By Robert Barnes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 28, 2009 6:34 PM
MOJAVE NATIONAL PRESERVE, Calif. -- Wanda Sandoz packs a cooler with bottled water and a bag of homemade cookies, and is ready for the 150-mile drive to the little white cross that is at the center of a major Supreme Court case.
"You never go out in the desert without food and water," she says.
She and her husband Henry once lived near the memorial to World War I dead, and although they have now moved away to be closer to their grandchildren, they are its unofficial caretakers. They are featured on a Web site about saving the Mojave Memorial Cross and have become heroes to the veterans groups battling the American Civil Liberties Union over whether the display violates the Constitution's requirement that government not endorse religion.
The attention they have received has made Wanda Sandoz a new convert to the Internet, e-mail, YouTube and Google, even though she is a little taken aback by the passion of some supporters. One man from Indiana wanted the exact dimensions of the cross so he could build a replica for his yard. Another promised to chain himself to the cross should the Supreme Court rule, as lower courts have, that the cross must be taken down.
"I thought, 'You do know it's in the middle of the desert, don't you?' " she says. " 'Have you ever heard of the Mojave Green?,' " referring to the desert's variety of rattlesnake.
If the couple -- she's 65, he's 70 and next year they will have been married 50 years -- have become the popular faces of those defending the cross, Frank Buono, the former official at nearby Joshua Tree National Park who complained about it, has seen the other side.
"There's been an enormous degree of animosity towards me because of this," said Buono, 62. "I don't look at the Internet about [the case] or Google myself, but my friends do, and they say, 'They're saying some awful things about you.' "
All three are shocked that the nearly decade-long lawsuit has reached the Supreme Court. For the Sandozes, the involvement goes back years, when they went for a picnic in the desert, and Henry Sandoz decided they should meet a reclusive prospector named John Riley Bembrey.
"Everybody was kind of scared off him, but there was nothing to be scared of," Sandoz says. "He stayed kind of by himself. He just picked his friends well -- I say well, because I was one of them."
Bembrey had been a medic in World War I and was part of the original group of veterans who erected the cross on Sunrise Rock in 1934. When it was destroyed, Henry Sandoz helped build the new one, and before Bembrey died he asked Sandoz to look after the site.
So Sandoz was not inclined to be helpful when the superintendent of the preserve told him there had been a complaint about the cross, and asked him to take it down. "I told her not 'no,' but 'hell, no,' " Sandoz recalls.
The Sandozes find it hard to believe that their fight has led to an act of Congress -- which attempted to take care of the government-endorsement problem by swapping an acre of land on which the cross sits for five acres owned by the Sandozes elsewhere in the preserve -- and now a Supreme Court case.
Both of the Sandozes were raised near the desert, and Henry Sandoz has held just about every job that can be found around here except the one he really wanted: rancher. "I wouldn't make a scab on a cowboy's hind end," he says, but he does ride, and he was on horseback the first time Wanda saw him.
"He sits on a horse like John Wayne," she says, and said it was not until later she noticed he is considerably shorter than the movie star.
They have never met Buono, who also now lives elsewhere but visits the preserve periodically. He acknowledges that he could not tell at first that the cross was on federal land -- about 90 percent of the 1.6 million acres is owned by the government -- but thought the prominent cross looked wrong.
As a Catholic, he said, he is not opposed to religion, but said religious freedom in the United States depends upon government neutrality.
"I have a real problem with government endorsing religion, even my religion," he said. Although the cross's supporters stress its secular purpose of memorial, it is the annual site of Easter sunrise services. "It dawned on me that's why it's called Sunrise Rock," Buono said of the cross's location.
Those arguments -- that the mixture of ethnicities and religions that make up the WWI war dead cannot be honored by the preeminent symbol of just one religion -- make no sense to the Sandozes.
They finish each other's sentences in explaining.
"Everybody in the area knew why that cross was there," says Henry. "They want to just tear it down, tear it down, tear it down, but I put it up to stay."
"We'd never just give up on it," adds Wanda. "We're not the kind of people to get up in arms over things -- we just kind of live our life and let everyone live theirs. But it just means too much to us, probably because of our relationship..."
"With Riley," says Henry. "And we have uncles and others . . ."
"We realize this country wouldn't be what it was without the veterans," says Wanda. "To me, I know it sounds corny, but that cross out there in the middle of nowhere is as important to me as the Vietnam memorial. All your memorials in Washington, D.C., they're beautiful, they're impressive, they're wonderful, but they say the same exact thing as that cross is saying."