By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
When Suzanne Dalton went out to walk her her dog in Bethel Cemetery, a cemetery located in the Wilkes Street Cemetery Complex in Old Town, one fall afternoon, the last thing she expected was to have a literal brush with death.
After a headstone fell on her arm and pinned her to the ground, Charles Nelson, an 89-year-old Alexandria resident, came to her assistance and lifted the 500-pound stone up just enough for her to escape. The incident was remarkable and memorable in its own right, but it also sparked a friendship between two strangers who met under the unlikeliest of circumstances.
It was Sunday, Sept. 20, and Dalton was walking her 2-year-old golden retriever, Bella, in a cluster of cemeteries behind the Residence Inn on Duke Street, where she was staying. Originally from Ohio, Dalton was in Alexandria and working at the Pentagon as part of a three-month stint with the Department of Defense’s COVID-19 task force.
Dalton had walked this route numerous times and always noticed a pair of well-maintained headstones. Unlike many other sections in Bethel Cemetery, the grass and weeds around these two headstones had been trimmed and cut back. Wreaths and flowers adorned the stones and a folding chair lay nearby.
After walking past this spot for weeks, Dalton finally saw Charles Nelson, the man responsible for maintaining the shrine, which is dedicated to his wife, Ethel Nelson, who died on Oct. 12, 2018.
“I waved at him and said, ‘Can we come talk to you?’ and we went over and he said, ‘I’m celebrating my wife and I’s 69th anniversary,’” Dalton said.
Dalton was chatting with Nelson when Bella, spying a squirrel or some other object of interest, bolted and pulled Dalton up and over a nearby headstone.
“I was looking at [Nelson] when it happened, and the next thing I know I’m tumbling over this headstone and I put my put my right hand down to brace the fall and I pulled the headstone over on top of me, over my arm,” Dalton said. “Basically, from the forearm down, I’m pinned underneath this headstone.”
She started screaming, calling for help. Under normal circumstances, there’s a steady stream of dog walkers in the nearby cemeteries, but, as luck would have it, there was hardly anybody around when Dalton needed it most. She figured she would need a pair of burly men to lift the nearly 500-pound headstone off her arm, she said, but instead Nelson came to the rescue.
“I turned around, she was lying on the ground and her arm was under the headstone,” Nelson said.
Nelson rushed over to Dalton and tried to lift the headstone from the right side, to no avail. To add to the chaos, Bella spotted another squirrel and tried to bolt again, tugging at Dalton’s left arm.
Without a cellphone between them, Dalton started to get worried, she said.
“I’m like, ‘OK, I am screwed. I’m going to have to gnaw my arm off to get out from underneath this head- stone,’” Dalton said. “He’s like, ‘Well, hang on, hang on.’” Nelson, who Dalton later learned is 89 years old, crouched at Dalton’s left side and told her to count to three, at which point he would lift again.
“That particular day I asked God to give me strength to raise that headstone enough for her to pull her arm out,” Nelson said. “On the count of three, I told her to pull her arm out, and on three, she pulled her arm out.”
“It’s just the craziest thing,” Dalton said.
In the moment, Dalton was feeling shock more than anything else, she said. Both are still unsure how Nelson managed to lift a nearly 500-pound block of granite.
“I didn’t think too much of miracles, but I’ve been in the cemetery a couple of occasions and I tried to lift that headstone,” Nelson said. “Three times I’ve tried to lift that headstone, and I can’t much lift that thing.”
Dalton ultimately went to a local hospital where she learned that, although nothing was broken, the stone had crushed a two-inch section of her arm and injured her hand. While her arm is still swollen – and she couldn’t use the fingers on her right hand for a month after the incident – Dalton said she is already recovering.
“Things are going to be fine in the long term, but it’s probably going to be six months before things heal from it,” Dalton said.
The day after the incident, Dalton went out to the cemetery to look at the headstone and get a better sense of how serious the situation had been. While taking a look at the scene, Dalton found a gold ring that she figured must belong to Nelson.
It took a little amateur detective work, but Dalton managed to track down Nelson by contacting the nearby Shiloh Baptist Church. The two arranged a time to meet at the cemetery so Dalton could return the ring.
“I got him his ring back, and we just talked about how incredible it was that he got that [stone] off me,” Dalton said. “He said, ‘I just live around the corner. Come around and I’ll give you a cherry Coke.’”
Dalton accepted Nelson’s invitation and the two started to form an unlikely bond. It turned out they were both involved in the military: Nelson had served in the Air Force in 1952 and Dalton still serves as a naval officer.
Nelson also shared stories about his family, specifically his wife, and Dalton said she could tell how much Nelson missed his wife based on the way he talked about her.
She offered to buy him dinner, but Nelson declined her offer and said he hadn’t gone out since his wife passed. Nelson has also taken to visiting his wife’s grave two or three times a day, sometimes staying until 8 or 9 p.m.
“There’s nobody in there but me, the foxes and the owls at nighttime. I’m sittin’ in there talkin’ to my wife,” Nelson said.
For Dalton, after moving to a new city where she didn’t know anybody, her conversations with Nelson were a welcome change of pace, just as they were for Nelson. Thrust together by circumstance, they became close, each providing the other a much-needed form of connection.
“When I drove home to Ohio after my tour was up there, he called [and] made sure I made it,” Dalton said. “He’s like my little dad, tak- ing care of me, making sure I’m OK.”
Dalton and Nelson still chat occasionally, but they will always share the unforgettable memory of what happened in Bethel Cemetery.
“I’m a firm believer in miracles now,” Nelson said.