The cool November air continued it's decline as the light transitioned from a golden yellow into a sort of darker pinkish gray. I was standing alone at the freshly set gravestone of my father, Robert E. Nelson in the Lutheran cemetery of my hometown, Garretson, SD. The grass was slowly giving up the battle to stay green, although the remarkably warmer autumn has been so unusual for the area that flowers were blooming again in many gardens and some people that had put away their lawn mowers and brought out their snowblowers were frustrated when, after a warm spell and some gentle rain, they had to dig their mowers out again and give the lawn another bit of their attention.
The cemetery sits atop the hill on the far east end of town, The navy blue, silo-type water tower guards over it from the highest point of the hill. In the days when I grew up here you could look down to the west over the town and see all the way to the grain elevators with the two larger steeples of the Catholic and the Lutheran churches popping up in between. The latter was near the swimming pool and baseball field (that shared it's outfield with the football team in the fall). You would've been able to see all of that had it not been for the trees that have replaced the alfalfa field across the road from the cemetery. (footnote 1)
I glanced up at the water tower, now catching the last of the light from the setting sun and remembered the time before we had a water tower on the hill. The water storage instead was inside the hill where there was a large tank buried next to where the tower is now. We referred to it as the water hill. I believe it was the Donelan's that lived right next to the hill and I always wondered if they had ANY water pressure at all as it was well known that the people down at the bottom of the town had the best pressure. We lived on the east side of town, just down the hill from the tower on third street, but our pressure was pretty good.
I surveyed Dad's stone and checked it over. They had to place quite a bit of dirt on one side of the base to make it level. The freshly set dirt hadn't even eroded yet as this just got put into place earlier this week.
Dad had died three years ago, but we hemmed and hawed about what exact stone we wanted to place there and what it should say. His wife, our step-mom, had moved up to Minneapolis to be nearer to her own children and our communication with her had not been the best since the move. We finally worked it out with her and got a stone with a place for her next to dad.
I think people were wondering why it had been taking so long for us to get a stone, and some had even stepped up with offers of contributing to the cause if was needed. We would politely decline their kind generosity, with reassurances that 'no, we're on it... it's just taking us a while to all get on the same page'. They just wanted to be able to come and pay their respects and were beginning to wonder what was going on, I think.
Dad had been a pillar of the community. Our family, our ancestors were pillars of the community. Many different sides of my relatives all came in the early days of the town and ran different important businesses. My dad was the third generation owner of the drug store, Johnson Drug. named for his grandpa Ole Johnson. Ole's daughter, Gertrude married Emmett Nelson from Viborg and they moved back to Garretson when they had their two boys, my dad (Bob) and his little brother, Rolly. Emmett had been a major league baseball pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds and before that for the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League. I'll get to him later.
Dad was also very involved in the church and in the different organizations of the town that helped run the business community and government. He was the mayor for one term in the late 1970's, a move that he called the worst business decision he ever made in his life. It took so much of his time and he lost many customers due to people that were upset with little things that they didn't like how had handled. Potholes, for instance, I remember more than once when the city engineer wasn't around or available and dad couldn't take any more of the bitching so he'd run down to the city building and grab the truck and a load of pitch and run in up to the aforementioned potholes and fill them himself, just to shut the person(s) up.
It's important to remember that as the town pharmacist, he was literally on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If we ever took a vacation or trip, dad would have to make sure that he had a substitute available to fill in and be ready in case somebody in town were to be having a allergic reaction to something, or somebody come down with some crazy flu or something. There was very little rest for this man. And he usually did it without complaining... at least in public. We three boys and our mom would occasionally hear the details of some of the dumbest people in town and their exploits in expecting ANOTHER prescription to be charged even though they still had an outstanding bill of SOME amount AND they were driving a brand new Oldsmobile! "They can buy a new car, but they can't pay any of their DAMN bill?", would be something we were likely to hear... INSIDE our house.
This is what eventually drove my dad out of town. A few years after the divorce and after I had moved back from college, Dad finally found somebody to buy the drug store and it's debts from him and he was able to move to Sioux Falls and start working for a larger company that would begin setting up his 401k that he had never had a chance to work on when being a small business owner. He left on bad terms with a lot of people that still owed him money. People that had passed away leaving a huge unpaid bill from their time in the nursing home, the portion of each prescription that wasn't covered by their insurance would be tacked on to an ever-growing mountain of debt that my father was hoping would get settled by their estate or their families after their death's. Sometimes it would and all would be ok, but other times, there was just too much for the family to do anything about and they'd leave my dad high and dry. These hard feelings are part of the reason that kept my dad from going back to reunions and gatherings over the rest of the years of his life. As I look at his grave and think about all those feelings he had, even though I know he asked to be buried next to his mom and dad in the family plot, I wonder how much of him would just as soon have been placed somewhere else, like in Sioux Falls.... I think he belongs in Garretson and he did too, but he had given so much of himself and left with such a hole in himself after giving so much that his Blue Dragon spirit was definitely blue and draggin'. He never suggested being buried anywhere else. This is where he was born ... just down the street, in fact, in the DuVall Hospital on the corner and now he's at the top of the hill, next to his mom and his dad and his brother.
I look at the grass growing around the headstone of his mom and his dad and his brother and see that whoever mowed it didn't do a real tight job of trimming up with a weed-eater. A smile creeps across my face and I get goosebumps as I remember being up here in this exact place about 35 years ago, trying to finish up the mowing job that my brother and I were in charge of. We had a small lawn mowing business and the cemetery and the nursing home were our two biggest accounts. We Nelson boys usually under bid the Johnson boys on those big accounts merely because we didn't have near the overhead that they did. They owned farm equipment and a trucking company so had access to a couple of bigger John Deere riding lawn mowers. We usually had two push mowers and then a smaller Snapper riding or maybe an Arend's. Not near the blade width and speed of the Johnson boys, but what we lacked in size, we made up for in quality and finesse. We were careful to go slow and make our lawns look very nice. We also trimmed extensively around trees, flower gardens, edges of sidewalks and yes, gravestones. The Lutheran cemetery is no small task either It would usually take a few hours to get it done.
I can remember distinctly that more than once dad would have to find us and remind us that there was going to be a funeral at 1 pm and we best get off our asses and get up there and get that done before the family starts showing up! We'd hustle up the hill driving the mower, while pulling a push mower and also balancing a 5 gallon gas can on the mower deck. The other would ride their bike and pull another mower or bring the weedeater and start doing the trim work... the tedious tedious trim work necessary at a cemetery.
We'd literally be running to get the place mowed in time to clean up and get out of there before the funeral procession showed up and I distinctly remember more than once having to hide up behind the hill to the north. One time we left the gas can down by a tree beyond the gathering family huddled together in the shade of the tent, the smell of freshly cut grass still heavy in the air. We'd stay well hidden until we heard the ringing shots of the military salute rifles rang out and taps was played. Once we heard all the cars pull away, we'd get up from our hiding spot and gingerly peek around and see if the coast was clear. I think Chris was often called in to play taps on the trumpet and he'd come get us when it was all clear. One more day of mowing was in the books. One more day learning all the names of all the families before me.
----1. The grove of trees was planted by and tended to by Gene Hunt... the mayor of Garretson back in the late 80's as part of his acreage project that was to be a self-sustaining energy source. He moved to town with money that most people in town had never seen the likes of and built a house unlike any around. It's main source of heat was a fireplace with a unique chimney system that routed the heat around an exchange unit and pumped it throughout the house. The groves of trees were to be harvested a little at a time and replenished with new growth. The trees were fast growing and would be replaced in their row about every 10 years. He only lived in this home for about 8 years and I don't know if they ever harvested any of the trees. 30 years later the trees are huge.
I'm just a creative guy that's looking to throw all this spaghetti onto the wall and hope something sticks.