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For being one of the most famous beaches in the world, it was more ordinary than I’d expected, and it felt much too innocent.
The tide was out, leaving high and dry more than two hundred yards of uneven sand bars up and down the coast as far as I could see. Several neon-colored, three-wheeled sailing rigs skimmed across the sand in the distance, a couple of joggers passed by, couples strolled along the shore, a white SUV was parked near the surf, and a fisherman stood waist-high in the blue of the rolling waves. In a few hours, the ocean would surge back in, swelling over the sand bars and returning the surf to the bottom of a seawall that held the water back from the neighborhood houses, vacation homes, cafes, coffee stands, gift shops, and other buildings strewn
along the bottom of a long line of sea grass-covered bluffs.
Small groups of people were gathered around tour guides lecturing about the activities on the beach during the first day of the Allied invasion of Europe in World War II, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. The different guides carried identical binders of pictures, maps, and illustrations to use as they pointed out locations on the beach and the bluffs, describing how the surf had turned red with blood from the assault that had taken so many lives in such a short time.
I abandoned my own tour group to walk out to the surf, trying to visualize what it looked like on that first day and the following days as the beachfront became jam-packed with an armada that would deliver a million battle-equipped soldiers onto the Normandy coast in less than six weeks. I was looking to identify with those soldiers but found only ghosts who refused to identify with me.
My dad was a young, raw Minnesotan army recruit when he landed on this beach twenty-six days after D-Day. His role in the war was not to battle the enemy on the front lines, but to stay behind the troops, using radar beams to look into the typically gray, cloudy skies above them, searching for enemies in the distance. When my dad found and identified German aircraft, artillery, or mortars, doing something about them was up to others, but he probably saved thousands of lives in the process.
When he landed, no rifle fired at him, no machine gun bullets ripped through his buddies next to him, and not a single artillery shell blew a crater in the sand near him. A frightening level of war was still being waged, but the battles were miles inland, above and beyond the shore area, allowing the beachfront to serve as a safe landing site for a constant parade of ships that unloaded men and materiel to begin the critical supply lines that took whatever was needed to the commanders who needed it.
In spite of not being an immediate target, my dad would have found enough to keep him scared and in a panic as his ship approached the beach. Offshore battleships were belching huge shells at enemy movements inland, he could hear artillery thundering in the distance, he could see bombers and fighters buzzing in formation overhead, and the beach in every direction was a noisy, raucous chaos of thousands of drab-green ships, tanks, trucks, and troops.
Then, when his ship had beached on the sand as the tide went out and the clamshell doors on the front were opened and the huge ramp lowered, he would have been frantically driving his unit’s trucks and Jeeps down the ramp and into the lines of vehicles staged to go up a narrow road into the bluffs above. Once beyond the beach, his company would find their assigned location and go into a frenzy of setting up the radar, getting it into operation, and connecting to other radar sites so that Army command would have electronic eyes across the battlefront. Every second might mean a soldier’s life saved.
My dad had officially become part of the global fight for freedom.
Why do children know so little about their parents? Why do we never ask or never listen? My dad joined the war effort when he was twenty-one, returned home when he was twenty-four, had me, his first child, named Elias after his own father, when he was almost thirty, and then had my sister, Nancy, three years later. By the time it occurred to me that he might have had a life before me, he was in his 40s. Even then, my focus was everywhere else and I never thought to ask him the questions that now puzzle me every day.
I was thirty-five when he died, and since his death, I have learned that he had extraordinary experiences in the war, far beyond the typical journeys of other soldiers, revealing aspects of himself, of his brother, and of my mother that I never could have imagined.
My father died at four o’clock in the morning on the last Thursday of April, 1986, from complications brought on by pancreatic cancer. His diagnosis several months before had caught us all by surprise, but the cancer was relentless, taking a strong, healthy man and reducing him to a frail, fragile shadow. I had never witnessed such intense suffering by a loved one, and it kept me shaken as he dwindled away. When his suffering was over, I felt as much relief as grief.
My father was a well-known, highly esteemed businessman who headed a family-owned corporation with offices in several locations in the U.S. He was a kind, smart, and competent manager, and his memorial brought more than a thousand employees and acquaintances to the largest church in downtown Boston. His cremation would take place the following week, after which the family would have a private ceremony as his urn was placed in the family crypt back in Minneapolis.
The days following the memorial service brought friends, politicians, and city dignitaries to the house to offer their condolences. It was a burden for my mother to welcome the constant stream of well-wishers, so Nancy and I stayed to help. My wife took the kids home to allow me to stay another week while Nancy sent her kids to stay with her in-laws.
My mother, a handsome, strong, down-to-earth woman, reacted to my dad’s sickness with an avalanche of love, care, and constant attention. Even as the disease made him miserable, depressed, and physically compromised, she marshalled forces to provide unceasing comfort and compassion. Only in her alone time did she face being abandoned by the husband she had loved for forty years and allow herself to grieve.
A week after my dad’s death and three days after the memorial, my mother admitted that she was exhausted. The next morning, having given the housekeeping and kitchen staff a paid three-day weekend, she quietly posted a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the front gate and promised not to open it again until she was rested.
It felt good for my sister and me to be at her side in a house now filled only with memories, and we promised to keep ourselves busy and fed without her assistance. That left us puttering around the estate while my mother slowly settled into her new role of widow. But no longer having my father to focus on left her feeling disoriented. She was by nature a gregarious, motivated, and work- proud woman. Having nothing to do produced a nervous energy that kept her drifting around the house, which was the opposite of resting.
After lunch, while I gazed through the doorway of the library, missing my dad and pondering what to do with all the books he had accumulated, my sister came down the back stairway carrying something in her hands.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“It’s a treasure chest! I found it in the attic.” Nancy was holding what looked like a child-sized trunk with a humped top. It couldn’t have been more than eighteen inches long and a foot high and deep. As an antique store addict and a coveter of trunks in particular, I’d never seen one so small and yet so traditionally shaped. The attic had been our favorite and most visited play area in the house, and if the small trunk had been there years ago, we hyper-curious kids would have found it, which meant it was a recent addition.
I followed my sister into the dining room, where she spread kitchen towels across the table, placed the miniature trunk on top, and set about examining its small padlock. We had many old keys in a drawer in the garage; surely one of them would work.
My mother drifted into the room, gasped, and reached around Nancy to place her hand over the lock.
“I need to think about this,” she said.
After a lengthy pause she continued. “I have some things to tell you about your father, but I had intended to wait a bit. Right now, I’m not sure I can do the story justice. There are a lot of memories inside that need to be treated carefully.”
She might as well have fired a starting pistol; there was no stopping my sister now. Nancy had been looking for a diversion to help Mom burn off some of her restlessness, and an unexplored trunk seemed like a good one.
“Memories? Dad’s old memories? Yours? Memories of what? What do you mean ‘carefully’? How come we’ve never seen this trunk before? It hasn’t always been in the attic—did you put it up there? Where did it come from? Do you have the key? What’s inside?”
My mother held up both hands to stifle the onslaught of questions, saying nothing but obviously feeling conflicted by what might escape if the trunk were opened.
She slid out a chair and patiently sat down. “You never found it in the attic because I only put it there a few days before Dad died. It’s been inside the big safe in the file room, and I moved it upstairs because I thought the people from the downtown office might need to get into the safe as well as the files, and I didn’t want them to mess with it.”
The file room was a room off my dad’s office at the back of the house, full of filing cabinets and shelves of carefully catalogued company reports. In the corner was a massive six-foot-high railway safe, an antique monstrosity that had belonged to my grandfather. I had never seen it open; I didn’t even know it could be opened. I thought my dad kept it only as a relic of the Senior era.
Nancy and I remained quiet while my mother considered what she should do. We were no threat to her decision-making process: If she wanted us to see what was in it, she’d open it; if she didn’t, she wouldn’t. There’d be no arguments, and we would obey either way.
She sat with her head down, musing as she slowly rocked it back and forth. Then she sat upright and tugged at a chain around her neck. I’d never known her to wear a neck chain before, so this was also a new addition. She undid the clasp on the back and, as she took it off, a small key and a diamond-coated, heart-shaped locket slipped to the bottom of the chain.
“Okay,” she said, “but keep your hands out. I’ll show you what’s inside, and I’ll tell you about your father’s journey. But you have to be patient with me.”
Journey? This was getting really good. I would have stood on my head if it had meant she’d open that trunk.
My mother leaned forward, slid the trunk and the towels in front of her, put the key in the lock, twisted it until it opened, and then refastened the chain, locket, and key around her neck. She slid the lock from the trunk’s clasp and tipped the lid back.
I stood to look inside. I don’t know if I had expected stacks of money or jewels or Spanish gold or guns, but it held only envelopes and bundles of papers spread across the bottom, plus a single VHS video tape with “Margie” written on the label. Overall, the lack of more tangible treasure was disappointing.
My mother spoke with a wistful voice. “I’ve had this trunk ever since Dad and I were married. A sorority sister gave it to me as a wedding present. It has always been mine alone, and your father was respectful enough to never look inside. I hadn’t thought about it in years until three weeks ago.”
“What happened three weeks ago that made you think of it?” my sister asked.
Mom folded her hands on the edge of the trunk and let her eyes wander around the room. Her smile and bright eyes were always the highlight of my childhood, but the strain of the recent months had brought worry lines and sadness to her face.
She finally took a deep breath and settled against the back of the chair. “You were in the loop when we first heard Dad’s diagnosis, but you weren’t here during the following months of surgery and chemo and the constant urgency to find ways of getting Dad back to health. But it wasn’t to be. Pancreatic cancer is one of the worst ones, and we finally accepted that we could fight all we wanted, but he wasn’t going to get better.
“Your dad sat me down one evening and told me of his decision to forego any additional treatments and accept his death. He hoped that he might feel better up to the end and wanted to make the most of the time he had. He loved his life and I loved being his companion. He wasn’t afraid to die, but he really didn’t want to stop living.
“He asked me if he could take a day or two to be alone up at the cabin, and I told him to take all the time he needed, provided he’d have someone drive him up and back.
“He agreed and was gone for only a couple of days. What I didn’t know was that he asked Jim Powers to drive him. You remember Jim? He’s been the company historian and videographer for years. Dad asked him to bring his videotaping equipment to the cabin and help him make a video. He said that there were things about the war that he needed to tell me.
“When he came back from serving in Europe in World War II, he told me everything he did during most of his time there, but never talked about the last six months; he said he couldn’t. I guess he’d been thinking about those six months for some time and finally decided that he couldn’t let it go. He needed to explain what happened. That’s what he did in the video.
“After he came back from the cabin and told me about the video, I told him that we could have talked about it and accomplished the same thing, but he said that he had decided against doing it that way. He wanted to talk details that would take a lot of time and knew that he couldn’t handle talking that long because of his pain. He didn’t want to be put in the situation of shortening the story or leaving some parts out. He decided, instead, to videotape his story in pieces, resting in between when he needed to, and then have Jim put the pieces together into one session.
“Most of it had to do with his brother, Jake.”
I interrupted. “Uncle Jake was Dad’s brother that died in the war, right? He was in the Navy.”
“He was in the Navy, first,” Mom said, “but he died while in the Army Air Force in Europe. Uncle Jake had gone through a Navy training program to become a pilot, beginning around 1938 or ’39, I think. After Pearl Harbor, he flew dive bombers off an aircraft carrier, became a pilot instructor, and then switched over to the Army Air Force in 1943 to train pilots flying heavy bombers over Europe. We’d always been told that he died when his plane was shot down in 1945.”
“In Europe? I don’t remember ever being told that. Did he not die from being shot down? You think you weren’t told the truth?” I asked.
My mother closed the lid of the trunk and gave me a stern look. “I know it’s been hard to get me to even sit down lately, but it still remains that I’m a little low on energy right now. Telling you this story is going to be hard enough, so you’re going to have to be patient with me if I don’t stop to answer all your questions. I know it’s your nature, but if you’ll just listen first, most of your questions will be answered. If they aren’t, you can ask later.”
Whoops. I held my hands up in apologetic surrender. “Sorry. I’ll stop.” The look on Nancy’s face reinforced that decision.
My mother nodded with a small smile and tipped the lid back open. “Dad made the video tape in January. Three weeks ago, he sat with me and we watched it together. It was incredible. The story he told was like a chain of one remarkable event after another. I’ve never heard anything like it. I couldn’t even imagine his having done the things he talked about.
“After seeing the tape, I wanted to remember the war, how his experiences fit into the events I did remember, and how everything now fit with the new story. I got the trunk out because it has the letters that Dad wrote me during the war. I kept them all.
“While he was sleeping one afternoon, I read through everything I had saved. When we talked that evening, I told him that the two of you not only needed to see the video tape, but needed to hear the full story of the war years. He wasn’t sure. He had prepared the tape only for me and sometimes talks to the camera as if he’s talking to me; he hadn’t planned on sharing it with anyone else.
“I still thought that you should hear everything, including what happened before the war and after. Everything from beginning to end. He finally agreed, but made me promise that I would tell you all of it, with nothing off limits and nothing glossed over, whether I wanted it known or not. He said that he could no longer be hurt or embarrassed by anything and wanted to make up for all the years that he avoided telling the truth. The video tape itself only concerns the missing six months, but he agreed that I should tell the story starting with him and Jake in high school.
“I promised him that I would tell you everything as honestly and as fully as I could, so prepare yourselves.” She took a deep breath. “Okay, so I’m ready to do this, but I’m going to start at the end.”
She lifted a large manila envelope from inside the trunk, opened it, and pulled out a piece of paper. She passed it to Nancy, who looked at it and handed it to me. “This is your dad’s military discharge paper.”
My dad was the youngest of three brothers born into the Gunnarson family, and all three served in World War II. The first son was Olaf Junior, the eldest by something like twelve or thirteen years. He had graduated from Harvard almost a decade before the war started and had been working for the head of the family, Olaf Senior. My grandmother could never tolerate her son or her husband being called “Olaf ”; the family just called them “Junior” and “Senior.” She thought it sounded more American.
Anyway, after Pearl Harbor, when war was declared and the mobilization efforts started ramping up, Senior maneuvered Junior into a position with the newly created War Production Board, helping to convert existing industries into factories for manufacturing the goods needed for waging war—arms, ammunition, planes, vehicles, tanks, ships, and so on.
The second son, Jacob, the “wild son” who wouldn’t respond to any name other than “Jake,” opted to enroll in an Aviation Cadet Training program in college, staying long enough to give himself the two years of education required for becoming a Navy pilot. He was flying planes in the Pacific after that. His dying in Europe and not the Pacific was news to me.
The third son, my dad, Theodore—called Teddy after the San Juan Roosevelt himself—was two and a half years younger than Jake. He graduated from high school in 1941, attended the University of Minnesota for a year and then was called up in the draft. Fearing that he’d end up in the infantry or, worse, that Senior would convince the Draft Board that his priority should be to stay home and work in the war side of the family business, he jumped at the chance to sign up for the Army Signal Corps radar operator school in late 1942.
Some background would be helpful. My grandfather, Olaf Elias Gunnarson, was the head of an immigrant family from Norway that came to America in the late 1800s and settled in Northern Minnesota. Originally a lumberjack, he chopped his own trees for a while, then hired others to do it for him, creating a successful business providing trees to sawmills. Soon he began buying sawmills and then railroads to distribute his lumber. He eventually made himself one of the richest men in Minnesota. I should appreciate him more because I’m still living off his spoils, but Olaf Senior was all about building wealth, and power was the tool he used to get it, even if he had to bludgeon people along the way. He was becoming a corporate robber baron when he dropped dead of heart failure in 1951, aged 71. He died the year I was born.
I’m sure he was disappointed to die so soon. He’d gotten a taste of empire building during the war and had been leveraging his wartime railroad business into nationwide prominence. His ambition reflected his size, as he was a big man. Photographs show him to be a little smaller than Paul Bunyan. Seriously, he was like six-seven or six-eight, built like a tank, and had hands the size of pie plates, a true Norwegian lumberjack who would have made a good Viking.
When my grandfather died, the management of the family wealth went to Olaf Junior. Junior was a study of his own, but he enjoyed being a stocks and bonds investment manager rather than playing tycoon. He created a family trust fund that kept the family members at the level of near-rich and left the part of the business that involved dealing with people to my dad.
When Junior succumbed to an immense girth and hard arteries in the mid-1960s, my dad sold most of the investments, used the money to pump up the trust, consolidated the businesses into one company, and then brought the company into the new age of employee stock-sharing, retirement programs, and healthcare benefits.
My dad was smart enough to keep us wealthy but never had the killer instinct of his Gunnarson ancestors. He let the remaining investments dwindle and grew the company by diversifying and adding new partners. He kept executive salaries relatively low to keep the company well-juiced, nimble, and employee-focused, earning him immense respect and loyalty from his employees.
Mom and Dad encouraged Nancy and me to not rely on the trust fund and to develop our own careers. Nancy became a respected Boston lawyer and then married a surgeon, while I had enough interest generated by my trust fund to choose what I loved doing without having to worry about the salary: I became a high school history teacher.
Okay, back to the trunk and its contents.
I’d never seen my dad’s military discharge paper and gave it a quick perusal after Nancy read it. Everything seemed fine. He joined up, went to war, won some standard medals and ribbons, was cited for being in several campaigns, and came home whole and undamaged, which I thought was a pretty good result for the times.
My mother slid another paper from the envelope and passed it to my sister. “This is his real discharge paper,” she said.
Nancy’s eyes bugged out as she read it and passed it over to me. I gave her a questioning look and then looked carefully at what she had handed me.
It was an enlarged photograph of a regular-sized paper. The paper in the photo didn’t have the same military appearance as the previous discharge, but appeared to be more a legal document describing a Third Army Review Board that had met on the 27th of April, 1945. It had a couple of paragraphs of information followed by three signatures at the bottom.
A summary sentence stood out in the middle of the page:
Technician 5th Class Theodore Gunnarson, ASN 38230913, Company A, 555th SAW Battalion, Army Signal Corps, is found guilty of 1) desertion, 2) theft of government property, 3) disobedience of direct orders, 4) unauthorized travel behind enemy lines, and 5) impersonating an officer.
In conjunction with a reduction in rank to Private, he warrants dismissal from the United States Army with a DISHONORABLE DISCHARGE, effective on his current separation date.
My dad had been given a dishonorable discharge from the Army, which didn’t make any sense at all.
“This can’t be right,” I muttered. “He got an honorable discharge like everybody else.”
My mother laid the envelope next to the trunk. “Actually, he didn’t. Your father was accused of a number of crimes against the Allies, including desertion and treason, found guilty of most of them, and was court-martialed while in Germany. He remained in the Army until the war was over in Europe, after which he re- turned to the States and was dishonorably discharged when his enlistment ended.”
My jaw dropped. “Treason? Desertion? Dad? You’re kidding!"
She gave a small smile and shook her head. “You remember your dad ever telling either of you about the war?”
Well, no, actually. Neither of us had been told much of anything, as far as I knew. I had asked Dad a couple of times when I was in junior high, but he never gave details of his day-to-day duties or locations during the war, saying only that he’d “played around” with radar sets in the Army. I’ve asked friends whose fathers or mothers had been involved in the war effort in Europe or the Pacific and they cited the same lack of conversation; none of their parents told war stories of any consequence.
For my own part, when World War II was taught in high school (too quickly and with too little explanation), I did some outside reading, and the more I read, the more fascinated I became. That led to an undergraduate degree in history, and then a master’s in American history with a specialty in military history. I had enough certificates and good-enough grades to choose any Ph.D. program, but I decided that I had spent enough time getting educated and chose high school as the place where students would be most likely to be excited by the material.
“Not much that I can remember,” I answered her question. “He was a radar operator and served in Europe. I remember seeing a few photos of England and Paris, and maybe one of him in front of a windmill in Holland.”
“Well,” my mother continued, “his receiving a dishonorable discharge was one reason he never told you about his experiences. He didn’t want them to be known and feared saying anything that might force him to explain. He did not want to lie but was bound not to reveal the truth. He told me what he could when he got back from overseas, but the major event in his last six months was classified as top secret—it wasn’t declassified till decades later—so he couldn’t say anything at all, and the other things that happened he didn’t want to talk about.
“The videotape fills in what happened in those six months. I think that if Dad could have told the whole story, he would have been seen as the hero he always wanted to be.”
The hero he always wanted to be? What are you talking about? My curiosity went off the scale and I almost swallowed my tongue keeping quiet.
“The first one looks real enough. How did he end up with two?” Nancy asked.
My mom nodded. “The first one, the one giving him an honorable discharge, is a fake. Remember that Junior worked for the War Production Board? That put him in direct contact with the highest levels of the military, and he made a lot of important friends. Throughout the war, he used his contacts to keep up with your dad and Jake, watching them move around during the different campaigns.
“After the war ended, Junior found out what had happened to your dad. He was afraid that if anyone knew he’d gotten a dishonorable discharge, it would affect the Gunnarson businesses. He immediately used his political clout and military friends to get the review board’s report declared classified, which meant that it would be taken out of the usual records and locked up. Junior then had a regular honorable discharge paper created and placed in your dad’s personnel file.
“No one besides a general, your dad, Junior, and a file clerk knew of the switch. The page that your dad had been given had to be returned to the Army since it was now part of a classified report, but he took a photograph of it in case he ever needed it—remember that copy machines hadn’t been invented. Meanwhile, Junior sent him a copy of the new one.”
“What in the world did he do?” I asked.
My mother leaned back in her chair, her hands in her lap. “That’s where I come in. I’m going to give you the background information you need so that it will all make sense.
“Please understand,” she said, looking at us with an earnest expression, “Dad felt bad not talking about the war with you kids. He had been told that the incident at the end was classified and no one ever told him it wasn’t, so he assumed that he couldn’t talk about it. Without the classified incident and the other stuff, his war experiences would never have sounded complete. He decided to not talk about any of it.”
“Because he was ashamed?” Nancy asked.
“No, no—it wasn’t shame. He was perhaps embarrassed, or perhaps he felt guilty or even juvenile for having been so naive, but never ashamed. He did many good things in the war, in lots of important places, but the war wasn’t as simple for your dad as it was for some other soldiers. He reacted differently from most men, and some of his conflicts came from his life before the war. That’s why, if you’re going to see the whole picture, we have to start with the school in Tucson and a young girl named Lilly.”
“Tucson? The Tucson in Arizona? Dad went to school in Arizona? Who’s Lilly?” I asked, forgetting my promise.
“He and Jake both attended a special school on a ranch. It was in the late ’30s. Lilly you’ll hear about in a minute.”
“Ranch? As in cattle ranch? What are you talking about?” It was obvious that I’d been left in the dark about a lot of things that I should have been privy to. I was the history guy, you know—I was supposed to know things.
My mother slid the two papers back into the envelope, held it while she took several twine-tied bundles of letters from inside the trunk, set them next to it, replaced the envelope, closed the lid, and stood up.
“Well,” she said, “how about some cookies? You two need a snack?” That was her signal that we were now going to talk about serious things. My mother, bless her heart, could only talk seriously when her hands were covered in flour. All my life, when something needed to be discussed that involved hearts or minds, when I had girl problems, or had big decisions or complaints of one sort or another, or when Nancy had just broken up with a boyfriend or he with her, or things were going badly at law school, my mother used working in the kitchen as an excuse to keep her hands busy while searching for the proper words of wisdom to help us out.
In her mind, the smells of baking cookies and cupcakes were directly connected to the muscles of the heart. Sugar, lovingly done, allowed people to be less afraid to speak of personal problems, less resistant to good advice, and any discussion taking place in the kitchen was likely to go smoother and be more truthful than anywhere else. My dad would sit in on the conversations, but his major role was being a self-avowed taste tester and would snitch samples of the goodies while they were still warm. He rarely said anything he didn’t feel strongly about, but liked being together with the rest of us when important things were discussed.
We all moved to the kitchen. Nancy and I sat in the chairs around the counter as my seemingly re-energized mother went about gathering the bowls, the mixer, the flour and sugar, the bags of chocolate chips (my favorite), and other ingredients.
“In the 1920s and ’30s,” she began, “it became popular for wealthy families to send their sons to what were called ‘ranch schools.’ They were typically cattle ranches, dude ranches, wilderness outfits, or other outdoor-oriented businesses that had been transformed into secondary education boarding schools by adding academic curricula to their regular work. The thinking was that the outdoor environment was healthy for boys, and being involved in physical work helped build character and leadership skills, in addition to having better surroundings for regular school classes.”
She began creaming butter and sugar together and then stood for a moment, thinking.
“Mountain Crest Ranch School,” she finally said. “That was its name. It was an all-boys school in a mountain valley north of Tucson, with a max of maybe thirty or forty students. Each student had their own horse, they slept outside on sleeping porches year round, they had calisthenics every morning, they worked in the vegetable gardens and orchards collecting their own food, they learned to work with cattle, and they also learned outdoor skills like backpacking, camping, fixing trail meals, hunting, fishing, and wilderness survival.
“The educational part of the ranch included a spectrum of classes taught daily by top-notch instructors who were mostly graduates of universities on the East Coast. The curriculum was tailored to prepare the kids for college, so it included history courses, classical and modern literature, Latin, a full range of math and science, and so forth. Graduates from the ranch schools were routinely accepted into Yale and Harvard and other big universities.”
Mom had gotten the mix to the proper state, added the dry ingredients and the chocolate chips, and began scooping out tablespoon-sized mounds onto cookie sheets. Before she slid them into the oven, she stopped, washed her hands, and retrieved yet another large envelope from a cupboard next to the sink. She pulled out several pages of handwritten notes.
“After I convinced Dad that you should hear what happened at the ranch, we realized that what I knew would take about two minutes to tell, and that didn’t sit well with him at all. He wanted everything to be heard so you could understand the personalities involved. It was too late to make another video, so he decided to write a story describing everything.
“He spent the next two days, when he was feeling okay, writing out what it was like at the ranch, who was who, and then what happened with Jake and Lilly. I thought he was spending too much time and effort on it, but he enjoyed seeing himself back at the ranch. He described the buildings, the grounds, the mountains, the lakes, and especially his horse. I hadn’t realized that giving up the ranch was one thing, but he truly missed his horse when he didn’t go back.
“See, I’m already ahead of myself.
“Okay. Jake had told and retold your dad every single step of how everything happened, so Dad knew it all. He chose to write it in a story format, I think, because he could describe himself— and his horse—and show you the relationship he had with Jake, and Jake’s relationship with Lilly.
“He put in every agonizing detail, and I even heard him laughing over some of the parts. He had almost finished it when he ran completely out of energy and had to quit."