Monument workers shape nation’s history

BARRE, Vermont – In this age of just-in-time delivery, Linda Beaudin knows what it means to race against the clock.

Beaudin, 53, is a second-generation granite worker who runs the “government line” at Granite Industries of Vermont here. From 5 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. every day, she supervises a crew of expert marble cutters and stencil engravers who manufacture the gracefully curved, spare marble headstones that mark the graves of soldiers at national cemeteries in the Northeast.

Granite Industries is one of 13 monument makers nationwide that supply soldiers' headstones under a program run by a division of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The company makes about 21,000 marble headstones a year, and is the sole supplier for large national cemeteries in Boston, on Long Island, and for Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C.

“There are over 100 interments a day at Arlington alone, so you can't fall behind,” Beaudin said. “We have 20 days to fill a regular government order, just 10 days for some of the Long Island cemeteries. But we're very disciplined about getting it right, too. Each stone has to be perfect.”

Beaudin works just off the headstone line in a small, cluttered office that billows with marble dust whenever someone opens the door. Every day, 50 or more orders for soldiers' headstones arrive via the Internet. After checking the spelling and the alignment of the inscription on a computer-graphics display, Beaudin transfers the headstone order to a large industrial printer that converts the layout to a heavy rubber stencil. The stencils are affixed to each headstone before the inscription is made by sand-blasting.

Outside her door, the rows of cut headstones with their stencils attached stand upright along a conveyor line, as neatly arrayed as soldiers in parade formation. Across the floor there's a rubble pile of rejects – stones that just didn't pass quality control because of fissures, poor inscriptions, or black paint lettering that didn't cure properly. Those orders will be redone. In marble working, from the slabs cut in quarries to finished headstones, about 40 percent of the stone is considered waste because of imperfections like this.

There are other problems with the work, ones that cut to the heart. To relieve the tedium of her job, and the clangor from the marble line just outside, Beaudin listens to the radio all day. On the hour, there's news. She knows what to expect when another convoy in Baghdad has been attacked.

“Oh, see, here's a casualty from Iraq in today's order,” Beaudin said, fingering through her paper copies of government headstone orders. “Let's see. Born in 1978. Died in Iraq in April, one week before his birthday. He was 26 and is going to Arlington National Cemetery. So young, so young. I have a son who's 28, so it comes home that way.”

Most of Granite Industries' orders are for Greatest Generation soldiers – veterans of World War II or Korea who are now passing in record numbers. About 16 million Americans served during World War II, and 4.3 million of them are still alive. According to Mike Nacincik, a spokesman for the National Cemeteries Administration, which runs the government headstone program, 1,800 veterans die every day in the United States. About 1,100 of them are World War II soldiers.

As veterans in this group reach their 80s, the death rate is beginning to peak. Last year, about 655,000 veterans died – up from 515,000 in 1995.

“We expect to see a peak in veterans deaths in 2008 of roughly 676,000,” Nacincik said. “But that still means that for the next eight years the numbers of deaths will be extraordinarily high, well above 600,000. By no means will there be an immediate drop.”

The government program offers a standard marble or granite headstone, or a flat stone or bronze marker, to any deceased veteran's family free of charge. About half of the families of deceased veterans choose to participate in the program. That comes to about 350,000 government headstones a year, and the program is supported by a complex network of computerized ordering, suppliers, and trucking contracts that distribute the stones to graveyards throughout the 50 states.

Granite Industries dates from the turn of the century, and is one of about 50 stone fabricators and monument makers clustered around the big marble and granite quarries in Danby, Rutland and Barre, Vermont.

The company sells monuments worth about $10 million to government and private accounts each year, but its reputation derives mostly from high-profile monument and construction projects. Granite Industries cut and inscribed the black marble for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.; fabricated the red marble for the Hartford Insurance Co. corporate headquarters in Simsbury, Connecticut; and regularly lands contracts for such projects as the five-sided Pentagon Victims Memorial at Arlington, dedicated to the 190 people killed in Washington on September 11, 2001.

Because of the company's willingness to take on difficult, customized projects, or to re-create historic monument styles, Granite Industries wins a lot of unusual work. Under another government contract, it is now replacing thousands of deteriorating marble headstones in Confederate graveyards throughout the South.

“I'm not sure all those Confederates down there are happy about a bunch of Yankees winning this contract,” said Jeff Martell, company president and co-owner. “But if anybody complained, we'd just bring those Southerners up here and show them how much care we devote to the complicated raised lettering on their ancestors' stones.”

Government administrators at national cemeteries, Martell said, are sticklers for quality, but it's not fear of having to remake a stone or two that drives plant workers to perfection. Monument cutting is a business of constant dust, the scream of diamond-tipped blades cutting through massive slabs of stone, but also one of high emotion.

“When you come in one morning and a salesman tells you that we've just won the contract for the memorial to the Columbia Space Shuttle astronauts, or you recognize the name on a headstone from news reports in Iraq, you can really feel that,” Martell said. “The whole plant gets real fussy about every detail because you're cutting a piece of history.”

Stone polisher Robert McCallum, 35, works along Granite Industries' private monument line, donned in a waterproof apron and high rubber boots as he finishes off the top of grave monuments with a rotary power tool. A 17-year veteran of the Army Reserves, he worked the government line at Granite Industries for two years after joining the company in 2001.

Then, in February 2003, McCallum's construction unit, Charlie Company of the 368th Engineering Battalion, was called up for Operation Iraqi Freedom. He spent more than a year at Camp Victory in the desert of Kuwait, building roads, mess halls and guard towers for the huge logistical supply effort moving men and materiel north into Iraq. Over the summer, temperatures in the sun usually peaked at 120 degrees or more.

This spring, when he returned from Kuwait, Granite Industries told him to take a long vacation first and then promoted him to the private monument line as a polisher. But when workers are out on vacation, or orders pick up, he's occasionally re-assigned to his old job making soldiers' headstones on the government line.

That work can produce some strange sensations. A few times, amid the dust and noise of the marble shed, a gravestone comes down the line that he inscribes for a soldier just lost in Iraq. Then, involuntarily, the memories of far-off desert camps come rushing back.

“I didn't get all the way up to Iraq, of course, but I sure talked to a lot of soldiers coming through Camp Victory as they rotated out of the war,” McCallum said. “The one thing they all said was that they hated getting assignments up in Tikrit or Fallujah, where there were so many attacks and a lot of tension with the people. … It affects you a lot when a headstone comes through for a soldier killed in Iraq. One week I got two.”

Nancy Martell, the wife of Granite Industries' president, works as an all-around office manager and reviews all the orders that come in each day. September 11 still burns with intensity for her.

“I still don't know why, but in the spring of 2001, I woke up one day and just said, `Hey, Jeff, let's do New York City for my 40th birthday. We haven't been there yet,'” Nancy Martell said.

The Martells had a wonderful trip. They went to “The Producers” on Broadway, saw Ellis Island, and rode the elevators to the top of the World Trade Center towers. Five months later, when those towers came down, Nancy was overwrought, but so was everyone else, and she wrote off her reaction to the strong memories of her birthday trip.

When she continues her story, however, Nancy Martell's voice is shaky, and she begins to cry.

“About two or three months after September 11 we started to get all these calls from monument retailers in New York and Long Island. They wanted to know if they could send us the emblems of the New York Fire Department, or the New York Police Department, for inscriptions on grave monuments. Well, we knew who those orders were for. When the paperwork came though, I just cried and cried at my desk.”

Her best friend, Nancy St. John, works at the next desk and they would both sit there and cry before they could get back to work.

“Afterward, I could actually feel better about things,” Nancy Martell said. “It was a good feeling knowing that we were doing something to bring comfort to these 9-11 families. And although they didn't know this about us, there was no way, no way, that we were ever going to cut any corners on those stones.”

Over the winter, the Martells and a group of company employees traveled to Washington to take in Arlington National Cemetery. They wanted to visit the national shrine to see the headstones they'd made, and the memorial for the September 11 Pentagon victims. The summer before, two dozen company employees had worked overtime finishing the memorial.

“Oh, you know, it was just this cold winter day – but very clear and beautiful,” Nancy said, her voice shaky again. “I mean, to see Arlington and the row upon row of soldiers' graves. And, OK, I'm going to cry again now, I just cry when I remember this, but to finally find the Pentagon Victims Memorial that we'd worked so hard on. It looked … so good … and it just connected us personally to what is happening.”

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