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Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Stone for the Ages: From the Archives…

[sic]“…the wildflowers bloomed and the winters fell…”

By now the trip is familiar—seventeen of the last eighteen years if memory serves—winding up McNeill Canyon to the wheat fields on the Waterville Plateau. Some are fallow, some flush with sprouted winter wheat. Off the blacktop, dust funneling away behind the truck as I head north along the “Primitive Roads,” between plowed and seeded wheat fields and the basalt scablands on the northern fringe of the Waterville Plateau. On both sides of the road, some near, some distant, huge haystack rocks (“erratics,” geologists call them), dot the landscape.

“Bear left,” I remind myself as I come to one dusty intersection after another. I need to head west now. Gently slide the sharp corner by the Grigg place (a “hundred year-old farm” the sign reads) and head north again. A mile down the road next to an old homestead I slow to a stop and step out into a cool, breezy late May morning. The old cabin’s roof has succumbed to the weight of many winters, is near collapse; the structure is about to implode. Doors and windows just gaping holes through which I can see bare lathe and plaster walls. The same debris litters the floor in heaps. From somewhere within a sound startles me. I stop, listen…nothing. I continue, cautiously weaving my way through waist high grasses, stepping over snares of barbed wire, the remnants of an old gate, to an ancient lilac bush.

A white lilac, this old pioneer, is in full bloom now. Not the case in seasons past: either a late bloom or past bloom. This spring the bush (actually more a small tree) blossoms profusely and the morning breeze has loosed the heady fragrance around me. Though I’m on a tight schedule, have driven nonstop for over three hours, I take time to breathe deeply, savor the gift of lilac, for the gift comes only once a year. And next year is a long way distant, and even then, who knows…. Out with the jackknife and I cut four nice, blossom-laden branches, return to the truck and place them gently in the ice chest in the company of a bouquet of iris. One more turn to the west and I can see the canopy of pines below the ridge of the plateau: my destination where since 1994, excepting one year, I’ve performed this annual rite.

The pines always whisper there. The breeze sweeps up valley from the river, sets them to talking. Sometimes a gust of wind: the pines explode with sound, a gentle roar, subsides and they whisper again.… You might hear the keening of a red-tailed hawk mounting the currents above the plateau. In spring the drumming of a blue grouse to his lady… a flicker hammering out a grub from a dead pine below…a jay might yammer back at a rook croaking overhead…but mostly it’s the never silent pines that murmur, theirs a lullaby for the eternities. Shovel and rake in hand I make my way down slope through the bunchgrass and sage to the familiar stone….

Twelve years ago when I was about to rest on my laurels after thirty-one years of coexisting peacefully with high school sophomores, it used to irritate me each time I was asked (which was often): “What are you going to do when you retire?”… as if something was expected of me now I was about to inherit what the paycheck/nine-to-five demographic considered one whole lot of free time. For them, I guess, I was their retirement by proxy, and when I’d reply: “Oh, there’s always plenty to keep me busy around the place,” you could almost see the disappointment play across their faces. No plans to scale Everest or hike Nepal and the Himalayas? Sail solo around the world, perhaps? No intentions to rent an artist’s loft in Paris, set up an easel by a sidewalk bistro and render Parisian scenes in water color? Golf at least, right? (I’d sooner bungee jump, skydive, wrestle a ‘gator, or swim with the sharks, but I never told them that.) No, retirement was a time to keep one’s personal promises, promises the nine-to-five, five day work week until now had made extremely inconvenient to fulfill--if not impossible. And since these pledges were personal, they were nobody’s business….

Packwood Memorial Cemetery perches on a narrow bench off Central Ferry Canyon Road in northwest Douglas County. You could find it easily on a contour map of the area; it would be the wider space set between narrow lines above and below it east off the upper Central Ferry Canyon Road. Packwood CemeteryThis December, eighteen years ago, we carried Dad to this place and now Packwood has him for eternity. For seven years his grave was marked by only a small metal nameplate, courtesy of the local funeral home, and now seven years later the cheap copper plating had worn off. Dad deserved better than that from his family, and so I promised…. Thus, in January of 2001, my first full year of retirement, I began to make good that promise.

Dad loved the ridge above where he now lies. A deer hunter and outdoorsman, he spent many hunting seasons scouring the Packwood pines for deer (“This looks ‘deery,’” Dad always said). We thought about the geography of the area, wanted something natural for Dad’s monument. The granite and marble markers in the cemetery seemed oddly out of place in the geography of the area. The dominant petrology of the Waterville Plateau is basalt from some ancient volcanic lava spill that oozed across hundreds of miles of Eastern Washington. The northern fringe of this flow ended in northwest Douglas County; basalt scablands and “rimrocks” compose the  steep hillside above Packwood. A monument of basalt seemed appropriate for the setting. (Other families thought the same: at least two plain basalt slabs from the hillside mark where their loved ones lie.)Marker 2Marker 1






Just down the road a mile here in the Valley was a business that sold stone of all sorts: flagstone, pavers, boulders for “big” landscapes…rocks of all types and compositions. A convenient place to begin the search. I needed to include family in the decision, so I called my brothers Tim and Kevin. We met at the stone place and checked out their inventory. After stumbling around, over and through one rock pile after another, we found what we were looking for: blocks of columnar basalt from the Columbia Basin. The stones were huge, some weighing tons, so immediately we were confronted by a transport problem. The brothers and I discussed the feasibility of freighting such a monolith to a pioneer cemetery one hundred eighty miles away across one mountain pass to its final resting place. We chose the smallest block of basalt in the stone yard, one that was slightly longer than its height but even that chunk scaled out at slightly more than a ton. Then we had an idea that would lighten up the stone by half. Most columnar basalt is hexagonal. Halving the stone would result in a three-sided monument, one side to serve as the top, the opposite side as the base, and the sliced third—the largest surface area—would be a perfect inscription surface for Dad’s epitaph…and lighter now by half. We asked the owners if the stone could be halved and were told yes; however, they did not have the machinery for the job on site and would have to haul the rock to Seattle. We made the decision to go ahead with the project.The stone was forklifted aboard a pallet, weighed, set aside with a “sold” tag on it, and we left the yard.

Thus began a long and frustrating ordeal. Because I was closest to the work site, it made sense for me to be the one to oversee the project. My brothers, besides, had a business to run.  Then there was the fact I was the eldest sibling, the one with a “whole lot of free time” on my hands, remember. It was my promise after all and I swore to honor it.

The project needed a timeline. It was mid-January when we purchased the stone. All members of the family were contacted and the installation date set: July seventh, the Independence Day holiday weekend. Ours is a large family and the Fourth of July is one of the few times of the year we could manage to get together. My youngest sister and family were making the trip west from Omaha and planned to participate. Mid-January to July seventh, nearly seven months…plenty of time to prepare Dad’s monument. Or so I thought….

Every two or three weeks I would drive the mile to the stone yard, check on the progress. Time after time I would pull in the driveway only to find our “project” hunkering in the same place as before. Into the office and politely, “No progress yet?”only to be told “We’ve been busy lately but we’ll get on it soon.” Soon? I reminded them again that July seventh the family would be together for the installation. They’d smile and nod as if July 7 was a millennium away.

February and March went by. The stone hadn’t budged, and I’m thinking about the $500 deposit I’d left as down payment. “Our trucks have been very busy,”they explained, “and we just haven’t been able to free one up for the trip to Seattle.” Two weeks later I turned into the driveway and was surprised to see the stone had left the yard. My next visit our half, neatly sliced, was back on its pallet in the yard. And there it sat: the next phase, sandblasting an inscription surface still unfinished.

April came and went. I talked to the fellow assigned to our project: “Every time I’m about to get started, they give me another job,” he apologized. Back to the office where I suggested they hire more help if they weren’t able to complete their orders.

Finally in mid-May, progress at last: the face of the stone had been sandblasted, smoothed and sculpted to a shiny, obsidian-black. My hopes soared.

May passed into June and the epitaph had yet to be engraved. Two weeks later…same old, same old, and I’d had enough. I stormed into the office, asked to see the manager, and unloaded on him: “If the project isn’t done by the first of July, I want my money refunded and I’m cancelling the project.” July 1. I drove down promptly at opening time and there, strapped to a pallet, ready for transport, was—at long last—Dad’s stone. An American flag, posted in the top of the stone above the epitaph, fluttered gently in the Tualco Valley breeze. Now all that remained was transporting the 1,200 pound monument across Stevens Pass one hundred eighty miles to Packwood Memorial Cemetery.

Whether my little Toyota was up to the task, I wasn’t sure. I asked Larry at Courtesy Tire about the weight issue. He thought the truck could handle a 1,200 pound load. “Air up your tires to 40 pounds pressure,” he advised. “You’ll be fine.” I had the stone loaded, made sure the pallet was moved forward to the cab to distribute the weight forward. Departure was two days away, and to spare the Toyota’s suspension system, the truck sat in the driveway with a one ton jack supporting the springs.ready to transport

At five a.m. July 6 I headed east. My little Toyota performed admirably: third gear the last few miles to the summit but otherwise a routine drive. Proper weight distribution made the difference and kept the front end from floating at highway speed. Before noon I arrived at the packing shed complex on the ranch where Dad had been foreman for so many years…our staging area. One of the shed hands met me and with a ranch forklift relieved the truck of 1,200 pounds of stone. The monument spent the night in an empty cold storage room.

July 7. I arrived at the staging area around 8:00 a.m. The ranch mechanic gave me a brief driving lesson for the balloon-tired big forklift that would carry the headstone uphill the last seven miles to the cemetery.Staging The family gathering and installation were at 10:00, so with brother Tim as escort, I began the last leg of our seven month “journey.”

Seven slow miles…plenty of time to let memories wash over me as the big machine whined its way up Central Ferry Canyon Road.all uphill


in transit 

As I turn into the cemetery driveway, I can feel the tension of the last seven months slip away. I bring the  forklift to a stop in the shade of the big pine tree in the dusty parking lot, lower the pallet to the ground.

I need to reposition the stone so the epitaph reads downhill, and reverse the machine, approach the pallet from the opposite side, and with Tim’s directions slide the forks under the pallet. I ease along through the sagebrush to the gravesite, carefully lower the pallet to the ground, and shut down the engine. As the roar subsides, the murmur of the pines whispers a gentle welcome.almost, but not quite

One by one our families gather. When all are present, we prepare the gravesite for the stone’s final resting place.A family gathering The brothers fashion a sling from the canvas strapping belt, and I lift the stone while they remove the pallet. Placing the monument is done with ease, thanks to the forks of the lift which not only lift and lower but also slide horizontally.A proper place

A few hand directions from the brothers and the stone settles to rest. We pull loose the straps, stand back and admire our work. The stone belongs, as if it’s always been there…a part of the place…at home at last.

                  *          *          *          *          *

I set the rake and shovel aside and critique my work. Another year and Dad’s gravesite is cleared of the  growth of native plants ever anxious to reclaim the site. The grave is newly mounded, raked and smoothed. I decorate it with the lilacs I cut earlier and add the iris I brought from the Valley. Only one thing left to do: I retrieve the new flag from the truck, return to the stone,  release the red, white and blue cloth from its furl and insert the dowel in the posting hole. A few steps back for final approval. The ever present breeze sets the flag in motion. Time for a moment’s reflection: my journey of eleven years ago to honor a man, my father, and his lifetime.Dad 2012

If a man deserves the stone, I say he should have it. Now Dad has his. A stone for the ages…a promise kept….

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