A Shared Legacy

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Essays, Stories, Adventures, Dreams

 Chronicles of a Footloose Forester

By Dick Pellek

 

A Shared Legacy

 

It is my privilege to contribute a legacy story about a man long dead, for the benefit of a nephew who was born long after his uncle died; and for the man's sister who does not know where he is buried in a country that she has never visited.  This is a legacy story about one of the many inspirational people who suddenly appeared but soon departed during one of the peripatetic encounters of the Footloose Forester.

Phil Coolidge was a water systems engineer who was a contract employee of Utah State University and served as their resident representative, implementing field operations for a specific project in the Republic of Cape Verde.  His college background at the undergraduate level was English, an unlikely major to qualify him for his Cape Verde assignment; but following his graduation from Harvard University in Massachusetts, Phil joined the Peace Corps and served in West Africa where he soon learned that agricultural sciences were weakly represented in many Third World countries.  Thus, following his Peace Corps assignment in Burkina Faso where Phil made fast friends among the populace with his sincere efforts to learn and use local languages, he enrolled at Utah State University to study Water Systems Engineering.  By the time the ink was dry on his Master of Engineering degree, he was more than qualified to serve in drought stricken Cape Verde.  At that time, there was not a single college graduate in Cape Verde who possessed a Masters Degree.

Phil Coolidge and the Footloose Forester met on only a handful of occasions, most of which consisted of exchanging knowledge about the problems and possible solutions of water production issues, water management through irrigation applications, and erosion control of infrequent torrential downpours.  On one memorable site visit to one of the Watershed Management Project worksite areas of the Footloose Forester, English major turned water systems engineer Phil Coolidge wrote a calculus based formula to explain and predict the sediment capacity limits of the catchments behind erosion control structures.  Although our small mission had an official who boasted having a degree in mathematics from Brown University, it was Phil Coolidge who came up with the calculus on his very first site visit to the project area in question.

There was nobody in Cape Verde who did not love Phil Coolidge. His superiors respected him and trusted his word; his workers were devoted to him; and everyone in Tarrafal admired him and his engaging ways.  But, he admitted to the Footloose Forester, he always preferred to work with the “little” people, those without titles or offices.  And those were the ones who were chosen to drive the bronze nails into the plaque of his headstone on the 1985 anniversary of his death.

On the day in 1984 that Phil Coolidge was buried in Tarrafal Cemetery a year earlier, those same day-to-day laborers insisted on being the ones to dig his grave and then to fill it in.  Oh, there were others in the funeral entourage, dressed in their respectful dark clothing of mourning, but the loyal day laborers of Phil Coolidge stood out by the mere simplicity of their clothing.

 

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Grave of Phil Coolidge near Tarrafal, Cape Verde

Latitude 15°16′ 00.87″N and Longitude 23°45′ 24.56″W

 

When the burial rites were concluded; when the last rose petal, sprig of oleander, or bougainvillea blossom was tossed into the open grave; and when people started to shuffle out of Tarrafal Cemetery, only his loyal workers and the Footloose Forester stayed on.  Four of his loyal friends took up their shovels and filled the grave until it was a small, low mound of dry, dusty soil.  Then every one of them dropped to their knees on top of that dusty mound to pray for the soul of Phil Coolidge. With tears in his eyes, the Footloose Forester had to turn away from that scene, so distraught was he with what he had just witnessed.

At the risk of spoiling a genuine attempt to pay tribute to Phil,  the Footloose Forester wants to acknowledge that the act of driving bronze nails into the plaque required a bit of secret preparation.  The day before the memorial ceremony, someone from the US Embassy had unwittingly attached the plaque on the headstone, thus precluding the planned ceremony of having Phil's own loyal employees take turns in driving the nails at the corners of the plaque. 

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Footloose Forester had to climb a tree and drop down from a 12-foot wall surrounding the locked cemetery to pry loose the bronze nails so that they could be re-attached during the ceremony on the following day.  In order to do so, he became a virtual grave robber.  But he pulled it off without anybody catching on.  The Prosopis tree he climbed is circled in red in the above Google Earth photo, and the grave of Phil Coolidge is marked with a yellow stickpin.

 

Missionary Spotlight-Alan Loveland
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