Don't Whistle Past the Graveyard
I love cemeteries. Okay, they can be sad places from time to time, but I’ve had a love for my local resting place since I was a lad. I hark back to the days when a kid would race out the back door and, before the spring slammed the screen shut, he was gone. Moms didn’t worry about their progeny until dark. It was Baby Boomer time. Every neighborhood in town was filled to over owing with children in my age group. On sunny summer days, after we’d built enough forts to house the 7th Cavalry and shot enough Nazis to win the war, we’d slap a couple of pieces of baloney between some bread and throw them into the bicycle basket. Remember the wire baskets that used to be mounted to handlebars, and the fat-tired one-speed bikes? (I have a “modern” bike now that has so many gears and speeds that I’m not smart enough to ride it.) Anyway, basket filled with lunch, we’d speed to the cemetery to dine among the tombstones. The place was way across town, so we coasted down East Avenue and crossed Main Street. (We didn’t need pedestrian “Walk” buttons; we just used common sense.) Then we pumped uphill to the cemetery. The picnic entourage was a mix of boys and girls. Mostly we took the girls along because they had better lunches.
Several years passed and I was in high school riding the splinters on the football team. I took a shine to the cheerleaders, but the only one who smiled at me was the beefy blonde who was the solid base for the pyramid. Still, she was a girl, and after the evening’s pep rally bonfire, I walked her through the cemetery, just past the flickering light of the fire, toward town to her aunt’s place. Did I mention she was a country girl, and that country girls were much advanced in the ways of love? When we reached a spot in the burial grounds that was covered with soft moss, she tripped me and beat me to the ground. Kissing commenced, and though I didn’t advance past first base, so to speak, I had found a whole new use for the cemetery!
The cemetery was (still is) next to the high school, and my pals soon discovered that it was a great place to find some parking privacy. It evolved into a Lover’s Lane. Then, the local constabulary got involved. There were not enough drunks fighting on Main Street, so they re-directed their patrols to the tombstones. Most guys escaped at the east entrance on Riberole Street. That is, until the cops locked the gate. There were only two new cars among the parkers—Tommy and Ron each had brand new Chevy Corvairs. Well, a race just had to decide who had the fastest. Around halfway past William Bache’s four wives, they met the flashing red lights of the patrol car. Both boys headed for the east gate, only to find it closed. They gunned up the hill to the new section. Tommy edged out Ron and forced Ron to hit the brakes. It turned out that Ron nearly slid into an open grave. Of course the cop caught him but couldn’t figure what offense he had committed. The next day, a speed limit sign was pounded into the ground at the west entrance.
When I hit middle age, I discovered that half the seasoned townsfolk used the cemetery for exercise. Someone had gauged the perimeter road on the odometer and it measured exactly one mile. My lovely bride and I had tried the twenty-one-speed bikes. You know what they say about you never forget how to ride a bike? That is not true. So we took to walking. That’s when I began to read names on the tombstones. At first the strolls were roots oriented, and I pointed out four generations of my family. Then I noted a few “famous” folks. Now, I don’t mean Nessmuk, the noted outdoor writer, or Senator John Mitchell. I thought it was fun to find regular folks, read their names on the tombstone, and imagine they were those real famous somebodies.
Famous or infamous, luminaries or legends, those with fairly common last names are easy to find. My local cemetery holds less than 9,000 souls but there are some pretty big names among those dead. Any cemetery can produce John Smith (but probably not Pocahontas) or the Mormon leader, Joseph Smith. John Jones is a regular, and I always imagine his middle name is Paul. We have a guy who was the fast Jack Robinson. Oh, and Jack is next to his brother, Tom Robinson, Atticus Finch’s client in To Kill a Mockingbird. And don’t forget coo-coo-ka-choo Mrs. Robinson. And we have Bernie Williams, the Yankee baseball hitter.
We have the guy they named the 1955 John Ford movie after—Mr. Roberts. Most graveyards have a Glen Campbell or that meadow bird, Bob White. Great Biblical names were common first names in the long ago. Eli Yale is an example, but we only have Moses Yale. Then there’s what I figure must be twins buried side-by-side, Asinath and Abiatha. (I looked it up; they’re in the Bible.) I was elated to find Mrs. Butterworth. We have Bobby Kennedy, George Burns, the English author who wrote under the nom de plume George Eliot—Mary Ann Evans (actually Anne, but close enough), and Charlie McCarthy, the famous ventriloquist’s puppet. There’s a Myrna Loy Somebody (I was so struck by the gal’s first and middle name I didn’t write down her last name.) We have a Franklin Benjamin, and I imagined the guy lined up for Army basic training where names are called last name first. Then he’d be Benjamin Franklin. And there’s NBA Hall of Famer Bill Russell. I found politician Al Smith, actor Robert Shaw. But my all-time best was the country singing great George Strait!
You never know who you’ll find on a stroll through your cemetery.