Late one rainy afternoon a few weeks ago, Sam Moreno finished his day’s work as the foreman at Acacia Cemetery. Just a few blocks from the cemetery on his way home, his phone rang.
“My grandson called and said, ‘Papa, there’s a white truck on top of the wall,’ ” Moreno said.
So he turned around and headed back to the cemetery. Sure enough, a white Ford Explorer rested atop a pile of rubble that, until a few minutes earlier, had stood as a wall along Scenic Drive. It is a segment Moreno has repaired many times – roughly two dozen, he figures – over the past 40 years.
In fact, piece together all of those repair jobs and Moreno figures he’s rebuilt the entire length of the wall in front of the Acacia and Masonic cemeteries several times over. It’s difficult to find any part of it that doesn’t have the newer, lighter-colored mortar compared with the darker, weathered old stuff.
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“It’s all been replaced,” he said.
There is something about the wall that makes it a target. It’s as if some practical joker sprays it with fender and bumper attractant. And while the wall stretches more than 200 yards to the east, the segment near the Acacia and Masonic cemeteries takes the brunt of it.
The stretch rests along a turn in the road, and drivers heading into downtown Modesto routinely accelerate rather than slowing down. The speed limit is 30 miles per hour.
“We’ve had ’em going 55 to 60,” Moreno said. “They see that the light’s green (at the Bodem Street intersection) and they gun it, and they lose control.”
The most recent crash damaged 42 feet of the wall. It was a cemetery record.
“Most of them usually go 25 to 30 feet,” Moreno said. The crashes tend to happen more during the winter months, when the roads get wet but drivers still refuse to slow down.
Crashing once doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. Some drivers are slow learners. One, Moreno said, hit the wall on two occasions.
One attempted a hit-and-run, but police caught him around the corner on Bodem because his tire had punctured during the crash, Moreno said.
This time, the driver of the Explorer told Moreno he had come around the turn too fast on the wet surface and lost control. A second vehicle contributed to the crash, but didn’t hit the wall.
On my way to work the next morning, I chatted with my mom – on a hands-free phone, of course. As I drove slowly in the morning traffic along Scenic and was about to end the conversation, she told me to have a good day.
“A good day in Modesto is when nobody hits the wall in front of the cemetery,” I joked.
Seconds later, I drove past the rubble. I couldn’t help but think that with all of the emphasis on the value of a college education, the people with the most secure jobs in town are the guys who work in the cemeteries and keep rebuilding the rock walls along Scenic. It’s steady work, and they can’t outsource it to Indonesia.
The city quickly replaced the flattened sign that warns drivers of the impending stoplight at Bodem. Maybe they should install another warning them to watch out for a car-eating wall.
Wednesday afternoon, with the help of co-worker Tommy Helm, Moreno began cleaning the round stones, preparing them to be recycled when they begin rebuilding the wall. It’s a job that will take them several days to complete. If cemetery management is lucky, the driver had insurance that will reimburse the costs of their labor and materials. If not, the cemetery will have to pay the tab.
The wall extends eastward to protect the Modesto Citizens, county and Catholic cemeteries along the same street. But that part of the wall is along a straighter stretch of road and rarely gets hit, said Glen Poteet of the neighboring Modesto Cemetery Association.
“We get some vandalism, but not the rock wall (destruction),” he said.
That is Acacia’s bane.
“Every morning, Sam gets there and goes to check the wall,” Poteet said.
Most days, it’s still standing. Other days, it’s just a pile of rocks waiting to be reassembled.