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
I didn’t intend to go to Gardena High School’s centenary celebration. Gardena, after all, is one of many small towns in the big city that, unlike Beverly Hills or Santa Monica, have never registered on L.A.’s social Richter scale. It’s nothing more or less than a neat, working-class South Bay hamlet tucked between bad-breaks Compton and the beachy glamour of Hermosa, Manhattan and Redondo. Yes, I went to high school there. But I never lived there, even when I was a student. I owed Gardena nothing.
But I have to admit that I was fond of high school, in part because it had given me the only truly integrated experience of my life. During the late ’70s, in the midst of busing wars and other civil rights backlash, modest Gardena was an oasis of diversity long before the word had any cachet. The campus was equal parts white, black, Japanese and early-generation Latino, with some Korean and Chinese thrown in for good measure. It was a rare moment that didn’t last — Gardena High, alas, has since “re-segregated” — but the impression it made on me, the foundation it laid for a certain idealism by which I stubbornly measured the world, did.
And so, when I discovered that the centenary committee was soliciting “Memory Lane” speakers at an afternoon event, former students willing to say a few words for about two minutes, I found myself signing up. I got back an effusive response from Gentry “Buzzie” Akens (“Great, Erin! Thanks!”), a graduate of the class of ’72 who was coordinating this whole thing. Gentry, I discovered, was an animation consultant living in Florida, planning the Gardena bash from his computer 2,000 miles away. Of course, he’d be flying in. I was impressed.
I showed up at last Saturday’s event knowing at least one of my brethren from the class of 1979, Helena, would be there; we sang in choir together, and became very good friends despite the fact that I was black and rode the bus and she was white and lived in town. Things got started early for a Saturday morning, 8:30, already hot. The auditorium was nearly full, and humming with a sense of unqualified expectation I hadn’t felt regularly since about the 11th grade. Helena confessed to me that she’d colored her long hair that week to avoid looking old; she didn’t have to worry, because most of the Gardena alums who showed up were old, or at least old enough to not bother dyeing their hair. The first Memory Lane speakers of the day were graduates of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s who waxed mostly sentimental about Gardena High’s rustic beginnings, its local hangouts and hokey, farm-based traditions. The high school that was founded in 1904 — only the third campus in the then-fledgling Los Angeles school district — had a heavy agricultural emphasis that lasted officially for about a decade, and unofficially much longer than that. The city was a haven for farmers, many of them Asian immigrants, up until about World War II.
We all knew the reason for the change, but nobody could get around the fact that something like half the town — the Japanese half — was rounded up and sent away to internment camps during the war. One speaker, a white woman, tried to make light of one of the darkest moments in the history of American civil liberties. “Hey, we had some real good times!” she exclaimed from the stage. “The Japanese were such good farmers, we didn’t really have a chance to do it ourselves until they were dragged away. Then the Texies and the Okies and Arkies came after they left, so we filled up again pretty good.”
It was the most awkward moment in an otherwise feel-good afternoon. Even the reminiscences of war and loss, of the 1933 Long Beach quake that leveled the school and the political explosions that leveled it in the ’60s in quite a different way, only added to the growing sense that Gardena High was like an underground club to which we would always belong, an L.A. memory utterly unique and shared only by a lucky few. When I stepped from behind the enormous curtain to say my piece, people were already clapping: I was there. That was all anybody needed. “Hello from the Stars of ’79!” I shouted to the crowd. The class name that I’d always denounced as clichéd was suddenly, unironically perfect.
Now is the time for inconvenient courage. I am an Air Force veteran, and every Sunday, Veterans for Peace and volunteers gather at the Santa Monica Pier at 7:30 a.m. to erect Arlington West, a memorial to the fallen U.S. military of the current Iraq war. One cross for every American serviceperson killed is planted in the sand.
As the group arrives, we unload the crosses from Mark Scully’s old blue pickup. Mark is the coordinator for Arlington West and a veteran from the Vietnam War. At times he is still there, and then he returns to the present, his old green eyes jaded and sad. He adjusts his long, white ponytail and hands me a stack of crosses.
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.”