Somebody stole the tombstone of actor James Dean from his grave in Fairmount, Ind., and not a soul there is surprised.

"It's a wonder somebody hadn't taken it earlier," said Joe Seward, a local contractor who is also in charge of the cemetery. Seward says that someone simply could have given the stone a good hard kick with his foot and taken it.

"It's been loosened and knocked around," said Milo Brown, the town clerk and treasurer. "It's not hard to take." The crime was discovered Wednesday.

Visitors to the grave have been chipping away mementoes from the tombstone ever since Dean died in 1955. It's a simple granite stone--"nothing any different from anything else out there," said Brown. But so many people have chipped away at the stone that the name on it is difficult to read, according to Seward.

Fairmount is a wisp of a town. It has a population of 3,287, most of whom have the same telephone exchange. There's only one policeman (out of four) on duty at any one time, and though he makes a nightly round of the cemetery, "he can't be everywhere all the time," said Brown.

James Dean went to high school in Fairmount before he moved to California, made "Rebel Without a Cause" and became a cult figure and a symbol for his generation. His other movies include "Giant" and "East of Eden." In each of them he played a sensitive, rebellious youth who was alienated from his parents and society.

Dean died much the way he lived--head-on--when a car collided with his silver Porsche. He was 24. His untimely death made him a legend, and since then, not much of his gravesite has endured.

"When he died, they had this bronze bust at the grave," said Brown, who was in seventh grade when Dean was in 12th grade. "It was really nice. It didn't stay a week," he added with a chuckle. "It's just hard to protect that sort of stuff."

"On the average, I suppose we have somebody everyday at the grave," said Seward. Of course, not all of these visitors are vandals. Some come peaceably to pay their respects. "We once put up a wooden sign that gave directions to his grave," said Seward. "That lasted a couple of weeks." As for plans to replace the stolen marker, Seward said, "That's not our department. That's strictly up to the family."

As long as the name of James Dean inspires new generations of young followers, the cemetery will probably be vandalized, and the town will continue in its notoriety.

"We've learned to live with it," said Milo Brown. "It's not that bad a deal. We like to get Fairmount some publicity sometimes. We're proud of our town."