Wednesday, October 07, 2009

In the Mojave Desert of California on a stony bluff beside the road stands a steel cross. It was erected by a man named Riley Bembry in 1934. Mr. Bembry had been a medic in World War I and, after returning stateside, he made his way to the California desert to convalesce from his war trauma. The Internet doesn’t yield a lot of information about what was going through Mr. Bembry’s mind when he set the icon in rock all those years ago. But a few things are clear right now as America takes in this spectacle from the headlines.

First, controversy swirls around this development. Frank Buono, a retired federal employee, has brought the issue forward, seemingly with the help of PEER, or “Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility,” the progressive land rights group with which he is affiliated. Indeed the issue is rising to the Supreme Court for decision and will stand among the juxtaposed body of precedent built from the myriad other religious icon decisions that have been yielded by our legal venues. And secondly, this icon meant something to Riley Bembry and to many others.

Mr. Bembry’s experiences in World War I Europe exposed him to some of the most horrific living conditions, injuries, and psychological damage the world has seen. Imagine what has eyes beheld as he approached the front to extract wounded. Trench warfare, the hallmark of WWI battle conditions, ensured that soldiers lived in a rancid, miserable hell for weeks on end in a ditch filed with water, feces, and lice. They were assailed regularly by exploding shells of toxic gas that induced symptoms ranging from itching and discomfort to lung edema so severe that liquefied membrane issued forth from the soldier’s air passages so forcefully so as to thrust his body backward as he felt his life leaving him. Men afflicted with trench fever would beg the medics to take them away. Often the medics could not, as per orders to only remove those that could no longer fight. The medics would withdraw to the relative comfort of their forward hospitals to watch the extracted men die, trying to shake the image of those still in the trench that had begged to be removed.

Mr. Bembrey survived this tortured landscape and followed a ribbon of highway across America until a diamond desert in California beckoned him to stop. We may not yet know much about Mr. Bembry’s motivation for planting the cross, but Henry and Wanda Sandoz do. Friends of Mr. Bembrey, they took over maintenance responsibility for the monument after Bembry’s death in 1984. Since first erected, the monument has offered solace for a silent community of veterans and others seeking comfort and meaning. It has attracted an annual Easter service and an untold number of individual visitors who reflect at this simple edifice. Only now a federal court has ordered the cross covered with a wooden box pending the decision of its removal. The Sandozes hope they’ll have the opportunity to resume maintenance of this gathering point so important to those that visit it regularly.

The Majave Cross is on federally owned park land and the argument that has been made is that this violates the constitutional tenet of the separation of church and state. The aforementioned Mr. Buono previously enlisted the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on the issue who wrote a letter to the National Park Service in 1999 stating that the cross should be removed because it inappropriately sought to represent all veterans, which is a group of varied faiths and beliefs and therefore cannot be represented by a single religious icon. Several subsequent bureaucratic iterations have lead to the present situation of the Supreme Court deciding the fate of the Mojave Cross.

Some may argue that removing the cross is logically consistent with court precedent and all the other legal litmus tests the high court will apply. But others feel that, like the simple construction of the steel cross itself, the significance of the monument is lost by such cold logic. After all, Mr. Bembry was a war veteran nursing very real psychological and physical injuries he suffered defending our nation. And he retreated to the California desert and erected this monument as a coping mechanism, a symbol of his will to survive, a physical manifestation of the ideal that the war was not fought in vain but was a sacrifice made for the greater good. Whatever the reason, he did it and it meant something to him, to his sacrifice as a veteran. Said Wanda Sandoz, “We just love our veterans and feel that they should be honored. And right here in this little piece of our world that’s how we did it.” Many would argue that that itself is a monument that should be honored, whether on federal land or not