Editor’s note: Nancy Price Graff is a Montpelier freelance writer and editor. In This State is a syndicated weekly column about Vermont’s innovators, people, ideas and places.
In autumn, when the trees are bare and the land can be read as easily as a book, the headstones curve and dip along the subtle contours of the hillside, the markers as precisely aligned with their neighbors as soldiers standing in formation. But unlike stones in practically every other cemetery in Vermont, none of these leans or lists, no matter winter’s violence. At the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph, Bob Durkee’s job is to see that they don’t.
Durkee has been in charge of the grounds at the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery since the cemetery was dedicated in July 1993. He attended the first interment two days after the dedication, and has attended nearly all of the more than 3,000 interments that have occurred in the years since.
Once, twice, even — occasionally — three times a day, he digs a hole for a casket or an urn and waits at a respectful distance through a family’s graveside service.
Notwithstanding how many times he has heard the sharp retort of rifles, he still flinches involuntarily when the Randolph American Legion Post #9’s honor guard cleaves the air with its salute to the fallen. Then follows the keening sound of “Taps,” played by another aging member of the Post. He watches other members of the honor guard, this pair from Camp Johnson, fold the flag and hand it reverently to the deceased’s closest relative. When everyone else has dispersed, Durkee fills the hole and finishes up on his knees, using his hands to pat the sod into place with such care that it’s hard to find the breaks in the grass.
It is a job that would overwhelm some people. Even Durkee, whose thoughts are rarely far from this cemetery, finds the suicides of so many young Vermont veterans over the past decade deeply troubling.
“It’s the saddest part of my job,” he admits.
For the most part, though, Durkee’s soothing air of competence belies the emotional aspects of his work. He divines in every shovelful of dirt, in May’s spectacular display of apple blossom, in every piece of polished marble, and in the endless whine of his crew’s lawnmowers, the higher purpose of his labors.
“Because I didn’t serve, I feel like it’s my way of honoring them,” he says of his work on behalf of veterans whose remains come to rest at the cemetery. “And if a veteran wants to talk, I let them talk. It’s more than a job for me.”
Reared in nearby Tunbridge on the Durkee homestead, the only homestead in Vermont still in the hands of the family that settled it, Durkee spent his youth helping out on the farm. His first paying job was mowing the Durkee cemetery on the family’s property. When he finally left, he moved to Randolph and went to work for Vermont Technical College on its grounds maintenance crew.
In 1993, 44 years after a group of Vermont veterans began lobbying for a cemetery dedicated to those who had served, the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery opened on land Vermont Technical College had purchased from a farmer whose fields abutted the college’s campus. The cemetery provides free burial plots and marble or granite markers, either upright or flat, for all veterans interred. For a small fee, veterans’ spouses and dependent children may also be interred here.
All Durkee had to do to report for his new job was walk down the hill behind the campus. He thought his responsibilities would be “just mowing grass, burying people, and putting in headstones, but I didn’t have that attitude for long. Seeing people come here changed the way I saw things. I started thinking that it’s my job to take the sadness off their faces,” he says, referring to the mourners. He does this by literally wearing out shovels and maintaining one of the most beautiful veterans cemeteries in the country.
“The only training I had was visual, going around to different cemeteries and seeing how they did things. I taught myself to set stones. I learned a lot about the stones and finishes. I started making my own tools,” he says, pointing to the rubber bumpers he designed for the lawnmowers so that metal and stone never meet.
“It’s amazing how long it takes to tend to all the details,” he says. And the workload is only going to increase. An expansion of the cemetery will begin next summer.
In the fall of 2003 he added two days of vacation to a weekend and traveled to Arlington National Cemetery, where he had arranged a behind-the-scenes tour to see how the feds managed their most famous cemetery. He arrived, as arranged, at 5:30 a.m. No one was there to meet him. He persuaded the guards to let him start his own tour. Eventually, the quality-control officer caught up with him, but by then Durkee had seen enough.
“I was appalled,” he says of the chipped stones, trampled grass, and sloppy trim work. He won’t return to Arlington, but he would enjoy a busman’s holiday to see the American cemetery at Normandy.
Durkee also used his own time to help out after Tropical Storm Irene in September 2011. The night of the storm, he drove to the cemetery to check on things. Within the Circle of Flags at the entrance, flags were slapping sharply against their poles, so he decided to take them down before the wind gusts shredded them. Lowering wind-whipped, soaked flags is not a one-man job, but he eventually wrestled them down and into the back of his truck. He saved them by taking them to the maintenance shed to dry out.
Two days later, assured that the cemetery was OK, he traveled by truck, ATV, and foot to Rochester, where floodwaters had undermined a cemetery, washing up caskets and upending them, spilling remains into the riverbed.
“I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t developed respect for the dead here,” he says. Even so, the work was regarded as so traumatic for the people who performed it that Durkee’s supervisor offered to provide counseling. Durkee declined. “I had a good idea what to expect. Most people couldn’t have done it, but I knew I could, so I went.”
The Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery is not full, but the developed area is approaching capacity; hence the plans to expand. The row upon row of nearly identical marble and granite markers marching down the hill from the white chapel convey the idea of corporate identity just as military uniforms do. But Durkee doesn’t see these graves in the aggregate. For him, this job is personal. The graves he tends are the resting places of servicemen and women who remain individuals even in death.
“There’s over 3,000 people interred here, and when someone asks where someone is buried, I often amaze myself. Sometimes I can tell them,” he says with uncharacteristic pride.
So he won’t mind getting down on his hands and knees in the spring to straighten any markers knocked askew by the long winter.
“I love this place,” he says, as if it didn’t show.