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Informal War Memorial Loses Its Final Battle With City Hall

The tribute took root in a park in Irvine. Despite support from the public, it fell victim to laws banning such displays on municipal property.

July 05, 2003|Ashley Powers | Times Staff Writer

You know the story, right? she asked, nodding toward the wooden stakes planted in tight rows. How a guy put them up, just because he couldn't sleep. The war in Iraq bothered him. These are for its dead.

"It's a beautiful graveyard," Mary Laurin said softly. "Why would they want to take it down?"

At the corner of Yale and Bryan avenues in Irvine's Northwood Community Park, a makeshift memorial has become local lore. It appeared in March, 10 days into the war in Iraq, as the brainchild of a local medical company executive.

Only a few wooden stakes, topped with nametags for the dead and votive candles to be lit at sunset, dotted the corner at first. Two weeks later, a core of regulars was coming nightly to pay tribute. As the number of dead grew, so did the number of mourners.

Sunday, it will be taken down, a casualty of laws prohibiting such displays on property. It was supposed to be dismantled months ago. But like the candles that flicker into the night, the memorial found a reserve of fuel: people who see those wooden stakes as something bigger.

Visitors call the shrine intimate, speaking of the memorial as if it had sprung from the earth. There were no design squabbles or funding debates that tend to pock tributes such as the bronze Vietnam War memorial in Westminster. The park never was the site of sparring protesters, the fate of a sidewalk Sept. 11 memorial in La Habra.

The simplicity of the Irvine memorial gave it purity; its location gave it peace. Its narrative made it legend.

Day 9 of the war. Asher Milgrom watches the news. The 44-year-old decides he must do something. Something spills out in the garage. He fashions a clear glass cup for a candle and a red plastic cup for flowers onto a stake about 5 1/2 feet tall. He makes 30, one for each American killed.

The next day, he heads to Northwood, an 18-acre park. In sight of a baseball field, a playground and a bus stop, Milgrom births the memorial. Each stake has a sheet of paper listing the name, age, rank and military branch of its soldier.

That night, six people light candles at sunset.

The flames blink in the glow of stoplights and passing traffic.

So it has gone every night since. This week, the stakes numbered 201 as more markers were added to honor those killed since the war's official end. Neighbors have added photos and biographies from the Internet: Marine Pfc. Tamario D. Burkett, 21, Buffalo, N.Y. Killed March 23. A yellow silk flower is tied to his stake -- price tag: $4.50.

The memorial resembles those that sprouted on a chain-link fence in Oklahoma City after the bombing, or at the British Embassy after Princess Diana died -- places where a community poured its grief.

Photographer Kornelius Schorle, 61, swears that the Irvine park has an aura and lugged his camera and tripod to the nearby intersection to capture it on film. "It's better than anything you put into granite," he said. "Granite is without feeling, without heart. This -- this is heart and soul."

There are, of course, personalities and politics in the background.

Milgrom, the president of American Medical Aesthetics Corp. in Irvine, says he shies away from discussing his role in the memorial. He does have political views -- he watches only Fox News and says the city of Berkeley "should secede."

But he says he sees the memorial through the prism of charity, like the soup kitchens he volunteers at with his wife, Alice, 39, and their three kids. Something above politics or pettiness: "I think the story is more resounding if it's just 'this guy' who did this. Otherwise, it's more shallow."

When Milgrom speaks at the sunset gatherings -- for brief announcements -- the crowd shushes. The mood is reverential, like a church service in after-work clothes.

Milgrom was willing to go to the Irvine City Council to defend his creation. The day in late April when he got a call asking him to dismantle the memorial coincided with a council meeting. The city thought making the memorial permanent would have a snowball effect, opening the way for displays from the "KKK or friends of Saddam Hussein," the city attorney said at the meeting.

Dozens of people flocked to the park nightly. Bugles sounded out taps, and some men cried when they heard it. "But we can't say something warm and fuzzy is OK and something offensive is not," council member Beth Krom said recently.

The council allowed an extension to Memorial Day. Then dozens more Americans were killed in Iraq; Milgrom and the regulars said it wasn't time for the memorial to die.

Another extension was given, until Sunday, allowing Marines from Camp Pendleton to visit the June 29 ceremony. At least 250 people showed up.

Milgrom envisions a permanent memorial, in bronze with gas flames. Krom said the council has discussed building some kind of war memorial, but not at Northwood Park.

As Laurin, 69, wound her way through the staked paths, all that mattered were the names and ages and faces, close enough to touch. "There's a lot of good-looking young men here. A lot of their babies weren't born yet. They didn't come home."

Her companion, 70-year-old Chuck Eklund, had been teary-eyed at the Marine candle-lighting. He wanted Laurin to see too.

They met a Korean War veteran that sunny afternoon. He was holding a tissue wet with tears. Eklund stared at the memorial minutes later.

"The guy who did this," he said, "just loves his country."

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