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Digging up the bones of Dr. Per

Last month big machines rolled in to rip up the seven miles of the road that goes past the farm.  

After years of rumors, surveyor sticks, ribbons tied to doomed trees and unreadable symbols written in day-glow spray paint on the road, the big project finally got off the ground. 

It will be a two-year ordeal. In the end, the entire seven miles will be beautiful tar, free of frost boils, built to bear the weight of the truck traffic that tends to travel the route anyway.

The county engineer's office has foretold that on the two miles gravel road to the east, the hills will be flattened, the low sloughs raised, the crooked made straight and the rough places plain. 

The five miles to the west, meanwhile, were already tarred. Last week one of those big grinders came and pulverized the tarred surface to smithereens and we now have gravel all the way to the main highway for the first time since the mid-1960s. 

The road past the farm was first tarred in 1976. As a sixth grader, the road construction made for a festive summer. Most exciting was when it rained four inches while the road was clay and we had to slide around on the slime just to get to town for milk. 

One of the road crew camped in our yard with his wife and 15-year old son. Although the kid pretty much wrecked my Honda 50 before the summer was over, it was fun to have somebody around the place close to my age. 

As we rode our bikes one day, we stopped to rest under some trees out back by the corn crib. The kid got quiet. I asked what was wrong.

He had a secret. I had to promise not to tell. Anybody. If I told anybody, I would be dead. 

I promised. 

"They found a body."

I felt a chill. 

"Who found a body?"

"The road guys," he said. "They found a body in the ditch." 

My vivid imagination conjured up the horror of finding a decomposed murder victim. 

"Who killed the person?"

"They don't know."

  About then, Dad drove up in the pickup and told me to jump in. He was all excited. The road crew had found some bones and we were going to go down to see them. 

No way! I said. I don't want to see a dead body. 

Dad laughed. He said it was just bones. As we drove the half-mile to the site, I concealed my dread. 

The driver of the scraper who uncovered the skull had jumped off his machine, run to his pickup and gone home for the day, so I wasn't the only one scared.

But jelly-legged fear turned to curiosity as Dad and I scraped away the dirt from the bones. Here was a button. There was a boot heel. Here was some wood from a coffin. 

By now, I was in on the party. This was fun. We loaded up the bones and the buttons into the pickup, drove back to the farm and went to find Grandma, who had lived there all her life, to see if she knew who might be buried in the ditch across the road. 

She knew. It was Dr. Per, a quack doctor who committed suicide about eighty years before. Because the local church wouldn't bury a suicide in their cemetery, neighbors dug a grave right under the tree from which the quack doctor hung and interred him there.

He rested there in peace until Dad and I dug him up.  

The path of the road was only later moved closer to where Dr. Per was buried. Grandma always wondered if they would find the grave. When she walked home from Luther League late at night as a girl, she ran scared past that spot as she knew somebody was out there. 

After telling us the story, Grandma scolded us for being so light-hearted about human remains and said we'd better call the sheriff so poor Dr. Per could get a proper burial. 

The sheriff came and took the bones away. There was no investigation. The newspapers didn't pick it up. It was pretty much a big joke. 

Now, thirty-some years later, they are out digging with the scrapers again, pushing back layers of land with the dozers, digging where digging hasn't been done for decades. 

It will be interesting to see what turns up.