I think almost anyone with half a soul can think of an adult (other than immediate family) who influenced them in a meaningful way. Their memories linger long after you say farewell. I’ve had what may be more than my fair share of such men and women. “The Boneyard” is the story of one of them and the brief period during which our stories overlapped.
They just hired you, back then. You needed a job. They needed someone to work. That was “fit” enough. So when I showed up for work the first day, Harold didn’t comment on the irony of a college student majoring in history digging graves—if it even occurred to him. He wouldn’t be working with me, anyway.
The same could not be said of his two full-time employees, Glenn and Keith. When Harold escorted me to the tool shack that winter morning, Keith’s expression gave no hint of his thoughts. Glenn’s gaze oozed the passive hostility a man who has seen too much reserves for someone who’s seen too little.
“This is Bryan,” Harold said. He nodded in my direction, as though there might be some confusion regarding whom he meant. “He’s a student at Iowa State. He’ll be working here part-time until he graduates and accepts his commission in the Marines.”
Harold jerked a thumb in the direction of the big man at the coffee pot. “That’s Glenn Sorensen. He’s your supervisor.” Harold waved to the smaller, wizened man by the oil heater. “And that’s Keith Connaught. Been with us a long time.”
Glenn shifted his pipe from his right hand to his left and took mine in a vise grip. I squeezed back, and watched his eyes register the beginnings of respect. “Glad to meet ya.” The voice matched the man—genuine, matter-of-fact.
Keith took my hand in his turn and caught my eye. “Same here.” His smile erased at least ten hard winters.
“I’ll leave you guys to get acquainted.” Harold nodded toward the office. “You need me you know where I’ll be.”
Harold’s departure treated us to a blast of February air and a dusting of snow before the door slammed behind him.
“Help yourself to coffee,” Keith offered. “Gonna be a cold day.”
“Thanks,” I replied. “I don’t drink coffee.”
“Not now, mebbe,” Glenn told me. “You will.”
Keith’s eyes danced with amusement as he headed for the coffee pot to pour himself another cup.
“We’ll get started in another ten minutes.” Glenn nodded in the direction of the time cards. “Fill one o’ those out ‘fore we go.” His eyes flicked to the top of my head. “Got a hat?”
“Just ear muffs,” I replied.
Glenn stared and Keith chuckled.
“What? I asked.
“Nothing,” he told me.
So began my first day at the municipal cemetery. In less than a month, I’d taken to referring to it as the bone yard. It didn’t take long for work ethic to erode Glenn’s antagonism. By spring I was tolerated. By mid-summer, I was accepted with hardly a trace of condescension for my youth.
I particularly liked the Saturdays I worked alone with Keith. They had an easy rhythm the Saturdays with Glenn lacked. Keith felt obliged to explain, even without my asking.
“Ohhh, Glenn’s always in a hurry,” Keith drawled more than once. He’d swirl coffee around in his cup and look up at me with Gaelic irony. “Don’t s’pose he can help himself.” With that, he’d drain his cup and set it down decisively. “But no matter how fast he goes, there’s always sumthin’ left to do.” With a smile and nod in the direction of the truck parked outside, Keith signaled the beginning of our day.
Saturday mornings began with a run around the cemetery, clearing dead bouquets from graves and emptying the trash barrels into the bed of the pick-up. Some days, the barrel in the back of the cemetery produced a single empty wine bottle.
“Bottle of Tokay?” Keith asked once.
“How did you know it was Tokay?” I asked.
“Pretty much always is,” Keith observed. “Come back late ‘nough at night, we’d probly catch ‘em. Don’t guess anybody but him’s here at that hour.”
“You know him?”
Keith would just smile and drop the truck into gear. We’d head out the back gate, turn right on Thirteenth Street, bound for the dump. While I emptied the truck bed, Keith poked through the latest offerings in the landfill. Sometimes he’d find something he could salvage and toss it in the bed.
“I do all my shoppin’ here at the dump,” he’d say. A sly, self-deprecating grin would spread across his lips as he pushed in the clutch to start the ignition.
When we returned, whatever he’d found went into the trunk of the glossy black fifty-seven Chevy two-door he drove. Keith never explained, never apologized and I could detect no pattern in his choices. Keith’s “dump shopping” remained cloaked in enigma, not unlike the deepest thoughts of the man himself.
Lunch brought stories. Keith talked, I listened. Many of his tales came from his open pit mining days in Minnesota.
“Worked with this ole guy, once,” he began, one Saturday in August. “May’ve told you ‘bout him before. Used to set all the dynamite charges for the operation?”
Keith smiled when I nodded. “Used ta scare the hell out of me, the way he tamped them charges. Makin’ sure they was ‘seated’ right, he used to say. I guess he knew what he was doin,’ but I never got used to it.” He chuckled. “I’m scared uh dynamite and he knew it.” Keith shook his head, with a smile full of yesterdays.
“I’d shimmy back into the cracks to drill the holes ‘n after he fused ‘em, I’d push the charges back far as I could reach. Then he’d tamp ‘em while I drilled the next one. So one day I’m in pushin’ the last charge in the hole for a daisy chain we was settin’ an’ he yells after me in this crack I’m in. ‘Keith,’ he says, ‘Better come out uh there. Fuse’s lit.’”
I looked at Keith in astonishment.
He nodded with an amused chuckle. “He’d do that every once in a while, jus’ to scare me. Ohhh, he always give me plenty uh time, but I’d come outta that hole cussin’ at him ‘n he’d jus laugh. Then he’d stroll out of range, slow-like, big toothless grin on his ugly mug, chewing on the end of his cigar.” Keith closed his lunch pail, still smiling.
Later that afternoon, we had an interment. Keith guided the backhoe into place as usual. As the operator lowered the outriggers, we kept an on them to make sure they cleared the grave stones on either side. After we skimmed the sod off and set it aside, the backhoe operator dug the hole, dumping the dirt into the three-sided dirt box we’d set up alongside the grave. When the backhoe finished, we shaved the edges of the hole with hand shovels, so the vault wouldn’t hang up on the way down and covered the dirt with a square of AstroTurf. When the vault arrived, we lowered it into the grave and retired to a discrete distance.
When the mourners began arriving, I was surprised by how many classmates and teachers from my high school were gathered around the site. After the ceremony ended, Keith pulled the truck alongside the grave site and turned off the ignition.
“Who are we burying?” I rarely asked.
Keith picked up the clipboard and glanced at it. “Mooreman. Karen Mooreman.”
Keith watched my reaction, then frowned sympathetically. “First time buryin’ someone ya know?”
He grimaced. “How well did you know her?”
“She was in my graduating class. We weren’t close. Still it’s…”
Keith nodded and waved out the window. “Live long enough, your whole life’s written in the names you reconize on gravestones.” He sat there reflecting a minute before placing the clipboard reverently on the seat.
We moved the flowers aside, pulled AstroTurf off the dirt pile and lowered the casket into vault. The funeral staff retrieved the lowering straps and the support frame and left us to our work.
After sealing the vault, we began shoveling dirt around the edges. I tried to ignore the insistent awareness that I was standing on the vault of someone I knew, even casually. We shoveled in silence, until the grave was filled, replaced the sod and arranged the flowers. I’d never been particularly religious, but that afternoon I lingered over Karen’s grave to whisper an apology for not knowing her better—for not honoring her uniqueness.
At the end of the day, Keith wished me a good night and rumbled off in his fifty-seven, the engine loping to the subdued staccato of a competition cam. I wondered, as I had many times, what Keith was doing with a hot machine so out of character for him.
I got into my own car and sat there for a minute. For no reason I could think of, I drove back to Karen’s grave site and got out. Situated at the back of the cemetery, it had a nice view from the bluff overlooking the shallow river valley. I love heights and open horizons, so I walked over to take in the late afternoon sun playing over trees nodding to the sluggish, humid breeze. Sunlight shimmered on the river, winking back at me through the trees lining its banks.
Silly as it seemed, I was glad she had a nice view. Like she can really see it, I snarked at myself. I turned back toward the access drive and headed for my car. As I passed the trash can where I’d found the bottle of Tokay, I wondered again how Keith knew.
It was on my way back to the car that I saw them. Stepping around a cluster of three flush-mounted stones, I glanced down and stopped dead at the names. Katherine Connaught had died just a little less than twenty years before, after less than two years of life. Next to her was Colleen, loving mother, who had died the same year. A bronze plaque identified Sergeant Kyle Connaught. Killed in action, 1968. The Tet offensive, I wondered. Maybe Hue city?
I never mentioned my accidental discovery To Keith. While my expanded knowledge of his past begged questions, I had no idea how to ask them, nor did his unbroken silence seem to invite my sympathy.
My degree finished the spring of the next year, I accepted my commission and soon found myself in Southeast Asia, where Keith’s son had given his life for a mostly indifferent nation. I made it home as he had not. On the freedom bird home, I thought about Keith and the son he’d lost. But once back, I became immersed in my duties, and distractions at Pendleton where I was stationed after returning from Vietnam.
I always meant to go back and see Keith, on one of my visits home. I wanted to thank him for his quiet companionship and acceptance, especially in light of what must have been an uncomfortable reminder of loss. But I always found reasons not to go. Guilt finally overcame my reticence on the way to Quantico, Virginia, when I was posted there. I made the detour north and stopped at the boneyard. A fourth stone marked in the Connaught plot, when I arrived.
I stood there a long time, thinking about Keith, his treasure trove of stories and his easy humor. As I stood there, a man I didn’t recognize drove up in a city sedan with “Cemetery Supervisor” stenciled on the side. Perhaps the out-of-state plates on my car had aroused his proprietary instincts, or maybe he was just curious. Anyway, he stopped, asking politely what I was doing.
“Just paying my respects,” I told him, nodding at Keith’s marker.
The man looked down at the marker, then back up at me. He took in the high and tight haircut that gives away career Marines. “You knew him?” he asked.
“Not nearly as well as he knew me,” I said.