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It was Sunday and Fred and Hope Watson were in the section of Santa Rosa Memorial Park Cemetery called Garden of Peace, near the park's south edge.

The granite gravestone in the ground beside them was 1-foot by 3-foot. It read:

Walter Dean Watson

Beloved Son to Fred & Hope

Beloved Brother to Debra, Lori & Curt


In its lower left corner was a pair of engraved hands clasped in prayer on the lower left corner.

"It's my son. He died in 1986, from a drug overdose," Fred Watson said. "He was 25."

Walter was the middle child and he was born in Brawley, Imperial County, the year before the family moved to Santa Rosa.

When the couple left the cemetery, after about 45 minutes, Fred Watson, 75, carried in a plastic Wal-Mart shopping bag a white towel striped in blue and brown and a pair of scissors. Mrs. Watson, 74, moved gingerly, leaning on a four-wheeled walker.

The couple had brought with them a can that Fred Watson had filled with water from a standing faucet. Then he buried it in the earth before the grave and placed in it a dozen red roses they had bought at Safeway. A few clumps of sod lay nearby after that.

Windsor residents now, the Watsons come three or four times a year to tend Walter's grave, slightly less than in years past, but always for Memorial Day.

"I think any grave is for the living," said Fred Watson. "You've got to come out here and keep 'em up."

The sun came and went with the clouds. Now and then Watson wiped his brow. A steady breeze tickled a windchime in a nearby tree and lifted thousands of small U.S. flags that had been planted by grave after grave into the distance.

A rider on a motorcyle revved his engine. Some 250 motorcycles were parked across the cemetery, maybe 500 feet from Walter Watson's grave.

"Must be a biker's funeral," Fred Watson said.

He was told that the group was organized by the Good Ol' Boys, part of the E Clampus Vitus fraternal order. The event was a fundraiser to benefit veterans organizations, and the bikers had gathered for a color guard ceremony.

"I'm a veteran myself," Fred Watson said. "The Marines."

Walter had joined the Marines, too, looking for a new path. But it had been a brief interlude.

"He had done it once," Mr. Watson said, referring to the heroin his son had used, "and we found out about it. He cleaned himself up and went into the service."

But the Marines learned of Walter's drug use, Fred Watson said, and so his son had to leave the service. Then he took a job with Watson's Santa Rosa excavating company.

"He worked for me and he was straight," said Watson, who is still a solid man. He was kneeling by the grave, clipping back the grass with his scissors.

"He went out on April 14, I remember because it was tax day. And we got a call from the hospital," Watson said.

The doctor told the Watsons that their son had injected pure heroin — a so-called "hot shot" — and, perhaps because he'd been clean for some time, his heart couldn't take it.

"You know kids, you can't tell them anything," Watson said.

"It was three months before I could do anything," Hope Watson said. She was clutching a tissue in one hand but not using it.

"Actually, it gets easier with time," Fred Watson said. "The first 10 years for me were really tough. You're not supposed to bury your kids."

He brushed snippets of grass from the gravestone with the striped towel.

When he visits Walter's grave, he said, "I just occupy myself, I try not to think too much about it. It makes me sad, so I just, you know ..."

"I have different feelings than him," Hope Watson said, seated in her walker chair. "I'm more sentimental, it bothers me a lot."

At the graveside, she recalls Walter, starting from when he was baby.

"It goes on like a story from when he was little to when he passed," she said.

Walter worked a lot and fished when he wasn't and was easy to get along with. He was a big guy, 6-foot-one and about 220 pounds.

Fred Watson got up a little slowly, pushing himself up off the grass.

When Walter died, the Watsons bought two burial plots beside his grave. For now, they create an unmarked, grassy divider between Walter's gravestone and the next one west.

One row south of Walter's is another grave. There were nine Matchbox cars on it, their colors washed out by the weather, some fresh flowers and a very sun-faded memory book in a Ziploc bag. The gravestone told of a boy who died at 17 in the same year that Walter did.

"There used to be a gal who used to come out here to this grave here," Fred Watson said, Every time we used to come out here we'd see her. I talked to her a little. I haven't seen her in eight, nine years."

One row north of Walter's grave was a more elaborate one, with a marbled stone about three times the size of Walter's, a border of black bark, some new photographs encased in plastic and signs proclaiming love for a mother.

It was new, Fred Watson said.

"If I had it to do over, I'd do it like this one," he said, "but when we did this here" — he gestured at Walter's — "we thought it was just fine. And they didn't show us this one. But once you do it, you hate to change it, you hate to move it."

The new gravestone rose above the level of the grass around it and Fred Watson worried it would get chipped when the groundskeepers came through with their lawnmowers.

"We told them to make sure that stone there, — again, he gestured at his son's gravestone — it's well down."

The Watsons readied to go and Fred Watson said: "Thanks for the ..." he paused, then said, "talk."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com.

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