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Ghost Rider

By August 17, 2019No Comments

Today was the anniversary of “losing” Paul and I knew I needed to keep busy.  We have several anniversaries this week.  The anniversary of “Terrible Tuesday”, which is the day Paul checked into the hospital for the last time.  Today is the anniversary of having the discussion with the neurosurgeon in which we learned he was never going to wake up.  And then there is the anniversary in a few days of his official death, so they could harvest his organs.  That process is the subject of a future story, someday when I can handle writing it.

To keep busy this anniversary, I decided to go to my old hometown (still my hometown in a lot of ways) of Belleville for a little easy 7-mile bike ride from the library to the old railroad tunnel.  The trail club was holding the event and I could add a few miles on by going a little further or follow whatever trail seemed right at the moment.  Maybe someone I know would be riding along, but I decided to leave that to chance.

I got to Belleville early, and after checking in decided to ride around town a little until the ride to the tunnel began.  Belleville has a little lake, with a berm that divides the lake from the Sugar River.  I rode around the island park and along the berm.  This was where I had taken Paul, he rode his hand bike and me riding or walking along, many times when we lived here.  It is a little gem of a trail, with lots of nature and few people on a good path.  I rode to the other end of the berm and into my old neighborhood.  After a brief stop to see a few old friends who were outside, I headed back along the berm.

On the way back, I had a “Ghost Rider” moment.  Ghost Rider is the book I am currently reading, and I have to take a short paragraph to explain what it is.  In the late 90’s, Neal Peart, drummer for Rush, lost his teenage daughter in a car accident.   10 months later, his wife passed away, technically from cancer, but Neal believes she lost her will to live after the loss of their daughter.  His book is about his attempt to survive and cope with his losses, and he decided to ride his BMW motorcycle 55,000 miles across North America.  Riding takes concentration to keep his mind out of dark places.  Along the ride, memories come back to him that cause tears and melancholy.  But the point was to keep moving and keep your brain busy.

I had these feelings for moments today on the berm.  The sense of loss, some tears and lots of memories because of the sights, sounds and smells of an old familiar place.  It has been two years, but it felt like Paul and I rode these paths yesterday.  What was I doing here, especially on this particular day?  It seemed like luck, not sure good or bad, but I indulged in it for a time.

I got back to the library late and the group had left.  I had no problem catching up in a half mile or so.  It was a beautiful day, with great scenery and little traffic on the trail or the cross roads.  I hung back by myself most of the way, not feeling particularly talkative.  We got to the tunnel and it just exuded history and stories.  It is called Stewart Tunnel in memory of James Stewart, who designed it.  He was killed when his buggy wiped out on the way to the site (more death).  He never saw it.  It was a technological marvel of the 1880’s, and we heard a few statistics about that.

At least two workers were killed during the project (death is going to be a recurring theme all day apparently), a “negro worker” (there is no history of him or where he was buried) and an Italian worker who was simply known as “Italian Worker #206”.   IW #206 is reportedly buried in St. James cemetery, the story went.  I raised my hand at this point and asked where that cemetery was.  Something clicked in my brain and I had to try to find out about this unknown worker.   I was told the cemetery was in Dayton, and I didn’t want to ask for more details for fear of throwing off the storyteller’s groove and also appearing dumb.  Dayton is about 10 houses; I was pretty sure I could find the cemetery.

I excused myself from the group, they were heading back to the library and I wanted to go further South to get a few more miles in before quitting.  I was truly alone then, and couldn’t stop thinking about my new friend IW#206.  Somewhere there was a family, at least parents but maybe a bride or more, that probably never found out what happened or never came to find him.  I resolved to get back to my car, drive to Dayton and see what I could find out.  It fit my overall goal of keeping busy, which was a bonus. I decided to go all in on the death thing today.

I got back to my car, loaded the bike and drove the 5 miles or so to Dayton.  I drove slowly through town on Highway 92 so I could scan for headstones, to the distress of the car behind me.  I turned around at the far end of town after finding none.  This was going to be tougher than I thought.  I lived in Belleville 20 years but never really had a reason to explore the 4 square blocks of Dayton, let alone its cemetery.

I resolved to drive down each street until I found the cemetery.  Down the first small side street, I got lucky and found a small field of stones with a sign that read Dayton East Cemetery.  I grabbed my camera and found the chained gate easy to open.  I found lots of graves from the correct era.  I found lots of graves with markers that were no longer readable.  I guess I was hoping to rub an old stone and find “Italian Worker #206” engraved.  “Sponsored by the Illinois Railroad Company” would be a bonus.  I concluded if there was a marker it would be very small and inexpensive, since it was purchased by robber-barons of the day.   No luck.  It was pleasant day, so I took my time and imagined the stories of the people there.

I got back into the car and suddenly remembered on the other side of Dayton, on the hill, was an old church I had driven by.  Perhaps this was St. James cemetery, and Dayton East was where the non-railroad type people were buried.  I drove over and found that the church was now a house, with a cemetery behind it.   The driveway to the cemetery was also the driveway to the house and the garage was open.  I hoped that the homeowner would think my story was cute and he would not be upset at me walking around his backyard.  But I decided the “beg for forgiveness” strategy was better than the “ask for permission” one when I didn’t see anyone.  I started to look around and found the sign, Dayton West Cemetery.  Clearly there were two cemeteries not because of space constraints, but because of some rift in the history of Dayton.  I would bet it was another tragic feud that should be told by someone.

As I scoured around a man, I later learned was Steve, came out to see why this guy was parking in his driveway and walking around his cemetery/backyard.  He did think my story was cute and he told me that the St. James Cemetery was actually a third cemetery about a mile away.  It was the Catholic cemetery (sounds like a possible feud).  I can tell you unequivocally that there are more dead people than living people in Dayton today.

Anyway, Steve has only lived here for a year and a half.  He showed me a small section of decorative cemetery fence that survived from a better time.  He explained that the whole row of small, plain markers along the back were from an entire family that died of polio.  They buried them far away so the polio could not get to the people visiting the cemetery.  They had some idea of germs, but not the whole picture yet.  Stories like this make me angry at anti-vaxers and I briefly indulged in imagining the loss felt by the last few family members.  I was inviting thoughts of death and trying to make friends with them, I guess.

I left Steve and his home/church (no ghosts or weird stuff, I asked), and headed to St. James Cemetery at last.  There was a woman mowing the lawn, and her dog was following along until he saw me.  It was a very friendly old dog that was happy to see me.  Of course, the mowing stopped as soon as I arrived and I explained I was looking for a very old grave and she pointed me in the area to look.  Again, lots of old and unreadable stones, and stones tipped over and in pieces.

A stone with a lamb on top caught my eye and I got a pit in my stomach.  I knew what the lamb meant and it wasn’t good.   I couldn’t help it, I walked over and saw the dates and calculated that it was another child, loved and cherished, gone too soon.  And what am I doing in a cemetery on an anniversary like this anyway.

Luckily another car pulled in (big day at St. James!).  It was the family of the mower and they came over to see what I was doing there.  I talked to Mike and told him my quest for the day was to find IW#206 and had he ever heard of a grave like that.  He said no, and that he doubted the grave would be marked.  Then he told me that if I took two hangers and bent them straight and walked around a cemetery, anytime there was an unmarked grave, the two hangars would converge!  I said “you mean like when they divine for water?”  He said that it worked for graves too, and told me a story about yet another cemetery where there were lots of people buried along a fencerow during the depression.  They had no money so all the graves are unmarked, but you can find them there with the hangar trick.  I decided to suppress my eye roll and not argue, since to win the argument, one of us would have to do some digging and I didn’t want to be proved wrong on a technicality.  Things were probably not too regulated back then and I would guess just digging at random would find bones at most of these old cemeteries.

With that, I gave up on finding poor IW #206, at least for the day.   I called Kathie on the way home and asked her if she thought the Italian Workman’s Club would be interested in this story.  Maybe a little memorial plaque at the depot in Belleville, or at the tunnel, to commemorate the death of #206 would be something they could get behind.  I think the story has legs and maybe someone would come to look at it for a minute during their bike ride and appreciate the anonymous Italians that helped build the country.

I always look for a moral to the story, even if there is none.  I know that 140 years from now, no one will probably remember Paul Natzke, or Jim Natzke, except for maybe a marker somewhere.  We have yet to decide on a marker for Paul, or for us.   The parts of him that were not put into other people, or used for research, were cremated.

We spread some of Paul’s ashes for the first time this year in Colorado, in a creek near a camp that he attended.  That was hard, but now we are starting to discuss other places.  It feels like his carbon should be spread back into the universe and not kept cooped up.  And we are starting to discuss a grave marker of some kind, somewhere.  I will let you know what we decide.  It’s OK to discuss it with me, really, because we don’t know what other people who knew Paul would want, and it is for them too.  For now, I spent a crappy anniversary making my own “ghost ride” with Paul.  I enjoyed spending the day with him, even if it was a goofy thing to spend it on.  Of course, Paul and I spent a lot of days doing goofy things.  Thanks for coming along with me.