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Tony Vagneur: Saddle Sore

Tony Vagneur
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Memorial Day weekend, the beginning of summer, a holiday originally named Decoration Day in honor of the soldiers who fell during the Civil War, and which fittingly includes every skirmish since. Whatever else you do this weekend, it should include a moment of silence for those who sacrificed everything so that we might continue our lifestyles.

As far as I know, no one in my U.S. family has actually ever died in combat, although a couple of my great-uncles Stapleton served in France during WW I. My cousin, Norman Vagneur, died in a plane crash on his way to Vietnam, which certainly qualifies as a war casualty. Dead family members, despite the causes, became reason enough for some in my clan to take this holiday seriously.

My maternal grandfather, J. Bates Sloss, a Basalt native and WW I veteran with wanderlust in his heart, died in Livingston, Mont. (1947), at the young age of 49 and was shipped home by rail to be buried in Basalt’s Fairview Cemetery. Driving downvalley to decorate his grave became an annual mission of sacred intensity spearheaded by my grandmother, Nellie Stapleton Sloss.

My God, it was work, coupled with finesse. In those days and until just recently, the Basalt cemetery had no water, no emerald lawns to grace its interior, and no way to fill up flower vases in an attempt to make the offerings last.

We wrapped and loaded hothouse flowers, coupled with lilacs cut from the several bushes around my grandmother’s Aspen house, into the back seat of her car. Old newspapers were soaked in water and wrapped around the floral bouquets, with every attempt made to not get the car upholstery wet. Water containers of all shapes, sizes and varieties were loaded into the trunk and propped and encircled with whatever might keep them from spilling. Many people came and, for a couple of days following and despite the odds, Fairview Cemetery looked as though people really cared.

We took a different day to tour Red Butte Cemetery, so full of deceased relatives that we couldn’t walk far without paying homage to this or that ancestor from somewhere in our past. It was an excellent educational opportunity; grandmothers, great-aunts and mothers were careful to explain the myriad threads of generational evolution that connected our own mortal coil with those already in the ground. We learned much about the rich history we have in the Aspen area, and this knowledge became, whether we wanted it to, a stamp of ethereal connectedness that has kept many of us here, even though it sometimes doesn’t make much sense anymore.

There’s something about graveyards that attract people, mostly as a record of history if nothing else. I’ve received letters from residents of Val d’Aosta, Italy, folks with surnames identical to mine who, after having made a pass through Red Butte Cemetery have come to the correct assumption that we must be related. They could have called when they were in town, I reckon, but then there wouldn’t have been any mysteries to pursue from far away.

Lest you think I have gone soft and thrown these reminisces out for you to peruse without further fanfare, the nonprofit, all-volunteer Red Butte Cemetery (so dubbed in 1899) is in the middle of a fundraising campaign to build a maintenance facility to aid in the perpetual care of all vacant and occupied plots therein. Ghoulish of me to bring it up, I know, but if you’ve ever given thought to your last stop, perhaps a move toward making that stake a reality is in order.

In the meantime, let’s remember those soldiers, men and women, who so valiantly gave of themselves and without whom our lives might be incredibly different.


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