Friday, May 27, 2011

Chapter 3: Tree Without Leaves (4/6)

Spring 2006

“What is it?”  Just as Rachel was ordering her medium latte with soy milk, Joyce, her colleague, elbowed her in the side.  She motioned her head toward a tall, shaven-headed soldier standing behind her in line and ostensibly admiring her backside.  Little did she know that what caught the man’s eye was actually a brochure sticking halfway out of the back pocket of her jeans.  He looked closer to make sure it said what he thought it said, apparently unaware that the two civilian women were now taking notice of him.

“Excuse me?  Do you see something of interest?”

The man, Captain Kam McKelway, turned red.  “Oh, you think…I mean…I know what you’re thinking…”

Rachel didn’t miss a beat.  “Well, if what you think I’m thinking is something like Why is this guy staring at my ass?, then, Yes, you nailed it.”  Joyce laughed as she left the counter with her drink.

Rachel turned around abruptly.  “Okay. Where was I? $3.80.”  She plopped the money onto the counter.  “There you go!”  She gave the chatty twenty-something Indian man at the register a big smile.  “Keep the change, Arshad.”

As she grabbed her drink, Kam started to chuckle.  Rachel jerked around to face him again.  “What’s your problem?”

“Me?  Well, if you must know, I find it funny that you think the world revolves around your…ass, as you so elegantly put it.”

“Oh, I see,” Rachel responded cheekily.

At this moment, both Kam and Rachel looked over at a sergeant gazing back at them.  He was holding a slice of pizza in his hand and cracking up over their exchange.  As if cognizant that their conversation was a spectacle, Rachel seemed to become more sassy in her demeanor.

She looked briefly at Kam and shook her head in disapproval.  “Whatever.  Glad to provide amusment for ya.  Enjoy your coffee.”

As she ambled over to the condiment counter with Joyce and sprinkled a yellow packet and a pinch of cinnamon into her cup, Kam detected a playful expression in Rachel’s face.  He also thought she was the cutest thing he had ever seen.

Certain that this little chat was over, he ordered his drink from Arshad and secured one of only two tables in the small coffee shop to read his book.  Rachel and Joyce had left the premises, but he could hear them talking to some soldiers just outside the door.

Suddenly Rachel reentered the coffee shop and approached Kam.  “Okay, Captain…McKelway.”  She inspected the velcro name tag on his uniform.  “What so interested you then?”

“Excuse me?”

“You claim that you weren’t looking where you shouldn’t be looking.”

“Right.  I mean, not that...Wait, let me stop there.”

“About to dig your hole deeper?”

“You got it!”


Kam kept his nose in his book for a few minutes.  Rachel shrugged her shoulders and started to walk out the door.

“Sugihara,” he uttered nonchalantly.


“White Mocha!” Arshad called out.

“Let me just get that...”

“Yeah, sure.”

Kam took a swig of his caffeinated beverage.  “Chiune Sugihara.”

“The Japanese guy?”  Rachel became conscious of the brochure in her back pocket and reached around for it.  “Yep, that’s what it says alright.  He was a...”

“...Japanese diplomat, or consul rather.  He saved Jews in Lithuania by stamping their visas against orders so that they could leave Nazi-controlled Europe.  Many of them went to Japan or China, I think, and from there to the United States.  It’s a compelling story.  The man is a hero, someone who could have easily followed an easier path, but he risked a lot to help people whom he didn’t know and from whom he had nothing to gain.”

While Kam was speaking, Rachel stood in silence and amazement.  How does he know all this?  By this time Joyce was outside with a cigarette talking to a gaggle of contractors and soldiers.

“He survived the war and lived to a ripe old age into his 80s.”

“Wow.  So what are they teaching soldiers nowadays?”

Kam chuckled.  “Let’s just say I’m a history person.”

“That’s for sure.”

“But I can’t remember when this happened.  1941, I'm guessing.  I should know this.”

Rachel scoured the brochure.  “1940,” she corrected him.

“Thank you.  Just like to know my dates.”

“You’re weird.”

“You have no idea!”  Kam winked and stuck his nose back in the book.

Rachel chuckled and caught herself letting her emotions getting the best of her.  She looked outside and made eye contact with Joyce who looked at her watch and gave her a puzzled look.  Ready to go or what?

“The only thing I would add is that Sugihara wasn’t the only hero.  The people who lifted up their visas to him as he hastily stamped them from his train window had their own stories, their own personal acts of heroism.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” replied Kam, placing the book on the table.  “Just consider what they went through.  These people lost their homes, faced hostile bloodthirsty SS killers, not to mention erstwhile neighbors who coveted their property.  Just imagine: You’re uprooted, you’ve lost loved ones…”

“I can imagine that,” Rachel interrupted.  “And then there’s the train trip across Siberia.  Imagine a 16-year old girl and her sister all alone dealing with all of that?”

Some soldiers walked in to order coffee.  In the corner was a TV blaring Bollywood music videos.

“Large mocha frappe!” called out the barista with a thick Indian accent.

“So, I apologize for the accusation,” said Rachel.

“Oh, you mean…no…it’s okay.  I’ve been accused of much worse.”  Kam smiled warmly.

“And sorry to interrupt your reading.”  She turned to leave.  “Enjoy your coffee, weird history guy.”

“That’s Captain Weird History Guy,” he corrected her.

“I’m sorry…”


“Can I just ask you one thing?”


“Why are you so interested in Sugihara?  Can I see the brochure?  You’ll keep me up tonight wondering this.”

“Well, you’ll keep me up wondering how you knew all this stuff.”  Rachel thought that sounded flirtacious.  There was a moment of awkward silence, but it soon dissipated.  After all, they seemed to share a special knowledge about history.

“Yeah, what are the odds?”

“Hold on. Joyce is waiting for me.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to…”

“No, it’s okay. Hold on.” Rachel almost bumped into a soldier who standing behind her as he was waiting in line. She popped her head out the door. Joyce was stubbing out her cigarette. “Go ahead without me. I’ll be there soon.”

“You like this guy or what?”

“No, it’s not like that.”

“Okay.” Joyce kept talking to the soldiers.

Rachel came back to Kam’s table and handed him the brochure. “Please sit down.”

“Oh, it’s a conference on Sugihara…at the Holocaust Memorial Museum.” He kept skimming it.  The conference already occurred last year.  Did you go to it?”

“My brother sent it to me along with a DVD about the man. I just thought I’d read it here at the café.  We’re waiting for a flight to the states and got bumped…again.”

“Good luck with that.  I’ve sat in that PAX terminal waiting for an eternity, it seems.”

“So I just thought I’d sit there and educate myself.”

Kam gave her a look.  “Because he saved your grandmother?”

Rachel was dumbfounded.  “How do you know that?”

“You mentioned a 16-year old girl on a train through Russia.  Was that your grandmother?”

“Yes.  My grandmother is a Holocaust survivor.”

“So she’s still alive then?”

“Very much so.  She’s 82 and still going strong.  She and her sister, who died on the way from pneumonia, were saved by Sugihara, well, in part.  My great grandparents had sent their daughters to Lithuania just as the Germans invaded Poland.”

“Wow!  What a family history you have!”

“Yes I do.  I didn’t know about him, Sugihara that is, until a few years ago.  Bubby, I mean, my grandmother, didn’t herself know much about him but she never forgot him. Anyway, my brother and I resolved to visit a Sugihara memorial to pay tribute. Honestly, it’s also an excuse to go visit some places.  It was Barry’s idea.  He’s a history buff.”

“Yeah?  Then I like him!”