Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Tour of Homes 2: Greenlawn – Beginnings and Endings

The main cemetery in Wapakoneta, my hometown, is called Greenlawn. Like cemeteries in other towns, for most people it's "a sad place". But for me, Greenlawn never was, because as I was growing up I registered it as a venue for beginnings rather than endings.

Until he was middle-aged, my maternal grandfather, Vernon Leroy Weber, known to me as Grandpa Vern, was a tenant farmer. He worked his youth away on the Herbst Farms, which belonged to a large landowner of that surname whose holdings were mostly in Shelby and Auglaize counties. Grandpa Vern moved his family consecutively to three of those farms, that I know of, as my mother and her two brothers and her sister were growing up – one in the middle of the country off of the South Dixie Highway (Old US Route 25) in Shelby County, another near the village of Botkins in Auglaize County on that same route, and the last one on the Middle Pike just east of Wapakoneta, roughly where Interstate-75 now scars the gently rolling farmland.

There was never any danger of Grandpa Vern's earning enough to save up, buy land and start a farm of his own. Mr. Herbst culled skilled farmers from people he could trust, immigrants from the old country, other Germans like himself, and their first-generation American-born children – the case of my great-grandparents, and their American-born son, Vern. Wherever they put him, my grandfather worked the land as if it were his own, making roughly the same monthly wage paid to cattle drovers at the time (of which he had been one in his youth), about thirty dollars a month. Of course the advantage the tenant farmer had was that, if he and his wife could find the time, they could have their own vegetable garden, chickens for eggs and poultry, and a few other perks. They got one pig a year to slaughter, could keep enough milk from the dairy cows for their own table, even buy and board some livestock of their own. There was always a woodlot for fuel and usually good hunting, pheasant and rabbit, in and around it. It wasn't poverty by any stretch of the imagination. In fact life, if hard, was often good. But economically, it was never enough to do more than get by.

Until they moved to the Middle Pike, my mother never lived in a house with running water or electric lights. There was a hand pump in the kitchen and the bathroom was out back. In winter, homework was done by the light of a coal oil lamp, and the milking was done before school (Mom and my Grandma Myrt's job) by the light of a barn lantern. School was a one-room country schoolhouse a mile and a half away from home, where at least six grades were taught simultaneously, and Mom walked or rode her Shetland pony, depending on the weather. But the education she got was amazingly complete and when she went to high school in town – highly applied student and avid reader that she was – she not only had no problem keeping up with the new curriculum but was also often ahead of it.

My grandmother Myrtle (née) Cavinder instilled the love of reading in her, since Grandma had an excellent education for a woman of her times (she was born in 1899) having finished high school with a vocational certificate that would have permitted her to work in a mercantile business or office as a clerk or secretary had she not married a farmer. Grandpa Vern, for his part, had only had three years of formal schooling, which he got largely by accident, since as soon as he was old enough, he was needed on the farm. The three years that he went to school were, I was told, because at the time there were sometimes bears in the woods that his sister, Clara, had to cross to get to the one-room schoolhouse she attended, and until she was considered old enough to walk alone, he accompanied her. He managed, however, to learn to read and write quite well with my grandmother's help and, before the advent of television, long after they moved to town, he entertained himself reading the dime store cowboy novels that were popular at the time. He also entertained himself and his family (including us grandchildren later on) by sketching out comic drawings of lanky cowboys, sway-backed horses and busty ornery-looking country women. Sometimes the cowboys and their mounts both wore the same perverse toothy grins and I remember when my little brother was about four years old that Grandpa tried to make him a gift of one of these drawings, but was turned down. "I don't want that horsey, Grandpa," my little brother said cowering from the pencil drawing. "He will bite me!"

Hard as a tenant farmer's life was, you never heard complaints from any of them. Not my grandparents or my mother and her siblings. That was just the way country life was and it had a lot of joyous and beautiful aspects to it. There was a communion with nature and the weather, a love of the countryside. Things my mother inherited from hers, both of them gentle intelligent women who had a special love for all things natural.

As for Grandpa Vern, he was a force of nature all his own – an active, man with the strength of an ox, the obstinacy of a mule, the grit and endurance of a marathon runner and the ever-seething violence of a tornado. As it affected him personally, he ignored the weather. As it affected the farm, he worked around it. He neither loved nor hated it. He accepted and reacted to it, period, an attitude quite different from that of Mom and Grandma who were practically instinctive meteorologists, who could forecast what was coming just by watching the animals, the plants, the sky and the trees, by smelling the air, by the feel of the wind.

The knowledge that Grandpa Vern had of all things practical was astonishing. He was a capable if not particularly sophisticated carpenter (he built the first bungalow he and my grandmother lived in on his father's farm, for instance), an able mechanic and a consummate farmer. For much of the early part of his farming days, the work was done with draft horses and hand plows that he followed on foot, a job that called for the man to have almost as much strength as the beast that preceded him. But when it became hard to compete with the first tractors in terms of time and crop yield, he boned up on vapor technology and built his own steam-driven tractor. He was nothing if not inventive and a living example of the adage that claimed necessity was the mother of invention.

I don't know what the circumstances were of their moving to town – perhaps the belated effects of the Great Depression, perhaps a desire to see their children properly educated – but sometime between the time my mother and her older brother Eugene started and finished high school, the family moved to the big barn of a house on Van Horn Street, where my grandparents would live until their deaths. Grandpa Vern landed a job on a State Highway Department crew building, improving and repairing Ohio roads. Eventually, however, perhaps through the influence of the Herbst family, he ended up working at and later being in charge of Greenlawn Cemetery.

.CAPTION: Vernon Weber c.1960

Cemetery work was hard in those days. The six-foot-deep graves were dug by hand and people were inconsiderate enough to die in all kinds of weather – from the blistering heat of Ohio summers to the arctic chill of northern winters and from the torrential rains and mud of spring to the golden days of autumn. But the only recognition of the seasons that my grandfather ever demonstrated were changes of headgear and outerwear – a broad-brimmed hat for rain and sun, a wide-billed canvas cap for mid-seasons and a lined cap with ear-flaps for the winter, accompanied by various and sundry combinations of woolen jackets, rain slickers, flannel or tropical twill work shirts and khaki or woolen work pants, always with the same heavy work shoes, sometimes covered with buckle-up, shin-high rubber snow-boots for the most inclement weather.

So for me, the cemetery was always a place of solace, where, on any given day, I could find my much-admired grandfather hard at work. It was a comfort to know he was there. There was even an underlying feeling that since he was in charge of burying the dead, his mission was so important that perhaps he himself might never die. When I reached an age at which I had certain autonomy, at the age of, say, ten, when I was allowed to ride my bicycle pretty much any place in town, I would sometimes ride all the way out to the city limits where the cemetery was located and hang out for a while. It wasn't as if you could make a nuisance of yourself. My grandfather was stern and had little patience with children. But as long as I just watched and didn't get into the way, I think he found it flattering that I should want to spend time out there with him. Besides, whenever he got tired of my being under foot, he would simply say, "You best get on outa here now," and I knew better than to ask why.

When he was in the mood, however, he taught me a great deal. By the time I was twelve, I knew the common name of every tree and plant in the cemetery. He wouldn't give me master classes or anything, but if he saw me looking at some particular species, he might say something like, "Know what that is, Dan'el?" And If I shook my head, he would say, "That there's a star gum," or "that'n over there's a dogwood," or "that there's a juniper pine."

But this kind of intermittent communion wasn't limited to the cemetery, although Greenlawn was, nevertheless, where most adventures began. From the time I was old enough to walk all day without becoming a burden, he started taking me with him when he went hunting. Not always, but whenever the spirit moved him. He first tested me on hikes he took each fall with my older sister, Darla, so that she could add new species to her leaf collection. Leaf collecting probably sounds like a strange pastime to children of today who might have trouble understanding why anyone would go to the trouble of collecting and leaves when there's sure to be someplace that you can see gorgeous full-color photos of them on the Internet with all of the data that you could ever hope to find right there for the asking. But back then, computers were hideous business machines that only scientists understood and that shot out information on unintelligible punch cards, and our mindset was so different that we never would have been able to comprehend why anybody would settle for a picture of a leaf when you could hold the real thing in your hand, press it with a steam iron and waxed paper to preserve it and paste it into a scrapbook. Especially when you had your very own grandfather to tell you what it was and to which tree it belonged, which fruit the trees bore and roughly the age of the specimen you were looking at.

Anyway, the first hike we took, the three of together, was when I was still quite small, perhaps eight or so, and I was only permitted to go because I bawled and hollered and carried on until, at her wits' end, my mother told my sister that if she were going with Grandpa she would have to take me too or not go. Clearly she wasn't happy with the arrangement, so she did little or nothing to help me keep up. On the contrary, she was probably secretly hoping I would simply get lost. She had been on a couple of such expeditions before with our grandfather and knew that he was not some kindly old granddad who would make allowances for the weak or faint of heart, that you kept pace or became potential buzzard bait.

I was, then, shocked at the apparent irresponsibility and lack of understanding of both of them, when Grandpa parked his Hudson at the back of the cemetery, negotiated a seven-strand barbed wire fence, dropped lithely into a cornfield on the other side and said over his shoulder, "Ready, Dard?" To which my sister said yes, gleefully scrambled over the fence and took off after him as he made his way down a corn row with incredible haste, while I was still meticulously seeking to get over the fence without scratching myself on its threatening barbs, since, my mother had warned me, if I were to hurt myself on rusty barbed wire, I was going to have to have a tetanus shot.

Grandpa Vern was very close to six feet tall, slim as a birch sapling and with unusually long legs that, sure-footed as he was, allowed him to cover terrain at astonishing speeds. He would move down the corn rows with a kind of violent grace, elbowing the shoulder-high plants out of his way and snapping off or trampling down any that had the audacity to try and block his path. And my naturally strong and agile sister managed to dog him so closely that she was often in danger of stepping on his heels – a very real danger, since if you were to step on Grandpa Vern's heels, you could pretty much expect to get elbowed in the nose. I lagged behind at a trot in mortal fear of losing sight of them. And even after we broke out of the dense, stifling corn-row hell into open pasture and woodlots, the pattern remained pretty much the same, so that my day ended up being mostly about keeping up.

But I must have done a pretty good job of it because my reward was that many times after that I was invited to go along, without my sister, when the mission was a more important one than mere leaf-collecting – namely, hunting for pheasant and rabbit. When I was still small, he put my inexpert awkwardness to good use, utilizing my dubious talents as a surrogate hunting dog by sending me off to the left and right of him to inadvertently crash around in the thicket and scare the game over his way. But I eventually became enough of a woodsman to no longer be of any use to him in these endeavors and was allowed to join the hunt proper.

The rules were simple enough: Don't be runnin' you mouth all the damn time; it scares the game. When you get to a fence, get the hell over the goddamn thing some time t'day. When you do, break down and unload your shotgun first. Make sure your muzzle is always pointed away for the other hunters. And don't ever get in front of another hunter, no matter what. Any and all of these were offenses for which you could expect an immediate response, which usually consisted of a rap on the skull with Grandpa's hard, boney knuckles, or a good swift kick in the seat of the pants – one that was pretty much sound enough to make your nose bleed.

This is not to say that, when pressed, Grandpa could not be innovative with his punishments. Once when I had been dilly-dallying around, in seeking to negotiate a particularly rickety barbed wire fence for what, to him, must have seemed an inordinate amount of time, Grandpa Vern shimmied and twisted a rotting fencepost out of the ground and with a movement not unlike shaking crumbs from a large tablecloth, undulated the entire fence in such a way that I was heaved on my head and shoulders onto the ground on the other side, as if thrown from a bucking bronco. And with that he picked up his shotgun, reloaded it and moved off in search of game. I knew it was useless – even dangerous – to protest, so I simply picked myself up, dusted myself off and moved off quickly behind him. After that I was a miraculously agile fence-climber.

Anyway, the point is, Greenlawn was, until I was old enough to have lost some loved ones, always a place where new adventures began. Depending on your religious views, that might be true for just about everyone that goes there, but then, who knows?

When my grandfather himself died in 1976 at the age of 79, and when my grandmother followed him two years later at about the same age, they were laid to rest in the shadow of a monument to the very man whose farms they had kept for him in the early half of their lives.

The Herbst monument is a veritable landmark at Greenlawn. It is a huge steeple-topped monstrosity, made of deep gray polished granite. The base is a heavy rectangular monolith perhaps four or five feet wide on each side with the name HERBST inscribe on it in large block letter. Just above that, there is a larger-than-life armchair – an empty armchair, as if to signify that its owner has taken leave – surrounded by four classic Greco-Roman columns. Continuing above the chair is the steeple, a pyramidal spire that ends in a kind of amphora shape rising, perhaps, fifteen feet or more into the air.

  • CAPTION: The Herbst Monument
I've talked to my cousins and they heard the same urban legend as I did, about how when our parents were in high school, as a prank, some youngsters grabbed a boy they had always liked to bully and, somehow, managed to haul him up to the armchair, where they hogtied him fast to it. Nobody heard the boy's shouts for help and when workers found him the next morning after he had spent the entire night bound to that tomb in the cemetery, his hair, legend has it, had turned white from fear.

The Ironic thing about our family plot – where my grandparents, and now, also, my own parents are buried – isn't just that it lies in the shadow of that ostentatious monument, but also that Mr. Herbst's empty armchair is oriented so that it gives its back to my grandfather and his family. Fitting, perhaps, if probably wholly accidental.

Last February, I went back to Greenlawn, with a special mission this time, but I'll tell you about that next time…

(To be continued)