Letter from California

An archive of the weekly "Letter from Calfornia", written by Jim McCarthy.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Letter from California-June 7, 2004

“Let’s just fix up the ones on this hill,” Jake, my six year old son, said to me. He was pointing to a slope that stretched about a quarter of a mile up a rather steep expanse of grass in the Los Angeles National Cemetery. It was the weekend before last, the day before Memorial Day and the kids had been running around the cemetery straightening the dime-store American flags which had been planted in front of the graves of the tens of thousands of servicemen and women who are buried here.
Needless to say, we would have needed the entire 3-day weekend to take care of the whole hillside, but in his mind, we might be able to dash quickly through the rows and put the colors back in their rightful place, standing tall in front of the person buried there.
Los Angeles National Cemetery looks a lot like the other National cemeteries that you may have visited: green and trim, with stately and simple monuments lined up in perfect straightness and symmetry, stretching far farther than you expect. Just outside the august gates of this cemetery, though, lie a few things that the other veterans’ cemeteries generally don’t have. For example, if you’ve ever seen movie stars stepping out of a limousine and onto a red carpet for a movie premiere, there’s an excellent chance that they were going to the Fox Theatre in Westwood. The Fox’s box office is less than a quarter mile from the eastern border of the cemetery. Two minutes to the west is the neighborhood of Brentwood, home of the rich and flaky, which became infamous as the backdrop for the absurd events of the OJ drama. If you live there and your neighbor to the left isn’t a celebrity and your neighbor to the right isn’t a celebrity, there’s a good chance you are.
It’s also about half a mile from the Bel-Air home of President Reagan. We didn’t know it at the time, but when we visited, he was in the final days of his life.. Bel-Air may once have had a Fresh Prince, but it had only one President. Like another famous California politician you may have heard of, Reagan had a movie career that made him the subject of plenty of jokes. He starred in mostly forgettable movies, sharing the spotlight with a monkey on several occasions. Yet somehow, without an Academy Award, Reagan’s name will be remembered far longer than any of his famous, talented and beloved neighbors in this neighborhood of stars.
Yes, he once called ketchup a vegetable and said that trees polluted too. He also happened to be the one of the very few people in 1980 that believed that the tyranny of Soviet communism could be brought to an end in the foreseeable future. By contrast, his political opponent, Jimmy Carter, famously commented that “communism is here to stay.” Just nine years later, the citizens of Berlin let Carter know that they begged to differ and tore down one big ugly wall, leading a shocking revolution that freed hundreds of millions from the gray boot of government control.
In other words, they got a chance to live their lives in a way that we take for granted. They, and their children, will get to make their own decisions. Many of these decisions will be bad ones, and many of these lives will be unhappy, but they will belong to the people who live them.
When we were picking up the wind-blown flags in front of the grave markers, Jake asked me why they put a flag in front of every grave. I told him that he should always remember that each one of these graves represented a person who lived a life. Some of them died in war, but most of them didn’t. Most of them served their country and went on to live their lives like the rest of us. Freedom is a blank sheet of paper, and you can write anything you want. The hitch is that if you can’t think of anything worth writing, there’s no pattern you can trace, no answer key to look at in the back of the book and copy.
Which is just how it should be. Each of us is here to live out a personal mission that no one else has ever had. Every one of those flags represents a man or woman who once upon a time put his or her tail on the line to make sure that it stays that way.
Jake gets it now and I hope it stays with him, and his little sister, forever. Freedom means picking the path of your own life. It’s such a simple idea that it gets tangled up in people’s minds with a bunch of other concepts, and I get scared that sometimes people lose the thread entirely.
Maybe that’s what had happened when President Carter, a good and moral man, decided that he was comfortable with a system that separated people from their most basic rights. For this reason, I agree with former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl who called Ronald Reagan “a stroke of luck for Europe and the world.”

Over the last couple of days, I’ve reflected on Reagan’s passing, on the visit to the cemetery and on my own hopes for the future. I had a dim vision of my child’s child’s child chasing a rambunctious young boy or girl through the same marble headstones and dime store flags on some beautiful Los Angeles morning in May, many years from now.
The child asks why there’s a flag on each grave, even those for ancient wars like one that happened long, long ago in a place called Iraq. A century from now, I dream that the parent will have a good answer:
“Because each one of these people thought you would like to live in freedom.”


Post a Comment

<< Home