The late afternoon sun casts my shadow on my friend Keith's marker as I take this photograph.
I went to visit my childhood friend Keith today. He was an adopted boy who lived just down the street from me when I was a child and was my very best friend. Then, his mother died of cancer. Then, his father remarried. Then, his stepmother wanted a new home across town. The summer they moved, he died in a swimming pool accident. He was just eleven years old.
My family and I were away on a summer vacation when it happened. We missed his funeral and we never spoke of it. I tried to go see his father, whom I also loved, when we returned from vacation, but Brownie (that's what we called this World War II-hero-turned-PSA-pilot, though his name was really Exline) couldn't come into the living room to see me. I could hear this big bear of a man crying. After that, the Brown family, no longer living near to us in the tiny world of a child, seemed to vanish from our lives.
Since I've returned to my home state, I've wanted to visit Keith's grave. I looked it up on the Internet and discovered it is in King City, where his father's family was from. His mother, Elma, is buried there too.
King City, California is about 120 miles from Los Altos, so it hasn't been easy to carve out the time to make the four-hour round trip to visit Keith. But on Friday, a really nice mechanic told me the Swedish Car flunked her California Automobile Registration Vehicle Emissions Test (aka the "smog test") simply because I hadn't been doing the correct thingee with the gas cap. Now that he had demonstrated for me what I should do, he said, I needed to put about a hundred miles on the SC to recycle her computer so she'd pass the ST.
Good chance for a Road Trip to King City. Highway 101--El Camino Real--the King's Highway--heads right down there. It began as a trail that connected all the missions founded by old Junipero Serra himself. I used to travel on that ribbon of highway quite often when I went to college in Southern California.
Across this field and to the left you can see the smoke obscuring the Santa Cruz Mountains in the distance.
It was a smokey ride south into the Salinas Valley. Down past the National Steinbeck Center and the farms and the new housing developments. The fields are green this time of year and the hills are golden. But, there is a forest fire burning in the Santa Cruz mountains and ten square miles of dense growth up there is in flames. It brought a haze to everything and you could smell it in the car.
Before you get to King City, the floor of the valley begins to rise, and you enter the edge of the foothills. A good place for a farming center. I took the Broadway exit and the cemetery was just two-tenths of a mile down the road. Broadway was a somewhat optimistic name for the main street of this little town. It was a warm, windy, dusty place on this Sunday afternoon in August.
The Swedish Car pauses near Broadway in King City, California.
I'm glad I had looked up the cemetery on the Internet and found the actual location of the Brown plots. By the time I arrived at the King City Cemetery at 4:45 p.m., the place was closed and the gate for vehicles was locked. There was no one on hand to answer questions, if a person had needed help. But, lucky for me, they keep the pedestrian gate open after hours, so I was able to park by the gate, off this dusty road, and walk in. I found myself in a lovely place.
The King City Cemetery dates back to the 1870s, and is meticulously maintained by Monterey County, California.
I looked at the big cemetery and down at my little map and wondered if it would be hard to do this thing. One of the plot maps I had printed out was very small, and one showed only the two Brown plots, so I had to merge the two in my mind, survey the territory like one of those soldiers on a map exercise, and make a sortie. I walked down one row and didn't find them, and then walked back, and just where the map said they would be, the two markers appeared. Keith and his mother Elma were buried side-by-side beneath identical grave stones.
There was a rose, in bronze, on each of the markers. I remembered, then, how Keith's mother had loved her rose garden. Brownie and his family had remembered Elma and Keith with love and grace and dignity.
I returned to the car, drove to the nearby Safeway, and bought some flowers. I would like to have given both Keith and his mother some roses. But the wind in King City was blowing at about 15 knots and I didn't think a bouquet of roses in a vase would last very long, at least not in an upright position. So I bought a happy yellow mum and brought it back to them.
I set the mum down and rose. And then it hit me. I had not planned it this way at all, but I had come to visit the cemetery where Keith was buried, exactly fifty years to the month from the day Keith died. On that warm August day, half a century ago this year, we lost him. It had been just the time for me to stop by and see that all was well. "I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me."
II Samuel 12:23
My friend Keith, my sister Kimberly, then me (posing as usual), and, at far right, our friend Gene, on a visit to the San Francisco Zoo. Keith is waving, so we've caught his hand in motion, frozen for all time at that happy moment. I learned just recently from his death certificate that he was born in San Francisco.
King City, California, Cemetery