Cold winds and gray skies did not deter a small crowd from gathering near Stearn’s Wharf as Veterans For Peace celebrated its 5th annual Memorial Day candlelight vigil at Arlington West. The thousands of white crosses have become a familiar sight on Santa Barbara beach over the last five years, but Memorial Day services are a special day at Arlington West. As dusk falls on Santa Barbara’s shores, Veterans for Peace volunteers gather to light candles to when usually they would be disassembling the display.
Mayor Marty Blum spoke to the crowd of her admiration for the dedication the volunteers show by putting out the crosses every Sunday and the courage of two Santa Barbara Police Department officers currently serving in Iraq. “Next year on Memorial Day, I hope we don’t have to be down here,” she said as she motioned toward the vast expanse of whitewashed crosses.
Also speaking to the crowd was Hannah-Beth Jackson, who served in the State Assembly for six years representing Santa Barbara County. Jackson spoke of honoring those who fight to protect so that others are safe but decried the futility of the current war in Iraq, saying, “War must be a last resort not a first resort.”
Whereas in years past every cross had its own candle, this year the staggering amount of crosses overwhelmed the volunteers and only the perimeter crosses were adorned with a candle and a red plastic cup to serve as a windscreen. Stephen Sherrill, an organizer and one of the people who sets up the exhibit weekly, said the group stopped at 3,000 not because of any significance in the number but logistical concerns. The current number of crosses necessary by this Sunday would be 4,081 but at 3,000 it became impossible to transport the memorial on the one trailer the group has. The exhibit accommodates for the deficit crosses by demarking the space where there should be more. According to the volunteers, an extra 115 yards of beach stand empty to represent those who died after the 3,000 mark.
Sherrill, who used to construct the crosses on Saturdays and then spend Sundays displaying them, expressed some relief at not having to make anymore crosses, “I used to tell my friends ‘My weekends are crossed-out.'”
Among those present was Melissa Hennen, who lost her father in Vietnam. She made the drive from Los Angeles with her two children to light candles for the fallen service members. She said since she had never met her father it had not had a large impact on her life until she was much older. Now she has a rekindled interest in her father and her young son has given the costs of war new meaning.
CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article implied that Stephen Sherrill was the sole person responsible for Arlington West. Though Sherrill has been one of the driving forces behind the weekly installation, it is also the result of planning and physical labor by several other community members.