Read the Signs along the Road

By | January 13, 2014 | 0 Comments


San Diego is a beautiful city. The harbor is magnificent, especially the Navy ships at the docks and planes overhead. If your motel is across the harbor from Coronado Naval Air Station, you awake to a distant bugle sounding “attention,” followed by the National Anthem. It surely beats an alarm clock. But San Diego offers other meaningful experiences. If we keep our eyes open, we can learn valuable lessons from the world around us – even highway signs.

GySgt John Basilone Memorial Highway.
As we come south from Los Angeles on Interstate 5, just before Camp Pendleton a sign announces, “GySgt John Basilone Memorial Highway.”
There are many books about John Basilone. One is “I’m Staying with My Boys,” which sums up his life. Basilone’s father and maternal grandparents were Italian immigrants. Prior to World War II, he served a three-year hitch in the Army and was stationed in the Philippines. Later he regaled his friends with tales of his adventures, and became known as “Manila John.”
Not finding a niche in civilian life, he enlisted in the Marines. Soon the war broke out, and Basilone found himself on Guadalcanal, the first Japanese-held island we liberated on our long road to Tokyo. The Marines were outnumbered and poorly equipped, and they faced an experienced and determined enemy. During a fierce Japanese attack, Basilone manned machine guns for three days and nights, then fought through enemy lines and returned with urgently needed ammunition. For his heroic actions, he was awarded the Medal of Honor, our highest military decoration.
Basilone was sent back to the United States and went on a tour to sell War Bonds. But being a celebrity did not suit him. He made repeated requests to be returned to combat. Finally he was sent to Camp Pendleton to prepare for overseas duty. There he met and married Lena Mae Riggi, a sergeant in the Marine Corps Women’s Reserve.
Now a gunnery sergeant, Basilone participated in the assault on Iwo Jima. Japanese resistance was intense, and Basilone singlehandedly destroyed an enemy blockhouse that was holding up our advance. But then he was killed by a mortar shell. For his actions he was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, our second highest award for valor. He was 28. He and Lena had been married for seven months. She received the telegram notifying her of John’s death on her 32nd birthday.
In addition to other honors, a destroyer was named for him. It was christened by his widow. Lena Basilone died in 1999 at age 86. She never remarried. Like her husband, she exemplified Semper Fidelis. If you want to learn more about John and Lena Basilone, watch the superb miniseries “The Pacific.”
Some time ago, I met an elderly man. He said he had been a Marine and fought in World War II. I asked if he had known Basilone. His blank look made me begin to doubt him. But then his face lighted up in a huge smile, and he said, “You mean Manila John?”
He had never met Basilone but had idolized him. The old gentleman died about a year later. I believe he finally got his chance to meet Manila John, and all the others who fought and died to keep us free − and to give the gift of freedom to others.

Danielle Van Dam Memorial Overpass.

As we drive east on Interstate 8, heading from San Diego to the outlet stores, we pass a sign announcing, “Danielle Van Dam Memorial Overpass.” Our emotions are quite different from those at the “Basilone” sign. Each sign honors the memory of one who is no longer with us, but there the similarity ends.
The “Basilone” sign honors a man who lived at least some of life. He grew up and married. He became a man, in the full meaning of that word. He had the opportunity to demonstrate what he was made of − which he did. He died young, but he died a hero, saving the lives of many of his comrades. His death was profoundly meaningful. He died defending freedom from brutal tyranny.
We can feel sadness as we pass the “Basilone” sign, but it is overcome by enormous pride and gratitude. Not so with the “Van Dam” sign − we feel only sadness and anger. Her death was meaningless. She died because of a brutal monster in the shape of a man.
Danielle was seven. She lived with her parents and two younger brothers in a San Diego suburb. One night in 2002, her father tucked her into bed. The next morning she was missing.
Her parents made repeated appeals on TV. Searches of the surrounding area proved fruitless. David Westerfield lived two doors from the Van Dams. He was a 50-year-old engineer who lived in a motor home. Two days before Danielle disappeared, she and her mother had sold him Girl Scout cookies.
Four weeks after she disappeared, Danielle’s nude, decomposed body was found in the desert. She had to be identified by dental records. This proved difficult, because her teeth had been knocked loose. Her body was too decomposed to determine whether she had been raped.
Westerfield was the divorced father of two college-age boys. Unlike most child molesters and murderers, he had no criminal record. But most molestations go unreported, because of shame and reluctance to put the child through the stress of the “justice” system. And we wonder why an engineer lived alone in a motor home.
The day Danielle disappeared, police questioned neighbors, but Westerfield and his motor home were missing. By chance, bikers videoed his motor home in the desert, near the spot where Danielle’s body would be found. They turned the video over to police.
A dry cleaner reported that Westerfield had arrived two days after Danielle disappeared, with pillow covers, comforters and a jacket to be cleaned. The jacket had a blood spot, later identified as Danielle’s by DNA analysis. The dry cleaner turned the objects over to police without cleaning them. If it were not for the bikers and the dry cleaner, the murderer probably would still be walking free.
Police searched the motor home, which the suspect had just cleaned, and found Danielle’s blood on the carpet. They also found large amounts of child pornography on his computer, including images of an underage girl being raped. This was brought up at Westerfield’s trial. Defense lawyers countered by attacking the Van Dam’s lifestyle. They couldn’t blame the victim, so they tried to blame her parents.
While the trial was in session, my wife and I happened to drive by the San Diego County Courthouse. We felt an odd, creepy sensation. We had felt that sensation only once before. That was in a movie theater lobby, as we happened to pass O. J. Simpson some time after he was found “not guilty” of the double murder. Some people are repelled by the presence of evil. Some people aren’t.
Westerfield was convicted of murder and kidnapping, and sentenced to death. He remains on death row in San Quentin, along with 740 other murderers. Of these, 126 tortured their victims, 173 killed children, and 44 murdered police officers.
All executions in California were blocked in 2006 by a federal judge. They remain blocked, while the judge and California Governor Jerry Brown pretend to be developing a new method of lethal injection. The judge claims that the current method − the way we put beloved dogs and cats to sleep − is “terribly painful.”
● No, what’s terribly painful is waking up every morning, knowing your child’s murderer is sleeping in a warm bed, eating three meals a day, and watching TV, while your child is in the ground.
● What’s terribly painful is knowing that, like all of those on death row, your child’s murderer will probably die of old age, while your child died at seven.
● What’s terribly painful is knowing that your child’s murderer had the opportunity to grow up, get married, have children, have a career, and develop his talents, while your child was robbed of all those opportunities.
● What’s terribly painful is looking forward to the Chelsea King Memorial Highway, the Amber DuBois Memorial Highway, the Samantha Runnion Memorial Highway, and all the others. But before we run out of highways to rename, we might consider keeping our children safe from predators.
Yes, we can learn a lot from highway signs.
We can learn about those who selflessly risk everything to defend freedom, and those who abuse that precious freedom for the most selfish purposes.
We can learn about those who are brave enough to confront the strong, and those who are cowardly enough to abuse the weak.
We can learn about those who give, and those who take.
We can learn about those who are concerned with what duty requires of them, and those who are concerned with what they imagine themselves entitled to.
We can learn about those who are always faithful, and those who never are.
The future of our country depends on which road we take. But in order to know which road we are on, we must read the signs.
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