Two Hawks sits on a blanket watching the sunset from a damp patch of grass in Balboa Park. Other park residents know him and circle around on bicycles or walking to give him a hug or offer a cigarette. This is his family and he is comfortable out there. Only, someone stole his cane last week, which makes life more difficult.
Ten years ago this former U.S. Marine lost his wife of 30 years. He admits hitting the bottle too hard. He ended up losing his job as a construction worker and eventually his house. Now the park is his home.
He was born in 1941 in Deadwood, South Dakota, the oldest of five children. He remembers the reservation being cold much of the time. There was a lot of land, always room to play and run with his friends. He spoke Lakota all the way through grade school. When he reached high school he had to learn English, even though the school was on reservation land. He had to learn all the subjects in English even though he was only just learning to speak it.
When he was 17 he was drafted and was sent to Vietnam after boot camp. Two of his younger brothers were also drafted. One was eventually listed as Missing In Action, the other returned home with PTSD and ended up shot in a bar fight. “He is no longer with us,” said Two Hawks. He was trained into special forces, he added, a green beret. “I knew exactly where they were going to send me.” He remembers some of the major battles he was part of, especially the battle of Quang Tri and the Da Nang campaign. “We were getting mortared every night.”
Two Hawks still has two bullets in him, one in his spine, that if they were to remove it, would leave him paralyzed. That didn’t stop him from punching his lieutenant, though, when he was in a rage. That was his quick exit from the military, with an other-than-honorable discharge. He would have loved to have joined another branch of the military at that point, but it was not permitted.
He got married and they moved to Imperial Beach where he worked construction, rode with motorcycle gangs and invited the neighborhood kids over to help him restore his 1949 Ford.
“It was hard to trust anyone when I got back,” said Two Hawks. Even though he rode with different biker gangs he refused to fly colors, he said, because it was an act of aggression. “I’d had enough of that. We’ve got a family out here,” he added, waving his hand around at the people sharing his patch of grass. “The way I see it, you gotta keep the peace, even if that means you gotta protect yourself by any means necessary. War will screw you up. I still have nights where I don’t sleep.”
He occasionally goes to the Stand Down event for homeless veterans when he has outstanding tickets he can’t afford to pay off. Because of his other-than-honorable status he doesn’t get military benefits, but being 78 he gets social security benefits that go to his payee, his brother-in-law, who lives nearby. When it’s raining hard like it has been over most of 2019, he and others scrape money together to get a motel room. He doesn’t like going downtown (too violent), or to the bridge shelter tents. He stayed in one for a while but kept getting sick. “It’s a bug factory in there.”
He used to have a rooster as a pet in the park, a japanese silkie named Al. Al stayed in a dog kennel at night. “He had an afro. I eventually left him with a friend who had a ranch. He was a fighting cock.” Someone left him a cat once, but it only lasted a month before it disappeared. Now, the locals consider the park rabbits their pets.
Two Hawks thinks that local cops need to be better trained about homeless issues. “Cops should have a month training out here. Then they’d know what we’re going through.”
The group had a “homeless bucket book” where everyone would write their ambitions, goals, thoughts. It was leather-bound and had a tree of life design on the cover. Someone stole it. He remembers writing his favorite quote in there: “What are you going to do today that you can’t do tomorrow? What are you going to do tomorrow that you can’t do today?”