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Holiday decorations with a somber theme

A Rancho Cucamonga couple cover their house with twinkling lights and show photos of military personnel as a tribute to their son, who was killed in Iraq.

December 25, 2010|By Corina Knoll, Los Angeles Times

These lights flicker for a fallen son.

Altogether they number nearly 30,000 — tiny bulbs of red, green, white and blue that flash in sync with a melody from two speakers. Stretched around a home, a garage and the lawn ornaments in between, they make this Rancho Cucamonga residence sparkle from two streets away.

But the heart of the display is a more understated affair. Up in the small second-floor bedroom window, a projector shows hundreds of photos of military personnel. Among the young faces is Cpl. Matthew Wallace Creed, a 23-year-old with smiling brown eyes who was killed four years ago by a sniper in Baghdad.

His parents own the house, and this spectacle of color and light shines for him.

Matt joined the Army in 2003 in search of the kind of training that could help him get a job with the local police department. Rick and Kim Creed, both of whom had joined the Navy as teens, were uneasy about their eldest son's choice as the nation headed into war.

But at Matt's boot camp graduation, they saw a man transformed. Once a kid who cut class and barely graduated, he was suddenly a respectful, confident soldier who encouraged his younger brother James to hit the books.

"Oh my goodness, he grew up so much," Rick said. "He held himself differently. The smart aleck was still there, but the tomfoolery was gone."

Matt was stationed in South Korea before heading to Ft. Hood, a military post in Texas. In 2005, he and his girlfriend Ashley married at a church in Covina. He deployed to Iraq that December.

The next October, Kim received a call from Matt while sitting in her car outside a grocery store. He had just signed his release papers and would be home in 45 days. Kim felt uneasy. Stories of soldiers killed shortly before discharge were common.

As the call was about to end, Matt said he was heading into a dangerous situation he couldn't discuss. "Don't worry, the angels are watching over you," Kim told him. She hung up, but sat frozen in her car.

She learned later that her son died hours after that conversation.

The winter of Matt's death echoed with grief. Kim had nightmares of Matt as a child lying in a coffin begging to not be buried alive. Rick wept at random moments, set off by a song, a memory. They barely acknowledged the holidays.

It wasn't until two years after Matt's death that Rick saw an outlet for their ache. After attending a performance by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, he perused their website and saw instructions on how to synchronize holiday lights with songs. Rick visited a house with animated lights that also happened to have a military theme. He fought back tears. "I could do that for Matt," he thought.

Over the next year, he bought controllers, cords and computer software and learned the painstaking craft of setting lights in motion to music, each song taking about eight hours to program. As he threw himself into the task, the city started posting hundreds of portraits of locals serving in the military on banners around town. The Creeds photographed the banners and worked them into their slide show.

The project passed the time and replaced the dread that had come to accompany the holidays, when their son's absence cut deeply. Before his death, the couple had looked forward to decorating for Christmas and won several contests for their displays.

The Creeds designed the layout of the lights, winding them along the eaves of the house, around a train set and props of Santa Claus and eight reindeer. They incorporated the Christmas tree that was once beside Matt's grave in a tiny pot but had grown to 8 feet tall after being replanted in the frontyard.

Kim, who had prescription sleeping pills to get her through the night, found that focusing on the light show offered more relief than the vacant feeling of medication. Rick had found a hobby.

"I don't know if it helps or not, but it definitely doesn't hurt," he said. "The one thing I figured out is you have this energy — whether it's being angry or being very sad, there's an energy and you have to do something with it."

Their son would have liked to see them doing something productive. He also would have loved the attention, they joked.

They unveiled the display last year during the first weekend in December. Passersby who tuned to the right station could hear the music inside their cars. The addition of a voiceover artist made it sound like a radio show.

Slowly, word caught on and cars began to pause outside the tan house at 11426 Tioga Peak Court. People left notes or knocked, wanting to offer thanks. Some had relatives in the military. Others didn't notice the slide show, too caught up in the dancing lights. The Creeds would sneak peeks at older spectators, watching their faces turn childlike. Sometimes they went outside to offer hot cocoa or cider to visitors.

"It's almost a little overwhelming in some ways because it's nothing that we expected," Kim said.

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