I’ve driven by the National Cemetery in Westwood more times than I can count but I’ve only visited it once and that was fifteen years ago on Memorial Day. After my husband Charlie and our son had spent the day at the beach and on the way back home I asked that we stop at the cemetery, I kind of wanted to take a moment on Memorial Day. My father and brother had not been any wars but still I just felt like stopping. We pulled into the cemetery, parked the car and I got a flag. We strolled the grounds and placed the flag at the headstone of a soldier that was unknown to us. It all could have felt weird but for some reason it seemed totally fine. As I stood on the grounds, I remember thinking it was amazing that such a large piece of property in an expensive neighborhood had been set aside for war dead and a university which was next door. It also makes for curious neighbors. Charlie told me that when he was a student at UCLA, and he drove late at night along Veteran Avenue (the road adjacent to cemetery )if the lights from his Honda hit the headstones it would creep him out. I could see how that would be disconcerting. The cemetery is so big and so quiet and very dark at night. We packed up and headed home and that was that, I had my moment. What I didn’t know was that I was leaving a relative buried in the cemetery.
The thing about genealogy research is that it is filled with more dead ends than live wires and dead ends on dead people is extra dead. Adding to this moribund experience is when living family members have zero answers to simple questions. When I was researching my family tree, I would find it very depleting when I asked my mother questions like “Where was your grandfather born?” And her answers leaned deep into vagueness like, “I think Montana or maybe Colorado, I know he was a justice of the peace in Oregon.” Sigh. Obviously, I gave up going to family for answers and turned to public records which were much more helpful.
I did a lot of my research before I was married but since then every now and then when the mood hits me, usually late at night (and after I got an www.Ancestry.com account ) I would go digging into data bases such as census reports or marriage records and I’d hit some live wires. Such was the case a couple years ago in 2018 when I found a distant relative and she said something extraordinary to me. I had emailed her and mentioned how annoying it had been that I never found a death record for my great great grandfather who was also her great great grandfather. She said, “I know. That guy has been so hard to track but I have a 90-year-old aunt who swears her mother used to visit him in Los Angeles.” I said, “Wait a minute he was in LA?” She said yes and she was going to talk to the aunt and get back to me. Later she sent me an email, “ I found him, he’s buried in the Veteran Cemetery in Westwood.”
This was all surprising to me since I had no idea he came to California, or he was a veteran. The last time I had poked around he had disappeared from records in the 1870s Colorado. It turned out he used an old spelling for his name when he enlisted in the Union Army. I knew him as John Forrest but as a soldier he was John Forress. Once I saw that spelling, I was able to flesh out the end of his life in Los Angeles. Yesterday, on Memorial Day 2021, I paid my respects to John Forress.
The National Cemetery is in the former Rancho San Jose De Buenos Ayers. However, when John lived at the retirement home for civil war veterans in Sawtelle which is on the west side of Sepulveda he was in the former Rancho San Vicente Y Santa Monica. Sepulveda is the dividing line and the name of the famous Californio family. That rancho was deeded by Governor Alvarado to Francisco Sepulveda in 1839 in the name of Mexico. There were lawsuits almost immediately after he received it. Eventually heirs to Sepulveda sold the rancho to John Jones and Colonel Baker in 1876. Then in 1887 Jones and Baker’s widow, (Arcadia Bandini Baker) donated 300 acres when they heard the federal government wanted to build a Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Volunteer Soldiers. They believed the prestige of this institution would contribute to growth in the community.
A street- car track and station were built and in 1901 the “Balloon Route” was conceived. Tourists and local families would take the streetcar out to the beaches and stop at different communities along the way. The ticket cost one dollar and boasted “10 beaches and 8 cities in 101 miles in one day”. At all the stops, real estate men would pitch the properties for sale in the nearby developments. This land was appealing since land closer to the beach was cheaper than downtown properties. In 1907 when John Forress arrived, he probably rode the balloon route. He would have been sitting with middle age Midwesterners who at that time were arriving in Los Angeles by the droves and were hearing pitches to buying land in Hollywood, Santa Monica, Playa del Rey, Redondo, Venice or Sawtelle which was John’s final destination. The large homes and gardens for the soldiers were magnificent. .While it is hard to know the condition of the veterans both physically and mentally, the property was beautiful. Most of the buildings were demolished in the 1960s to build the VA Hospital. The Wadsworth Chapel is one of the few buildings still standing which can be seen heading west on Wilshire.
When I pulled into the cemetery yesterday, I saw many people walking around the graves, most carrying flags. They were all ages all races. Many families were sitting near headstones, a few were having picnics. There was a vintage car from the 1920s. I wondered if it had belonged to one of the veteran’s and his son or daughter brings it by for a ‘visit’. I could see tenderness in all the private moments spread across the headstones. I was self-conscious since I knew my journey was different. I didn’t know John Forress and he had been dead for 112 years. This was not a fresh wound for me, but I still pressed on. I went to the information desk and a woman with a box of donuts led me to a machine that looked like an ATM , she told me to plug in the name then she walked off to join another veteran at a table. I found the coordinates for the grave site and a very friendly veteran in a wheel- chair handed me a map and circled the spot. I thanked him and drove near the intersection of Antiem and Shiloh drive. I found John’s grave.
John was he born in NJ in 1847 and joined the Union Army when he was 16. He was in the 1st Calvary of Connecticut. He was in a battle and was imprisoned in a confederate camp at Stony Creek Virginia for a year. When he got out of the confederate prison, he was 18. John married at 27 to my great great grandmother Addie Ramsdell in Colorado. They would later divorce which was NOT the fashion of the late 19th century but curiously they both ended their lives in California. Addie remarried, had more children and ended up in Southern California by the 1890s. There was a street car line to Huntington Beach as well and I wonder if she and her second husband took it when they came out from Colorado because I found them in the census owning a seaside hotel in Huntington Beach. John died in the Old Soldier’s home in 1919.
I added my flag to John’s grave. I am not sure if anyone has visited him since his last child died in the 1940s. When I stood there, I heard the leaves wrestling the gigantic eucalyptus trees and the drone of the 405 sounded like a rushing river. The flags on the graves rippled as if they were waving to the guests. I wished there were more people to see it.
On my drive back to Rancho La Brea I thought how when John got out of the confederate prison, he was about the same age my son is now and the same age Charlie was when he drove down Veteran and his old Honda lights hit the headstones. I laughed because I noted John’s headstone was a few feet from Veteran. Maybe Charlie shined on John. I don’t think either of us would be creeped out by it now.