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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.
"They no longer talk to me," Kruse explains.
It's not hard to understand why.
Plastered over Kruse's house and his old Chrysler New Yorker are handmade placards denouncing the Alief legislator and his assistant.
"Cowards, has history proven Heflin and Hicks to be failures?" reads one posted on the front of Kruse's Continental Drive home.
"Cowards, is the handwriting on the wall for your devil, Heflin and Hicks?" asks another on the garage door.
Kruse's aversion to the twosome grew out of Heflin and Hicks' affiliation with the Alief Historical Cemetery Association, which is no relation to Kruse's one-person Alief Cemetery Association. According to the historical marker in the graveyard, maintenance of the grounds has been the responsibility of the Alief Historical Cemetery Association. Hicks says the association was created after an arrangement for the Alief Chamber of Commerce to tend the site fell apart. He is the current head of the association; Heflin is a past president.
Kruse, of course, doesn't recognize their authority.
"It is no longer theirs to play with because they were just squatters," he declares, suddenly bursting into a laugh that can only be described as maniacal.
Then, just as suddenly, Kruse darts a look across the street to the car lot. Somebody's spying on him.
"It's one of Heflin's clowns," he explains, pointing at a figure that only he can see.
Kruse is convinced that Heflin and Hicks have ordered someone to follow him.
They, on the other hand, are trying to keep as much distance between themselves and Kruse as possible.
"We don't want to give him any publicity," says Hicks. "He's as loony as a bedbug, and we're trying to avoid priming his pump."
Hicks says that Kruse's claim of ownership of the cemetery is baseless, since the graveyard originally was deeded to the people of Dairy and it still belongs "to the people" (which a title search for the Press would seem to confirm). However, he acknowledges that Kruse is correct in asserting that the cemetery's eastern boundary actually stretches to Dairy Ashford, although extending the fence, Hicks says, would just create a traffic hazard.
Hicks also admits Kruse has done a good job keeping the property mowed, but the legislative aide adds that Kruse otherwise has "screwed it up" by affixing his "Semper Fi" decals to gravestones. He and Heflin have had an attorney send Kruse a letter demanding that he vacate the cemetery property and not return. "As soon as I can verify that he has received that letter, we're going to go out there and pull up everything he's stuck in the ground," Hicks says.
Beyond that, the Heflin aide is reluctant to say much more about Charles Kruse.
Kruse's neighbors aren't just reluctant to discuss the self-appointed caretaker. They're frightened. At first, they thought it mildly amusing when the signs about Hicks and Heflin started going up in Kruse's front yard. But when one neighbor spotted Kruse sleeping on top of his house with a shotgun, they stopped laughing.
"We all have a lot of concerns," explains another neighbor. "I'm afraid he's eventually going to hurt somebody."
Kruse acknowledges that for a time he was spending nights on his roof "for surveillance purposes," but says the shotgun was never loaded. He says he no longer has any firearms. His neighbors don't have anything to fear from him. But he suggests they look out for Heflin and Hicks.
"The people of the community have abandoned their cemetery into the hands of bad politicians, that's how it is," says Kruse.
As he speaks, Kruse admires his preservation handiwork on the gravestone of Alief Magee. Engraved above the "Semper Fi" stickers he's placed there is this inscription: "Before you lies the headstone of Alief Ozelda Magee, the namesake of the cemetery. She hath done what she could."
In his own strange way, so has Charles Kruse.