As he has every Memorial Day for the past 25 years, Al Giambastiani spent Monday morning at the Simi Valley Public Cemetery, playing taps and wiping tears from the corners of his eyes.
In Ventura, hundreds of American flags--each marked with the name of a dead soldier--lined the driveway of Ivy Lawn Cemetery as representatives of 44 veterans’ and auxiliary groups placed wreaths and bouquets before a memorial podium.
And all across Ventura County, the patriotic and the bereaved gathered Monday at the grave sites of veterans and war dead to honor those who risked and gave their lives in service to the United States. Mourners covered soldiers’ headstones with flowers and flags, which fluttered in the unseasonably cool air.
Just as she has done for 13 years, Margaret Merck, 78, laid a flower-covered blue cross at Ivy Lawn’s memorial podium and remembered her eldest son.
Now confined to a wheelchair, Merck recalled the day in 1951, during the Korean War, when she learned her son was gone.
She had just returned from an out-of-state trip and heard the phone ringing in her Chicago apartment.
“I flew up the stairs and picked up the phone,” Merck said. “A Chicago Tribune reporter asked: ‘When did you find out your son was killed?’ and I passed out.”
Merck said she later moved to California because “everyplace I went reminded me of my son.”
Still, she said, the loss of Ronald Samuel Carroll Jr.--only 19 when he died--is seldom far from her mind. “My thoughts are with him all the time,” Merck said.
At Simi Valley’s services, Police Detective Gene Hostitler urged the crowd of about 100 to honor not just the dead, but the living veterans as well.
“Remember the ones who died in the conflicts, but also remember the ones who are here today,” Hostitler said. “Take the time to say, ‘Thank you for what you did.’ ”
Most attending the service didn’t need to be reminded. State Sen. Cathie Wright (R-Simi Valley) has missed only one year since she started coming to the ceremony in 1972. Robert Pegg, 68, who clambered onto the beach at Normandy 50 years ago in the dead of night, is well into his third decade of laying wreaths and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance on the last Monday in May.
And Kathy Ervin, 65, has been easing her broken heart at the cemetery’s annual service for a quarter of a century.
“Our son died 27 years ago yesterday,” said Ervin, her voice catching on the memory of her son, Greg, who perished in Vietnam when he was 18 years old. “This day is important to us. It’s a memory of our son and all the other veterans that died.”
Like an old movie whose melancholy ending reduces viewers to tears time and again, so Monday’s services concluded with heart-wringing renditions of taps. Giambastiani said he has shed tears at each Simi Valley service since he began sounding taps there in 1969.
Paul Cook, 32, who observed the Ventura service from a grassy area behind the crowd, said he has a similar reaction whenever he hears the dirge.
“That song gets me every time,” Cook murmured.
Cook and his father, Don, 59, brought a handful of orange gladioli to Ivy Lawn to place on the grave of Michael Wayne Melvin, a family friend killed in Vietnam.
Wounded once in the war and sent home, Melvin volunteered for a second tour as a paratrooper. He was shot during an ambush, dying two months after his 21st birthday.
“He was like a lot of the guys,” Don Cook said. “He went over because he felt it was his duty.”
Kneeling beside a Ventura grave marked by 30 miniature flags and red, white and blue crepe paper, Lote Sanchez, 41, said Memorial Day has taken on new meaning since her husband died of a heart attack.
A 20-year Navy veteran who served in the Vietnam War, Francois Henri Sanchez, 56, collapsed at a friend’s birthday party two years ago. Sanchez placed the streamers, flags and five bouquets of flowers around her husband’s grave to mark his military service and keep his memory alive for their three children.
“It’s a day to remember,” she said. “My little boy, he talks to him like he’s alive. He brings his school papers and shows them to him.”
Sommer is a Times staff writer and Fields is a Times correspondent.