Vanishing Point

I learned last week an old friend, someone I’d been very close to in our intense teenage years, someone whom I’d tried to keep track of in the years since, through difficulties we’d both suffered in our lives, had passed away suddenly. “Vanished” is the word that comes to mind when I think of her death.

I thought of the picture above because I shared it with her a week or two before I last heard from her. I mentioned my eye is always drawn to the vanishing point. “That’s otherworldly,” she said when she saw the image.

One moment this person was alive, someone I imagined myself speaking to in an endless conversation. “Endless” in the sense that you know their voice is out there in the world and you’re always happy to hear it again.

The next moment, they were part of the past, silenced, beyond reach except for wondering about their last days and months and all the parts of a life they’ll never get to tell me about.

In whatever world she finds herself now, or in no world at all, I hope she’s found peace.

Anniversaries Not in the News

The house in the woods. 2018.

This is a mini-post that would likely fit in a tweet, but: Sitting here, back at work after a week off, it occurred to me that this Friday is June 10. And June 10 is an important family date: It’s the fifty-sixth anniversary of my last day in sixth grade at Talala Elementary in Park Forest — that’s tah-LAH-lah, for those wanting a pronouncer — and of the day we moved into the new house Mom and Dad had built in the woods just outside town. And strange to say: Though I lived there for just a decade, that house and those woods felt and still feel like the place I grew up, the place I’d inhabit if somehow I traveled back in time to “home.”

Road Trip Notebook: A Town in Minnesota

Water tower, Alvarado, Minnesota.

Alvarado is a town of about 300 souls, 18 miles northeast of Grand Forks, North Dakota, on the exceedingly flat plain that spreads out from the Red River of the North. (No, not all plains are pool-table flat. Just ask the ones that call themselves “Great.”)

The water tower is right down the street from our dad’s first boyhood home. And that house is across the street from the site of Bethlehem Lutheran Church, where his father, the Rev. Sjur J. Brekke, was minister. All of that was a while ago. Dad was born in 1921, and his father was called to a congregation on the South Side of Chicago, Ebenezer Lutheran, in 1925 or ’26.

I’ve been to this place several times. Once with Dad, in 1988, when we were headed back to Chicago from a trip that had taken us to the Little Big Horn. Once the weekend before Christmas in 1998, when winter had really set in and high temperatures was in minus single digits Fahrenheit. Once in 2018, on a family heritage adventure with Kate, Eamon and Sakura. And again last month with my brother John.

We did have one conversation with someone in town on this last trip. A neighbor of the house where our dad’s family lived stopped as she was driving by and asked, “What’s up, guys?” So we told her our story of century-old roots — it was just a few days after what would have been Dad’s 100th birthday — and I had pictures of the house as it looked back then all queued up on my phone to show if anyone asked. But there wasn’t much to the conversation, really — I think the neighbor wanted to satisfy herself that these two incipient senior citizens perusing the premises next door were on the up and up.

We took some pictures and moved on to the next town down the road, Warren, where our dad was actually born and they still have a drive-in theater and weekly newspaper, among other attractions.

Road Blog: Heading West

Bell tower. St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, near Stanhope, Iowa.

We left my sister’s house on Chicago’s North Side at what I consider to be a humane hour, 10 a.m., headed across the northwestern suburbs to the series of toll roads that would lead us out of the metropolis and toward the Mississippi River. We got off the interstate routes in western Illinois and took U.S. 30, part of the old Lincoln Highway, across Iowa. We made a stop at the country church north of Des Moines where my father’s father’s parents and some distant cousins are buried. Then we raced across western Iowa to Sioux City, where we are tonight.

Our route after leaving the church — St. Paul’s Lutheran — took us through Stanhope, a little town I am sure my great-grandparents, my grandfather and my dad knew. We stopped at the one gas station in town to fill up. I walked in to the small store attached to the station to get a cold drink. There was a tall, gray-haired woman working at the counter.

“Hi, there,” I said.

“Hi,” she answered.

“How are you?” I asked.

“Great,” she said. “How about you?”

“Same. Beautiful day,” I replied.

“Yes it is,” she said. “Just like it was thirty-one years ago.”

“Thirty-one years ago,” I said. “1990. What happened on September 15, 1990?” I half expected to hear that a tornado or some other misfortune had befallen the town.

“I got married,” she said.

“That is a great thing to celebrate,” I said. And deciding to ignore the possibility that that marriage was over for one reason or another, I added, “Are you doing anything? Going out to dinner tonight?”

“No, not tonight,” she said. “Had to work. And so did he. But we’ll do something this weekend.’

And that was our conversation. Then we were back on the road and rolling through towns with names I wouldn’t have believed if I hadn’t seen them and double-checked them.

Road Blog: Stopping by Woods

Thorn Creek Woods, just outside Park Forest in Chicago’s southernmost suburbs.

My siblings and I were lucky to grow up in a place, just at the outer edge of Chicago’s southern suburbs, where nature was close by. For a crucial period of our growing-up years, we lived in a house my parents had built on a one-acre lot in the middle of a forest. During the summers, especially, we almost lived out of doors — camping, exploring and even learning a little about the life of the woods.

Until last weekend, I hadn’t taken a long walk in the woods in decades. Most of my visits to the area have involved checking out our old house and marveling at the fact that a good-sized residence on a wooded acre could be on the market for the low six figures (or even less; the place sold for $99,000 about three years back).

But since my brother John and I are here on our long road trip, we had the rare circumstance of all four siblings being in town together. So we got together and drove down to the woods on Saturday afternoon. The immediate purpose: to do something to remember our mom, who had a significant hand in the campaign to stop the nearly one thousand acres of forest from being knocked down for tract housing in the late 1960s.

Strolling an old haunt.

A lot has changed out there. Instead of walking out into the woods from our backyard, we accessed them by way of a trail that starts at a nature center just outside Park Forest. (The center building is an 1860-vintage Lutheran church that was moved about four miles in the mid-1960s to serve a new congregation, then later repurposed for the forest preserve.)

The woods themselves look different. Some areas are densely overgrown, others have little vegetation (but plenty of poison ivy) under the forest canopy. So ravines and gullies that used to be pretty much obscured by undergrowth are much more obvious.

A stand of fir trees that was apparently planted in the 1940s or ’50s has bolted. When we were kids, our neighbors and others used to go out and cut some of the firs for Christmas trees; now many of those trees appear to be seventy or eighty feet tall.

The Will County Forest Preserve District has installed wooden walkways through areas that are typically wet and put up a series of bridges over Thorn Creek. There are signs now marking trails through the trees. And a nice viewing platform on the edge of a seasonal wetland.

None of the improvements felt intrusive, and plenty of what we remember is intact. For instance, much of the gravel road that used to wind its way from just below our house to a Remington Arms plant on the other side of the woods is still there.

Probably the best measure of how satisfying it was to be back in the woods is that we continued walking and talking and exploring until it was nearly dark. Just as we did when we were kids.

The sibs (Ann, John and Chris) and me.

Road Blog: Dad

December 26, 1921: Stephen Brekke, nearly four months old, with his mother, Otilia Sieverson Brekke.

Is there an organizing principle to this trip?

Well, yes, sort of. Our dad was born a century ago — 100 years ago today, as a matter of fact, in a little town in northwestern Minnesota. We’re headed there now in honor of the occasion.

The observance will be a low-key one, perhaps befitting the mostly low-key nature of the honoree. One of my motives was to drag my siblings up to this corner of the country—Alvarado, the town of 300 where my dad and his parents lived until he was four years old, and Warren, the slightly larger town and seat of Marshall County where he was born. I was partly successful — my brother John is with me, and we’re making slow, picture-taking progress east. I’ll wait until another time to get my brother Chris and sister Ann to journey up to the distant upper Midwest.

So: Happy birthday, Pop. We remember.

Lake Abert, 1990

Lake Abert, Oregon. October 1990.

Lake Abert, above, is along U.S. 395 in southern Oregon, about 80 miles east of Klamath Falls and 75 miles north of Alturas, California. I passed by during a trip with my dad in October 1990. I remember it was a Friday evening, and we’d had a full day of traveling south from Lewiston, Idaho, with one significant misadventure along the way. We’d locked the keys in our rental car when we were about 50 miles from the nearest town. It was cold and starting to snow a little. My solution, which I’m not too sure I’d improve upon now, was to break one of the rear windows to get back in. One discovery that led to was that our Ford Taurus got about half the normal gas mileage when you drove at highway speeds with a broken-out window. The effects of increased drag, I guess. We stopped at a town along the way — John Day, maybe — and got a piece of cardboard that we taped in the window opening. That was enough of a closure that the mileage went back almost to normal for the rest of the trip.

We stopped at Lake Abert, which for a long time I believed was Lake Albert, around sunset. We had a ways to go, since the next motel was in Alturas. The light was beautiful, of course, and the way I remember the scene, it was completely still and silent. I took eight shots for a panorama with whatever little film camera I was carrying. The developed prints have been shuffled from one drawer to the next for 30 years. But in a fit of archival exploration, I grabbed them, scanned them (30 years of dust and grunge included) and panaroma-ized them in an application called Hugin (neither Lightroom nor Photoshop recognized all eight shots as part of the same scene for whatever reason).

I didn’t realize until just now, as I looked for information on the lake, that the moment we captured was in a sense a fortuitous one. In the early ’90s, Lake Abert went into a decline attributed to agricultural water diversions and climate change. Water levels have dropped; salinity levels — Lake Abert is Oregon’s only “hypersaline” saltwater lake — have risen. That’s a combination that caused a sharp drop in brine shrimp and other organisms in the lake’s waters; that in turn triggered a decline in the number of water birds visiting and nesting at the lake.

The decline has led to proposals for new environmental protections, including declaring Lake Abert “a wild and scenic river.” A quick search turned up a couple of other decent background pieces on the lake from recent years: Salinity and Water Levels Changing the Face of Lake Abert Wildlife (2018) and Oregon’s Only Saltwater Lake Is Disappearing, and Scientists Don’t Know Why (2014).

‘It Was the Greatest Place on Earth’

The Bird, by Daniel Gies via Flickr.

When Kate and I got married, a rainy December evening in a past century, we ended the day by dropping into a bar that had been part of our courtship: The Albatross. The bartender, Bob Johnson, broke out a bottle of Cook’s to celebrate the occasion.

At one point in my early Berkeley wanderings, when I had a dozen addresses in half a dozen years, I lived about three blocks from the bar. I became a little bit of a regular, playing darts there and joining a softball team the bar sponsored. Later, a group of friends and I persuaded Bob, who along with his brother Val owned the place, to let us in an hour early on Friday nights so we could sit around a table in back and read “Ulysses” aloud. After Molly Bloom had breathed her final “Yes,” the group continued for awhile, going down to the bar to read poetry.

One Friday, the theme was baseball poems. Kate and I had just started going out, and she came with me. I only remember two poems from that night. Our friend Bill Joyce read “Ty Cobb Poem,” by William Packard (“…there is one question that usually never gets to be asked: who was the greatest major league baseball player of all time the first man who was voted into the Hall of Fame whose mother took a shotgun and killed his father during the first week of this player’s major league career?”)

The other poem from that evening that’s stuck in my brain is “Casey at the Bat,” because Kate, my date, performed it from memory. Wow! There may have been no joy in Mudville, but there was at our table. She won the hearts of all within earshot.

There were many other evenings at The Albatross. Kate and I would usually sit at the bar and talk to Bob or Val — I don’t remember them ever working together — and partake of The Bird’s proto-pub-bites gastronomical specialty, “muffies.” I guess they were a sort of pig in a blanket, a sausage of some kind swaddled in dough, precooked and heated to perfection in a secret room just behind the bar. Bob and Val also countenanced outside food, so sometimes we’d bring in plates from Everett and Jones, just down the street on San Pablo Avenue. And there was as much freshly popped popcorn as you wanted, for free.

Then the Johnsons sold the place in the late ’90s. We ran into Val once or twice afterward, but we saw Bob at his next stop, Berkeley Espresso, in a new building that had been put up at the corner of Hearst and Shattuck, fairly often. Kate and I asked about him at the cafe last year, and one of the long-time employees there told us he passed away a few years ago.

Now The Albatross itself is about to be history. The place has been closed since mid-March because of the plague. Its current owners announced earlier this week that they need to be off the premises by Nov. 30 because of “money running thin, no foreseeable re-opening date due to the ongoing pandemic, and new rent demands from our landlord.”

We hadn’t been down there much in recent years. After the Johnsons sold it — a full generation ago, for goodness’ sake — it got spruced up, expanded its hours (it had always opened at 8 p.m.), got a license for hard liquor and drew bigger and bigger crowds. Our infrequent drop-ins weren’t bad experiences, except for the one really awful Irish coffee I was served when Brennan’s was on its last legs and I was looking for alternatives. I think the last time I went in was for a Sunday night pub quiz with my son Thom and a few of his friends several years ago, and it was a blast to see how big and enthusiastic the crowd was (plus, we came in second and won some still-unredeemed drink tokens).

As I said long ago in writing about Brennan’s decline, a bar’s closing is a small loss in the big scheme. But it’s still a loss — of community, of a place that may have put a little bit of an imprint on you. (A friend, King Kaufman, said in remembering The Albatross that “it’s where I saw the only graffito that ever made me laugh out loud. I saw it on the Saturday night of Easter weekend, and it said ‘Easter’s cancelled: They found the body'”).

My own nostalgic feeling reminded me of “Bilbao Song,” a Brecht-Weill number we got to know as kids on a record by Will Holt. Play us out, Will. …

Bill's Dance Hall in Bilbao, Bilbao, Bilbao
Was the greatest dancehall in the world I'm sure.
There you could for just a dollar whoop and holler, whoop and holler, whoop and holler,
And do a lot of things I wouldn't call so pure.
All the same, I'm not so sure that if you'd gone there you'd have liked it - 'twas a special kind of place.
Brandy laughter hit you at the door.
Blades of grass grew right up through the floor.
The moon shone green through a roof of glass,
And the music that they played there had such class!

(Chorus)Ah that Bilbao moon, when love was worth your while,
Ah that Bilbao moon, when people lived in style,
Ah that Bilbao moon, where did the time all go?
Ah that Bilbao moon, I guess we'll never know.
I'm not so sure you would have liked it, ah but then,
It was the greatest, it was the greatest,
It was the greatest place on earth.

Bill's Dance Hall in Bilbao, Bilbao, Bilbao,
Has re-opened under different management.
Lots of palm trees, lots of ice cream, very flashy, very flashy,
But you know, it's not the same establishment.
Now I'll bet if you walked in you'd feel at home,
That is, if potted palms are just your style.
No grass is growing on that modern dancefloor,
The moon shining through the roof is just a moon,
And the music that they play there is the kind you'd never ask for.
Ah, Joe, play me that old time tune!

Chicago Cemetery Visits: The O.A. Thorp Story

O.A. Thorp monument, Mount Olive Cemetery, Chicago.

One trip I try to make when I’m back in Chicago is to the cemeteries where my mom and dad and their families are buried.

My dad’s family cemetery, by which I mean the place where his parents and most of his mother’s family, the Sieversons, are interred, is Mount Olive, on Narragansett Avenue between Irving Park and Addison on the Northwest Side.

As kids, we were dragged out there for the occasional funeral. I only remember one in any detail: on a Saturday afternoon in September 1975 when Grandma Brekke was buried. I don’t recall that my father, whom I think was pretty stricken, stopped to take in the other family graves in the vicinity: His grandparents, Theodore and Maren Sieverson, for instance, or the several children surrounding them, or his Reque uncles and cousins, or the Helmuths or Simonsens or anyone else. Instead, we left the cemetery for a lunch at my grandmother’s church, Hauge Lutheran.

My siblings and I began visiting the cemeteries on our own — voluntarily — after our mom died in August 2003, followed by her last surviving sibling, our Uncle Bill, who died just four months later. My dad wanted to visit the cemeteries in the wake of those passings, for one thing, and we’d go with him. The two deaths so close together were so shocking in their suddenness that for me, I think going out to the cemetery when I was in town was a way to help process the grief. It also led us to find and visit all the family graves we had never seen before.

The inscription: ‘Christ my hope.’ Sjur was a Lutheran minister who died of the effects of Parkinson’s disease in 1932. Otilia was a devout young Lutheran woman who met him at her church when he was finishing his ministerial training.

Anyway. I made my rounds last week, and yes, everyone was pretty much where I left them. Mount Olive was predominantly a Scandinavian cemetery until the last few decades, and it’s filled with graves of Norwegians and Swedes and probably some stray Danes whose families came to the city in the 19th century. The place hasn’t gone wild, but the years are catching up with those old Scandinavian sections, with lots of markers askew or tumbled down. There are a few that have markers stamped with the words “perpetual care.” My grandparents’ stone, which is rather unique in its simplicity, is still straight.

On this trip, I took a few pictures around the various grave sites, then drove toward the entrance, my next destination being my mom’s family cemetery on the far South Side. On the way out, though, I passed the inescapably phallic monument pictured at the top of the post. I must have passed it at least a dozen times in the past, but it had never registered. Maybe the light was just right this time.

The stone, which is 15 or 20 feet high, bears the name “O.A. Thorp.” Not a household name, at least where I live. Here’s what I can piece together:

Ole Anton Thorp was born in the town of Eidsberg, south of Oslo — then Christiania — in 1856. He emigrated to the United States and arrived in Chicago in 1880, where he started an import-export business.

The moment that made him a public figure arrived in 1892.

A promoter of all things Norwegian, including trade, Thorp had puzzled over a way to bring goods directly from Norway to Chicago, thus skipping the British and East Coast ports where they’d normally be handled at great expense. His solution was to charter a small freighter and bring his cargo up the St. Lawrence River and through the various canals connecting that waterway to the Great Lakes and Chicago.

The ship, the Wergeland, left Bergen with a cargo of salt herring and cod liver oil in early April. It made the crossing to the St. Lawrence without difficulty. But the canals of the era were so shallow that the steamer had to be unloaded before it passed through, then reloaded at the other end, a process that was repeated several times.

The Wergeland made it to Chicago on May 26, six weeks after leaving Norway, and was greeted as the first steam cargo vessel to make the voyage from Europe to the city.

Part of the Chicago Daily Inter-Ocean’s report on the arrival of the Wergeland, published May 27, 1892.

So that was Thorp’s major claim to fame. A writeup on important Chicagoans done shortly afterward declared Thorp “has during the last decade done more for the development of trade between Norway and the United States than any other man in the West, and possibly more than anybody on this side of the ocean.”

He chartered steamers to make the journey again in 1893 and 1894, but then the venture seemed to fizzle. A magazine article a few years later — “Chicago Our Newest Seaport” in the May 1901 number of Frank Leslie’s Popular Monthly — suggested that the nature of the cargo was part of the problem:

“… With each succeeding venture (Thorp) found it more and more difficult to dispose of a whole cargo of dried fish and cod liver oil at one time, especially in summer. In winter it might, perhaps, have been easier; but in winter navigation was closed, and it was impossible for his steamers to reach Chicago. Norway had little but fish and oil to send us … “

Thorp remained active in business, civic, and Norwegian American affairs in the city. He was one of the organizers of the campaign to commission a statue of Leif Erikson that was erected in Humboldt Park in 1901. He was appointed to the city’s school board in 1902; in the photo accompanying the appointment announcement in the Chicago Tribune, he looks vaguely like the accused Haymarket bombers of 1886.

How is Thorp remembered today? Hardly at all, though there’s a school named after him just a few blocks from Mount Olive Cemetery. And then there’s the giant O.A. Thorp shaft, rising amid the graves of less notable Norse folk.

In the individual graves around the monument, there are two markers with dates in January 1905.

One is for O.A. himself, who died Jan. 25, reportedly after surgery for an abdominal abscess. The other grave is for his daughter, Sara Olive Elizabeth, who died at age 14 on Jan. 5. The death notice in the Tribune says she passed at 4 in the afternoon at the family home in Chicago’s Rogers Park neighborhood.

Post-Dog Life, Continuing Adventures Of …

One of the decisions we had to make when we put Scout to sleep a month ago concerned what to do with his body afterward. In the past, we’ve buried our late companions — two cats, a rat, a rabbit, a budgie — in the backyard. But Scout was big enough — 50 pounds or so — that it seemed like it would be a real chore to dig a hole long and wide and deep enough for him.

When the event came to pass, our vet told us we could have him cremated individually if we wanted. Afterward, we could scatter his ashes — the coffee-can scene from “The Big Lebowski” comes to mind — or perhaps stow him on the mantelpiece or have him interred at a pet cemetery. Alternately, we could opt for a group cremation and have his remains buried — OK, I admit that the verb I think of is “dumped” — in a common grave somewhere.

I forget what the price was for the different levels of service, but the group cremation/common grave scenario was much less expensive. With the feeling that the most important part of Scout was not his “remains” but our memories of him and the indelible mark he left on our lives, that’s the option we chose. After the wrenching experience of having The Dog put down, I didn’t dwell on where he’d wind up afterward.

But last week, we got a card in the mail, a “certification of country burial,” from Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in Napa.

“This certificate will serve to notify its owners that the remains of Scout were interred in a country setting together with the pets of many other loving and appreciative owners such as yourself feel that their pets deserve more than the other alternatives now in practice. “Country burial” is an expression of gratitude for the unselfish devotion and companionship your pet gave you during its entire lifetime.”

A form enclosed with the certificate informs us that we can memorialize Scout in Bubbling Well’s memorial pet register, located at the base of a monument in the park, which overlooks the Napa Valley. Price: $35 or more, by check or money order. The form hastens to advise us “this memorialization is purely voluntarily and there is no compulsion expressed or implied.”

Image of the area near the country burial site for animals handled by Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. The spot is in Solano County, east of Suisun City.

Naturally, Kate and I decided we’d like to go and take a look at the pet memorial park — which sooner or later I’ll just call a pet cemetery. Kate had looked up the address and come up with a place on Atlas Peak Road, off Silverado Trail just northeast of Napa. That meant one thing to me: It was likely in an area burned in the terrible North Bay wildfires of last October.

And sure enough, as we ascended the narrow road from the valley, we quickly encountered signs of fire — charred trees and shrubs, lots of construction activity as homes in the area are rebuilt.

The pet cemetery was obvious — the Los Angeles Times described it last fall as “an oasis in a sea of destruction” — for the manicured lawns amid a landscape that’s both burned-over and turning summer gold.

The disaster that swept the countryside also swept across the cemetery. While the “memorial garden” areas are nearly all intact, a home and office on the property burned, as did many large large trees. (The facility’s current proprietor, Dan Harberts, was among those evacuated by helicopter the night of the fire. He was forced to leave his own dog, Drake, a black lab, behind in a pickup truck. When a friend made it into the fire zone the next day, Drake was still waiting, safe and apparently sound.)

The memorial park is clearly in a state of rehabilitation, with evidence of heavy equipment having driven across parts of the property, a small heap of burned debris in a parking lot, and a collection of broken pet headstones — broken, I’m guessing, during the post-fire recovery — lined up on a wall.

We showed up around 4 p.m. While there was plenty of traffic on the road adjacent to the cemetery, we were the only people there. No staff. No other visitors.

It’s tempting to poke fun at the many, many pet plaques and grave markers at the cemetery and their sometimes maudlin messages. We saw one for a ferret named Bandit, whose human companions averred, “He was our everything.” One memorial includes what appear to be the figures of St. Francis, the Virgin Mary and a plywood golden retriever with a wire halo. A trio of pedigreed German shepherds is buried together under matching tablets saying, “Rest until we are together again.”

It’s tempting to make light of it all, but I won’t. While my sentiments and beliefs may be different — when Kate and I talk about how we’d like to dispose of these bodies of ours when the only show in town is over, I think of sky burials or Walt Whitman — mostly, I’m impressed by how many people will go to such apparent lengths to remember these presences in their lives.

Jake, 1999-2016. ‘We love our boy.’

When we got the Bubbling Wells card in the mail, I was thinking Scout’s “country burial” was in the Napa area. The picture on the card looks sort of like the lowlands south of the city. The difference between that image and the rugged hillside location where the cemetery sits didn’t compute at first. But as we ambled through the property, we came across a sign devoted mostly to explaining what “country burials” are, where they happen and that you can’t visit the burial site because of the conditions of a land-use permit.

Of course, inquiring minds want to know just where this burial site is.

The sign, below, doesn’t quite address the precise location. In a tone that may reflect having heard the question a million times, the cemetery’s proprietors say, “In all honesty, we can tell you that your pet was buried 20 miles east of Bubbling Well near Fairfield in a lovely country setting.”

A sign at Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park explains the cemetery’s country burials.

After a diligent hour or two of searching public records, that description appears to be more or less accurate.

The site is a little southeast of Fairfield, south of Travis Air Force Base and just north of a range of low hills and, beyond them, the sloughs and wetlands associated with Suisun Bay.

Is it a lovely country setting?

This slice of eastern Solano County is one of the many parts of the greater Bay Area where one can look past all we’ve done to the place and get a glimpse of the intoxicating beauty of California Before Us. That picture on the Bubbling Well card, with the green hills and splash of wildflower gold? It shows the actual place where pet cremains are buried — nearly a cubic yard of them a day on average, coming from hundreds of veterinary and other facilities around the Bay Area. What the picture doesn’t show is the nearby highway, the trucks going back and forth to the county landfill, or the jets coming in and out of Travis. Framing is everything.

How do I feel about Scout’s ashes being out there? It’s hard to say. But he did love every minute he spent outdoors, and I suppose for me there’s a little bit of resolution for me in that.

We came across one headstone at Bubbling Well that was for a child, not a pet. It says simply, “Infant daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Wm. Harberts, July 22, 1914.”

An infant’s grave at the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park.

That set off some more diligent searching. From the history I can find, the Harberts bought the Bubbling Well property in 1961 — long after the date on the headstone. The history also suggests that the Harberts lived in Iowa or Wisconsin, not California, in 1914. They did come west in the late 1930s and lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, where William Harberts, a Presbyterian minister, was a pastor. (Lydia died in Alameda in 1960; William died in Berkeley in 1970; one of their sons, Paul, ran Harberts Sporting Goods here and was a member of the East Bay Regional Park board).

William and Lydia Harberts’s oldest surviving child, John Calvin Harberts, was born in 1915, and it was he who bought the Bubbling Well property and started the pet memorial park in 1971. It’s not clear to me why his infant sister’s headstone — and, one assumes, remains — are interred here. My guess is that the family didn’t want to leave her behind in some far-away Midwestern cemetery and brought her to Napa for reburial.

A couple of other finds regarding Bubbling Well. It’s actually the centerpiece of a fairly important piece of American documentary film history: Errol Morris’s first film, “Gates of Heaven.” Roger Ebert called it one of the 10 best films ever made (surprisingly, no, I have never seen it. We can stream it now, and having been up there, we will).

Cal Harberts also got some press back in the late ’70s and early ’80s for attempting to establish his pet memorial operation as a tax-exempt religious institution, The Bubbling Well Church of Universal Love. In July 1980, the Los Angeles Times profiled Harberts and his argument for tax-exempt status.

A 1980 profile of Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park founder Cal Harberts.

“We believe any Supreme Being who puts the breath of life in you and me and these little four-legged creatures is not going to forget man’s cherished pets in the hereafter. At our church services, the congregation and I say prayers for our departed pets and for sick pets. I read from the Scriptures, recite poetry about pets, talk about the roles pets play in our lives. …

“I spend a good part of my time consoling people, telling them they will see their pets again in heaven. Organized religion doesn’t help them. They have to turn to someone. That is where the religious aspect of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park and the Bubbling Well Church of Universal Love come together.”

Federal tax authorities didn’t buy it.