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March 2, 2012
SAN DIEGO – Each time I drive away from Cabrillo National Monument and its view overlooking San Diego, the thousands of white headstones in neat rows capture my attention.
This time, for the first time, I pulled over and parked. This garden of stone on the Port Loma peninsula is the 77-acre Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery. The military cemetery on gently rolling hills close to the historic lighthouse overlooks the Pacific Ocean to the west. To the east is San Diego Bay and Naval Base Coronado.
The rows of headstones on hills overlooking the ocean and the bay create a powerful landscape of beauty and sadness. On this day, a Friday, the sky was overcast. Tree branches swayed in a gentle breeze. When I returned the next day for more photos, the sky was clear.
The white headstones of Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery contrast with the white sails of boats in San Diego Bay in the distance. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
Military, historic and all-but-forgotten sacred grounds are interesting because of the history they represent. The people with names in stone were husbands or wives or sons or daughters. They were friends. They taught us and they continue to teach us, even in death.
One life in a few words
If headstone inscriptions are readable, they tell a story in two dates, a name and a few words. Several years ago, my Best Friend and I stood before headstones dating to the 1700s along Boston’s Freedom Trail.
In Atlanta years later, we wandered through a neglected cemetery in which soldiers from the Civil War in the 1860s are buried. We have since visited Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C. and National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, where soldiers from wars in the 1900s and more recent conflicts are interred.
For feature stories, I interviewed managers of small cemeteries in Arizona and Washington State. The managers see the impact of death upon families. Their cemeteries’ occupants include pioneers who helped settle the two states.
Studying headstones is morbid? Not at all. Cemeteries are all around us. In life and in death, we touch many lives. As a journalist, I believe everyone has a story to share. However, many don’t get that chance.
Years ago, thanks to the Internet, I located the burial site of an uncle I never knew. He was one of my father’s brothers. He is buried in Italy, where he died in World War II. He lived and then died in a war before I was born. Who was he, really? All I know about him is his name and that his family mourned his death. What were his ambitions and goals? Did he enjoy laughter, woodworking and a good book? How did he die? Did he have a girlfriend waiting for him? If so, who was she?
A funeral procession entering Fort Rosecrans brought me back from daydreaming. A hearse led several vehicles. I watched them stop by the funeral site. Minutes later, I heard a 21-gun salute.
I wanted some photos of the headstones overlooking San Diego Bay. But a photographer near the funeral would have been painful for those in mourning. I can return later.
I walked through the vehicle entrance to the other side of the cemetery.
“Need room for your shots?” the man asked. He was bent slightly forward, holding his camera in front of his face, photographing the headstones. I was a little startled. Until he spoke, I hadn’t paid attention to him. He appeared ready to step aside if I wanted to shoot photos in his direction.
“No, thank you,” I said. Friendly Man resumed shooting photos. The landscape of souls was overpowering, with rows of white headstones on rolling terrain vanishing into the distance.
I studied the headstones. Friendly Man snapped a few more photos before stepping to his car, parked nearby. He drove off.
Yellow daffodils become a beacon in the rows of white headstones on a field of green. Copyright © photo by Mike Padgett
At midmorning on this cloudy day, a Friday, the coastal fog nearly was gone. But enough hung in the air to create an ethereal mood in the cemetery.
I walked along the rows of stones, reading some of the inscriptions. Precious Daughter. Loved Husband. For anyone interested enough to stop and read, the names and words from the heart are memorialized in stone. What is unanswered is how their lives ended. Did they die in combat or in a traffic accident? Was theirs a long and fruitful life? Did they stop to help others struggling in this Great Race?
Two cars turned into the cemetery entrance behind me. They moved slowly up the cemetery lane and vanished beyond the trees.
Names and memories
I found myself staring. A middle-aged man holding the elbow of a tiny elderly woman helped her as they walked slowly along the headstones. They stopped. She pointed to a name. Maybe the name prompted memories.
I walked on. Ahead of me was a bouquet of daffodils in a container leaning against a headstone. Someone who knows love – and loss – probably left the flowers. I snapped a few photos.
I whispered my apologies. I hoped the person who received the flowers didn’t mind.
The cemetery, which is part of a U.S. Navy installation, is on both sides of the road to the Cabrillo National Monument and the historic Point Loma lighthouse.
Loss and pain in grade school
Later, driving back to my hotel, I thought about my experiences as a child during funerals and other personal trauma.
When I was in grade school, one of my younger sisters died. It was leukemia. Then a classmate died from an accidental shooting. His rifle was similar to mine.
Odd, how one painful memory will revive others. I remembered my first experience as a victim of theft. I was in the third grade. My new coat, on the first day I wore it, was stolen from its hook in the classroom. My blue-collar parents had scrimped to buy the coat. My teacher, despite her best efforts, never located my coat.
Thieves and bullies
In the fifth grade, my geography homework vanished from my desk. The teacher found it in the hands of a classmate. He had failed to fully erase my name before writing his over it. My name still was readable.
Later that year, my parents moved us to another small town. There, the class bully and I were punished for fighting. The rest of the year, he was friendlier.
In the seventh grade, another bully – he was tall for his age – intimidated many of us.
I learned at an early age that in addition to good friends, loving families, digging for razor clams at the beach and the loyalty of a boy’s dog, our world includes death, loss and antisocial personalities.
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(This essay was updated since its original posting.)
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