A Grandfather’s Resting Place
My grandfather was a soldier in the army during the Spanish-American War. I didn't get to see him but once after he went to the Veteran's Hospital in Sawtelle in 1936. He had been suffering from tuberculosis for many years as had many of his comrades-in-arms from the same little town in Kansas. He was laid to rest in a beautiful park-like setting in the peaceful rural setting that was Sawtelle then. Later, when I was going to UCLA, I often drove by the cemetery and was humbled by the sea of white headstones of those who served their country. Since I too was a veteran, I knew that I would have a place there, if I chose. I wondered where I might be buried, on one of the grassy knolls or in a quiet corner, like my grandfather.
I never visited his grave. I was content knowing it was well kept. However, I recently became uneasy when I read about a woman who went to visit her parents' grave at the Veteran's Cemetery in Riverside. She had found that their plot had been destroyed and reused for another burial. Even her parents' headstone had been ground up and thrown away. My wife and I decided to go to Sawtelle to see for ourselves that all was OK.
Our first disappointment came upon driving in and finding no signs indicating where to get information to help us find the grave. We parked in the small, seedy parking lot by the entrance across the road from a building that was clearly a chapel. We got out of the car and started to walk toward it, but could see that the large doors would only be open for a funeral. Seeing no signs we stopped before getting any closer and looked for a more likely building. Somewhat farther into the cemetery was an official-looking building. Thinking that might be the office we got back into the car and drove there. It wasn't until we had gotten inside the building that we realized that it was a mausoleum and not an office. But from there we could see that the chapel building had an ell that might be an office. Upon getting back to the chapel, we finally saw a small sign pointing to a path that went around the corner to the administrative offices. The first door we came to was locked, but there was a sign by it that said "entrance." It turned out that it meant one should go farther down the path to a second door. Before we tried it we were confronted with something that looked like an ATM machine. We finally realized we were supposed to punch in the name of the veteran whose grave we were trying to locate. We punched and punched, trying to do it as required. The screen was worn and smudged as though many others had worked very hard to get it to accept their input. Even the instructions warning that you had to push the keys in a certain way indicated that other people had had trouble too. Hoping to get some help, I tried the door and was pleased to find out that it was open. Inside I could see several desks, but no people. Finally I heard, "Can I help you?" from an inside office. We were ushered outside again and had the machine operated for us, were given a printout of the cemetery and shown where to drive to get to the grave. We had finally gotten what we needed, and after a rough start were happy to be making progress. However, we didn't feel welcome. The system had obviously been set up to prevent us from bothering any of the staff but we seemed to have done just that.
We followed the map down the long narrow lane that the staff person had pointed to on the map but were appalled to see that a large tract of the grass was dead. Farther on we could see lots of gravestones had been uprooted and were lying around on mounds of earth. There was a lot of machinery around too, but it was lying idle, just like the group of men scattered about. For some reason I glanced at my watch. It was 2:30 in the afternoon.
Continuing on, I could see there were piles of dirt covering the road, but I thought we would come to a corner before we got to them. No such luck. There was no corner. With the workers idly looking on we backed, and backed, and backed to a cross road, and took another lane that I could see on the map, which also lead to the gravesite we wanted to find. This lane took us along the other side of the uprooted grave stones. The lane was really narrow, but wide enough so we could ease past a row of cars and a van full of more workers parked alongside.  Someone in the van closed his door so we could pass. Even so we had to pull all the way to the right, and I suddenly realized I would have to be very careful to not run over the legs of a fellow who was lying on his back not quite off the other side of the lane. Fortunately, he pulled his legs in at the last minute so we could pass.
On the map there was another lane that intersected the one we were on that would take us around to our destination. Unfortunately, it too was blocked by piles of dirt, so we parked and started to walk. The general area was easy to find once we discovered the markers. Just how the rows were laid out, however, was unclear. There had evidently been row markers at one time because there were small posts that could have held plaques with numbers on them. I suspect they had been bronze and had been stolen. In any case, I figured we could tick off the alphabetical rows and counted the stones to get to the right spot. Again, no such luck. However, at a location that we could not equate with the information we had (our error?) we did find a stone with my grandfather's name on it. The grass was nice and green, clearly relatively new sod. I hoped that the area across the impassable lane would soon look as nice. However, I have my doubts that all of the markers so casually strewn about would get back over the proper graves. That such a mistake had happened to my grandfather's stone seemed to be a logical conclusion.
We backtracked to our car walking past the workers again, who were quite active now. They spent a lot of time looking at us while we had obviously been lost and were trying get our bearings, but they didn't offer any kind of assistance. I had expected that the crew chief might come over to give us a hand, but no one appeared.
Needless to say, we left with heavy hearts. It was not a good experience. The beautiful cemetery was being allowed to run on idle. The person who helped with the locator machine didn't even tell us, if she knew it, that the road was blocked. If anyone was watching the store, it was not evident. It was just business as usual for a government agency. I left feeling that veterans don't count any more in death than they do in life, and I shouldn't expect anything different. And yet I do.
Dealing with nothing but bad experiences with government employees is legendary. However, militaries seem to have found a way to make their similarly unmotivated work force come to life and accomplish truly heroic acts. I believe such acts are now needed to stop the further erosion of a great national cemetery. At least some remedial action should be taken.
Perhaps we should put the cemetery or even the whole veterans' administration back into one of the services -- a home guard? Uniformed members of the armed services could then man veterans' cemeteries. Honor guards who actually assist visitors in a friendly manner could also be a result. Even the work force could be made up of service personnel. I used a pick and shovel many times when I was in service. I didn't enjoy it, but I did it. It even had a good side. We developed a camaraderie (against the officers, of course), and probably malingered a good deal too, but we got the job done, and I know we looked great to the public.
By the way, public works projects are no different from the projects that responsible homeowners carry out for themselves -- lots and lots of maintenance and occasional improvements. We don't need to live like slobs as a country any more than we do as individuals. I have suggested that a military-like model may be appropriate. There are other models, some of which might hopefully contribute to jump starting the present economy. However, we shouldn't jump start the economy just so we can send more money overseas. We need to find a way to get work done here, that should be done here, and can only be done here if we are to all enjoy better lives. CCC or WPA anyone?
It's not true that life is one damn thing after another; it is one damn thing over and over.
 -- Edna St. Vincent Millay
Friday, February 15, 2008
Good Enough for Vets?