- Associated Press - Saturday, October 18, 2014

GREELEY, Colo. (AP) - There are days when Elmer Burghart’s wife, Betty, will poke her head into the garage at 1:30 p.m. and ask him if he planned on eating lunch.

At that point, Elmer will look up from one of his canes and ask for an apple. Then he’ll go to work again, once he’s finished with lunch, until 9:30 p.m., 13 hours after he started.

“It’s therapy,” Burghart said, “for when I’m feeling sorry for myself.”

Burghart, 73, doesn’t feel that way too often. There’s a saying he repeats to himself, over and over: Count your blessings and forget your losses, and he believes it on most days.

On the days he doesn’t - or if he gets into a mood - he’ll walk into his garage in his west Greeley home, near the edge of Josephine Jones Park in west Greeley, and go to work on making the canes.

He considers the cane-making a kind of penance, though it’s a penance he enjoys. A big reason he has so many blessings to count, he said, is because of what the veterans sacrificed in the wars.

When he started to make canes, he had the vets in mind. They’re old, he knows, and some have limps. He thought they would like something to help them get around.

He feels guilty, and always has, about not joining the fight himself.

That’s why he gives the canes away. He’s had offers to sell them. A store in Estes Park saw one of his walking sticks and told him to bring a dozen. He’d get good money for them, the store owner said. Burghart said no. Two older gentlemen insisted on giving him something for a cane, and so Burghart told them to buy him some rubber stoppers. A bag of those now sit on his workbench. One insisted he pay him something. That money now rests in an envelope he tacked up above the work bench among the photos of his family and wife and two grandchildren, ages 6 and 5. He labeled the envelope “Cane Supplies.”

He doesn’t know when he’ll spend that money, however, because he gets what he needs from the ground. He drives around his neighborhood, and when he sees a yard full of tree branches, he’ll bring a cane to show what he can do, knock and ask if he can clean up the yard for the wood. The answer is almost always yes. Two years ago, when Greeley had a freak snowstorm, snapping thousands of branches, he had enough to last him months.

Burghart rarely uses one of his own creations, and that’s another blessing. When he was 16, he was in a car crash, which crushed his femur beyond repair. This was in 1957, so three doctors said they would have to cut off his leg. Elmer’s father said he couldn’t accept that, and so their family physician did some looking and said he couldn’t help, but he knew two doctors who could.

Elmer’s father drove him to Hays, Kansas, from Offerle, Kansas a town without a stoplight where they grew up and where his father hauled wheat to a grain distributor. The two doctors cut a steel pipe in half and screwed it in his leg. At the time, the operation seemed like a crazy idea but it worked. Elmer was just hoping he could walk again, but he played baseball.

Still, two years after the crash, the Navy wouldn’t let him into the service.

He began to absolve his guilt four years ago, when he retired. Burghart had a long career at Hewlett-Packard after 14 years as a carpenter. He was 42 when he started, but he loved it there, working as a contract manager, mostly on cleaning services and repairs. He loved the place. When he was 60, he was laid off. He worked for Johnson Controls in Windsor for another nine years because the owners were friends and they treated him well.

He wanted to remain active, and he wanted something to do while he watched over Betty. He didn’t want to be a couch potato. Since then, he’s found a place in a McDonald’s, where he goes for breakfast every morning, as long as Betty’s had her breakfast.

She’s got diabetes, and sometimes, she forgets to eat. He found her once, dazed, after a trip to McDonald’s. She was still awake, he said with admiration, even with her blood sugar really low. Betty worked at State Farm and once stuck some money in the stock market without telling Elmer and had enough for them to take their two boys and go to Australia for a month to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. Betty’s still sharp, he said. He just feels like he needs to be home most of the time. The two have been married 47 years.

He turned to the canes because woodworking seems to be in his blood. He has eight brothers, and one carves wood ducks, and another makes stone crucifixes, a few of which sit in the front yard of some churches, and another makes cowboy hats. When it’s time for a family reunion, they sell all their stuff to each other and that raises enough money for the get-together.

Elmer started whittling a piece of wood into a cane in 1976. He still has that one, his first, and a cane he made from 1978 that he used as a walking stick, etching into it the dates from backpacking trips he took with his sons. Almost all of the 300 canes he’s made, however, have come in the last four years.

Even though he hasn’t had to use his canes much, he does bring one along to the store to catch himself when he feels faint. He has a heart condition. It’s not a big deal, he said. Others stop him and ask about the cane. Others ask about them at McDonald’s, too, and he brings a few along to a VFW or a senior living place. They all disappear fast, even the pink ones, which he makes for survivors of breast cancer.

So there’s plenty of work to do. He will crank out a couple dozen of them when he gets in the mood in two or three days. That just depends on the day. He’s also got the two grandkids. They stay over once a week, and he’s now teaching them to fish.

Maybe therapy is the wrong word for the time he spends in the garage, he said. He feels pretty good about life after all. Count your blessings and forget your losses, he said again.

The trick to making a good cane, he said, is to sand away the dull layers on the surface. That way, you really get to see the rich colors underneath.

___

Information from: The Tribune of Greeley, Co, https://greeleytribune.com


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