By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Last week a new group of eight volunteers showed up. “Good morning!” I said cheerily as we unpacked the crosses onto the beach. They looked past me. Oh, they’re not morning people, I thought. So I dug into the work, and so did they. Stan — a vet from World War II — was staring out across the ocean. “Whatcha thinking about, Stan?”
“Those kids,” he says, nodding his wise face toward the group of eight. “They lost their best friend on Monday. They didn’t know what to do, so they came here.”
The group of eight helped with the 852 crosses. Then they took a flag and a flower and wrote their friend’s name on a piece of paper and placed it on a cross in the front row and sat crying and telling stories of First Lieutenant Andre Tyson.
Later that Sunday, a Marine came and collapsed in grief. He had survived a slew of mortar attacks in Iraq and had lost 15 of his comrades. He was so bereft that he couldn’t write the names of the men. Volunteers helped him, and then he gingerly kissed all 15 crosses and leaned against the Santa Monica Pier.
On the Fourth of July, we read the names of the 865 fallen. One hundred names every hour. I hated reading the names of the dead. When I’d read them on Memorial Day, I couldn’t stop crying. This time, as I read Private First Class Sean Horn, 19, or Lance Corporal Kyle Codner, 19, I felt empty.
The feelings of putting up the crosses in the morning and taking them down at night are completely different. In the morning we section off the sand into a perfect triangle and then a perfect square. Marcus Eriksen, a Marine veteran from the Gulf War, designed a diagram so that the rows line up symmetrically and still accurately reflect the number of dead. Luckily, he has a Ph.D. in science education, and this comes easy for him. (I got a D in geometry.) Volunteers help place the crosses and adjust each one so it is straight — as straight as anything can be when the foundation consists of sand.
As I plant the crosses, it feels like I am saying hello to reality. Hello, Private First Class Daniel Unger (19). Hello, Specialist Christopher Duffy (26). Hello, Private First Class Melissa Hobart (22). The wood of the cross is strong, the sand is newly raked, and the sun is dawning across the Pacific Ocean.
The day goes on. Jose, a developmentally disabled man in a red, white and blue baseball hat, asks me what to do.
“You can take a card and write a name and a note to a fallen soldier.”
“Okay,” he says, and we write out a name — and then he asks me how to spell God. Then, how to spell bless.
Two 19-year-old girls in bikini tops and tattoos stop by. They are on weekend liberty and enlisted in the Marines last September. They are ready to fight and leave for Iraq in a week. They have absolutely no fear and are on a mission.
A man is upset by the memorial. “Do you know how many people Saddam killed?” he says.
Another woman asks if we can help her find her son.
“Yes, ma’am,” I say, and find his name on the board. She and her family pick a cross near the ocean and sit there until we begin to take the crosses down at 6 p.m.
I don’t like taking down the crosses. I can feel the tears in the sand, and I can feel the confusion in the beach air mixed with people flying kites and having picnics. I read the cards as I pull them off the crosses, and I see the little memorials that people create: a stack of seashells, a group of flat river rocks, a Marine insignia, a funeral card.
After the crosses are stacked in the truck, I turn back, and the beach is clean again. The memorial is gone, almost as if it never happened. The picnics and the kites rush in to fill the empty space. Families and friends of different colors and beliefs rush onto the tear-filled sand.
A few weeks ago, a man in his mid-70s approached the Arlington West tent with tears in his eyes.
“Hello,” I said, and shook his military-handshake hand. His lip quivered.
“I haven’t been on sand in 50 years,” he said. “I was a Marine in World War II, and after five beach assaults in the South Pacific, I swore I would never set foot on sand again, but I had to see this.”
“Thank you,” I said.
Flashback: Blanket Statement
In March 2002, Bay Area artists Paul Schiek and Chris Duncan responded to the “wool-pulling” and clampdown on dissent that followed September 11 with the SOS quilt, a piece of unsanctioned art made from bed sheets, house paint, thread and a borrowed billboard. “The basic message behind the quilt,” says Duncan, “is a call for help. Save our ship . . . save ourselves . . . save our state . . . save our society . . . you get the point.
It’s a piece that had a very short physical life, but has a sentiment that will always carry substantial weight as long as things remain the way they are.”