They drove up the hill by the hundreds, some wearing suits and ties, others wearing T-shirts emblazoned with words like "Never, ever, forget."
An estimated 800 people came to this spot in the oak-dotted hills east of Bakersfield: politicians, soldiers old and young, bikers and bankers, teachers and truckers -- Americans all.
They came on this day, the Sunday before Memorial Day, to remember, to honor, to mourn and to thank those who have served in uniform, especially those who gave what Abraham Lincoln called "the last full measure of devotion." The language at the event was elevated, the mood somber, the direction hopeful at Bakersfield National Cemetery.
"The love of country is more than just a catch-phrase in our culture," state Sen. Jean Fuller said in her invocation. And the crowd seemed to prove her words true with their very presence.
Some spoke about the unique beauty of the cemetery's location, others of the need for Americans to honor, for as long as the flag flies, those who have protected what it stands for.
But when 25-year-old 1st Lt. Samuel Van Kopp began speaking, he seemed, as one listener said, almost Kennedy-like in his tone and cadence and quiet confidence.
And the crowd listened as his words were carried by the wind.
"This is hallowed ground, made sacred not by church or state but by the bones of the men and women here interred," he said.
Van Kopp knows of such things. He has lost valued comrades in battle, and nearly lost his own life last year. It was late September and Van Kopp was leading his platoon in eastern Afghanistan when the unit came under heavy attack. The Bakersfield High School and West Point graduate suffered a serious head injury.
On Sunday, he spoke of a village in eastern Afghanistan where a modest school for girls must be guarded daily against men who would launch rocket-propelled grenades over its walls or throw acid in the faces of young girls who would dare challenge what Van Kopp called the Taliban's "ancient tyrannies."
"May we always be on the side that builds roads and guards schools," he told the crowd. "May it always be said that is the American way of war."
He honored what some have dubbed the Greatest Generation, not for its victories, but for its values.
"They're not the greatest generation because they destroyed armies," he said, "but because they built nations."
And he cautioned against honoring the sacrifice of so many Americans lost "in field and forest" without first understanding that it is up to us, the living, to bring continued meaning to the sacrifices we honor.
"And so the onus is on us, we the living," Van Kopp said. "For in sacrifice it is the triumphs of our lives that make their deaths precious."
As people slowly drove back toward the cemetery gate, some stopped at a spot where scores of bleached white stones stood in perfect rows like soldiers at attention. Small American flags decorated each grave, and people -- mothers and fathers, sons and daughters -- lingered as if being near the remains of their loved ones brought them a small comfort or a moment of peace.
It is in places like this that children begin to grasp the meaning of service and sacrifice. But mothers know the meaning all too well.
At one grave, a gray-haired woman bent over and kissed the top of a stone.
Engraved on the stone was the name Aaron Micheal Boileau, an Army sergeant who served in Afghanistan with the 182nd Infantry.
"I lost Aaron last year. He was 25," said his still-grieving mother, Deborah Boileau.
Aaron wasn't lost in battle, and his mother remained vague about exactly how he died. But she said he came home a changed man, and she considers him a casualty of war.
This weekend, she said, is about remembering what she had and what she lost.
"I'm surprised," she said, "that God blessed me with such a wonderful son."