Thursday, March 31, 2011

If Stones Could Speak

Manhattan, Kansas cemetery

If Stones Could Speak
by Greg Larson

     The cool morning air washed over my face on a Sunday in September as I rode my mountain bike on the brick streets of Manhattan, Kansas.  It was a stressful time in my life.  Having gone through a divorce at the beginning of the millennium, I was spending the weekend with my oldest daughter and her husband.  I decided an early morning ride would be just the prescription to clear my head and allow me to meditate.

     I pedaled up Sunset Avenue to the entry into the cemetery, and began to cruise through the manicured lawn dotted with various sizes of marble tombstones.  The cemetery grounds felt like a safe haven, a place to relax and enjoy the landscape.  I floated past the stones with names and stories long forgotten.

     The sun’s early morning rays filtered through the trees.  I coasted towards the west end of the cemetery, where the edge of the hillside dropped to the valley beyond.  At the last curve, I came to a stop.  Other than the melancholy sounds of the mourning doves, silence blanketed my surroundings.

     Beyond the road, at the edge of a wooded area was a padlocked gate that beckoned.  What was beyond it?  Why was it padlocked?  The padlock made no sense, because the gate was merely a few pieces of welded pipe, with plenty of empty space for me to crawl through with the bike.  I didn’t see a ‘no trespassing’ sign, so I slipped on through to the gravel road on the other side, and pedaled farther into the mystery.

Locked gate and forbidden road
     I soon discovered stacks and piles of stone, timber, and gravel in the overgrown weeds on one side of the road.  It appeared the area was an extension of a city maintenance yard, hidden below the cemetery.  The other side of the road was a densely wooded area with a steep slope down to the west.

     As I rolled through the forbidden area, my eye began to notice some massive blobs in the dense shade of the woods.  Were my eyes playing tricks on me?  Were the ghosts from the cemetery having an early morning meeting?  I stopped and walked to the edge of the woods to take a closer look.

     To my surprise, some old limestone steps created an entry into the sloped, shadowy area.  I accepted their invitation and descended into the shade.  This was my third decompression from the city streets, having already passed through the cemetery, the gated road and now into the woods.  My mind was far from reality.

Stone steps

     That’s when I noticed several massive stone slabs along the hillside.  Who put them here . . . and for what purpose?  As my eyes adjusted to the shade, the forms of giant picnic tables and benches came into focus.  Their massive size and scale seemed odd.  It appeared they were constructed for giants of biblical proportion.

     I sat on one of the benches in the still of the early morning and felt the everyday concerns melt away.  The hidden picnic ground seemed odd in its size and location, totally hidden, as if left in the past, like the stones in the cemetery.

     I pictured the men of the W.P.A. crews who must have created the tables.  They were men with hungry families during the Great Depression.  Desperate for work, they drove 50-100 miles to labor for some cash, and to eat government-issued cheese and peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.  Stone was quarried and hauled, then lifted into place to create the park.  Their sweat had built a picnic ground where families could enjoy the sunsets.  The only problem was their supervisor hadn’t been given instructions with the proper scale and size for the benches and tables.

     With a bit of imagination, I could hear a 1939 Chevy pull to a stop on the road.  Doors opened and children shouted and ran down the steps.  Trunk lids slammed shut and parents with picnic baskets and blankets followed into the woods.  They had unfulfilled dreams and desires and worries of war.

     My disappearance into the woods lasted only a few minutes, but the stones had disappeared from public view for a generation.  It was time to leave this odd Stonehenge in the vines, a nice diversion from my reality.  With a sense of renewal and peace, I walked up the steps to the road, carefully navigating around the poison ivy.

     But the stone tables seemed to have a gravitational force on me.  I was slow to get on the bike and begin the journey out of the woods and cemetery.  I thought of my daughters, with their hopes and dreams as I began to pedal towards the city streets.  What lay ahead in their lives?  What memories will they have?  Will their stories be passed on to new generations or will they be locked in stone? Only the future holds the answers.

A table sized for giants

Abandoned picnic grounds

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