I’m hesitant to write this. Seriously hesitant to write this… It’s because it’s going to be about a man and a place and the pursuit of perfection. Doesn’t sound too horrible and dark yet, does it? I’m not going to say that it was the pursuit of the perfectly snapped chalk line that led to this person’s demise, because that would be silly and inaccurate. Long after the events, I would sit at the Kennecott Glacier Lodge, a cold beer in my hand, and look at the roof of the newly-restored Kennecott Recreation Hall. I’d study that roof–that perfectly fitted roof with perfect rows of nails and perfectly aligned shingles….
And I’d inevitably find myself with a lump in my throat and tears in my eyes that no swig of brew could staunch. And, if I gave myself over to it completely, the tragedy would overwhelm me and I’d shift my gaze to Fireweed Mountain across the Kennicott Glacier…. If only for a few moments to forget. If only for a few moments to believe he is still among us.
Because, every time I see that perfectly aligned roof, I know he is…
To say he was a weird duck is an understatement. He lived in a waterless cabin. He was a pastry chef of no small acclaim. He had been the subject of a piece by The New York Times. As is common, apparently, with pastry chefs, he was completely and utterly OCD. In his waterless cabin, he would bake wedding cakes in his wood-fired stove. In Kennecott (the Mill Town), he was an astoundingly detailed finish carpenter. The two go hand in hand, I guess. Perfection in the kitchen and perfection laying shingles, or building handrails, or laying cement, or performing myriad other tasks as the restoration crew did.
Then one day ….
There had been a death. I stop and try to find the words to talk about it still, even though nearly 10 years have passed us by since the event itself. The horror is still fresh. The impact was devastating. It ended so suddenly, so violently. One shot. One shot in the sunlit night…
For three days, a tearful crew toiled to carve and finish his casket. All other work stopped. It was desperate hands and hearts that shaped the wood, that planed the sides, that fitted dowels and made it perfect. Like he would have.
On that third day, we met at his waterless cabin. We cried our tears and said our goodbyes. A mournful crew loaded the casket onto a wilderness rescue gurney and set about, with ropes and pulleys, to heave it up the side of the mountain to a small meadow he’d purchased the year before. It has an excellent view of Fireweed Mountain.
Straining and steadying, heaving and pulling, barely breathing, barely seeing though tears, it took nearly an hour for the crew to haul the casket to that place where they had dug the grave.
“Go on,” I said to my husband. I held my kids’ hands tightly. “We’ll wait here…”
“It’s sad,” said the Park Superintendent. And he meant it. The one thing I respected about the man is that he meant it. And, when he died less than a year later of liver cancer, my respect for him never wavered. Of all the Park Service management people I ever knew, he, alone, was the only truly human being….
My children were confused. My daughter most of all.
“How could he go?” she asked. Her brow furrowed. “He had red tomatoes in the greenhouse. How can you go when there are tomatoes in the greenhouse?”
Those are the images the children have of that day: of tomatoes in the greenhouse, of fresh-baked bread barely sliced on the kitchen counter, of the Kennecott crew sorrowfully burying one of their own….
He left us.
He left us.
I watched my husband struggle with that.
We should have known.
Isn’t that always the way?
That we should have known?
There must have been signs.
We were too stupid.
We missed them.
How could we not know?
The scramble and tangle of arms and legs that heaved and pulled and guided and caught and steadied and moved that gurney up the mountain.
How could he not know how much he was loved?
He should’ve known.
Isn’t that always the way?
There should’ve been signs.
He’s not here to see this. He wasn’t there to see them build the casket, run the pulley line, heave him homeward…
Staring at the Kennecott Rec Hall Roof.
That perfect line of perfect nails.
Death’s Perfect Kiss
Into Its arms, you flung yourself
Wild abandon, all hope lost,
Into that darkness, deep
A spiral stair, which stemmed the pain.
But, love forgot, and soon
The one who swiftly, woefully strayed
To take your measured, precise grave,
This shallow site of peace and rest.
What wanton madness
The heart that, other times, had spared
Such joy and raucous amity
That shattered us beyond repair–
At your departure.
Indifferent arms enveloped you
Your wildness hidden by Its wing
Your laughter silenced by Its Kiss
That gathered you beyond our loving.