The mystery of The Reclining Lady of Iowa City

The lesser-known white angel of Oakland Cemetery.
The lesser-known white angel of Oakland Cemetery.

OAKLAND CEMETERY, Iowa City—What do you see in her? I am amazed at how many of you are drawn to this photograph of The Reclining Lady with her soft white curls and gentle curves. She touches something inside you.

She lies a little apart from the other stones in her cemetery, separated from the poets and ghost stories. I call her a lady, but if she is an angel, I do not envy her her tragic assignment, guarding the souls of a father and son who barely knew each other.

iowa city oakland cemetery

In the early 1990s, air force psychiatrist Thomas Brigham and his colleague Alan London of Fairchild AFB in Spokane, Wash., found Dean Mellberg unfit for duty. Though Mellberg was reassigned for some time, it became obvious he did not have the mental stability to continue in the forces and was dishonourably discharged.

Brigham called the airman “a dangerous paranoid bordering on paranoid schizophrenia,” Brigham’s wife, Susan, told in January 2013. She recalled that the family talked about being prepared in case the man came after Brigham for ending his career. “We had loaded shotguns in the house, even with small children. … An entire mental hospital was warned.”

It wasn’t enough. Warned, yes, but staff of the base hospital could not have known Mellberg, after a night of carousing at an adult nightclub, would get in a cab carrying a bag with two assault rifles, then walk right through the hospital’s front doors to London’s office and shoot him to death. Brigham was the victim of Bullet No. 2. An 8-year-old girl, a middle-aged woman and a young woman’s fetus were the next to die. More than 20 people were wounded before Mellberg was shot to death in the parking lot.

It was 1994 and Brigham was 31 years old. He left behind his wife, daughter and 6-year-old son, Madison Thomas Brigham.

iowa city oakland cemetery

“He entered his life premature and left prematurely,” Madison’s obituary says. “God speed on angel wings, my son, be held and loved in your father’s arms. “

Madison died in a car accident on a rural road in 2004. He was 16 years old.

It’s hard to know him, going on little more than his obituary, which paints the picture of a determined young man known for his love of the outdoors, hard work on the tennis court and fascination with American history. But looking deeper and following the little trail his mother has left, a more detailed picture emerges.

An accomplished horseman, he spent hours riding alone in the Iowa countryside. It appears the quiet Madison didn’t make friends easily, though he was fiercely loyal to those chosen to be in his circle. And so many were loyal to him, including the people who mentored and fathered him in the absence of Thomas Brigham.

Nearly two years after his death, his mother and stepfather founded Catalpa Corner Horse Park on their land in his honour. The community’s response to the eventing area speaks louder than even the most loving obituary. In August 2005, The West Branch Times wrote: “Phil Sawin and Dan Stark, both professional eventing course designers, came to lend their expertise. Paul Welsh, of Iowa City, engineered the magnificent water complex on the cross country course. Local business Cargill, which sponsors horse eventing nationally, agreed to donate feed for the horses and help with future events. Amish carpenters helped build several of the jumps. A Southeast Iowa Ambulance worker has agreed to donate his time, which would typically cost $120 per hour, at future Catalpa Corner trials. The list goes on and on.”

Madison’s picture hangs at the start of the course. “But it still doesn’t bring him back,” Susan told the West Branch Times.

He rests with his father, and The Reclining Lady watches over their souls.

A highway through the mountains

Almost through the mountains: The Columbia River through Trev's lens.
Almost through the mountains: The Columbia River through Trev’s lens.

REDMONT, Wash. – I cried when I saw the mountains.

Not because of their incredible beauty, but because I knew I’d have to cross them.

I recognize that the Rockies are a true wonder of the world. I respect the awesome chain of events that had to happen to create them. I admire their power over giant weather systems and have marvelled at satellite pictures that show them as a great raised scar along our coastline.

But I do not like them.

They encroach on the big sky I’ve enjoyed for days. They box me in. There is no way around them. I hate driving in them, despise roller-coaster roads that vanish then suddenly reappear but at a deadly, twisting angle.

And so I cried when I saw them and knew I’d have to conquer them again.

It took me two days, with a stop for the night in a bowl-shaped valley and a harrowing nighttime last haul to Seattle. Yet I did it. I am through the mountains.

They are at my back, where they belong.

No love for Idaho

Washington, 2008

Last night was a nightmare, and it bled into today. End of story: I’m no fan of Idaho or Seattle.

Okay, it wasn’t quite as bad as all that, but after horseback riding at the base of the mountains in Montana, we decided to push on as far as Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, where my parents were married, and hoped to make it as far as Spokane, Wash.

We stopped at Coeur d’Alene for coffee after a harrowing trip down a black mountain before moonrise only to find … there was no coffee. Unacceptable. We booted it out of the state and started looking for a place to stay just west of Spokane. Turns out there was a state fair, a conference and – the real heartbreaker – a Tom Petty concert. All the rooms between Spokane and Seattle (that’s about a five-hour drive) were spoken for. Yes, my friends, there was no room at the inn.

I drove until I literally could not make my legs work properly, and then drove a little more before – on seeing a thunderstorm that may or may not have been heading for us in the mountains – crashed out at a rest area for a few hours.

I think we missed some extreme beauty, as we couldn’t see where the hell we were or where we were going. On the upside, we were in Seattle early this morning and able to do a few touristy things, have some coffee and decide we really, really don’t like the place. And the rest was just getting back to Canada.

I’m on the ferry now, watching whales (I’ve seen two) and dealing with children (I’ve dealt with two). Tonight, some relaxation (I hope) with my favourite uncle and tomorrow some serious friending (I hope).

It gets windy up there on the ferry.
It gets windy up there on the ferry.