October 31, 1979 stands out in my mind as though it happened yesterday. We were living in the high desert of Western Colorado and I was working on a service truck for an “old school” Electrical Contractor. Warren owned the shop and had been in business for 45 years or so when I got there. He had the best jobs in town and long-standing relationships with people and institutions that insured that he and his employees were always busy.
Halloween Night fell on a Wednesday and I arrived at the shop at 4:15 pm to unload my gear and turn in my completed work orders for the day. The Shop Foreman, Dusty, passed me in the parking lot as I headed inside and said, “I need to see you after you settle in.”
“Naw, I’m looking for someone to work a little overtime tonight and you are next in line.”
“Alright, I’ll see you in a few.” Ten minutes later, with my paperwork in order, I went in search of Dusty.
“It should only take you a few hours, it’s out at the Cemetery.”
I looked out the window at the gathering dusk. The sun setting fast in the West. The temperature was already in the low 40s and promised to drop another 10 degrees overnight. A job in a cemetery on Halloween night… how could I pass that up?
“Sounds like a trip, I am going to have to call my wife and let her know that I will be late.”
While I called my wife, Dusty gathered the tools and materials I would need and loaded them in the back of my shop truck. I met Dusty in the back of the warehouse.
Dusty put down his ever-present cup of coffee and began sketching on a sheet of paper. “So here’s the deal, they are opening up a new section of the cemetery to add more plots and this afternoon they were digging a grave…”
“And they…” I started.
“Yep, they nicked an underground feeder to an irrigation pump station right about here.” Dusty marked an X on the paper between a grove of trees.
“They didn’t know it was there? They didn’t look on the plans?”
“They did and it wasn’t. They knocked out the feed to the pump house and now they have no irrigation water.” Dusty said. “So what you have to do is take this extra wire and these Hypress couplings and splice it back together. It’s direct-burial Tri-plex cable—not pipe and wire—and it’s single phase, so don’t worry about motor rotation.”
This was good news, I did not have to be concerned with which hot wire went to which. The pump motors would turn in the right direction no matter what combination of the two hot wires I used. Things were looking up and the sun was going down.
“I am going to need to bring extra rubber tape and Scotch-Kote to waterproof the shit out of everything.”
“Done and done. It’s all in the box in the back of your truck. Make sure it’s sealed good. Unless you wanna be the guy responsible for digging up Aunt Bessie 10 or 15 years from now.”
No pressure here, I thought to myself. “You’ve got it, boss.”
Dusty took a drink of his coffee. “The groundskeeper’s name is Herman and he will meet you at the gate.”
I turned on the headlights of the truck and headed East to the Cemetery—on Halloween night—with less than half an hour of daylight. The sun was an orange dot in my rear-view mirror and confirmed that this would be a night to remember.
Traffic was light and the sky was dark when I pulled up to the gates of the Cemetery. 100 yards away the door of a small lighted office building opened and a figure stepped out of the doorway and got into a pickup truck. The engine started, the headlights came on and the vehicle headed to my location. The truck stopped about ten feet away from the gates and the driver got out and straightened up, and up, and up, all the way to his full six-foot twelve-inch height.
Alright, he wasn’t that tall, but he was a big guy. “I’m Al, are you Herman? Dusty sent me.” Might as well cover all the bases.
“Yeah, that’s me. We are mighty glad you could make it tonight, thanks for taking the time to do this,” Herman said.
“Do you have that much watering to do? I mean, that this couldn’t wait until morning? You know, straight time and all?” I said.
Herman said, “We got a burial first thing in the morning. It’s in the new section out yonder.” Herman pointed into the dark and the only thing that I could see was a wispy three-foot high layer of ground fog that hovered just above the ground and stretched from side-to-side as far as I could see.
As Herman unlocked the gate he said, “C’mon I’ll take you back there. Say, you brought a ladder with you, right?”
“A,a,a ladder? I thought you cut an underground feeder?” I said.
“We did. It’s six feet down, son.”
“Can’t you just move it over a few feet?” I said.
“All the plots are laid out and inline. We can’t throw off the alignment now can we?” Herman said.
“Good point, I hadn’t really thought that through,” I said. “Lead the way, Herman, I’ll be right behind you.”
We got into our respective trucks and I followed Herman across the cemetery grounds, pondering all the while what a game changer this turned out to be. Other than being a pall-bearer at my Grandfather’s burial eleven years before, I did not have much experience with grave sites and burial services.
Herman drove across an open field and into the fog bank, where we stopped beside an open grave. We got out of our trucks and Herman pointed and said, “You’re gonna need some light down there. I’ll leave the pickup runnin’ and the headlights on. I can go back to the garage and get some flashlights if you need ’em.”
“Thanks, but that isn’t necessary. Dusty put some lanterns in the back of the truck before I left and I have more flashlights in the side-bins if I need ’em. I’m good.”
Herman shook his head slowly from side to side, “OK. If you change your mind, or need somethin’, help, tools, whatever, just honk the horn of your truck 3 times and I’ll be right out.” [Al’s Note: Remember, it is 1979. There were no cellphones. Really…]
“You got it. I am good to go.” I watched the back of the very large man as he disappeared into the thickening layer of fog.
Time to get to the gettin’, as they say. I got the eight foot ladder off the rack on the truck, grabbed my trusty Maglite and headed for the hole. I turned on the flashlight and shined it on the bottom of the grave. I could see two severed wires and a neutral conductor that was slashed down to bare copper, but remarkably unbroken. I lowered the ladder into the grave, took a look around and as I started down I muttered to myself, “Who is going to believe this one?”
It is a funny thing about a grave, as big they look on top of the ground, they are a lot smaller when you are on the bottom looking up. At least this one did, at night, in the fog, as the temperature dropped, and my breath formed wispy white balloons of condensation.
I checked the situation out to see what I needed. Dusty gave me the right size wire and Hypress couplings (bless his soul) and I had the right material to insulate and protect the splices when I finished terminating the conductors. There was no reason for not completing this job tonight.
I stood up and looked around at my surroundings and at up at the top of the ladder, illuminated by the headlights of the groundskeeper’s truck. Maybe it was the cool night air, perhaps it was the contrast of the ribbon of white fog slicing through the black night but I got a sudden chill, one of those whole-body chills that go to your core. Ghosts, goblins, graves and ghoulish monsters on a Halloween night all came to my mind. I didn’t believe in any of it, but I had a head full of every horror film that I had ever seen as I stood in the bottom of that grave.
I remembered the words of my favorite journeyman, Regis, when I was a young apprentice, “C’mon Al – the heat’s in the tools.” Apparently I needed more tools if I was going to warm up any time soon, so I got to work.
After a half an hour and several trips up and down the ladder and back and forth to the truck for tools, material, and flashlights, I was working up a good sweat and grateful for remembering Regis’ thoughtful advice. I was ready to put the last of the protective insulation on the wires when I decided to stand up and stretch out my back.
As I arched back and stretched my arms out away from my body I found myself looking at the toes of two enormous work boots. I exhaled a chestful of air as I froze in place. Who was it and how/when did he get here?
“I didn’t mean to startle you, Al,” Herman towered over me as he stood at the edge of the grave. “I brought you some hot chocolate, I figured you could use some warmin’ up.”
The truth was that I was trembling from surprise, not the cold night air. “Thanks, Herman, I really appreciate the thought. This is going to hit the spot.”
Herman reached down and handed me a steaming mug and then picked up a matching mug from the top of the ladder. We stood there in the silence of the Halloween night enjoying our hot chocolate, me in a grave and Herman standing above me, back-lit by the headlights of his truck. This was like a Stephen King novel that had a happy ending.
By the time I finished the beverage my pulse had returned to normal and I finished repairing the underground feeder. Herman took me to the main panel and I turned on the circuit breaker and together we tested the pumps and verified that they operated properly. After resetting the timeclock and loading up my truck it was time to leave Herman.
As I drove through the front gate I had one last question to ask: “Herman why do you work in a cemetery?”
Herman grinned wide and said, “Because I’m a people-person.”
We both laughed and I drove off into the night, never again to do electrical work in a cemetery.