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Charles Kruse sees things other people don't.
Unmarked graves, for instance.
Kruse also sees devils and spies, ones he believes have been dispatched by a local politician to frustrate his effort to maintain a historic cemetery in southwest Houston.
For a decade, the 55-year-old Kruse has been waging a private war over what he believes is the desecration of graves at the Alief Cemetery. While most people in the area write him off as highly eccentric (at best), one thing can't be denied: Kruse is performing a task that apparently no one else wants to perform with any regularity, and in doing so, he's rescued an old and mostly forgotten burial ground from total neglect. Thanks to Kruse, what neighbors say was once an overgrown eyesore is now at least mowed and weeded, if not entirely manicured.
The property was the last stop for many of the early inhabitants of Alief, which was originally known as "Dairy," according to the black and silver marker placed in the center of the 96-year-old graveyard by the Texas Historical Commission. The community was renamed in 1897 in honor of Alief Magee. She and her husband John were the first permanent settlers along what was then just a stretch of salt grass. Her grave is denoted by a five-foot-high stone marker near the historical plaque.
Today, the cemetery is far from the tranquil final resting place in the country that Mrs. Magee might have envisioned. Situated on 330 square feet of prairie, the graveyard is neighbor to a used car lot, a convenience store and a fried chicken outlet. Magee's grave -- and the approximately 100 others, including, Kruse says, those of some of his relatives -- go unnoticed by the thousands of motorists who daily whiz through the busy intersection of Bellaire Boulevard and Dairy Ashford Road, which form the northern and eastern boundaries of the cemetery.
It was the city's plans for the extension of Dairy Ashford south of Bellaire that stirred Kruse to launch his one-man cemetery crusade back in 1986. He was among a handful of people in Alief who opposed the original route, which would have cut through some of the graves in the cemetery. The extension was halted and rerouted after Kruse presented an old linen map of the graveyard to city planners.
"The survey matched the map exactly," former assistant city attorney Cody Greer, who has since retired, told a suburban newspaper at the time. "Until Mr. Kruse came in, we really had nothing to go on, as far as boundaries."
Since that victory, Kruse has remained obsessed by the graveyard, which, like other old burial grounds in the city, had fallen into disrepair and mostly gone untended. About a year ago, he decided to simply take over the Alief Cemetery.
"This is my war," he explains.
On this particular day, Kruse appears to be dressed for it: he's wearing an olive green fatigue cap and a red-and-black-checkered hunting vest. His fingernails are dirty and worn to the quick.
"Nobody would do anything about it," he says, "so I am."
What Kruse has done is set about restoring the cemetery. By using his map and probing the ground for pieces of gravestones and other artifacts, he has located at least two dozen forgotten graves, including two outside the white wooden fence that borders the cemetery. Those are now marked by handmade wooden crosses. Each of the others is signified by an 18-inch wooden stake and a small cloth flower -- many of them from a batch of artificial poinsettias Kruse purchased on the cheap at a Christmas clearance sale.
The graves that lie outside the fence are now below a heavily trafficked footpath between a Metro bus stop and the nearby Arbor apartments, and Kruse is tormented by the thought of pedestrians unknowingly trampling the plots of early Alief residents. He's vowed to demolish the fence, which was erected by Boy Scouts more than a decade ago, and build a new one to enclose the lost graves. Indeed, Kruse already has made some progress on that project: he recently staked a dozen metal poles upright in the ground next to the curb along Dairy Ashford -- the line that Kruse contends is the actual eastern boundary of Alief Cemetery.
Kruse has also unearthed and cleaned several headstones, as well as one cross that had been nearly lost to subsidence. Some of the markers, like the miniature monument to Mrs. Magee, are adorned by stick-on decals bearing the "Semper Fi" motto of the Marine Corps, in which Kruse claims to have once served in a reserve capacity.
Kruse, whose efforts are underwritten by his 81-year-old father, takes an owner's pride in his work, and it's no wonder. He claims he actually owns the graveyard. How he believes that came to happen is unclear, but as proof he points to a 1995 tax statement from the county assessor-collector listing the taxpayer on the property as Alief Cemetery Association, which is Charles Kruse, and a general warranty deed in the association's name on file with the county clerk.
That's enough for Charles Kruse.
"I've won," he declares. "I whipped the evil king of Alief!"
The later line is among the words to a sort of musical rant that Kruse sometimes performs a cappella while working in the cemetery. The "evil king of Alief," in Kruse's view, is state Representative Talmadge Heflin. It is Heflin and his aide, Howard Hicks, who are the primary target's of Kruse's ire over the cemetery's condition. He holds them responsible for letting the cemetery deteriorate and allowing graves to be desecrated.