The uneven sod that protrudes above the flat stones and around the upright stones provides an obstacle for the Last Man. Under the lush sod, the ground is bumpy and difficult for him to traverse, but with the aid of his cane and with his hand on his wife’s shoulder, he trudges on. He knows where the graves are, has their exact locations memorized. He’s walked among the bright white, evenly spaced stones at the Military Cemetery too many times in the past, burying family and friends and coming back to visit.
“Dell’s in the last row of flat stones, seventh from this end,” he had said from the passenger seat as the SUV slowly entered the cemetery from the west. His wife, sons and daughter-in -law chatted away with him about his brother whose life had been so devastatingly impacted by World War II.
“Malc and I met a guy when Dell was in the VA hospital and we got to know him pretty well,” he says with a smile. “I was walking around here with Malc years later and found his grave in the same row as Dell, 27 stones down.”
He recalls the man’s name (he always recalls their names…it’s uncanny. He conjures up each of the players on his CC Camp baseball team nearly 75 years later, and can name the rosters of his son’s pee wee football teams) and, when everyone’s out of the vehicle, one of his sons takes off, counting 27 stones to the east of his uncle’s grave. Sure enough, the old friend was right where he was supposed to be.
“Now, Paul and Carol are right to the south, over by that tree,” he says, pointing, waving a gnarled finger in the general direction. “And Steve is over in the middle…I’ll know the row when I see it.”
When he was born in 1916, his life expectancy was 47. He’s exactly doubled that estimate, and he wouldn’t bet against someone who’d venture to say this is the last trip to see his brothers, to see his friends. He’s tired, and it shows. Although his mind is sharp and clear, the sheer effort of paying attention sometimes makes him seem less than observant, but every single speck of humanity that’s made him who and what he is remains unblemished behind his ancient eyes. He’s in there all right, and the stories come unbidden and flow as easily as the slow steady water of the Republican River on the farm where he was born. Infrequently, one of the tales is new, and is jotted into his sons’ memory banks with amazement; someone dead and gone for 60 years is abruptly remembered, an old pet’s name pops up out of nowhere, or the patrons of a paper route in 1930 are recalled.
He’s the end of his generation. His peers and forebears have all gone. His siblings, his cousins, his parents and grandparents each occupy small patches of ground throughout Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri. One brother’s name is chiseled on a monument near a mass grave at the Anzio Beachhead in Italy. His two sisters are a short walk from each other in Longmont’s Mountain View Cemetery, and two brothers are at this national memorial to sacred honor and duty in Fort Logan, Colorado.
His family’s oldest son and one of the eldest of his cousins, he learned responsibility early, first at home, and later at the orphanage. He made it through a tough, tough. childhood. He made it through his 19th year when his appendix ruptured, he broke an arm at a dance hall in Niwot, and was in a horrific car wreck that left a still-visible patchwork of long scars on his head. He made it through his future father-in-law refusing to attend his wedding, and through the Great Depression. He made it through a million baseball games, and just as many fast-pitch softball games. He made it through his brothers’ enlistment into the National Guard and the Army, and the birth of his first son. He made it through World War II – through training camp in Illinois, tech school in Georgia, and deployment in the Philippines and New Guinea. Over the years, he made it through his second son’s birth, a career as a drywall finisher, a bout of pneumonia, his wife’s brain tumor, and innumerable graduations and family gatherings. He made it through heart failure and a pacemaker. He made it through his true life’s work – being a remarkable father. He made it this far. But what he remembers most is saying goodbye to so many, and wondering why.
“I outlived ‘em all,” he says with a shrug. “Didn’t mean to, but I’m the last one. "
He feels lucky to have sons and grandsons, and to have the children of his siblings and his wife’s family close at hand. But he can’t get over the fact that with the exception of his wife of 70-odd years, virtually everyone he knew well has gone on before. He jokes that the “UFO’s about ready to land and take me away,” and dreams of speaking in other languages. He knows he’ll have to go sometime, but he’s not ready yet.
He and his family pile back in the SUV and slowly make their way to the opposite side of the cemetery. At his direction, they stop. He gingerly unfolds himself from the vehicle’s front seat and takes off amid the graves in the cemetery’s southwest corner. Slowly, slowly, he shuffles to the one that means the most, the one that still hurts. He finds the gravestone of Malcolm Curtis Chandler and his wife, Carolyn.
“Look at that,” he says. It’s been three years already. Gosh, it doesn’t seem that long.”
He stands before the grave of his brother, his best friend, while his daughter-in-law decorates it with bright yellow daisies. For a moment he leans on his cane and sways imperceptibly, thinking of the nightly phone calls, the jokes, the camaraderie and the thousands of stories shared by two young boys who somehow turned into old men.
“It’s a good looking stone,” he says.
A few pictures are taken before he turns, plants his cane in the sod, grabs his wife’s shoulder and begins the slow walk back to the vehicle.
The Last Man’s full of his past as he walks on toward his future.