A Grave Tale
I recently engaged in a little back and forth with a friend of mine about the purchase of a certain watercraft and two-wheeled conveyance. After spending a considerable amount of time photographing and advertising said watercraft on a variety of platforms with little to no response, I finally moved the rig to West Virginia, only to find a post by “Buffie” indicating a recent purchase of somebody else’s watercraft, Mercury outboard motor, and trailer. And before you start asking questions about who this “Buffie” is and how do I know HER and where does SHE dance, let me assure you “she” is a “he” and very much a “he” if you get my drift. Love to hunt and fish, which is why he needed said watercraft. I couldn’t get too mad at him when he explained the back story. A mutual friend whom I greatly admire was the previous owner of the watercraft, and Buffie (aka The Buffmeister), had long hankered for not just any water going craft, but this one in particular. After all, it was painted in camouflage and had this nice new shiny black Mercury outboard on the stern (just like the nice new shiny black Mercury outboard I had). I gave him a FB tongue lashing, something along the line of, “YOU COULD HAVE HAD MY BOAT FOR A SONG!” He told me he would give me, “a song” in exchange for one of my well-known tales. This one is from the archives, and is reminiscent of that TV program, “Tales from the Crypt.” Why did I resurrect this one, at this time? Because when I was doing my morning reading (in the Christian Science Reading Room, if you get my drift), I saw a casual reference to a “Tortoiseshell Barrette.” And I…had a story about that very…same…thing. So here it goes:
It was the summer of ’68 (one year before the Summer of 69!) and I had barely completed my first year on my own, away from home at college. Although I fully planned on spending the summer with my family at our lakeside cottage in New England’s Berkshire Mountains, as I had for the previous 18 summers, this plan was precluded by the simple fact that my grandmother SOLD the cottage. “Well..Frank is away from home at college, so we might as well sell the place.” How’s THAT for a self-fulfilling prophesy? Nana did not ask if anyone was still interested in spending their summers on the cool lake, or did anyone in the family want to purchase it (or HAVE it since it was paid for in full the year after it was built in 1938) no, she was in a rush to sell it before the season started for reasons that remain a mystery decades after her passing at 97).
Not to be outdone, and not wanting to spend my first summer since June 1950 in the heat of Long Island, I contacted a pal of mine, asked if I could board with his family for the summer (they were like a second family to me) and find a summer job in town. He had a job with the Town of Winchester, so he wrangled me one working with the groundskeepers. I would spend a wonderful summer, cutting the grass in the village center, several parks, and… the town cemeteries.
There was one cemetery way up a dirt road squirreled away in a wooded area. It was referred to affectionately as “Bugville” for obvious reasons and was resplendent in mosquitoes and other little bugs with big teeth. Other than slogging through the high grass to trim around the stones, the thing I most remember about the place was the saying on one tombstone: “AS YOU ARE NOW, SO ONCE WAS I. AS I AM NOT SO YOU WILL BE. PREPARE FOR DEATH AND FOLLOW ME.” True…but still morbid as hell.
The main operation though was the town’s ten acre cemetery. Andy (Sterpka- how is it I remember his name after all these years?) and Frank (Felici- his too?) were the boss and the hapless dude who I worked along with. There were one or two other guys who failed to leave the same distinct impression on my psyche that Andy and Frank did. You will soon learn the reason for this indelible impression. Andy was the boss, the supervisor. He took a liking for me as I did for him because I was a reliable, trustworthy, hard worker, and was relatable despite my pampered upbringing and college experience. Frank was a tall skinny lunkhead, often portrayed in comic strips as Goofy, or Dufus, or Sadsack. Andy called him, “Loppy.” This was short for “Lop ears” due to the fact that “Loppy” has these HUGE ears covered with a wooly bear’s growth of dark hair. Andy would invariably ask Loppy to bend over to pick something up off the ground providing Andy the perfect opportunity to kick him square in the ass. Loppy would complain loudly, all falling on deaf ears due to the laughter from the rest of us, sadly me included.
Andy, being the boss, got to have the riding mower while the rest of us had push mowers. They were not self-propelled, but rotary, and lightweight. We arrived before 8:00 and had to wait for the dew to dry off the grass before we ventured out. That gave us time to gas up the mowers, check them out for loose nuts and finish our coffee and doughnuts . It was a great job. We all had our sections to mow, and once we finished, the week was done, and we just started over where we began. At first I was a little bit skiddish stepping over people’s graves, knowing their bodies were just below my feet, but it’s tiresome stepping over scores of graves. I just got used to it. I also got to know all my clients. It was a very important job, afterall. I had a lot of people under me (LOL). I learned when people were born, and when they died, some old, and some young, before their time. I took special care at the large granite marker with the dozen or more smaller stones arranged in a semi-circle in front marking the graves of all the little orphan children who died in the flu epidemic. Sad.
Then there were the days we arrived on time but didn’t have to pull the mowers out. Those days were when funerals were scheduled. It was our job to dig the grave. This cemetery had many graves that were not in concrete vaults, just wooden boxes in the cold cold ground. For this reason heavy equipment like backhoes were prohibited, the graves had to be dug by hand. A concrete vault would be brought in by truck and left to one side. After the grave was dug we would lift the vault, carry is to the grave, and lower it into said hole. Despite the frequent term, “Six Feet Under” most graves were more like four feet under, just deep enough for an 18 inch cover of dirt. In some cases when one grave was on the bottom the other on top, the first grave was maybe another two-feet down. I never had to install Grave #1 at that depth. After the grave was dug, we covered the dirt pile with a fake grass carpet, set up the tent and chairs, and laid the straps and mechanism on which to set the coffin. It would be lowered into the grave onto two by fours that would allow the straps to be retrieved. We would then retreat and wait for the funeral party to arrive, fullfil their needs for ceremony then depart, heads bowed. The gravediggers (now you know my true calling) would then return to the gravesite, lower the casket and retrieve the straps. It always bothered me, that after folks spent literally thousands of dollars on these piano grade cherry coffins, within minutes of their departure Andy was grinding his sandy workboots into the top wrestling to remove the straps after the coffin had found its final resting place. We would then to drag the lid over, set in in place with its tar waterproofing along the edge, and return the pile of earth to the grave rounding it off in a mound.
But this story is not about the closing of the grave, but the opening for one. It was a story that will make you shiver as I did. It was all about Miss Daisee and her brother and sister. Miss Daisee’s grave was on the left, and her sister’s on the right and their brother was destined to join them in between. Andy made it quite clear: “The grave on the right is in a vault, it only went in a few years ago. The one on the right, it’s been in there for years, before the law required concrete vaults. My advice is you stick to the one on the right, because after so many years, the box and its contents turns to dirt.” Well we dug down to the concrete vault, and went right down the side, then worked our way over toward Miss Daisee’s final resting place. We had the right width and height, then started going down to the four feet required. I was at one end, Frank (Felici) was on the other. I was digging away when my shovel hit something and my eye caught it soon thereafter. I stooped down to pick it up, it was not a rock, it was…a tortoise shell barrette…with a clump of bright…red…hair. Like a hot potato, I dropped that thing with a shout of disgust. That got the other Frank’s attention. He stopped digging, turned around with that ,”Why you messing with me when I be digging in a graveyard” look…”What!?” he asked. Quite innocently I said, “I don’t know what that thing is, “ I told him. “What thing?” he asked. “That thing,” I said and pointed to the tortoise shell barrette and clumpt of bright…red…hair. He stooped stepped past me in the grave, bent down, picked it up, dropped it as quickly as I did, then did something I had never seen before. Without even bending his knees, he JUMPED out of that grave, hollering like a madman that he was NOT GETTING BACK IN THAT GRAVE I COULD JUST FINISH IT MYSELF, which I gladly did in between paroxysm of laughter.