Above-Ground at Miramar

By Sam Thoburn (University of California, San Diego, USA)

I write every day, but not very often on this blog. So for that, my many, many readers, I apologise.

The Spring Quarter out here began three weeks ago, and among my new classes is one in travel writing. Since San Diego is a recruitment and command centre for both the American Navy and Air Force, I thought it would be interesting to look into that military history a little. To that end, I have been (and will be) visiting the city’s military cemeteries and writing about them. Here is the first piece I wrote, to be read in the knowledge that Jerry Brown, the Governor of California, just announced that he is deadly serious about reducing water usage across the state:

Above-Ground at Miramar

For such a level place, with so few trees, there is a great deal of birdsong. Is the song that of the Coastal California Gnatcatcher? The informational board installed in front of a fenced-off area of scrub would lead me to believe so: it tells the tale of vernal pools in San Diego County, a kind of seasonal wetland of which 97% are gone, leaving only those at this Miramar Air Force base as habitats for such endangered species as the San Diego Fairy Shrimp and the 4-inch-long Coastal California Gnatcatcher.

That unique fauna sets Miramar apart from other military cemeteries. But just like any of its kind, Miramar has the obligatory marble-white gravestones laid out in rows so perfect that they form straight lines from almost any angle.

Each gravestone bears these rows of information about the dead, engraved very deeply and arranged with as much precision as the stones themselves: name, rank, military branch, wars in which they fought (most commonly, still, Korea and Vietnam), dates of birth and death and sometimes a short tribute from the surviving family. On top of all those, in the uppermost portion of the stone, there is usually a religious symbol from a template; most often, it is some variant of a Christian cross, while the odd one bears the Star of David, and others carry ambiguous symbols like that of a silhouetted man blowing into a bugle or the sideways eight meaning infinity. The range of possible images must be limited to nine or ten, with one chosen from that small collection, which I suppose a family member must pick out. On the opposite side of some of the stones there are memorials for the non-serving military spouse. There is less ceremony to these—no religious symbols – and in fact they are easy to miss if you are not looking for them.

There are the usual graveside adornments – flags and flowers most commonly. Every flower is brightly coloured and alive, which seemed like a strange lack of tarnish for a cemetery until I read on a noticeboard, posted along one edge of the main graveyard plot, that “All floral items will be removed as soon as they become faded and/or unsightly”. Flowers bloom there all year round then, and the grass stays green as well. Every other facility in California must turn off its sprinklers if it is to conserve ever-precious water, but it would be a brave man who ordered the grass of national cemeteries to be left to the whims of the year-round sun. I will know that all hope of salvation from the drought is lost when there is parched grass at Miramar.

The artifice of green grass is clear enough when you move from the eastern to the western side of the entrance gate. This national cemetery only opened in 2010, and though thousands are already interred there, the ground is not nearly full. One or two plots of ground have been prepared on this western side to await those who will pass on in the coming years, but the space is not yet completely developed. Past a certain point, the road that leads around the plots is unpaved, becoming a track through the dirty yellow dust of wild scrubland. I walked over it slowly, heeding as best I could the warning sign by the low administration building (“BEWARE OF RATTLESNAKES”), and wondered how long it would be before this, too, would be sacred memorial ground and true mourners would stand there instead of me.

Nobody said it was easy, nobody said it would be so hard.

By Isobel Cecil (University of California, San Diego, USA).

(I wrote this a month ago, and thought I’d posted it a month ago to. I’ve only just realised that my technical capabilities have failed me again and that it didn’t post. Hey, just another setback!)

Here I am just a few days away from my long flight to California, and I’m finding it very hard to describe how I feel. Everybody keeps asking me: “Are you excited??!?!?” , to acquaintances I enthusiastically reply “Yeah! 100%! Woohoo!” and make some lighthearted joke about tanning/Mexican food/ surfer boys. However to those closer to me I tell the truth; I don’t have any overwhelming feelings of excitement, happiness nor even of fear and nerves.

The journey to this point in time has been the most incredibly stressful process I have ever been through. I’ve felt like every aspect has had multiple setbacks: from course selection confusion to seemingly never-ending Visa problems and stresses.

And then, when I thought everything was sorted, I received an email informing me that I had not got into “International House” (the only UCSD accommodation we were allowed to apply for). I remember joking with my Manchester friends whilst writing my 5 mini-essays for the application (no joke) that if I didn’t get it I would just have to camp out on the beach for year. When I received the email I had no reaction, it was like I’d just read another email from ASOS/Student Beans.

The truth is, I was so shocked and scared that I just couldn’t process it. It wasn’t until my parents came home and I had to put it into words that I started to freak out. I had nowhere to live; there was no space left on campus,;I wasn’t going to get the campus experience I had signed up for — the experience that I had sacrificed my second year in Manchester for.

The worst thing was that there was no straightforward next step. The rejection email had one link on it to “Commuter Student Services”, a website designed for 3rd/4th year UCSD students, who have grown out of campus life. There was a list of extremely helpful tips such as “Drive around different neighborhoods to see if you like atmosphere” and “Keep an eye-out for FOR RENT signs when you’re out and about”, to say this exacerbated my anger would be an understatement. Three out of four of us going to UCSD this year from Manchester did not get into I-house, and we are all struggling. I almost sorted out housing with 2 different American girls but one of them just stopped messaging me, and the other panicked about getting an international deposit and rented a studio apartment instead.

So here I am just a few days away from my flight to California, and I’m finding it hard to describe my feelings. Just as I was too shocked to react to my accommodation rejection email, I feel to overwhelmed by house-hunting stress to even process excitement or nerves, it just feels like there’s too much to be done. The knowledge that I’m moving to California, and I have no-where to actually move to, is perhaps occupying those parts of my brain.

I realise that was not exactly positive, but I feel it’s important to be honest. This process is difficult, but hopefully it will be worth it. On a more positive note, apart from trying to sort out California stuff, I’ve been busy this summer ticking off my “England To-Do List” including: Going to Y-Not Festival in my beautiful home county of Derbyshire, having a last roast dinner, a last decent British Curry, spending time with my friends who will soon be so far away and most importantly– having my last pint in the pub! A few little photos of that to cheer up this post, including me looking suitably delighted to finally get my visa and the top photo of my friends and I doing a little ironic sorority girl pose; that should be something suitably hilarious to observe when I finally get to CA! English To Do List