My first real job was working in a cemetery. My freshman year of high school, I spent my Saturdays laying tombstone for Wilson Memorials in the cemeteries all around Jackson, Barnesville and Griffin.
Ralph Wilson, the owner, was my first boss and a good one. I had known him all of my life. His daughter Annette and I grew up together. My dad said to me one day, “I spoke with Ralph Wilson and he needs some help with his new business. He needs you to help put some tombstones down.”
“As a volunteer?” I asked.
“No. He’s going to pay you. He said he’d pick you up at 6 o’clock on Saturday.”
“In the morning?”
“Yes, it’s called work, Will.”
Ralph pulled up at daylight. I had my jeans, gloves and work boots. He said, “Will, we’re heading to Elberton this morning. We got to pick up the stone.” We chugged along with all the jerky motions of a heavy stick shift flatbed truck with a boom on the back. Ralph stopped in Monticello and grabbed us both a biscuit at the local gas station. The people knew him by name. We made our way toward Elberton. I asked him, “Do you ever worry about stepping on the graves?” “Oh no. You get over that pretty quickly. It’s not the dead people I worry about. It’s the ones above ground.”
We pulled into the shop where they cut the granite, the workers in t-shirts and smoking cigarettes. He asked, “Will, do you see that saw? They have diamond tips to cut through the stone.” After loading the truck with headstones and slabs, we headed off with an extra 2,000 pounds. You could hear the truck guzzling gas at this point.
As we drove through the curving two lane roads, past gentle sloping cow pastures and ponds, I fell asleep. I have to admit my embarrassment of sleeping on the job my first day. The truth is I didn’t lift a finger on my first day of work. Ralph dropped me off at the house. I have often wandered if Ralph knew some of my own difficulties. I had a terrible hip injury as a kid and now that I was in high school I had pretty severe limp and was trying to figure out life and friends. Having someone believe you were good enough to hire meant something, although I wasn’t sure what at the time.
In the following weeks, my friend Eron and I worked on Saturdays with Ralph. Ralph was also part owner of the local funeral home. We’d begin by meeting him there and wait near his office. Although Eron and I never ventured too far back, we knew there was probably a body in the back room. We’d wait for Ralph and head to his outdoor shed to grab our tools for the day. There’s no work like digging holes, wheelbarrowing dirt and pouring concrete in July in Georgia. It gave me new respect for people who use hand tools all day. I was surprised by how much precision went into the work. We had to ensure the tombstones were level which required lots of crowbar work and Advil.
The most interesting feature of graveyard work is the way it makes you think about death. On most every job, we knew how a person had died. What was most haunting for me is that many of them had died young. Ralph retold the stories as we passed by the graves. “He was a good kid. Everybody loved him. He just a made stupid decision and got behind a wheel drunk. That’s all it takes. Don’t ya’ll do that when you turn 16.” “Now, she was in the band. Terrible situation there.” As you work with heavy stone that sits on top of a vault six feet in the ground, the gravitas of death begins to sink in. Just four years earlier, I had barely escaped death from a car accident at our home. I had to be life-flighted to Atlanta. I couldn’t help but imagine being under my own headstone and having my peers working with Ralph having a similar conversation about me. As heavy as such a thought may be, it’s also quite liberating.
Ralph loved to talk. Eron and I would begin a job and Ralph would amble over to a visitor who had come to see the plot of their loved one. They would talk near the loose red dirt where the tombstone would be. I was always amazed at how he could make a sale and comfort a grieving widow with a shovel in hand. We spent a lot of time waiting for him in the truck, but we were getting paid for it so we didn’t mind. Eventually he’d finish and take us to eat catfish for lunch. We were no good for the rest of the day.
I was always appreciated that first job. I wasn’t used to getting a check. On several occasions, as Ralph was trying to balance his books, he’d call me, “Now, Will, you got to cash the checks.” That first job taught me a lot about the value of a hard day of work and to take pride in it. Every time Eron and I would pass by a tombstone, we’d admire how level it was. “That must have been one our jobs.” We were quick to criticize the sloppy work of other companies.
Years ago, after my dad died, Ralph did his tombstone. After it had been installed, I came to the Jackson cemetery to see it. No one was around. I touched the stone and felt the engraved words, “You shall mount up with wings as eagles.” I thought of that day my dad saved my own life. And because he did, I was standing over his grave instead of he over mine. I stood and I admired the beauty and smoothness of the marbled granite and remembered my wonderful dad. I stood up and suddenly heard the shovels of another company nearby being thrown into their truck as they completed a job a hundred yards away or so. As their loud truck pulled away through the cemetery gates, I remembered that day when my dad told me about this new job in the cemetery. “It’s called work, Will.” Indeed, it was work and I’m thankful for it and for all those who have given me work since.