Last week I spent a really pleasant morning in a cemetery.
That’s not something I ever thought I’d say. (I spent a few scary nights in a cemetery behind my dorm in college, hiding from campus police after pulling stupid pranks. But I don’t recall really enjoying spending time in a burial ground.)
But that changed as Ben Pinello gave me a tour of his new family cemetery on his 40-acre spread on the southwest edge of Colorado Springs near Bear Creek Regional Park.
Side Streets readers may recall that Pinello caught city officials off guard last fall when he submitted plans to build his family burial plot. Can you still do such a thing in the city, they wondered? Thick city code books didn’t even imagine such a thing within city limits. Eventually, in February, after concerns of neighbors and flood plain questions were satisfied, Pinello won approval. I called it proof a little of the Old West survives in us.
Ever since, I’d been curious how it turned out. So I was tickled when Pinello, 81-year-old son of a pioneering Colorado Springs family, invited me to see the 25-by-40-foot plot.
We drove down a winding gravel road, past the “Private Drive” and “No Trespassing” signs, over a low-water crossing on Bear Creek, which meanders through the property, and stopped along a line of scrub oak trees, still bearing light orange and yellow leaves.
There, snug against the trees, was the tiny cemetery, enclosed by black steel fencing adorned with decorative steel oak leaves and a small arch over the gate. Steel scrollwork on the arch creates a subtle “P.”
Pinello is clearly proud of the place, which he decided to build after a bout with bone marrow cancer a couple years ago. The scare made him think about where he would be spending eternity and he decided he wanted stay on the same place he’d spent most of his life, side-by-side with his wife, Vira, his parents, son and three daughters, their spouses and five grandkids.
Over the years, they’ve all shared the property, which Pinello bought upon his return from the Marine Corps in 1962.
“You know, you don’t need to write about this again,” Pinello told me as I wandered about, admiring a small steel bench he’d placed under a nearby tree. “I just thought you’d like to see it.”
But it’s so unique and peaceful and such a beautiful spot that I wanted to share it with everyone.
Watching Pinello as he looked over the place, I found myself really envious of him and his family and their little slice of heaven. (Of course, I’m assuming they all are headed there, instead of the alternative.)
I imagined what it was like a half-century ago when he bought it, with its spectacular mountain backdrop and its solitude, far from neighbors and the city off in the distance.
I tried to envision the cattle that grazed here for years. (There’s still an old wooden cattle chute on the place and his cattle dogs are buried, one next to the other, under a tree.)
And I was intrigued to see the historic concrete ditch that precisely slices across the land. It was built generations ago to irrigate the old El Paso County poor farm at a time similar irrigation ditches commonly diverted creek water to homes and ponds in the region.
It must have been a great retreat. Especially after spending hard days building roads and other construction projects, as Pinello did for a living.
And it remains an island of solitude, and a haven for wildlife, even as it is surrounded by the homes of Lower Skyway, a nearby assisted living center and all the folks who use Bear Creek park.
I asked Pinello how many people he expected would join him in the cemetery. Would his children and their families be buried here?
As we chatted, I stopped abruptly as I noticed, off in the far corner, the cemetery wasn’t empty. A small headstone marked the grave of a baby boy who lived just one day in 1953.
“The baby died right before I left for the Marines,” Pinello said in a quiet voice.
He explained that shortly after his cemetery was completed, he arranged to have the redwood casket moved from Evergreen Cemetery where the infant was buried 50 years ago.
Then I was stopped cold again as Pinello casually mentioned that he almost didn’t get to see the cemetery finished.
“You know, I had a heart attack in March,” he said, matter-of-factly. “I told my wife. She said: ‘Get in the car.’ And we took off for the hospital.”
He described urging Vira to run a red light, causing them to be pulled over by police. Actually, the traffic stop turned out to be a luck break because police called an ambulance. Emergency medical technicians treated him immediately and probably saved his life.
“I’m not quite ready to go,” he said with a grin.
I’m really glad.
It would have been cruel for him to leave too soon. I hope he has many more autumns with Vira in their house atop the hill overlooking their land and surrounded by their family.
I really do envy him.
Follow this link to a column I wrote about Pinello in November 2012.
To read a follow-up in February 2013, click here.