Wednesday, July 18, 2018
A VISIT TO FOREST LAWN…
…and a few moments with my grandfather(s)
Recently, we drove US 101 to Southern California for a long weekend. A nephew was getting married and a wedding is a fine excuse for a road trip. The nuptials were elegant and warm and intimate, the bride stunning, the party glorious. Weddings and long wedding weekends are supposed to be all about family, but the following day, I had something I wanted to do – something I wanted to check off the bucket list.
I set out for Forest Lawn.
Lots of famous folks are interred at Forest Lawn: Jimmy Stewart, Clayton Moore, Red Skelton, Walt Disney, George Burns & Gracie Allen, Larry Fine, Casey Stengel, even Bogie(!), and more recently, Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher – as well as hundreds of others. Among the famous and infamous rest thousands of lesser-knowns, including my two grandfathers. Or so I thought. Neither name appeared on the register at the parking area’s information booth, so I was directed to the lobby. “Yes,” I was told. “They are buried at Forest Lawn, just not this Forest Lawn.”
In the era of my grandfathers’ passings, back in the 50s and 60s, if a man wanted to get a new suit, he went to a Bullocks store. There was one in every major town. Apparently, it was the same deal with cemeteries. If you were going to get buried, you would first go to Bullocks for a new suit and then head over to a Forest Lawn cemetery. There seems to be one in every major town. Grandfathers George Clayton Delgardo and Edgar Wirt “Hap” Bagnell were both over in Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park about ten minutes away – twenty if you, like me, can’t effectively operate the Nav system in your Subaru. “No, I don’t need an oil change today,” I explained. “I just need to turn around.”
The concierge in the lobby of the Glendale branch provided me with three maps. One outlined the general layout of the place. The other two offered diagrams of the sections where my grandfathers reposed. Tiny, tiny squares the size of ant larvae marked the thousands of graves. Tinier still – and blurry – numbers printed in each square referenced who would be where. The concierge marked one grave on each map and provided me with the section and grave’s location number. I was coached to look for little round concrete markers, perhaps four or five inches in diameter. “They may be a bit hidden in the grass, so you may have to look some. Cast in each you’ll find a set of two to four four-digit numbers indicating the corner of a section of the grounds. Or,” he suggested, “if you go outside of the lobby, you can download the Forest Lawn App, plug in the names and GPS will take you right to the spot.” “Thanks,” I replied. “I don’t have much luck with apps.” “Well then,” he said, “George C. Delgardo is in the Whispering Pines section. It’s closest, so you might want to go there first.”
And I did. Cruising the gracefully curved roadways in the park, I passed a small but stately churchlike building: The Chapel of the Flowers. I vaguely recalled it from a previous long weekend trip to Southern California six decades before. This was where services were held for George, a grandfather I never really knew – or even met. Still, at eleven years old, I attended. It would be my first funeral and although I could not have picked Granddad, my own blooded lineage, out of a lineup of old men, I do remember sitting in the dimly lit, cold, cold room for a long, long time, not understanding what was going on but tearing up the three or four times the minister uttered the words “George C. Delgardo.” I don’t remember the interment. Perhaps I’d been excused from it.
Whispering Pines was close by. I waded through a section where the dearly departed are packed too closely to be lying in any kind of repose. Bronze markers are set maybe just a foot apart in rows and the rows themselves are less than a football referee’s pace from one another. “Folks must have been buried feet first,”I thought, followed by, “I wonder if Red Skelton is nearby. After all, he did stand-up.” [Pause for rim shot.]
After about a five-minute ground search, I found my unknown grandfather in a tiny, tiny plot, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Addabell, a wife who had pre-deceased him. Next to her stands Gerald, his brother, about whom Mom disdainfully would say, “He drives around in a fancy yellow convertible like some sort of a rich playboy.” Even to this day, I’ve never understood the problem associated with that.
Though it was a very small plot, I was pleased to find George’s resting place. It seemed pleasant enough. Little bit of a view. Grass trimmed weekly. I was glad he is with family. I told him that I wished we’d had a chance to know one another when I was a kid and asked him if he’d seen his son Clayton recently. Receiving no response – not even a hint of breeze – and with little else to say, I left a white rose on his marker and went off to look for Hap.
I hadn’t attended Hap’s funeral. At age 6, I was deemed too young. Hap’s resting place in the Sunrise Slope section proved a bit harder to find.
I drove a looping quarter of a mile from where I’d stopped to find George, and parked neath the shade of a magnolia tree. Eyeballing the map of Sunrise Slope, orienting myself with the use of the Temple of Santa Something-er-Other at the top of the hill, I figured I was only moments away from a conversation with the one grandfather I did remember: Hap. Hap’s name sits carved in a block in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum as one of those “early-birds” who’d engaged in powered flight prior to a date in December of 1917. Sikorsky, Pratt, Curtiss – by whom he later was employed – and the Wright Brothers are etched in the same monument. Hap who flew air mail using ground-based concrete arrows to navigate from Chicago to the west coast in the 20s. I’ve seen the arrows.
Hap who invented an electric toothbrush, and who painted in oils – I have two hanging in my house, one a still life and one a portrait of an old woman purported to be his mother. Hap who lived at our house in Chico for a short while and who smoked Lucky Strikes. I think that’s what eventually sent him to this place.
Barely knowing the grandfather I knew the best, I was looking forward to this moment. But the dot on the map provided by the concierge didn’t line up with the numbers on the rarely found concrete disks buried in grass. Twenty minutes into my search, I pulled out my iPhone, downloaded the Forest Lawn app and punched in “Edgar Wirt Bagnell.” Within moments I discovered I was within two hundred fifty feet or a mere two minutes walk from my quarry. Stepping one direction I found the glowing disc that represented me was moving away from the static dot that represented him. Correcting, I could see the two electronic markers close in on one another when my phone announced, “You have reached your destination.”
Edgar W. Bagnell’s name was not on any nearby bronze plates. I moved up the hill. Not there. Down the hill. Not there. Left. Right. The white rose I held was beginning to wilt. The damned phone kept telling me I’d reached my destination. “No, I haven’t!” I uttered a little less solemnly than a body should while standing in the middle of a cemetery. I arced here and there for a long few minutes. Finally, out of frustration, I sat down next to a bronze marker recalling someone named Mills or Miller or Miles. There I pondered whether or not to continue the search. The summer sun was hot, and I really should be celebrating with family. The plots here are larger than over in Whispering Pines. I craned my neck to see who might be nearby.
Hap was right next to Mills or Miller. An Elizabeth Bagnell rests at Hap’s side. I’m not sure who Elizabeth is but Mom’s middle name was Elizabeth and although she always referred to her mother as “Mama,” Elizabeth might have been Mom’s mom. Next to Mama rests an I. N. Bagnell. Her portrait, it turns out, is hanging in my study at home.
I laid the white rose on Edgar W. Bagnell’s stone and sat at his feet for a few moments, feeling my eyes get wet like they did for George 60 years before. Turning, I looked at the panoramic view he enjoyed from mid-hillside.
“Not bad,”I thought. “I’d rather spend eternity on that ridge above Simpson Camp, but this isn’t all that bad.”
“This is just fine…” someone said.
I turned to see who was there.
“…not that it matters much.”
I sat in grass at Forest Lawn under a warm Southern California sun for a while longer. A wedding weekend is supposed to be all about family.
And, as it turns out, this one was.
Church of the Open Road Press