How long does it take to climb a mountain?
If it's White Wolf grade, the highway leading to the new Bakersfield National Cemetery, it takes five minutes in a car, 35 on a bike and, for Maj. Jason George, 38 years.
Thursday morning, I drove to the cemetery for George's interment. A Tehachapi son and Army reservist, George was killed May 21 by an improvised explosive device in the Dora district of Baghdad while walking into a building.
George's silver casket was the first to be buried in the cemetery. Bear Mountain, the Tehachapis, the Sierras. It's a lovely place to spend a morning or an eternity.
More than 300 people attended the funeral, including George's parents, brothers, former girlfriends, about 100 Patriot Guard Riders, classmates from West Point, veterans, neighbors and probably some people who just like to honor the life of a patriot.
Among his fellow soldiers, George was known as a natural leader. Col. Bryan Watson called him the finest warrior he ever met.
"In a room, he owns the room," said Watson, who served with George at Fort Riley in Kansas.
"In a formation, he owns the formation. What made him a great leader was his sense of humor. He could see the lighter side of things and communicate that to his men."
George, who was in Iraq working with local governments trying to stimulate the economy, was extremely accomplished. His stepfather, Hugh Mason, said he was capable of doing almost anything, including remember to send his mother, Candy, and grandmother Vivian Weaver flowers on Mother's Day.
He won the Pinewood Derby (a sure indicator of future greatness) was an Eagle Scout, had an internship with NASA in high school, played soccer, tennis, baseball, basketball and kicked the winning field goal in the finals of the Desert Inyo League Championships. He was appointed to West Point by then U.S. Rep. Bill Thomas, was an undefeated boxer there and, after leaving the service, earned his MBA at the University of Michigan and worked for a consulting firm in Chicago.
Yes, George was accomplished. But even with a new round of medals bestowed posthumously that included a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and the Meritorious Service Award, that's not what Thursday's service was about. Governed by the elegant simplicity of a military burial, it was an opportunity to appreciate and remember.
"Jason educated us on the finer points of college life," said Jason Shroeder, a West Point classmate. "We had some great weekend adventures in New York when we changed out of our uniforms in the car on the way."
Sue Chern, George's girlfriend, will miss the everyday things that endear our loved ones to us.
"In the three years together, we spent many more nights apart than we did together," she said. "But we always wished each other sweet dreams before we went to sleep."
Chern met George in Buffalo, N.Y., where they worked for the same consulting company.
"He walked in late and he had this big smile," she said. "I thought, this guy is going to be trouble."
The last time Chern saw him was April 11 in Nashville, where she attends Vanderbilt medical school.
"We saw 'I Love You, Man,'" Chern said. "We had his West Point ring cleaned and reset because one of the diamonds had fallen off and I sewed one of the buttons back on his trousers. I had just finished my surgical rotation and had learned the surgical knot. That button is not coming off."
After taps, the presentation of the flags to George's parents, "Amazing Grace" and the dove release, people rose slowly from their seats and looked at the centuries-old oak trees, fields of gold, and mountains that shimmered in the midday light. They walked by George's silver coffin and tombstone, which reads:
"Jason Everett George
"Major U.S. Army
"Nov. 3, 1970
"May 21, 2009
"KIA BSM PH
USMA West Point Class of 94
There was a lot more to Maj. George than that.
They just ran out of room.