & D & lt;/span & id they salute a myth, a lie? What is the truth of a man held in the memories of others?





"I've debated with a lot of people over these stories and stuff," Amber Neff says. "I go by what the evidence shows me, and so far the evidence shows me he lied about that stuff.





"In a way, I don't know how to feel about it," she says. "I was angry at first ... but now I wonder if maybe he changed. People do change."





Amber, too, has changed. That long night in the hospital, after Sarge's friends left, Amber returned to the quiet room and sat alone with her father.





"I made my peace with him then. I sang him 'Daddy's Hands.' I said goodbye."





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