LINGLE – It’s well over 90 degrees at Hillcrest Cemetery in Lingle.
There’s almost no wind, and the sun is relentlessly beating down on the grave markers. The grass is starting to crunch underfoot. It’s brutal.
There’s no one paying their respects in this heat – except one man.
David Collins is working on the largest, most unique memorial in the cemetery. His worn, white cowboy hat is pulled down low, just above his eyes. The hat is well broken in, with dried sweat all the way around the hatband. The merciless sun and the heat are helping to add even more character.
But the cowboy doesn’t seem phased by the heat. He’s applying a pungent chemical sealant to the sand-colored memorial before him, which reaches up well above his head. The ground around the memorial is littered with small paintbrushes, a long-sleeve Carhartt shirt he discarded hours ago, and a water jug, nearly empty after his labor.
Collins finishes applying the last coat of sealant for the day, and examines his work. The stone is painstakingly temperamental, and he’s been here for three days already, working on the same portion of the monument – but there’s a right way to do the job.
“Out of love, I do this,” Collins said. “Five years into it, some of it started flaking off. Long story short, I had to come in and re-enamel this so I could sleep at night.”
On the south-facing side of the monument – the side that faces the wide-open plains of southeast Wyoming – there’s a single, small, photograph inlaid into the stone. It shows a boy, just a few months past his third birthday. He’s smiling, and you can see happiness in the boy’s eyes. He’s wearing a white cowboy hat, tipped back on his head like he just came in after a long day working cattle.
David Collins lifts that same hat off his head, and wipes the sweat from his brow.
“Every parent has their one and only, one-of-a-kind son,” he said.
A memorial for Lil’ Pard’
David Winchester Collins’ obituary describes a young child who wanted to understand the world around him.
When his father would do a quick repair on a fence on the family’s property in Gillette, Davey, or Lil’ Dave, would ask, ‘Why?’ He asked why he couldn’t ride on passing trains. When his parents told him it was too cold to ride horses, he would ask, ‘Why?’
On March 7, 2014, it was Lil’ Dave’s parents, David and Kristina, who were left asking, ‘Why?’
That’s the day Lil’ Dave was killed in a vehicle accident. More than five years have passed since the tragedy, and his parents are still fighting to get through some days.
“Five years into it, there are still days when we’re on our knees,” David said. “Having family support and compassionate friends, and faith in the Lord is what saved us. If it wasn’t for our faith in the Lord, we wouldn’t be here today.”
Lil’ Dave was all set to be a good hand. David said he had all the makings of a cowboy – a love of animals, of being outside and a budding passion for the western way of living.
“He was all about horses, cattle, tractors, four-wheelers, being outside around the fire,” Collins said. “He loved guns. The one thing about little Dave is the fact that he would go out and work livestock with me. He would ask me if they have plenty of water. I would say ‘They’re good.’ He would come around and say ‘Are you sure they’re good, Dad?’ The next thing I know, it was the middle of winter. It was Dec. 24. He dipped his hands below the ice, up to his elbows, and said ‘I’m cold. They have water.’”
When David and Kristina, a Lingle native, were faced with the impossible task of memorializing their son, it had to be something meaningful.
David built his son’s casket. It was lined with photos of Lightning McQueen, one of his son’s favorite characters from Disney’s ‘Cars’ franchise, and they decided they would build more than a headstone – it would be a memorial to their ‘Lil’ Pard’,’ as his father called him.
“There is no love like a dad for his kid or a parent for their kid,” David said. “Unfortunately, he is not on the Earth today for me to do something for him, and this is what I decided to do. He was our one-of-a-kind bomb kid. I wanted something where everybody would pull up and say ‘Hey, I want to read that. I want to see what he was about.’
“We wanted to make people stop and want to know who he is.”
That set David and Kristina on a path to design and build the one-of-a-kind memorial for their one-of-a-kind son. They chose the sand-colored stone, with light and dark grains throughout.
“This stone was wire-rope cut out of a quarry in Colorado,” David said. “There are very few quarries that will do this in this size. It’s so temperamental. We got it up to our place in Gillette, and a stone maker I knew helped me with this.
“We had to get the first cut done right. Once you make the cut, it’s done. If it’s not right, you’re going to have to live with it. With his help, we got it cut from the ground up.”
It stands well over six feet tall, and it’s made of two large blocks, stacked atop one another. It’s topped with a stainless-steel cross, and each side of the memorial has meaning.
On one side, etched in his father’s handwriting, ‘Ride on, Pard.’ It sits above a drawing of a dump truck.
“He was my little pard’. Every dad has his own little pard’,” David said. “He was big into the four-wheelers on the ranch, big into dump trucks. He used to run through the house and tell his parents to ‘get ready.’ He’d want us to give him a countdown, and we’d give him a countdown, and he’d take off running with his dump truck.”
On another side, a prayer penned by a cowboy David rode with on a ranch asks the Lord to be the shepherd that guides the wanderer through the desert, and a four-wheeler. The Collins’ family brand, the Cross Rocking DC, adorns another side, along with a John Deere tractor.
The front of the monument bears the name and photograph: David Winchester Collins.
The etchings were traced with a razor, then sandblasted into the stone. They were sprayed with black enamel paint, and according to David, the process has to be exact.
“That’s the problem with doing this kind of stone instead of a granite,” David Collins said. “Granite is all set, all done, short of cleaning it. This stone, and that’s one thing we liked about it. Every grain does something different.
“The first time, you spray it on like you would automotive paint,” he said of the enamel process. “It doesn’t adhere very well to all these little tiny holes.”
And that’s why David is outside on a scorching day in Lingle. He’s re-applied the enamel and finished off the project with the protective sealant – and it hasn’t been easy.
“I go over it with a bristle brush, and knock off anything not adhered very well.
“Everything you see in black, I’ve come back over it with a fine-tipped paintbrush and I’m telling you, I could move faster with a Sharpie marker. If you’re not careful, if you step out of line, you get this great big black streak.”
“To take care of business”
But Collins can’t just use a Sharpie.
As he works his way around the memorial, doing the tedious work for days on end, he’ll listen to Chris LeDoux’s songs about western life. He and Lil’ Dave used to listen to LeDoux together, he said. It helps him focus on the task at hand.
And the task is what’s important. The monument stands as a memorial to Lil’ Dave, the young hand called away too soon, who loved the western way of life and once stuck his own hands in freezing water on Christmas Eve to make sure the cows could drink.
The work, though, is a tribute to the man Dave was raising.
“It’s hard,” Collins said. “I’ll be truthful with you, if it didn’t have to be done, I would walk away from it. There are a lot of things that we do. We still celebrate his birthday. We have a roadside marker where the accident happened and we take care of that. I do this because this is the way I would’ve raised him – to take care of business.
“Out of love, I do this.”