Of Writing Words & Digging Graves

Two people furiously swinging pick-axes in a small hole—I am amazed that neither of us ever came out of the cemetery with ventilated craniums.


When Ohlins made chainsaws. Well … kinda Dean F Adams

Every once in a while somebody will ask me just how it is that I got this seemingly wonderful job, writing for this seemingly wonderful web site. More times than not that question is made with an implied tone of how do I get my shoes on the right appendage day in and out. People who know me, or think they know me, are kind of incredulous about that feat. Sorry.

When incessantly interrogated about my background as it relates to writing, I answer, “Well, I used to be a grave-digger.”

Without fail that shuts people up faster than a roll of duct tape wrapped around their head. Grave-digging and grave-diggers lives and reputations in this country were thoroughly destroyed by horror movies of the thirties. Modern people are quite astonished when a gravedigger, or “Cemetery Engineer” as they are termed today, doesn’t have dark facial hair on his forehead, a dragging club foot and a bulging hunchback ala’ Igor from the movie Frankenstien.

You see, as a teenager I helped my grandfather at his retirement job, which at the time was being caretaker at a small but picturesque cemetery overlooking Lake Pepin in western Wisconsin. His duties there included trimming the grass, shoveling snow and maintaining the grounds equipment. Occasionally, out of the blue, somebody would die and need to be buried. That fell under his job description too. In western Wisconsin, dying doesn’t seem to be as prevalent as it is everywhere else; hearty German farmers of Lutheran faith live forever, or nearly so. Rising at dawn and working outdoors all day, every day, year round has a way of keeping the Grim Reaper at bay. Besides, most are too busy to die; it’d screw up the milking schedule.

Occasionally a body would finally just wear out and the family would naturally want them planted. The funeral director down at Swanby’s Funeral Home (and Fine Furniture) would call my grandfather from the lab and request a hole be dug. Not a huge dilema, just break out the heavy machinery, right? Wrong. The soil at the Maiden Rock Cemetery is a loose sand and dirt mix that couldn’t support the huge weight of a modern earth-digging machine without caving in the hole. Hence the heavy machinery was a hand shovel and a strong back.

The ringer on the old dial-type phone hanging by the front door would ring just around supper time. Gramps would stand by the phone with the nearby television turned down so he could make out the funeral director’s voice, his finger in one ear to enable him to hear the voice on the other end of the phone. With a knife-sharpened carpenter’s pencil he’d write down the details of where the family plot was and the soil condition in that area. Any plans that were made for the following day were immediately canceled. In what is certainly a throwback to earlier time, my grandfather never took part in any type of leisure activity or errand running until every conceivable job had been completed. Born in 1910, he came from a generation of Americans that simply worked every day but Sunday. Not because of greed or advancement, but because to do less was unthinkable. He told me once that his earliest memories from childhood, although calling it a childhood by modern standards would be a stretch, were of his father making corn whiskey moonshine in the earth basement of their farmhouse, and of working. This was not the touchy-feely nineties where children are delicately nurtured and tutored, as I do my own sons. No, in the teens and twenties kids were raised, raised to be portable work centers. From the time he was five or six years old until he died, beginning at dawn, he worked every single day of the week but Sunday afternoon.

Nearly always he was able to handle digging a hole six feet deep and as wide as a coffin by hand, by himself. He was after all, only sixty-five years old when he started this job, and if his WWII veteran check (Bronze Star, Battle of the Bulge) was slow in coming through the Christmas mail, he’d dig graves by hand in January when the temperature was far below zero. The first feet of January dirt were frozen solid and it would burst up in chunks with the smaller pieces sharp as glass. He’d come home with his face bloodied from the shards of frozen earth.

Once or twice a season he’d need my help and he’d call the house or the neighborhood bar or bail me out of jail and tell me to meet him in the graveyard at dawn. Why the instructions I’ll never know because he was always at the foot of my bed the next morning before first light with an ominous, “You going to sleep all day, Adams??”

We’d drive to the graveyard in his faded red 1940 International Harvester truck, the exhaust emitting from it light blue and nearly liquid in consistency, tail gate dented where I’d backed into the windmill on my first driving lesson at ten. A couple of lunches made by my grandmother sat in a box between us on the worn seat.

Being in a cemetery at dawn is the epitome of silence. Digging commenced before the sun came up and continued on during the day. At first the job seems insurmountable: a rectangular hole cut out of the earth six feet deep. After about three feet of digging, the many advantages of cremation and the question of why it isn’t more widely accepted in Western Wisconsin fill your mind. At four feet, when you began to hit stone, you’d wonder, why six feet? Why not three feet or two feet—buried is buried after all. As with most things unaccountable, we blamed it on the government—did they believe that grave-robbing was a common problem or that a hungry wolf might dig up dead bodies?

Encountering a layer stone meant the shovels were abandoned and pick-axes were brought into action. Two people furiously swinging pick-axes in a small hole—I am amazed that neither of us ever came out of the cemetery with ventilated craniums. Although it never crossed my mind then, now I believe that as I swung the pick-ax furiously and haphazardly, behind me my grandfather must have been diving and swaying like a boxer to keep his head away from my instrument of death. I can almost picture him there, behind me with that bemused, all but amused look on his face, watching me as I, blissfully unaware, excavated my half of the rocks, almost killing him in the process.

In the ever-deeper, dank hole, amongst the sweat and grunts, conversation would go in spurts. He’d often have a Milwaukee Brewers game on the ‘wireless? and he’d go about some ERA or another player’s hitting streak. As I am now, I was completely clueless and largely disinterested in anything but motorcycles and racing. That was one of the voids between us. He was never able to completely understand my fascination with motorcycles. I’d talk bikes and racing and have the latest copy of the now defunct Popular Cycling (the coolest seventies bike magazine, hands down) with me and he’d page through it while he polished off his lunch. He said nothing, just shook his head from side to side in a negative gesture. He didn’t dislike motorcycles, at least not enough to try to keep me away from them, in fact he purchased, with money earned digging graves, some of my first learner-bikes. But he just wasn’t a motorcycle guy, he was a baseball guy. I don’t think the two breeds mix. I’ll never forget the look of disappointment on his face when I told him in junior high that I wasn’t going out for baseball, ever.

Moreover, he never rode, ever. With the single exception of sitting in the chair portion of a sidecar once in WWII Europe, he never swung his leg over a bike and had no intention of ever doing so. My seventy-year old grandmother rode behind me on my 1981 GPz550, and chastised me for going so slow, but when I asked the old man if he wanted a ride, he looked at me like I’d asked him to go inside the house and watch television while the sun was still out. It just wasn’t done.

The digging continued. The cemetery was even then quite full and if we had dug a bit off center we’d encounter the coffin next door. Any queasiness you experienced was erased by the sheer exhaustion of a day of indisputable back-breaking labor. The sight of the next coffin was merely an indication that you had dug deep enough, hence you were elated to see a wooden box presumably filled with rotting human remains. Years prior when I was deemed too puny to dig, I’d sit outside the hole so there’d be someone there if the dirt walls caved in on my grandfather. “If anything happens,” he said from the bottom of the hole as he looked up at the sand wall almost wallowing from his every move, “You run for the truck.” I never knew if that meant run for help, or just run and save the truck, I just nodded my head.

Once in that same period he dug in a old part of the cemetery that the cemetery board had deemed open, since it didn’t look from the graveyard plat books that anyone had been buried there since the place opened for business just before the American Civil War. Wrong. At about five and a half feet down, articles that looked like sticks began to come up with the dirt. Then they proceeded to get bigger and it was clear that someone had been buried there a hundred years ago as he was digging up their remains. He didn’t stop digging until large bones, dilapidated cloth and pieces of jewelry fell from his shovel.

Being about eleven, I figured that the infallible kid-law of ‘finders keepers’ took immediate jurisdiction and I stuffed some of the larger bones in a gunnysack under the battered seat of the International. He found them later at home and was horrified that I had taken a person’s bones from their final resting spot. Only the words of my grandmother allowed me to keep them, as he was ready to fire up the truck and start out for the cemetery to re-bury them. “Heavens to mergatroid Leslie, let the boy have those bones,” she said, “whoever had them doesn’t need them now.” When you’re eleven years old there isn’t anything in the world as cool as having a human femur in the garage to show your pals.

By five in the afternoon the hole would be ready and we’d sit down in the cavity with our backs against the cool earth and drink a bottle of Old Milwaukee a piece. Never has beer tasted so good.

For me the following days were tender and slow-moving, the act of removing a huge pile of earth from the ground, deeper than I was tall, had a debilitating affect even on a spry teenager. Technically I was a grave-digger, not a grave-filler, as I was always too physically annihilated to re-fill the hole with dirt. That would be accomplished, the next day before I awoke, by my grandfather.

Modern society has a misguided view of nearly the entire grave-digging process. For example, the method of placing the casket in the hole: commoners think that the box is lovingly, carefully dropped into the hole like a feather falling on a soft breeze. Nothing could be further from the truth in my experience. We’d run several lines of homemade rope yeah—he made his own rope, I’ve no idea how—across the hole, and settle the casket on it.

With the volunteered help of whomever happened to be available that day, three or four men would slowly lower the box in the hole. Invariably, at about two-thirds of the way down, and it probably didn’t help that we got these volunteers out of Russ’ Bar in the middle of the afternoon, somebody would drop his end. With one end sinking fast all hands would let go of the ropes so that the box didn’t do a barrel roll, the casket’s contents spilling out, or worse yet necessitating we bury the body vampire-style: face down. The box would drop the final three feet into the hole, landing with a thick, jarring thud.

It is not a good thing that this inadvertently happened, but it is not a bad thing either as I am sure we never buried anyone alive. Even the deepest sleeping individual could not have dozed through that drop.

My grandfather lived a quiet, modest, honest life. As the John Mellencamp song says, he “earned every dollar that ran through his hands.” He died as he lived, succumbing to heart failure in his late seventies. He spent the day before working outside under the Wisconsin sun, filling a wheelbarrow with crushed rock and pushing it up the sixteenth of a mile long hill leading to his house. The next morn he was raring to go before the sun, but while he put his boots on by the front door his heart gave up. It was hours before anyone found him, simply because he always got up hours before anyone else did. We buried him in the same cemetery he had toiled in for so long.

Once or twice a year I go riding past the graveyard. It’s on a narrow, shady and quiet road just off hi-way 35 outside of Maiden Rock, Wisconsin, part of the great Mississippi River Road that I’m sure many of you have ridden. My county lane lacks many of the features that would classify it as a great riding road, yet I enjoy riding there more than anywhere else I’ve traveled, and ridden, on several different continents.

Strafing along, as I peer through the plastic windscreen I can see the spot where he taught me to drive in that big truck, with me unable to see over the dash; where he took me fishing as a boy; where I illegally rode my first mini-bikes (bought with hard-earned grave-digging money) on the street; and the gravel road that leads to the stone with his name on it.

As the exhaust howls I wonder if he can hear it, and if he’s wearing that mildly disapproving expression on his face, as he did any time I rode a motorcycle.

Aging is a funny thing. Do we evolve into individuals, distinct and new in some ways to this era? Or do we simply mold into some pre-disposed template laid down centuries ago? I don’t know.

Lately I’ve started rising early, just like he did. Only I go riding.

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