Caretaker by day, councilor by night
UNION — It's a sunny October afternoon in
Union, with ravens croaking in the cemetery trees, but Arlie Gordon,
one of the town's prominent citizens, is recalling a childhood in the
brushy mountains of Northern California.
Gordon grew up in the Coast Ranges some 50 miles outside Eureka, attending a one-room schoolhouse through eighth grade. He'd walk or ride a horse the several miles to school; the latter transport allowed him a little flexibility with regard to attendance.
"If I needed to get away from school for awhile, I'd leave a loose rope on my horse and it'd wander off and I'd have to go get it," he smiles. "That worked for awhile."
His father, Ralph, was a sheep shearer whose year was dictated by rotating jobs. He'd begin down in Mexico and work his way northward.
In the winter, Arlie held down the fort while his family moved to town for his older sister's high school education. He'd strap on skis and make a rugged, four- or five-day circuit to check on his neighbors, killing deer when he was hungry.
Later, married with two children, Arlie worked 16 years at a plywood mill in Fortuna, Calif. There was another migration to Susanville, for logging and construction work, before Arlie and his second wife, Karen, trailed his son, Abe, up to the Grande Ronde country in 1992.
But he notes, "I can't tell if I'm a newcomer, or if I'm coming home." That's because his roots are threaded in Northeast Oregon: His mother's aunt, in fact, was the first white child born in Cove, he says, and he had other ancestors in the Wallowa Valley.
Having wrangled with the city upon his arrival over a $75 kennel license for his eight bear hounds, Arlie decided to test the political waters by joining the planning commission. After seven and a half years of that, he says, "I figured I was smart enough for the council."
He's now on his second term — at present, the oldest and longest-sitting councilor.
"I like it because I can take what I know, and what I think the public should know, and get it out to the people," he explains of his position.
Some issues require a lot of study and pondering, and Arlie isn't one to shy away from an inquiring citizenry.
"If I don't know what it is, I'll go and find out and get them back their answer," he says. "But I never leave them hanging ... That is one thing that I've told the people: If I don't know, I'll admit it and go find out."
So Arlie's a familiar voice at council sessions. But he's equally known for another hat he wears: cemetery caretaker. For 11 years, he's mowed and watered the grass, cleared the headstone weeds, dug and maintained graves and generally kept the Union Victorian Cemetery up and running.
His regular maintenance season runs from the first of April through the end of September. The size of the cemetery makes it a difficult job.
Arlie estimates it takes him about four and a half days to weed and maybe two and a half days to mow the expansive grounds. Meanwhile, during the summer, he's changing water at four-hour intervals six days a week. It's demanding labor, but allows for plenty of solitary mulling.
Not that he's always alone, even in the thick of night: Arlie's seen deer, coyotes, badgers and marmots regularly, and once shone his flashlight in the direction of husky grumbling to find a black bear staring back. Elk drift through the cemetery as well, though he's never spotted one himself.
Vandalism isn't much of a problem, he reports. One Monday morning, early in his caretaking career, he found 15 or 20 headstones toppled in the morning, and the cemetery strewn with beer cans and empty wrappers. Rather than go straight to the police, he sought out a few high school students and asked them to relay to the partyers that, while the trash wasn't so bad, he demanded respect for the stones, which are exceptionally heavy.
The next day, he found a squadron of high schoolers hefting the monuments back in place.
Perhaps Arlie's most renowned skill as caretaker verges on the supernatural. Using two witching rods — metal hooks based with wooden handles — he's able to divine the location of buried bodies, a useful skill in a cemetery with so many unmarked graves.
He learned the mysterious method from his uncle, who was a sexton at a Willow, Calif., graveyard. Arlie helped him out for two summers as a boy.
"That's where I learned that I could witch," he recalls. " ... I asked him if I could try it, and he said, ‘Some people can, a lot can't.' It worked for me, and it's been working ever since.'"
His witching is a hit with the fourth-graders who annually visit the cemetery. He even has them try for themselves, lying prostrate in the grass as the kids step over him and watch the rods in their hands swing together.
Arlie's life has had its share of tragedy: in 2004, he lost his daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, to an aneurism, and his son, Abe, was murdered in Cove. Elizabeth was a schoolteacher who had recently become a principal in the Cove School District; Abe was a former director of public works who'd begun Arrowheads Ironworks before his untimely death.
Yet he just celebrated his golden wedding anniversary with Karen, who runs the concession stands at Union athletic events. And considering his myriad duties, he certainly doesn't seem to be slowing down anytime soon.
Kendall Baxter, treasurer of the Union Cemetery Maintenance Board, praises Arlie's dedication. "Arlie does a nice job," he says as he watches the witching demonstration. "He takes a lot of pride in it."
Donna Patterson, chairwoman of the board, agrees.
"He collaborates with the cemetery board on our projects, and his input is valued," she says. "I tell him, ‘Arlie, if we get any compliments on how the cemetery looks, the credit goes to you, and if we get any complaints, those go to you, too.'
"We receive many, many compliments, and rarely do we get a complaint."