September 11, 2007

Mojave Cross Saga

Basin pair fighting to keep shrine to veterans unshrouded

Hi-Desert Star

A veterans’ memorial in the shape of a cross stands covered by a wooden box in the Mojave National Preserve. An appellate court ruling Thursday sustained an earlier decision by the U.S. District Court which turned down a plan promoted by Congressman Jerry Lewis proposing a land swap to preserve the cross, unshrouded.

YUCCA MESA — When Henry and Wanda Sandoz make a commitment, they take it seriously.

The Yucca Mesa couple has honored a dying man’s request since 1984, battling the elements, vandals, government bureaucracy and the American Civil Liberties Union.

At issue is a cross made of iron pipe painted white and stuck in a pile of granite boulders pretty much near the middle of nowhere in the Mojave National Preserve. The cross replaced an earlier wooden one erected at the remote spot in 1934 by the Death Valley Chapter of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

A long-gone sign near the road once read “The Cross. Erected in memory of the dead of all wars.” The current cross is about 7 feet tall and maybe 5 feet across.

World War I veteran Riley Bembry lived nearby, although “nearby” is relative in those parts — his desert cabin was a few miles distant. Henry and Wanda Sandoz also were residents of the area, where he was a maintenance supervisor in the mines and she drove a school bus.

Whether Bembry adopted the Sandozes or they adopted him isn’t entirely clear, nor is it too relevant, as far as that goes. What matters is that Riley took on a grandfather role with Henry and Wanda; the relationship was symbiotic. He was a weekly fixture at dinner and attended family events like birthdays and holiday observances.

“Riley was always a gentleman,” Wanda recalled, a twinkle in her eye at the recollection of their benevolent friend. “He was soft-spoken, a handsome man, always very clean.”

As the old desert rat’s health turned south, he asked the couple to look after the memorial commemorating those who died in the war to end all wars, and those who died in wars after that.

For decades local cattlemen, miners and military veterans gathered at the location for dancing and socializing. A box car on the site, since removed, provided shelter and storage. A Sandoz granddaughter was dedicated to the church there.

The Sandozes attend Easter sunrise services at the site each year, which averages 30 to 50 people, sometimes as many as 80, depending on the weather. “Sometimes when it’s real cold we don’t have a whole lot,” Wanda said.

The cross was periodically vandalized. Sandoz put up sturdier monuments, beginning in the late ’70s. “They’d keep knockin’ it down, I’d keep putting it back up,” Henry said in a low, resolute voice, slowly shaking his head.

For the last several years the cross has been covered by a wooden box. A cross has been painted on the box; that painted cross has been painted over, and then the painted cross reappears on the box and is painted over again.

Why a cross? Why not an obelisk or some other, non-religious shape or symbol? “Because that’s what the vets chose,” Wanda replied, insistently. “That’s the whole point of it.”

For their part, Henry and Wanda are non-denominational.

“We’re just Christians,” Wanda explained. They’re good examples of the religion’s precepts of giving, caring and doing unto others.

Henry owns a five-acre parcel near the monument, “about eight miles as the crow flies,” that he has offered to swap for the one-acre rock pile upon which the cross is erected.

If the government would agree to the exchange, Sandoz would turn the site over to a veterans’ group like the Veterans of Foreign Wars. The offer is still on the table, he said, but so far no one has taken them up on the proposal.

If Bembry were to comment from the afterlife about the controversy swirling around the monument, Wanda speculated, “He would probably say he just can’t believe the country has come to this sad state of affairs, where they’d want to remove a memorial placed there to honor veterans.”

The fate of the veterans’ memorial will be decided by attorneys and politicians. Between attackers and defenders under government employ, the cost to taxpayers will surely ring up well into the thousands.

Henry and Wanda don’t much seem the types to get caught up in the political and religious fervor the cross has caused. They have been in contact with Congressman Jerry Lewis’ office. Wanda said the representative “is behind us 100 percent.”

It is melodramatic but accurate to describe Riley’s request to have Henry and Wanda look after the cross shortly before he died in 1984 as his dying wish.

Henry took his adopted grandfather’s final request to heart. He looks after the cross for Riley and for all veterans.

“I promised him,” Henry said plainly. “That’s important to me.”