January 27th……“WHAT WAS THE MOST UNIQUE EMPLOYMENT YOU HELD DURING YOUR VOCATIONAL CAREER?”
A distant, muted chime could be heard as I entered the front door. My arrival had been automatically announced by a small, swinging trip switch at the top of the door header of Layne’s Funeral Home in Battle Ground, Washington. In the respectful quietness, I walked to the back pews of the chapel. My kind friend, Denton Harlan, who had heard that chime, in what was known as the Prep Room, stepped out into the front of the chapel to greet me and welcome me to my new employment. It was the Summer of 1983. A few weeks prior to this, Denton had “bumped into” my wife and I while we were getting Traveler’s Checks for our vacation at the old location of The First Independent Bank. The “grapevine” had informed Mr. Harlan that I was seeking part time employment to help care for our growing family. “When you get back from vacation, come see me over at the funeral home.”, said Dent, “I need someone to help out cleaning the building, washing cars, etc..” As my years with Denton unfolded, I was to find out how many pleasant ways his “etc.” would encompass. I was elated for his kindness to us, as a family, and gladly anticipated beginning my new part time career.
The funeral business can be paralleled to farming, in a way. For, like a farmer, a funeral director sees to the needs of giving attention, devotion, sacrifice and work to meet the grieving needs of a family at any time around the clock. Seven days a week and any time of the day or night these dear servants of our community were on call to meet a family’s needs whenever they lost a loved one. After discussion with Denton of my duties, it was decided that for me to meet the needs of the building and car cleaning, we would propose a tentative weekly duty time of Saturday afternoons. I was more than happy to be flexible, regarding that schedule, for if a funeral had to be performed during my usual cleaning time. I’d just come into the funeral home on a different day.
Denton and myself both attended the same church, over the years, so he knew that I played guitar and sang. I was honored whenever my custodial position at “Layne’s” took a turn towards being part of something different that just cleaning. I found pleasure in giving families solace by singing a special song, or two, at the “Layne’s Funeral Home” chapel for their loved one. On occasion, at graveside services, I found myself singing to the family and mourners as birds sang nearby and gentle breezes floated through the pine trees while I’d play my “Black Beauty” Guild guitar and sing “That Silver-haired Daddy Of Mine” or some other tune of their choosing.
The greatest majority of Saturday afternoons at the funeral home were clear and open for me to do my cleaning and car washing. It was also around 1983 that I became aware of, and a giant fan of, a weekly radio show on Minnesota Public Radio called, “A Prairie Home Companion”. Not wanting to miss a broadcast, I’d bring along my little walk-man radio with ear plugs and was tickled when 3pm came around. I called it my weekly “smile medicine” as I’d hear Mr. Garrison Keillor do the opening song and I’d be set for 2 hours of laughter, great music, skits, phoney commercials (like the “Fear Mongers Shop”, etc.) The humdrum of cleaning was always made more palatable with smiles from this grand radio show.
Over my 27 years in service to Denton and his business, I became more deeply impressed with the tender and sincere heart of this dear man. His integrity and open heart had made him a very well-loved community figure. So many families in our Battle Ground, Washington area knew that Denton Harlan always had their best needs at heart. And, on more than one occasion, I saw Denton use his myriad of talents to meet those needs. One instance really stood out to me. A family had lost their dear father who was an avid hunter. They wanted to somehow carry a memento of their dearly departed daddy. Here’s what Denton did for them to meet their need. Denton had purchased a World War II era metal lathe that had originally been used at the Boeing Aircraft Plant in Seattle, Washington. This amazing funeral home director/craftsman took some brass rod stock and “turned” it in his lathe to create these handsome bullet-looking key rings. The center of each “bullet” had been drilled out to make a core. A brass, threaded cap was also created for each key-ring that even had little rubber “O-rings” to make the “bullet” air tight when the cap was screwed into place. Their father had been cremated, so Denton poured some of the father’s ashes into each key-ring and sealed it shut. The family members were just thrilled that Denton had found a way for them to “take Daddy with them” wherever they went as a memento of his love and the life that he had lived.
Whether I cleaned his place of business, washed his many vehicles, sang at funerals, helped usher funerals, or whatever service I could offer……….I was more than happy to be a brother in the Lord, and a friend of Denton Harlan who has always been a blessing to this Norwegian Farmer’s Son.