Several of my high school buddies and I decided at the last minute to join a group cleaning up the historic Lutheran Benevolent Society Cemetery in the community where we grew up.
To my knowledge, none of us — Wally, Larry, Wayne, Jason, or Alvin — had ever done anything like this. Pulling weeds and cutting grass? Yes, we’ve done that. But at a cemetery? That’s different.
We all gathered early Saturday morning on Baton Rouge's Eddie Robinson Sr. Drive across from the historic Brooks Park. Both places hold memories for most of us.
As a very young child, I would get out of bed early some Saturday mornings to pick pecans with my cousins and others. There were a lot of big, rich pecan trees in that cemetery. About an hour later, our bags and boxes would be full of pecans to sell.
That bounty did not come without drawbacks for me. My oldest cousin would play an evil trick. He said that if I pointed at a grave or stepped on or placed my hand on a grave, I must immediately bite my finger hard, or the dead person would come after me. Somehow, my first bite was never hard enough, so he would watch me as I bit myself harder.
The really sad part was that I trusted him so much that when I would sneak over to the graveyard alone I would still bite my finger — hard — when I touched a grave. I felt stupid and aggrieved later when I discovered it was all a joke. But my cousin was too big to confront about it.
Saturday was a different story. The pecan trees were gone. More graves had taken their place. My group settled on a section on the north side of the cemetery overlooking what used to be the old Brooks Park baseball and softball fields where I played during the boiling hot summers of my youth and during junior high.
As we did our work, we stopped for a minute to notice the gravesite of someone we had grown up with. With the vastness of the cemetery, what were the chances we would come upon that headstone?
A couple of us started looking headstones that showed births in the 1890s. I wondered if their parents and grandparents had been slaves. Did my grandmother know some of these people? Could some of them have stopped by my house — less than a mile away — when I was kid?
I wondered what these people's lives were like in the early 1900s when Jim Crow was in force in Louisiana. What was their community like?
As children, we had great fun across the street from the cemetery at the Brooks Park swimming pool and park. And there was excitement in summer at the ballpark. On some days, there would simultaneously be swimming, playing on swings and merry-go-rounds and baseball practice going on at the same time a burial was going on at the cemetery.
Essentially, there could have cussing, fussing, shouting, laughing, crying, celebration and sadness going on within a few steps of each other.
There were screams of joy, splashing in the pool and home runs hit just a foul ball away from the eternal slumber of the dead. Who drew up those land use plans? Does that happen anywhere else?
Saturday, it was good to be among the volunteers, including a lot of teenagers. The place looks a lot better than it did years ago.
After more than 90 minutes of cutting, pulling, raking and bagging, and looking at headstones, our section was clean, expressing the respect those at rest deserve. While we didn’t express it, I think we all felt good about what we had done.
And mind you, everyone in our group is three score and a few more years old.
The uneducated can look up “three score.” The bottom line is that we were sore, tired and hungry, so we headed over to a local breakfast establishment.
There was only one person in our group to go all-out with pancakes, eggs, grits, bacon, toast and juice. While his name won’t be mentioned, let’s just say he didn’t bite his finger Saturday when he touched a grave.
Email Edward Pratt, a former newspaperman who writes a weekly Advocate column, at firstname.lastname@example.org.