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Thinking outside the box

The large, quilt-covered wooden box you encounter when entering the Kirkham residence may anchor the living room, but its ultimate purpose is for, well, dying.

“Did you see my coffee table?” Marion Kirkham asked with a laugh.

The coffee table, which he covered with a war veteran-earned Quilt of Valor, doubles as a coffin.OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Corbett resident Marion Kirkham had his own coffin commissioned by local woodworker Tony Jacobs.

“That’s why we put the blanket over it, because the handles give it away,” he said.

Kirkham isn’t the first Corbett resident to own a handmade coffin from local woodworker Tony Jacobs. Sherwood “Woody” Davis owned the first, which was made in 2011 when Davis was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease.

With a pile of wood from trees on his property, Kirkham said Jacobs was exasperated.

“I knew about Woody, and I took Tony down to look at the wood. When we were looking at it he said, ‘You drive me crazy. Look at that beautiful wood,’” Kirkham recalled. “He got really wrapped up in it, so I said, ‘Well do you want to build it?’ And here it is.”

Made of maple, the striking box provides a new source for Kirkham’s lighthearted approach to life.OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Marion Kirkham hoists open the lid of a coffin built by Corbett-area woodworker Tony Jacobs from a tree on Kirkhams property.

As he approaches his 94th birthday, Kirkham thrives on a simple philosophy.

“The doctor asked what my hobby is. I don’t play golf, so I said ‘living,’” the Corbett resident noted.

Kirkham has a can-do attitude, and doesn’t let his age slow him down.

At 70, he began a 10-year project constructing his new residence.

“I had the most fun building this house,” he said. “I was here every day. It was just a super experience. People said, ‘Oh, that’s a big job.’ I said ‘No, it’s just one day at a time.’”

Taking on the odd job and searching for new experiences has been Kirkham’s approach to an adventure-filled life.

Before joining the military, he went to Alaska in search of a job.

“I took whatever I could get to start with, and I kept working my way to a job that paid more,” he said.

That eventual job was as a dump truck driver, working on the Fort Rousseau Causeway in Sitka, an early harbor defense system that — at the outset of U.S. involvement in World War II in 1941 — was vulnerable to attack. He spent days moving boulders in the six-wheel truck, where he experienced his first brush with death.

“One day they put (a boulder) on my truck and I backed up to dump it over, but the truck raised up,” Kirkham said. “I was sitting way up there, and they didn’t bring me a ladder to bring me down or anything.”

Had it been a few feet further back, Kirkham’s truck would have fallen off the cliff. Instead, he suffered a rough landing, and got a new truck. Last year, Kirkham returned to Sitka and toured his former workplace.

“I wanted to go back and see it, see the place,” he said. “The causeway we made, now it’s a historical national park.”

Keeping memories alive

Before turning 21 and facing the draft, Kirkham returned to Oregon. He said he didn’t want to be based out on the Aleutian Islands. He got lucky. By the time he graduated cadet school as a pilot, the war was over.OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Marion Kirkham served in the U.S. Army Air Force during World War II. He returned from his stint in the service, but his brother Virgil, a P-47 fighter pilot - was killed in action.

“I was just killing time. I didn’t have any duties and I didn’t have to report to anybody,” he said. “I was there for 21 days as an officer and they said, ‘Do you want to go home?’ I said adios.”

His brother Virgil Kirkham wasn’t as lucky.

“My brother went in at 18, he was a P47 pilot,” he said. “He put in 82 missions in Europe. He volunteered for the (83rd) and he didn’t return. He was the last (World War II) pilot to lose his life in combat.”

That was April 30, 1945. Decades later, the memory of Virgil Kirkham lives on.

Kirkham said in the 1990s he had a neighbor who traveled to Germany regularly to visit his son, who was stationed abroad. Knowing his brother was killed close by — about two miles outside of Pilsen, Czech Republic — it only took a few tries to convince Kirkham to come along. The trip quickly became an annual event.

“I go over about the 28th of April so I can be there for their liberation ceremony,” and honor his brother’s death, he said.

Pilsen was liberated by American soldiers on May 6, 1945, just six days after Kirkham’s brother crashed outside the city while on a mission. Marked with a gravestone and decorated with flowers, the crash site now holds Virgil’s memory.

When Kirkham began visiting the city, he was introduced to many affected by the war and who have a tie to his brother.

Zdenka Sladkova is just one of those. At 14, she made a vow to care for the crash site and memorial near her Pilsen home. She’s done so ever since.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said.

Making that first journey, and returning each year with assorted company — from his wife Ethel, who died in 2008, to his children and granddaughter — has formed a community of people that Kirkham talks with regularly and visits with when he can. That community continues to grow. Just two years ago, he met a man who visited his brother’s crash site as a 10 year old and picked up a few pieces of the plane. OUTLOOK PHOTO: JOSH KULLA - Marion Kirkham was given this jacket by a group of well-wishers in the Czech Republic during a visit to Pilsen to visit the site of his brothers crash during World War II.

Last year, Kirkham was given one of the pieces, which he now stores in a colorful box next to his books of photos and memorabilia.

Life in Corbett

After the war, Kirkham worked as a farmer. But he decided to seek a new opportunity that wasn’t beholden to the weather, founding Kaso Plastics in 1962. The company, still operational in Vancouver, Wash., provided custom molds for “just about anybody that came by.”

It was there he first met the woman who eventually became his wife.

“I worked for him many years ago,” Vivian Kirkham recalled. “I was raising my children, and the only time I could work was graveyard. He ran three shifts doing plastics, so I’d see him every now and then.”

Five years ago, they met again by chance.

“My son had a class reunion because they’d been the champion football team in Corbett years ago,” Vivian said. “Later he came down and everybody was sitting all over and he said, ‘Mom, guess who’s here?’ He said, ‘Marion Kirkham.’ I was so happy to see him ... so it kind of went from there.”

They were married just a few months later on Dec. 26, 2010.

“We didn’t waste any time,” said Marion.

“We didn’t have any time to waste,” Vivian added.

As for the coffin/coffee table, the Kirkhams are having another one built built for Vivian, who said they’ll eventually store them ... for future use.

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