The OC Veterans Cemetery (and its discontents.)

So! Yesterday me, Donna and Mark drove up to Gypsum Canyon in the Anaheim Hills to enjoy the dedication and groundbreaking of the long-awaited Orange County Veterans Cemetery. All the pictures in this story are from Mark and Donna unless otherwise noted.

It sure has been a long wait, and a lot of work, for a lot of people to finally get this site for this long-needed cemetery, a site that 99% of Orange County agrees on. (We’ll talk to those other 1% at the end of the story.)

My dad, a Navy vet, died this year, hoping to be buried in an Orange County Veterans Cemetery. He died a couple years too early for that dream, while Irvine took nearly a decade bickering and dithering over competing locations. And of course he’s only one of thousands of OC veterans who died before this could happen. But as soon as everyone agreed on the beautiful (but desolate) Gypsum Canyon location, the process has been going at warp speed.

Most deserving of celebrating this day were:

  • Our good friend Cynthia Ward, of the OC Cemetery District, who’d suggested this site a decade ago;
  • The veterans who never stopped fighting for a cemetery, anywhere in OC, led by stubborn Marines Nick “We’re gonna take this hill” Berardino and the feisty Bill Cook;
  • Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva who put years of legislative work into making this happen until Irvine finally let her down;
  • and (I have to admit) Todd Spitzer, who, as Supervisor in 2018, was the first politician to suggest the site.

It’s not like Anaheim is any less corrupt than Irvine – don’t make me laugh! But fortunately no developers are interested in this distant slice of northeast Anaheim wilderness that’s barely still in this County. So once the politicians of Irvine (who seem to be divided not so much into D vs R but rather a FivePoint Party versus an Irvine Company Party) threw up their hands, it fell into Anaheim’s lap. And we’ve been running with it!

Apparently it’s a big deal that all 34 incorporated cities of this County signed on to this location, and this also resulted in photo ops for, literally, a shitload of OC politicians yesterday. Your shallow correspondent enjoyed, most, observing and talking to many of these creatures outside of their natural habitats.

As I beheld these majestic but arid hills, I had a concern and idea that many others no doubt share: Keeping this place green with lush rolling lawns as pictured is gonna take a hell of a lot of water! Has any thought been put into covering much or most of it with lovely native plants instead? Cynthia answered me today (as a private citizen, not on behalf of the district)

“We have learned from our three cemeteries how to minimize water usage with a variety of tools, especially getting the grass to grow deep roots which is a specialty irrigation we’ve become very good at. We employ an irrigation specialist on our staff full time. We are very aware of this critical natural resource and work hard to preserve it.

“Also the site will be developed in stages over decades so we won’t see acres of open lawn for a long time. There will be well maintained ‘natural landscape’ around developed sections, if that makes sense…”

It really was a spectacular day up there in the Hills. And we had to travel by shuttle from the parking lot to the location of the ceremony. I parked in the media area next to the Voice of OC guys, and politicians and civilians were forced willy-nilly onto buses together – us with Garden Grove’s Kim Nguyen (she and I having criticized each other a lot.) She stayed in the back of the bus as far from me and Donna as she could, and we did the same, sticking to the front where Donna took pictures of the scenery through the windows.

I sat next to a blond lady I first feared could be Kris Murray, but turned out to be La Palma Mayor Michele Steggell. We talked about her colleague Marshall Goodman, whom I’d been intending for years to write about as the only OC Mayor who played drums with Sublime. As we negotiated the winding hilly dirt road, the radio played Stevie Nicks’ masterpiece “Landslide.” We all agreed that that was a somewhat inauspicious choice.

But there were no landslides that day.

Don Wagner’s Day in the Sun

Don Wagner, the Supervisor for the district, played emcee and did a real good job, being nonpolitical, gracious, good-humored and keeping things moving along quick. He’s come a long way from when I heard him at a 2010 Tea Party berating Mexicans for their “encrosion of our borders,” a word I had to look up and does not exist but which I assumed was an improvised portmanteau for “encroachment” and “erosion,” and which Gus Ayer assured me was probably “Teabonics.”

Don emphasized how quickly this process has been going since this location had finally been agreed upon, and sure enough when he asked the media for questions, all we could think of was, in unison, “What’s the timeline now?” A bill will need to be amended in Sacramento (and apparently Senator Umberg was doing that as we spoke) then it goes to Anaheim planning etc. for all the necessary permits and approvals (Mayor Sidhu shouted out “We’ll get that done in 90 days!”) Then comes all the grading, infrastructure, everything that makes our heads spin and eyes cross. But it is on a fast track.

I was pleasantly surprised that Spitzer, who could have, did not make this a big political deal. But then, he wasn’t given a microphone. There were only four speakers (including veteran leaders Berardino and Cook) and ONLY ONE POLITICIAN who’s facing re-election this year was allowed to speak, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu.

And I said unto Donna, “How many seconds do you think we have before Harry does his arms-outstretched ‘Open for business’ pose?” but it was already too late, he was doing it before I finished my sentence, and did it again three more times:

And Mayor Sidhu’s speech was blessedly short, but he SHRIEKED as though he didn’t know he had a microphone. (I have never heard a Sikh shriek like that, but then, the other Sikhs I know don’t shriek at all, bless their hearts.) He was right about one thing – it was an exceedingly beautiful day we were blest with. And amazingly, EVERY SINGLE PERSON THERE had the good grace not to mention how Harry had impersonated a veteran in a July 4 parade while he was first running for Mayor three years ago – or at least nobody mentioned it very loudly.

The Good, Bad & Ugly are given Shovels.

There are two types of people in the world, my friend – those with shovels that are only used for show, and the rest of us. And a gargantuan effort was made to let as many OC politicians as possible shovel a spoonful of dirt in symbolic commencement of all the work ahead. When I told Cynthia later that she shoulda been up there, she said, “Oh, they never would have let me near all those politicians with a shovel in my hand.”

Here is a brief assortment of Shovel Shots from yesterday, the first one stolen from the Voice of OC, the rest by Mark Daniels:

After a bit of dirt was displaced by this small army of pols, and then everyone did something weird with a football-field-sized US flag, we milled about, and I made…

Additional Observations.

Funny, almost nobody was wearing masks besides me and Donna – not even the Democrats. You’d think the pandemic was over! But I looked over as I heard Anaheim spokesman Mike Lyster‘s unmistakable high-pitched voice rising in anger and distress – the poor gentleman was being harassed mercilessly by two shorter, fully-masked men. Hey! It was Nick Gerda and Norberto Santana, reporter and editor from the Voice of OC!

I’d never seen Lyster so upset and defensive with reporters, and I realized I haven’t been doing MY job. Norberto was all, “What do you mean, you have a limit of twenty questions?” “I didn’t say that!” “Yes, you did, I heard you say ‘I already answered twenty of your questions and that’s enough!” Nick: “You gave me some numbers but you never told me what method you used to calculate those numbers, so they don’t mean anything!” Mike: “That’s all I can tell you!” (I think they were talking about the finances surrounding the bond Anaheim took out to expand the Convention Center in 2014.)

Norberto: “Do you know you are the MOST UNRESPONSIVE city spokesperson in all of Orange County?” And on it went, until Lyster shambled away defeated. A little later we saw him striding away, lockstep through that barren wasteland with Mayor Sidhu, probably both bitching about what unfair meanies “The Noise of OC” is. Good job, guys!

And as I wandered along, lonely as a cloud, a familiar voice called out: “Well, if it isn’t my GADFLY FRIEND! Welcome to District 6, Vern!”

It was Anaheim Councilman Trevor O’Neil – I hadn’t noticed him because he looks so much like a politician that you kind of don’t see him in a crowd of politicians. I told him, “Yeah, I’m glad you call me a gadfly – I looked it up and I think it’s a good thing.” “Ah, it’s just an adjective,” replied Trevor.

I paused politely, not knowing what to say. This was TWICE wrong. “Gadfly” is very much a noun. But not only that, what he was trying to say was “It’s just a word that doesn’t mean anything,” when actually he intended it as a dismissive insult while I chose to embrace it as a compliment and standard to live up to – which in turn is a distinguished old jujitsu technique in this public life.

We had to say hi to Irvine Mayor Pro-Tem Tammy Kim (pictured above) because as I said to her, if Dan Chmielewski hates somebody else as much as he hates me, they must be doing SOMETHING right. And she laughed and said she doesn’t understand, “he USED to like me.” She may or may not be running for assembly against Steven Choi, it depends on how the district lines are drawn. I told her that if she does, please let me know where she stands on various issues (I assume she cares about more than just anti-Asian racism. I hope.) Then I started to gloat about how Anaheim had won the Veterans Cemetery prize from loser Irvine, before remembering that’s where she’s from, so we excused ourselves.

One worrisome episode was when we saw our old friend and former Anaheim Council candidate Brian Chuchua sitting behind the wheel of a jeep full of veterans including Nick Berardino. It made sense – Brian is a veteran, and was a jeep salesman for decades, and is indeed known as “Mr. Jeep,” …. but jeez, he’s got to be close to a hundred years old by now. As we thought of him negotiating those winding hilly dirt roads back to the parking lot, and thinking about all those old veterans tumbling down a hillside with a jeep tumbling after them… in short we fretted. But everyone made it back okay, because that’s what kind of day it was!

We took the shuttle back with a real old friend of mine, Supervisor Katrina Foley. She tried to explain what her situation is now after the new district lines approved by her colleagues – she DOES live in the new south-coastal District 5, and will be running there against crooked Diane Harkey and Newport’s Diane Dixon who’s being managed by the wicked Dave Ellis… BUT for the next year she’s supposed to be “representing” Central County 2, the bulk of which is Santa Ana. This creates the strange situation that she’s running as an incumbent, but can’t really do anything for the district in which she’s running and in which she lives.

Basically, all four of the other Supervisors hate her. Including her supposed fellow Democrat Doug Chaffee.

We reminisced about fighting against the Great Fairgrounds Swindle over a decade ago, and she explained that historic and successful struggle to her companion Costa Mesa Councilman Manuel Chavez, who’s too young to remember such things. This led to reminiscences of one of this county’s first musical Council comments, my 2009 rendition of “Tainted Sale” at Costa Mesa Council (Gus Ayer’s idea.)

So I had to mention that I have a NEW musical comment for the next Board of Supervisors meeting, something called “Meet Your Board of Supervisors,” and I assured her that she is the only Supervisor not insulted in this song. She said “I wish people would stop doing that, coming to the meetings and saying I’m the only good one. It makes them hate me even more.” It was too late, I had started singing, “Do, a dick, a thin-skinned prick…” until Donna stopped me.

And on the way out, there were PROTESTERS!

Five or six of them! It was a little bit of a surprise, returning from something it seemed like EVERYBODY was behind, but of course with something THIS big there would have to be SOME dissenters. I figured if I didn’t tell their story nobody else would, so I got the number of the guy who seemed to be their leader, an old guy named Cyrus. (I noticed too that Cynthia was talking things over with them.)

And I called Cyrus that afternoon – he and the others are homeowners from nearby Yorba Linda, on the other side of the freeway. They’re VERY CAREFUL to emphasize that they love, respect and appreciate our veterans, and want there to be a veterans cemetery SOMEWHERE, but this location is just WRONG, they say.

They have two main complaints. The TRAFFIC on the 91 where they live is ALREADY hellish – it USED to just be really bad during weekdays, now it’s seven days a week. Once they start burying people, it’s gonna be one burial a day at least, and traffic is guaranteed to get even worse. Where is the EIR? Where is the traffic study? (I began to wonder, are the planners considering an alternative entrance from the 241? Cyrus is right about the traffic on the 91.)

Also the protesters (Cyrus claims there’s many, many, MANY discontents who just didn’t show up yesterday) are angry at their Yorba Linda Mayor and Council (and Supervisor Don Wagner) who rushed this through without talking to their residents or giving them any notice. Yeah, I know how that kinda thing feels. I have no sympathy for kleptocrat Yorba Linda Mayor Peggy Huang, who is also a TCA troll who wanted to destroy San Clemente.

Adding insult to injury, or vice-versa or whatever, these protesters were not allowed to enter the event but had to stand at the gate outside. And even after that, the police were called on them! (I wonder if they were “Harry’s police” as our Anaheim mayor calls them?).

Like many of us who hate and don’t understand what their government is doing, Cyrus and his friends suspect “money is changing hands, something is going on behind the scenes!” I don’t think these Yorba Linders have any chance of stopping this juggernaut that 99% of the county wants, but… maybe push for a 241 entrance? And maybe recall Peggy Huang?

This story is so damn long now, I gotta run. Good luck, Yorba Linda! And congratulations OC veterans!

About Vern Nelson

Greatest pianist/composer in Orange County, and official troubador of both Anaheim and Huntington Beach (the two ends of the Santa Ana Aquifer.) Performs regularly both solo, and with his savage-jazz quintet The Vern Nelson Problem. Reach at vernpnelson@gmail.com, or 714-235-VERN.