To be blunt, I was late for the appointment. By about two years.
He was 89, going on 15. His name was Harry C. Pfeifer and he lived in the town of Burkittsville, Md., population 200, nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains 60 miles from Washington.
By apperances, Harry wasn't impressive, a five-foot five-inch shadow of himself. His uniform of steel gray overalls sagged from his body like a sack of potatoes, while liver spots decorated wrinkles covering wrinkles. Harry didn't always make sense when he talked, due to his hearing (or the lack thereof). He always talked about the past, since as he put it in his unexpected dry wit, "There's more of that than future."
The town of Burkittsville stands as a memorial to fallen Blue and Gray of the Civil War. Nowadys, hot shots from the big city keep stately retreats in the surrounding countryside.
But Harry didn't give an owl's hoot about all that. His undertaking was the town graveyard -- he was in its self-appointed executive director and chairman of the board. As Harry understood it, his job is running all right in here. Because a whole lot of things are going on."
Before Harry took over, the graveyard was fighting its own Battle of Gettysburg as Dutch elm disease advanced through the ranks. Crabgrss, poison ivy, beggar's ticks and ragweed obscured grave markers. And that defeated the cemetery's whole purpose since some of the illuminaries calling it home had outlived the Revolutionary War.
A healthy soul would have faced a terrible stuggle trying to restore the cemetery. And Harry was far from healthy, needing to walk with several wood canes that he had fashioned from tree bark.
To make matters worse ridiculous, Harry lacked for garden equipment and hired help. His best friends were a pair of "Popeye" arms and a optimistic heart. The first chore was to clear the dying elms. Harry's method was to chop through decaying wood -- and then pull the tree stump out with bare hands. Neighbors offered to help with the stuborn ones. But Hary was a loner's loner. He preferred working alone -- at three o'clock in the morning, when everyone else was asleep. Or had been.
Why was Harry obsessed with the cemetery? Was he trying to kill himself?
"If you like the work," Harry answered, not exactly answering, "it's not hard. If you get something in mind, if you're interested at all, you'll find a way. I knew if I only cut one root off that day, I knew I was going forward."
Above all else, the man was worried about time, as if he was under a deadline. When asked to elaborate, Harry would direct his guest inside his mobile home, parked on the cemetery outskirts.
"There's Viola," Harry proudly announced, pointing to a snapshot hanging crooked inside a shredded scrapbook. The girl looked about 12, a pixy with freckles. "I met her at the social. She didn't like no millworkers. She fancied herself getting hitched up straight."
It didn't ake Albert Einstein to figure out the girl's identity. She was Mrs. Pfeifer, Harry's bride. They were seperated in ge by 10 years and as time speeded up, the gap between them widened.
One morning, 24 years after they were married, Viola asked Harry, "Which road is the way to shcuk corn?" That evening, Viola disappared without a trace.
Harry was a patient man. He was prepared to wait. But a week later, she still had not come back. Harry waited some more.
After eight years, a lawyer advised Harry to get a divorce. Viola was gone for good. So he did.
Then 27 years after his wife had elft, Harry received a postcard from Galion, Ohio. His patience had paid off. Two weeks later, Harry and his once and future wife were remarried.
Harry says he was not and had never been bitter toward Viola. Not that he wasn't curious why she left.
"Every time she would start talking about it, she'd cry," Harry explained. Viola died a few summers ago, and Harry buried her in the Burkittsville cemetery.
Not long ago I returned to Burkittsville to keep my long postponed appointment with Harry. The man had conceived a miracle -- a new picket fence surrounded immaculate grounds, a paved driveway spread to scrubbed headstones.
ystill parked next door was Harry's trailer, with a chain wrapped around the door knob. Silver foil blocked off the windows. After searching for awhile, I found Harry, and he found me. He was resting with Viola under an infant cherry tree. The marker read: Harry C. Pfeifer October 5, 1986 -- August 16, 1978