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Early morning pranking in a forgotten cemetery

December 17, 2011

It’s 3 a.m. and I’m hanging from a rope. The rope is attached to the swinging bridge in Glen Park swaying over the Kinnickinnick River. Ultimate trust fall, Mike holds my life in his hands and the blood alcohol level is not in my favor.

I tuck the inch-thick purple rope tight around my hip to my backside as I belay down to Junction Falls. A golden light is hanging suspended in the air like an orb in the distance highlighting some tan buildings I had never seen before. I had walked that bridge so many times in my life and had never seen the sewage plant on West Maple. To the southwest of the plant is a hill crowned with oak trees and tombstones. A forgotten cemetery filled with people whose last mark of remembrance is crawling with lichen and black stains. At the time, I do not know that I’m looking at Foster Cemetery in that chilly morning many falls ago, but I remember that time.

Another early morning, a different Mike. He spent his nights holding the shutter open on his camera saturating the glow from the campus lights. He would leave the camera’s shutter on for half an hour trying to absorb the light molecules. When developed, the lights looked like golden fountains pouring onto the dark quad. The night I joined him and Kyle, the air was crisp as a Christmas morning. Instead of snow, the dew pushed an earthy cleansing smell from the ground to our noses. I convince them that any nighttime stroll wasn’t complete without walking through a cemetery. We began our walk from Sixth Street heading towards West Maple. Kyle, at the time, preferred to carry his water in a wine bottle, cork and all. Everyone needs a trademark. Mine is an Irish walking hat, two times replaced, spliced with many earth colors that blend into a dark brown color. As for Mike, his charisma has a personality of its own.

When we passed the bridge over Lake George the streetlights started to come less frequently. Acorns crunched under our feet and I tried to remember where to make the right turn. Was it down this hallow with no lights? The guys started to lose faith in my internal compass when I see a blacktop road that resembles the pockmarked surface of the moon. Two or three lampposts line the entirety of the street that has only one house hidden deeply into the forest. The blacktop shoulders dissolve into the limestone gravel dug from the quarry next to the sewage plant. When we reached the dirt path that curtails the fence for the sewage plant, we realized that no one had a flashlight. Ten years earlier we would have been screwed, luckily cell phones were invented. I led the group with my backlight, constantly refreshing the screen, casting light only a few feet ahead. The trail was familiar, but in the darkness not complete. Our eyes dilated like peanuts.

At the end of the fence, the hill begins to climb up. A big granite slab marks the entrance that is inscribed with a long explanation of the cemetery’s history and the preservation of the land. The trail loops around the crown of the hill and opens up towards the west overlooking the Kinnickinnick valley. Our backlights did nothing to reveal much besides the headstones, but the moon glowed in between the oaken boughs brightly. Punks and vandals like to tend a small fire pit on the overlook, usually leaving a couple cans and candy wrappers. The wind creaked the tree trunks and I hushed the guys and started pointing through the woods, “I see something moving in between the trees. Do you see it?” They close in alongside me and stare where I point, nothing. “Don’t you see it?” They focused their eyes a few feet ahead of my index finger. They say they want to leave emphatically. A mile away from the cemetery, heading back to the apartment, I tell them something. I wasn’t pointing at anything. Their jaw drops said it all.

Christopher Pagels is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.