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.