El Jebel blacksmith’s memorial honors recent war dead
EL JEBEL – Blacksmith Vaughn Shafer has made everything from ornate fencing for luxury homes to an eclectic motorcycle with replica saber-toothed tiger bones, but now he’s working on a project from his heart.
Shafer has put more than 400 hours into a war memorial for U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. He will unveil it at the Carbondale Mountain Fair this weekend. By the time the piece is finished, he estimates he will have invested more than 500 hours.
It’s a pittance considering the price paid by those being honored, he said.
Shafer got the idea for the memorial, oddly enough, when he was displaying a hand-crafted, metal buffalo skull at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota last summer. He was laser cutting initials or small tributes that observers wanted in the metal of the buffalo skull and base. Shafer said he was touched by the number of fathers and other family members he encountered who wanted to honor relatives who gave their lives while serving in the military in the current wars.
He later learned of the Battlefield Cross, a tradition of soldiers to arrange the boots, weapon and helmet of a comrade killed in the field into a memorial. Shafer said he saw pictures of a sculpture of a Battlefield Cross made by Baltimore artist Richard Rist and was inspired to hand-forge a similar piece out of scrap metal from his shop.
Shafer’s memorial is 10 feet tall. It features an oversized pair of infantry boots on the base. A rifle juts up, barrel end down, and a huge helmet rests on the gun butt.
The unique piece tested the skills of the master blacksmith. The radiuses required were difficult to accomplish when wrestling with the metal. The piece has many interesting touches, like a removable ammo clip from the rifle, the casing for a headlamp on the front of the helmet and steel cable for the laces of the boots. The boots themselves would fit Paul Bunyan.
Shafer based the super-sized dimensions from the combat boots and a helmet used by Lt. Col. Mike Howard, whom he recently met while the solider was on leave in the Roaring Fork Valley. El Jebel architect Gustav Gonzales prepared drawings of the memorial.
After the memorial debuts at Mountain Fair, it will travel to Sturgis with Vaughn, his wife Lori and their friends. Shafer is accustomed to his work bringing smiles to the faces of people. He knows the memorial will trigger more somber reactions.
Shafer experienced a flow of emotions himself while working on the piece.
“You’re going to think I’m crazy,” he said quietly in his workshop Wednesday afternoon, “but I sensed those boys at the door,” referring to the spirit of some of the fallen soldiers he is honoring.
Families of soldiers killed in the two wars will be able to engrave the memorial with initials or small symbols of honor. Lights will make the initials pop out.
Shafer is searching for a fitting permanent site for the memorial once it is back from Sturgis. He and Lori will explore donating it to Fort Carson on the Front Range.
“I’m really hoping it finds a nice home somewhere,” Shafer said.
The memorial to fallen soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan will be displayed starting Friday evening at the blacksmith stall set up by Crystal Glass, near the Sopris Park entrance to Mountain Fair in Carbondale.
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