John Spevak: Memorial reflections

June 6, 2008 

When I visited the San Joaquin Valley Veterans Cemetery on Memorial Day, it occurred to me how blessed we are to have this facility near us.

Back east, around this time of year, tourists make their way to Civil War cemeteries, places where persons can walk and reflect upon history and the sacrifices individuals made in defense of their beliefs. The same could be said about the cemetery in Santa Nella.

I've visited the grounds often through the years, usually for a quick stop at a specific spot. On my most recent memorial visit, I made it a point to take my time and walk around the entire cemetery.

I wasn't able to make the ceremonies on Sunday, when veterans make it a point to invite large numbers of people to participate in events held near the reflecting pool. This year, I understand, it was a particularly good event, directed by Los Banos's own Joe Cox, which took special note of the sacrifices made by persons who served in the United States Navy.

I came on the Monday of Memorial Day weekend. Scores of flags were flying along the road as I entered, but the flags and the tent around reflecting pool had been taken down. There were no color guards or bagpipes or speeches that day, but there were many people quietly visiting graves.

I saw in every direction "decorations" on graves, very fitting since this holiday was once called Decoration Day. Red, white, and blue were the predominant colors, including many small American flags.

I was impressed by how many people spent long periods of time next to graves, some sitting directly on the grass, others sitting on small chairs they had brought. Fortunately, the day was pleasantly cool, unusual for a Memorial Day in the Central Valley; and even in the middle of the afternoon, people could visit leisurely.

I realized that this was an instance when "government" had done something right. Whoever had designed the cemetery understood what people who mourn and grieve need. And the people employed by the cemetery clearly have so much respect for those buried here and those who visit that they work hard to keep it looking good.

Many trees have been planted throughout the grounds, some donated by families of the deceased. A large number of the trees have grown strong and tall. There is something about trees that brings comfort to a person experiencing strong emotions. Besides the shade that provides coolness, the branches and leaves that sway and rustle in the breeze seem to calm and soothe a troubled spirit.

There are also fields of green lawn that are pleasurable to the eye. As I recall, when the cemetery was first built, the plan was not to have irrigated grass but to let the land stay in a natural state. While that sounded like a good idea, a dry, brown landscape would have been hard on the eyes. There's something about green grass that uplifts the spirits and brings back good memories.

All of this green is in strong contrast to the expanse of tall, rolling brown hills to the west and dry fields to the east. The cemetery becomes a kind of geographical and spiritual oasis.

Another good idea of the landscape architect is the ample use of water--in the large rectangular pools, with small waterfalls, and the virtual stream that runs west to east into the pools. The stream and the waterfalls are man-made, created by systems that re-circulate the water.

Like the trees and the grass, the water is soothing. I saw several people sitting near the pool and stream, listening to the water flow, reflecting, I assume, on people they have known who are not longer physically with them. And throughout the cemetery there are paths encouraging people to walk, enjoy the landscape, and think about the spiritual dimension of life.

I also like the balance between the fields of graves and the rest of the grounds. The idea of having simple flat stone markers on each grave--with names, dates, and military service, along with room for a brief inscription by the family--is a wise one, signifying, to me at least, the equal dignity of each person buried there and the value of each life.

In contrast with the flat plains of graves, the monuments in the cemetery stand out, including

· the Korean War memorial, with the names, inscribed on stone tablets, of Californians who lost their lives in that war;

· the American flag, which flies atop a tall pole on a hill that is the literal high point of the cemetery and can be seen from every vantage point on the grounds;

· the various memorial plaques and statues throughout the grounds;

· the trees and markers honoring the submarines lost in conflict.

All of this contributes to a sense of reverence and respect which the cemetery exudes. In this environment people who visit can take the time, away from the noise and clatter of the world, to think about all the lives lost in wars, the pain and suffering endured, the tears shed.

People who visit this cemetery can understand why so much appreciation goes out to the individuals who died in service of their country, as well as the many who served and suffered debilitating injuries to body or spirit, and the many who served and survived relatively unscarred.

It is also a reminder that we should be very careful about wars our country becomes involved in, to be cautious that old men don't send young men and women into war to risk and often lose their lives unless there is absolutely no other alternative.

It's a reminder that we should not be misled about what triggers the wars we fight, that we should understand the consequences in entering conflicts, and that, if we do go to war, we are fighting, not to support greed and a lust for power, but for just and upright causes. The lives of our young soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines are too precious to be lost for anything less.

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a regular Enterprise columnist, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to

Comments on the writings of John Spevak, a regular Enterprise columnist, are encouraged, and can be sent via email to

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