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Marker effort drives for safety

by Margaret E. Davis
| May 22, 2022 12:00 AM

“Someone said, ‘We need to get with this white-marker program,’” Bob Bigler remembers of that American Legion meeting in 2005. “Well, I could help with that.”

So began Bigler’s years of taking a day every May to maintain markers under the care of American Legion Post No. 137: 133 in all, along U.S. 93 south and north of Kalispell, and along U.S. 2 east and west. It takes four crews of about 10 people.

Since 1953, about 3,700 markers — a white cross atop a red metal stem — have popped up across the state at the sites of traffic fatalities. “It’s a safety program, it’s not a memorial program,” says Jim Kelly, an American Legion member in Missoula who chairs the effort. “It’s to make people aware that you need to drive carefully.”

This bright morning Bigler has another volunteer, Ricardo Fernandez, and me signed on to help. When we meet at the American Legion post, Bigler has the truck loaded and his list ready, even though he knows the locations by heart.

Fernandez moved to the Flathead five months ago and hopes to establish a local chapter of the Sons of the American Legion. On a trip to Europe, he retraced his grandfather’s steps during World War II, including a stop in the Netherlands where he saw someone carefully cleaning up around an American service member’s headstone. Fernandez asked what he was up to: “I won the lottery!” the Dutchman said. “This is an honor — I’ve been on the waiting list for 15 years.”

We start with a marker near the Flathead County Courthouse. Bigler teaches the steps: Test the marker is stable and correct any lean; sand off rust and peeling paint; then spray the white part of the marker, followed by the red.

Fernandez and I get up to speed, sanding, clearing and painting as we tackle the 25 jobs.

Bigler applies the grinder to heavily peeling paint. He slams the tamper into the ground near the base of markers starting to tilt, and yanks hard on those that need a little straightening. He tells us the history behind the markers: the drunk drivers, the black ice, the wild turkey that landed on a windshield. He has installed about 80 markers, sometimes working from news reports, other times at the behest of family of the deceased.

At our southernmost point on U.S. 93, we fix up the oldest one in his care, so firmly installed it may have been jackhammered into the foot of a rock wall. “The new highway department is getting more strict,” he says, adding that it wants old markers to be replaced. I ask him whether they will, and he pauses, finally saying, “Not this Bob.”

On our way back to town, Bigler says, “It was an easy winter for these things. Usually they look a lot worse.” We give the ones that didn’t need much attention a fresh dusting of paint anyway — the better to be seen, and to serve as reminders.

Audience development director Margaret E. Davis can be reached at 406-758-4436 or mdavis@dailyinterlake.com

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