When American Legion Chaplain Bill Cook peered through the chainlink fence at the windswept landscape — stripes of concrete marking a scrubby field framed by dark green foothills in the distance — he remembered the Phantoms.
The fighter jets were once a regular sight, slicing the air over what was for decades a bustling military base, a place local servicemen and women have seen as a kind of home.
"The jets would just roar," he said on a recent afternoon at the former U.S. Marine Corps Air Station El Toro.
Now, Cook, a Vietnam veteran who lives in Mission Viejo, is leading the charge to transform a small piece of that land into a final resting place for Orange County's veterans.
Although for Cook, building a veteran's cemetery at what was a Marine Corps air station in Irvine has been a dream since the base closed in 1999, the idea is finally gathering steam as the site, a swath known as the Orange County Great Park whose fate has been contested and revised for years, is divvied up.
In January, Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva (D-Fullerton) introduced a bill that would ask the federal Department of Veterans Affairs for a grant to create a state-run Southern California Veterans Cemetery in Orange County.
And last month, as cities around the county registered their support for the bill, the Irvine City Council voted to form a committee tasked with exploring the possibility of making room for a cemetery in the park. The council is expected to begin forming that committee at its meeting Tuesday.
"Tonight, we should be making a strong, affirmative statement," Councilwoman Beth Krom said just before she cast her vote in favor of the plan at that March 11 meeting. "It's land that is steeped in history that we have committed ourselves to preserve and to honor."
But like so many aspects of the park's evolution, a seemingly simple idea with broad support is running up against the realities of developing some of the region's most valuable real estate.
Among the obstacles the plan faces are bureaucracy and concerns about funding.
Earlier this month, the Orange County Board of Supervisors agreed to support the bill, but with board Chairman Shawn Nelson joking that he "refused to participate" in a politicized vote that pitted the county's financial interests against veterans. Supervisor John Moorlach voted against supporting the bill, with strong reservations about whether government funding to keep up the site could be assured.
Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all, though, is that placing the cemetery in the park, nestled among planned tracts of new homes, is really, really bad feng shui.
Starting in the early 1940s, soldiers worked and trained at El Toro before heading overseas. In its early days, the base was isolated among vast orange and avocado groves.
Slowly, however, as the high-end suburbs of South County spread, the planes found themselves roaring over homes and communities.
On a recent afternoon, silvery clouds hung in the empty sky, lending the park a chilly gray cast.
Pristine amenities, including the iconic orange orb of the Great Park Balloon, loomed silent. The Great Park carousel was almost eerie in its stillness.
"I want to do all I can to make sure this place maintains some of its Marine identity," said Bill Sandlin, a member of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Committee, a kind of grassroots organization that Cook convened to push for the cemetery.
"It never crossed my mind they'd close these places down," added Sandlin, a longtime Orange County resident whose job was to ferry people between El Toro and Camp Pendleton.
Members of the local veterans community say the former base would be the perfect site for a much-needed gathering place for those who've served and their loved ones.
Such a place is missing, they say, for the growing — and aging — population of veterans who live in Southern California.
While locals' minds may jump to the sprawling Los Angeles National Cemetery in Westwood, it's actually been closed to new burials for about 20 years, said Stephen Jorgensen, a California Department of Veterans Affairs official who oversees memorials and cemeteries.
While Riverside National Cemetery, which Jorgensen ran for more than a decade, is within the 75-mile radius that federal officials use to determine whether an area's veterans are served, he said Orange and Los Angeles counties are denser and residents must contend with a potentially nightmarish transportation problems to visit loved ones.
In Orange and Los Angeles counties, he estimated, about 14,000 veterans die every year.
"I think it's probably much underused by Los Angeles and Orange County," Jorgensen said. "I know we didn't serve a lot of people out of those two counties even though Riverside is the most active veterans cemetery in the country."
The 980-acre cemetery handles more than 8,000 burials per year, he said.
So for members of Southern California's military community, the next best option after a federal veterans cemetery is a state version.
Creating one requires state legislation, which in this case would be Quirk-Silva's Assembly Bill 1453, and having a suitable piece of property on which to build. While the state would have to pay for its operation and upkeep, the federal government could come through with a grant for its construction.
A proposal presented by Councilman Larry Agran to the Irvine City Council calls for the Southern California cemetery to be at least 100 acres, which is smaller than the state's first veterans' cemetery outside Redding.
That site, Jorgensen said, hosts about 600 burials per year.
An Orange County state veterans cemetery, Jorgensen said, would accommodate more once it's complete. And it could end up being the busiest in the country.
Quirk-Silva, who chairs the Assembly Veterans Affairs Committee, said her bill has earned bipartisan support and is moving quickly.
Still, the bill doesn't designate a specific site in Orange County.
Getting a jurisdiction to commit the land could prove to be the hard part.
Emile Haddad, president and chief executive of development company FivePoint Communities, also has a vision for the Orange County Great Park and the areas surrounding it.
Neighbors will recognize one another on orange bikes as they cruise down cul de sacs of houses with shaded front porches and big, grassy backyards. Their children won't have to go far to play on dozens of new sports fields and tennis courts.
The idea, Haddad said, gesturing to softly colored architectural renderings and giant maps hung in an office conference room, is to create a walkable community that harkens back to a kind of "Dennis the Menace" era.
In November, the Irvine City Council approved a controversial deal with FivePoint that allowed the developer to nearly double the number of homes it could build on the land it owns surrounding the park in exchange for the company spending $172 million to complete a major chunk of the park, which had languished as the recession took its toll.
It's a public-private partnership that was strongly opposed by Irvine leaders, who had hoped that the Great Park would become a grand public space to rival New York's Central Park.
FivePoint's plan includes vast amounts of parkland, including trails, a golf course, a wildlife corridor and a sports complex that would be twice the size of Disneyland.
What it does not include is a cemetery.
Haddad stressed that, in the end, the decision about whether to pursue a veterans cemetery in the park is the city's.
"The land is not my land," Haddad said.
Nevertheless, he said, it's his job to make homes in FivePoint neighborhoods appealing to the people who want to buy them.
With most new home buyers coming from Asia, he said, developers around the Southland can't afford not to cater to that market.
In Pavilion Park, for example, the first of several planned Great Park Neighborhoods surrounding the park, multigenerational homes, with in-law units and side entrances, are available.
Throughout the community's development, he said, FivePoint has also consulted with a feng shui master, who helps ensure that houses and streets are designed to best allow the flow of energy according to the ancient Chinese practice.
While FivePoints declined to have its consultant speak with a reporter, Simona Mainini, a Beverly Hills-based feng shui master, said having a cemetery in the park could definitely lead to an "exponential" drop in property values.
Having houses for yang, or life force energy, and yin, which is the energy of the dead, in close proximity is a "major, major, major faux pas," according to feng shui teachings, she said.
And "the bigger the cemetery, the farther away it should be from the residential area," she said.
"Think about it even from a Western perspective," she said. "You don't want to get up and look out your window at a cemetery, right?"
Haddad said FivePoint has "been extremely respectful of people who served on this base."
Trees from the base were boxed to be replanted, and a veterans' memorial on the grounds is in the works.
And regardless, the company will continue to work with the city toward finding a place for the cemetery — be it at the park, or elsewhere, he said.
Veterans, though, see the allotment of the space as a small price to pay to honor those who left from El Toro and never came back.
Cook and other members of the Orange County Veterans Memorial Park Committee have encouraged veterans to come to Tuesday's meeting in uniform, with patches, ribbons and medals proudly displayed.
[For the record: An earlier version of this stoy said that Orange County Supervisor John Moorlach abstained from a vote supporting Assembly Bill 1453, but in fact he hoped to vote to support the bill if amended. Since that was not the motion at hand, he voted against supporting the bill.]