Sherill is beginning to think that I have a life more suited to a reality show than the Kardashians. For instance, did you do anything interesting last month? I dug a grave and buried a guy.
Want to fold now?
It all started a couple of weeks before with a phone call. The Chairman's younger brother, Paul, died in Rockford, IL. He was five years younger than The Chairman and they always called him Nip.
Uncle Nip was a flight crew scheduler for United. He had to keep tabs on where he had flight crews, which ones were nearing their limit for hours traveled, and which ones could be dropped into a flight scenario if plans changed because of weather or mechanical issues. Uncle Nip had to figure out exactly how much fuel to put in the plane to get there efficiently and within weight and time limits while still allowing for some fuel to spare in case they had to circle the airport before landing. Every time he'd get in a tractor cab, Uncle Nip checked the gauges. He checked them a lot.
Uncle Nip was cremated in Illinois, with no funeral. Seeing as how he still had family and a lot of friends back home in Iowa, the plan was to have him buried at Plymouth Rock. That would be St. Agnes Church between metropolitan Kendallville and Burr Oak, Iowa. It's just a mile or two down the road from where he and most of his family grew up.
The elder surviving family members got together and planned a funeral. The funeral home in Illinois would send Uncle Nip's ashes to Iowa and we could take it from there. A package showed up via registered mail a couple of days later. Dead guys can't be shipped UPS or FedEx.
Then came the interesting part. The Chairman told me that we needed to get a spade and go up to Plymouth Rock. Had to dig a grave.
REALLY?! Us? Isn't there a funeral director involved here who gets that handled FOR the grieving family? Oh, wait, yes there is. It's THAT ONE. Let's just say he is sort of a minimalist kinda guy. He was low-input before low-input was cool.
So, no big deal. Grab a shovel, hit the road and do some ditch digging on a small scale. Keep it interesting, though. The dirt had to be collected. We weren't one of those fancy funeral outfits with the AstroTurf and tarp to park the dirt next to the grave. We're Iowa farmers. We grabbed some five-gallon feed pails. This was only a cremation burial, so we didn't have to dig a casket-sized grave. Still, the rules were that we had to dig a hole 36 inches deep. Stack two pails on top of each other and you have 36 inches with room to spare. Just to be on the safe side, we took four pails.
We got to the cemetery and went over to the family plot. It's a beautiful location, but the scenery comes at a cost. Quality real estate is all about location, location, location. The founding church elders sold plots in blocks of eight. Between deceased parents and children, this particular group of Ryans is getting close to the limit. Some orange flags were placed where we were to dig the grave. It sat right in the shade of a lovely maple tree. Location, location, location comes with roots, roots, roots! Combined with an ongoing drought, we had to dig through three feet of dry dirt and a very firm foundation for a big tree. But we eventually got it done. A slab of wood and a mat were placed over the hole until the burial later in the week.
With our excavation work completed, we carried our four pails of dirt back to the truck. The plan was to discreetly bring the dirt back with us at the burial and sort of linger until the crowd had dispersed. We (I?) would then put the dirt back in the hole, add some water to get it to settle, and neatly return the area to a uniform state. Nip would have loved our organizational work, especially the under-the-radar part.
The funeral was held at the Catholic church in Cresco. About a hundred people attended the service and then met for lunch and fellowship downstairs afterwards. About half of the crowd then proceeded to go to their cars for the roughly 23-minute, 13-mile trip to the cemetery. Sherill and I got in our car and headed out. Since there was no body to take, there was no hearse and no clear line of funeral procession vehicles. It was more of a starting point, an end point and a group of people who needed to get from one to the other on the same schedule. This was classic airline work. Nip would have run some numbers and given us some time and distance targets to meet.
Sherill and I got to the cemetery ahead of the main crowd. We started to walk around and look at some of the oldest Ryan graves when my phone rang. It was my mother.
"Do you have the ashes?" she inquired.
WHAT?! No, I have the dirt. I'm the dirt guy. Nobody said anything about me being the ashes guy. I’m the dirt guy. Just dirt and a shovel. No remains. Seems like a funeral director would handle that.
Well, it turns out the funeral director felt the family should be in charge of the care and transport of the decedent.
The frantic call came in moments before the crowd pulled into the cemetery grounds. Sherill and I proceeded to go to the far end of the place where we had parked and met the lead car, which happened to be driven by The Chairman. On our way, we stopped by to ask the funeral director's assistant if he had the ashes. He did not have the ashes. He was pretty sure The Chairman did. I was pretty sure The Chairman didn't.
A brief discussion followed. I decided Sherill and I would go back to the church in Cresco and see if we could find the goods. Yeah, I could have done it on my own, but I figured I'd have Sherill along for the ride just to keep me halfway reasonable on the road. Plus, it never hurts to have a corroborating witness.
The path from Plymouth Rock to Cresco is a cab driver's dream. It's a driver’s ed instructor's nightmare. Neither of those two groups frequently sport the power, efficiency and handling of the Buick Park Avenue Ultra. I ran my high school driver’s ed class through my head as we made our way down the blacktop (see “The educational route with Rip Van Winkle”). Mr. Pierce would have approved. No power slides, no skid marks, no tire squealing. Okay, minimal on all of those, but it was REALLY minimal. Hardly worthy of a point deduction on the final. One construction outfit was taking a lot of gravel out of the quarry in Kendallville, so we encountered a lot of truck traffic. A lot of truck traffic. I got a lot of practice with my passing maneuvers. Sherill got a lot of practice gasping.
Sherill stayed in the car when we got to the church so that I could leave it running. Of course, this is Cresco, so I could leave it running during the service and it'd still be there afterwards, probably with food added. I went inside, took the stairs a few at a time and promptly went to the altar where I found the box of ashes sitting exactly where it sat during the service.
I got back in the Buick and hit the road for Plymouth Rock. Numbers were running through my head the whole time. One dead guy and two live ones in the car. Thirteen miles to cover. Six hundred curves and hills. Fifty or so people waiting at the cemetery. Slim odds that they'd decide to go ahead without us.
As I approached the intersection east of Cresco, Sherill's knuckles got whiter and whiter with each passing maneuver I made.
It wasn't easy to remain somber as I pulled up to the cemetery and saw the assembled mourners, who looked quite surprised to see us so soon. I took the box of ashes over to the grave and handed them over. They were quickly handed back to me. Turns out I was the only one with knees good enough to bend down that low, and arms long enough to reach the bottom of the grave to gently position Uncle Nip in his final resting place without a resounding thud.
Mapquest says it's about 13 miles between Plymouth Rock and Notre Dame Parish. Travel time is 23 minutes each way. One of my relatives walked over after the service and said, "You're a lifesaver, Jeff. I checked my watch. You made it round-trip in 22 minutes! How'd you do that?"
Simple math and physics. The mission was clear. We made good time and still came in under budget with fuel to spare. Uncle Nip would have been proud.
Guy No. 2