What Was On My Mind This Fourth of July Weekend

This year, as we always do, Ventura County recognized the Fourth of July with parades and fireworks and street fairs. Our home town of Ventura celebrated with our traditional Push 'em-Pull 'em Parade, kids and parents festooning bikes, strollers and wagons in red, white, and blue, and walking down Main Street. It's a fun event that typifies our easy going town; anyone can be in the parade, you just step off the curb and walk down the middle of the street. When the kids get cranky (there's a lot of candy involved), you just head for the curb and disappear into the crowd before the real fireworks start.

Our two sons are older now. The only pushing and pulling that goes on in our house involves the borrowing of cars. But my wife and I still go down to watch the parade because it's fun to see the excited children dressed in cute outfits that will sorely embarrass them a few years down the line.

On the way back to our car we walked through Cemetery Park, the gentlest wind causing the American flag and the POW-MIA flag beneath it to waft only slightly.

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Cemetery Park is a pretty place. If you drive past it on any day of the year all you'll see are dog walkers and children dashing across the grass and people on benches enjoying the splendid view of the sea. The granite markers are not visible unless you stand directly above them. The flat markers are direct and simple. "Mexican-American War 1846-1848." "Civil War 1861-1865. Indian Wars 1866-1890." "Spanish-American War 1898." "World War I 1914-1918." "In memory of the veterans buried in Ventura at Cemetery Memorial Park."

They look up to the sky like unwinking eyes.

Find the cost of freedom, buried in the ground...

If you are of a certain age, you know the song.

On November 11, 1921 the first anonymous soldier was placed in The Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. Attendance was so large it created a massive traffic jam. There was much pomp and circumstance. During the ceremony President Warren G. Harding said he hoped the day would mark "the beginning of a new and lasting era of peace on Earth, good will among men." He was wrong. Today Arlington National Cemetery, despite several expansions, is fast approaching carrying capacity. They have already reduced the size of the graves (from six by twelve feet to five by ten) and conducted "tiered" burials; caskets buried on top of each other like berths in a ship. Beginning in 1967, the government made it harder to get in -- you earn a plot if you die in active duty, if you are highly decorated for valor, if you're a spouse of such etc. -- though the honor of resting in Arlington's ground is likely lost on successful applicants. Despite these belt-tightenings, it is estimated that the current grounds of Arlington will be full by around 2060. There was the Civil War, the Great War to end all wars, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Gulf War, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Several years ago I stood uncomfortably on the beach in Santa Barbara while a young marine squatted before a wooden cross in the sand. The cross was one of several thousand carefully placed in the sand just off Stearns Wharf that morning by a group called Veterans for Peace. That same afternoon the volunteers pulled up every cross to accede to city ordinance. Arlington West, as it is known, still exists today: volunteers placing the crosses in the sand on the first and third Sunday of each month to remember soldiers killed in Iraq. If you haven't visited, you should. It is important to remember.

On this cool September morning, the young marine carefully pushed one flower vial at a time into the sand in front of several small crosses.

His mother stood beside him. She wore dark glasses and her face was blank, but her hands shook. Hands rarely lie.

"They were all in your unit, right baby?" she said.

"Yea, they were all in my platoon."

The young marine pulled out a digital camera, and took a picture of each cross.

His mother was not doing well.

"Tanner was only twenty one?"

Her voice mimicked her hands.

No one spoke. The answer was on the cross.

The young marine picked up a handful of sand, slowly releasing it so that it spilled across the crosses. Someone said a prayer, and then they left.

It was not an unusual scene, but you can understand why I have not forgotten it.

On another visit to Arlington West, I sat and listened to my friend Dan Seidenberg talk with another Vietnam vet. My friend Dan is honest and open and funny in the driest fashion. In Vietnam he received horrific injuries that I won't go into here. I will tell you this. According to the medic who worked on him, Dan's heart stopped three times. Years later at a reunion, Dan pulled the medic aside. Hey Mike, how many guys did you save during your tour? Just you. The end result -- though there never really is an end result with things like this -- left Dan blind in his right eye. He hears only ringing in his right ear, a ringing that leads Dan to now and again lean forward slightly and politely say, "I'm sorry. What did you say?"

Dan and his friend Louis sipped coffee at an outdoor café on State Street, the two of them trying to explain what it's like to watch people die.

"The first time it happens in combat, you're kind of rendered ineffective for the first split second, and that's very frightening," said Dan.

"You're shocked," said Louis. "You're just shocked."

"You can't be that way," said Dan.

"You got to pull out of that space quick. They're not going to stop the battle so you can cry."

"I looked the first three or four times," said Dan, "and then I stopped looking. You can't get emotional. I wanted to be crystal clear, ready for anything."

"Numb," said Louis. "Or you're dead..."

Perhaps Louis read my face, but I don't think so. At this point I don't think either man realized I was there.

"Most people, they don't get it," said Louis. "They just don't get it."

Dan laughed softly.

"Here's why they don't," he said. "It's a very punishing subject. Why punish yourself?"

The two men considered this for a moment.

Louis looked out to the street, busy with strolling shoppers.

"After awhile it all just fades away, like any story," he said.

We must remember.

This independence we stand upon, it is sacrifice beyond scope.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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