Our Laguna: Many to remember this Memorial Day

Memorial Day ceremonies were not held at Monument Point for the first time, but the move to Legion Hall in no way diminished the solemnity or reverence of the occasion.

Assemblyman Don Wagner (R-Irvine) was the keynote speaker. Wagner's speech was a little longer than Abraham Lincoln's address, the first known to honoring the nation's war dead, at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery at Gettysburg, but worthy of those it honored.

"We follow Lincoln, however meagerly, however humbly, in meeting today to recall the sacrifices of the more than 1.19 million of our fellow Americans who have died in military service," Wagner said.

"Why do this?" he asked.

Because we should, he said.

"Somehow, when we have most needed them, ordinary Americans rise up and do extraordinary things and make extraordinary sacrifices," Wagner said.

"They did it for our forefathers, they did it for us, and, if we remember on days like this, if we always tell the stories and keep them fresh, and if we are always worthy of the heroes in those stories, then, God willing, this nation will continue to produce such men and women to defend our children and their children, so that our nation, unique among nations, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, will not perish from this earth."

Wagner's grandfather was among those who marched off to protect his country and never came home.

He recounted his family history, as he had done not too long ago in the state Legislature during a ceremony in remembrance of the Holocaust.

"Dozens of survivors, and a few former servicemen who had been concentration camp liberators, joined us," Wagner said.

"I rose to speak. What, I asked, could an assemblyman who had never served in the military, an assemblyman, of all things with a last name of Wagner (pronouncing it "Vagner," as in the German composer), offer to the men and women and families who had lived through such horror, and to the men who had risked so much to save them?"

The answer was simple. Although his last name was an honored one in Nazi Germany, his grandmother on his mother's side was Jewish, which according to Judaic law and the Nazis, made her daughter, Wagner's mother, and him Jewish.

Had they lived in Germany they could have been among those sent to camps.

"And perhaps that is why my grandfather, a Catholic boy who married a Jewish girl and had a young daughter, marched off to fight in that war," Wagner said. "He never returned. He lies today overseas, like so many others, merely another one of the men we recognize and remember on Memorial Day."

Wagner said the stories ripple from Afghanistan to the birth of our nation: from the heroes who raced into the burning Twin Towers and those high above a Pennsylvania field who responded to the heroic command, "Let's roll."

Some stories can be traced back to a beach in Europe or islands in the Pacific in World War II, the Great War, the charge up San Juan Hill, and yes, to Gettysburg, and even further back, to a bridge in Concord, Mass.

"Most of the stories of heroes who fought and died for this country are probably now known but to God," Wagner said. "Yet the sheer numbers tell us that virtually any family in America, if it only knew, could pick from this roster and tell the story of a brave lost soul who died protecting them, and us, and our freedom.

"So I come back to that first Memorial Day address, the one given by Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg. I won't repeat it today. I cannot, of course, do it justice."

But he once heard it spoken most eloquently.

Late one night, Wagner was at the Lincoln Memorial, and he listened to an elderly black woman recite the words to two young children holding her hands.

"I have no idea what they will remember of that moment, though surely I will never forget it," Wagner said.

Wagner arrived late, but his speech was worth the wait.

"It was the best speech I have heard at these ceremonies," said Ann Quilter, whose husband, late father and brother served as U.S. Marine pilots.

The ceremony also included the traditional presentation of floral arrangements from 37 Laguna Beach groups, orchestrated by the members of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars auxiliaries and presented by representatives of the organizations.

Among them: Skipper Lynn for the Susi Q; Gayle Waite, Laguna Beach Woman's Club and the Board of Realtors; Bette Anderson and Ginger Osborne, Village Laguna; Rose Hancock, Chamber of Commerce; Penny Stastny, Brenda Solomon and Christina Calderone, Ebell Club; John Hoover, Historical Society; and Rick Lang, Rotary, hardly recognizable without his camera.

Floral arrangements were presented in memory of the late U.S. Marine Sgt. Major Jim Law. Col. Ben Blount, flanked by his daughter Mary Ann, and others who served in the military were also honored.

Legion Auxiliary President Diane Connell and VFW Auxiliary President Jackie Heddlesten were among the speakers at the ceremony, attended by 173 people.

The audience was welcomed by Legion Post 222 Adjutant Richard Moore and Cmdr. Frank Daniel, VFW Post 5868 Cmdr. Bill Sandlin and Councilman Kelly Boyd, a Vietnam veteran.

Retired U.S. Marine Corps pilot Charlie Quilter and Ron Kaufman made the melancholy responses of "No Answer" when the names were called out of post members who died this past year.

Bree Burgess Rosen led the audience in "The Star-Spangled Banner" and "God Bless America." Boy Scout Troop 35 led the Pledge of Allegiance. Scout Michael Davidson played "Taps."

The bell that once graced the top of Legion Hall in its former guise as a schoolhouse was displayed. It was loaned by the Historical Society and after rehabilitation will ring again, Hoover said.

As does freedom across this land.

OUR LAGUNA is a regular feature of the Laguna Beach Coastline Pilot. Contributions are welcomed. Call (949) 302-1469 or e-mail coastlinepilot@latimes.com.

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