Tale of childhood theft, braggadocio and eventually, decades later, the return of a stolen sword
The year is 1965 or ’66. Maybe ’67. Memories are foggy and the tale has gone a little hazy with time, but some elements are clear: There was theft (from a grave site, no less), there was youthful braggadocio and subsequent envy, and maybe a dash of fear.
At the heart of the tale is a sword. Green with oxidation, it was tucked into a scabbard up to the hilt where the blade met a metal basket to protect the holder’s hand. Allegedly stolen by a trio of boys (or was it two? Or four?) from a grave in Santa Rosa’s Rural Cemetery more than a half-century ago, the sword was, on the day of the theft, displayed with youthful vigor in broad daylight.
According to some, it became almost instantly legendary in certain circles at nearby Proctor Terrace Elementary School and the surrounding neighborhood.
But the story, as sometimes happens, grew murkier with age. Details got muddled —who, exactly, had taken it? Who was there? Who knew? And for many, the tale was largely lost to time. And so, too, was the sword.
‘Everyone knew of the sword’
It was in January that Jonathan Quandt got a call from a rep from the city of Santa Rosa.
Quandt, a volunteer who leads maintenance at the rural cemetery with a crew dubbed the Tombstone Trio, was told a woman had called the city about a found sword. From Quandt’s understanding the caller, who wished to remain anonymous, was in Santa Rosa to clean up and clear out her parents’ Proctor Terrace neighborhood home after their deaths. In the attic, she found the sword.
“She knew of the sword, everyone knew of the sword,” Quandt, who grew up in the neighborhood, said. “She said, ‘Oh my God, I have to do something with it.’”
Quandt is an active historian and the caretaker of what he calls the reliquary of items from the cemetery. He was over the moon at the possibility of the return of such a piece. A couple of days later, the official at the city called him again.
“She said, ‘I’ve got the sword,’” he said.
When Quandt laid eyes on the thing, not only was he looking at a key piece of history from his beloved cemetery, he was looking at a storied relic from his childhood. A Proctor Terrace kid himself, he had heard tales of the stolen sword.
But although Quandt had heard of this sword and the legend of its theft when he was a boy in elementary school, he had never laid eyes on it before. But he knew someone who had.
Enter David Sudduth.
‘One of them pulled out a saber’
Sudduth grew up in Santa Rosa, but now lives in Tucson. To add to the air of mystery that follows this story, when I reach him, he’s standing in a field in Sonora, Mexico. He asks if I can call him that evening. When we connect via phone that night, he’s ready to pick up the story.
As a kid, Sudduth lived on Delevan Way. His encounter with the sword begins on a day when he had biked the handful of blocks over to Pacific Market — a place that in those days was called Town and Country Market.
He was in front of the store when he ran into at least two guys, both older than he.
“There were a couple of kids that were kind of known as punks, you know, that will have go nameless because I think they are now figures in the town,” he said. “And one of them pulled out a saber.”
Sudduth guesses he was maybe 12 years old. It was just the right age to be gobsmacked — at the theft, at the bravado of unsheathing it in broad daylight in front of the market, of the unquestioned coolness of being a kid in possession of a sword.
“As a 12- or 13-year-old, I was quite impressed,” he recalled. But he kept himself in check.
“At the time, these kids were not to be trifled with,” he said.
“He said he took it off a Civil War grave,” Sudduth remembered. “That puts these guys in complete delinquent land for me, because nobody steals from a graveyard.”
Still, watching the boy wave the sword about stirred envy in Sudduth’s heart.
“He brandished it like a pirate,” he said. “It was quite a prize.”
It was the first and last time Sudduth would see the thing. It lived on in lore, but faded with time.
A prized relic is returned
When Quandt got word this year that the legendary sword might still exist, and even better, might be returned, he called his friend in Tucson. Sudduth wants to help his historian pal out, but is not entirely confident in his recollections.
He describes the sword as he remembers it and does his best to remember names of those he saw that day. But he’s hesitant.
“If my memory doesn’t serve me right, I don’t want to tarnish anyone’s image, you know?” he said.
Another seeming hurdle to putting it all together is that when the woman returned the sword to the city, she was clear: Don’t use my family’s name in the retelling.
“She said, ‘I have this sword and here is basically the story. But I don’t want my name used or our family’s name used,’” Quandt said.
That part is crucial for Quandt. Though he likes a good tale, his main focus is creating an open door for the return of pieces taken from the property over the years. He believes there are many: chunks of tombstones or mementos from sites carted off. He actively restores and repairs pieces that make it back to him.
“We offer amnesty for anybody who wants to bring back stones,” he said. “Virtually every year we receive something, a tombstone or whatever. In this case, the sword.”
The final piece of the puzzle for Quandt would be to determine from which grave it was taken all those decades ago. Despite some clues and an expert’s knowledge of the park, he doesn’t hold out hope.
It would require finding out who might have been up there the day of the theft and narrowing down the location in a park that was much worse for the wear in the 1960s than it is today.
“That is trying to rely on a 13-year-old’s memory of the cemetery, which at the time was a dilapidated mess,” he said. “The chances of finding the actual site where it rested, are to me, next to impossible.
“And that’s not to say where it was found was where it was originally put,” he said.
As Quandt holds the sword today, his tone is one of near awe. Yes, it’s a historic relic that is right up his alley, but it’s also a bit of a time machine. Something that takes him back to legends, rumors and tall tales of his youth.
The sword no longer has its scabbard or decorative sash. It’s clearly worn. But in Quandt’s eyes, it’s still a prize.
You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @benefield.
Columnist, The Press Democrat
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