Chapter 2 - What Seasons They Have Been Through 1899-1933 - The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics - Daniel James Brown (2013)

Part I. What Seasons They Have Been Through 1899-1933

Chapter 2

These giants of the forest are something to behold. Some have been growing for a thousand years, and each tree contains its own story of the centuries’ long struggle for survival. Looking at the annular rings of the wood, you can tell what seasons they have been through. In some drought years they almost perished, as growth is barely perceptible. In others, the growth was far greater.

—George Yeoman Pocock

The path Joe Rantz followed across the quad and down to the shell house that afternoon in 1933 was only the last few hundred yards of a much longer, harder, and at times darker path he had traveled for much of his young life.

His beginnings had been auspicious enough. He was the second son of Harry Rantz and Nellie Maxwell. Harry was a big man, well over six feet tall, large in the hands and feet, heavy in the bones. His face was open and ordinary, its features unremarkable but pleasant and regular. Women found him attractive. He looked you straight in the eye with a simple, earnest expression. But the placidity of his face belied an unusually active mind. He was an inveterate tinkerer and inventor, a lover of gadgetry and mechanical devices, a designer of machines and contraptions of all sorts, a dreamer of big dreams. He thrived on solving complex problems, prided himself on coming up with novel solutions, the kinds of things other people would never think of in a million years.

Harry’s was an age that spawned bold dreams and audacious dreamers. In 1903 a pair of tinkerers not unlike Harry, Wilbur and Orville Wright, climbed aboard a device of their own invention near Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and flew ten feet above the sand for twelve full seconds. In the same year, a Californian named George Adams Wyman rode into New York City aboard a motorcycle that had carried him all the way from San Francisco. He was the first person to cross the continent on a motorized vehicle, and he had done it in only fifty days. Twenty days later, Horatio Nelson Jackson and his bulldog, Bud, arrived from San Francisco in their battered and muddy Winton, becoming the first to accomplish the feat in an automobile. In Milwaukee twenty-one-year-old Bill Harley and twenty-year-old Arthur Davidson attached an engine of their own design to a modified bicycle, hung a sign on the front of their workshop, and went into business selling production motorcycles. And on July 23 of that same year, Henry Ford sold Dr. Ernst Pfenning a shiny red Model A, the first of 1,750 that he would sell in the next year and a half.

In an age of such technological triumphs, it seemed clear to Harry that a man with enough ingenuity and gumption could accomplish almost anything, and he did not intend to be left out of the new gold rush. Before the end of the year, he had designed and built from scratch his own version of an automobile and, to the astonishment of his neighbors, proudly maneuvered it down the street, using a tiller rather than a wheel for steering.

He had gotten married over the telephone in 1899, just for the novelty and wonderment of exchanging vows in two different cities by means of such an exciting new invention. Nellie Maxwell was a piano teacher, the daughter of a no-nonsense Disciples of Christ minister. The couple’s first son, Fred, was born later in 1899. In 1906, looking for a place where Harry could make his mark on the world, the young family had left Williamsport, Pennsylvania, headed west, and settled down in Spokane, Washington.

In many ways Spokane was not then far removed from the rough-and-tumble lumber town it had been in the nineteenth century. Located where the cold, clear Spokane River tumbled in a white froth over a series of low falls, the town was surrounded by ponderosa pine forest and open range country. The summers were crackling hot, the air dry and perfumed with the vanilla scent of ponderosa bark. In the autumn towering brown dust storms sometimes blew in from the rolling wheat country to the west. The winters were bitter cold, the springs stingy and slow in coming. And on Saturday nights all year round, cowboys and lumberjacks crowded the downtown bars and honky-tonks, swilled whiskey, and tumbled, brawling, out into the city’s streets.

But since the Northern Pacific Railway had arrived, late in the nineteenth century, bringing tens of thousands of Americans to the Northwest for the first time, Spokane’s population had quickly soared past a hundred thousand, and a newer, more genteel community had begun to sprout alongside the old lumber town. A thriving commercial center had taken root on the south side of the river, replete with stately brick hotels, sturdy limestone banks, and a wide variety of fine emporiums and reputable mercantile establishments. On the north side of the river, tidy neighborhoods of small frame houses now perched on neat squares of lawn. Harry and Nellie and Fred Rantz moved into one of those houses, at 1023 East Nora Avenue, and Joe was born there in March of 1914.

Harry immediately opened an automobile manufacturing and repair shop. He could fix pretty much any sort of car that sputtered or was dragged by a mule up to his garage door. He specialized, though, in making new ones, sometimes assembling the popular one-cylinder McIntyre Imp cycle-cars, sometimes fabricating new vehicles entirely of his own contrivance. Soon he and his partner, Charles Halstead, also secured the local sales agency for much more substantial cars—brand-new Franklins—and with the town booming they quickly had as much business as they could handle, both in the repair shop and in the sales office.

Harry arose at four thirty each morning to go to the shop, and often he didn’t return home until well after seven in the evening. Nellie taught piano to neighborhood children and tended to Joe on weekdays. She doted on her sons, watched over them carefully, and made it her business to keep them away from sin and foolishness. Fred went to school and helped out at the shop on Saturdays. On Sunday mornings the whole family attended Central Christian Church, where Nellie was the principal pianist and Harry sang in the choir. On Sunday afternoons they took their ease, sometimes walking downtown for ice cream, or driving out to Medical Lake, west of town, for a picnic, or strolling through the cool and shady refuge of Natatorium Park, among cottonwood trees down by the river. There they could take in entertainment as lazy and familiar as a semiprofessional baseball game, as carefree as a ride on the dazzling new Looff Carousel, or as stirring as a John Philip Sousa concert at the bandstand. All in all it was a most satisfactory life—a slice, at least, of the dream Harry had come west to live.

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But that wasn’t at all the way Joe remembered his early childhood. Instead he had a kaleidoscope of broken images, starting in the spring of 1918, when he was just about to turn four, with a memory of his mother standing by his side, in an overgrown field, coughing violently into a handkerchief, and the handkerchief turning bright red with blood. He remembered a doctor with a black leather bag, and the lingering smell of camphor in the house. He remembered sitting on a hard church pew swinging his legs while his mother lay in a box at the front of the church and would not get up. He remembered lying on a bed with his big brother, Fred, perched on the edge, in the upstairs room on Nora Avenue, as the spring winds rattled the windows and Fred spoke softly, talking about dying and about angels and about college and why he couldn’t go east to Pennsylvania with Joe. He remembered sitting quietly alone on a train for long days and nights, with blue mountains and green muddy fields and rusty rail yards and dark cities full of smokestacks all flashing past the window by his seat. He remembered a rotund black man, with a bald head and a crisp blue uniform, watching over him on the train, bringing him sandwiches, and tucking him into his berth at night. He remembered meeting the woman who said she was his aunt Alma. And then, almost immediately, a rash on his face and chest, a sore throat, a high fever, and another doctor with another black leather bag. Then, for days stretching into weeks, nothing but lying in a bed in an unfamiliar attic room with the shades always pulled down—no light, no movement, no sound except occasionally the lonely moaning of a train in the distance. No Ma, no Pa, no Fred. Only the sound of a train now and then, and a strange room spinning round him. Plus the beginnings of something else—a new heaviness, a dull sense of apprehension, a burden of doubt and fear pressing down on his small shoulders and his perpetually congested chest.

As he lay ill with scarlet fever in the attic of a woman he did not really know, the last remnants of his former world were dissolving in Spokane. His mother lay in an untended grave, a victim of throat cancer. Fred had gone off to finish college. His father, Harry, his dreams shattered, had fled for the wilds of Canada, unable to cope with what he had seen in his wife’s last moments. He could only say that there had been more blood than he had imagined a body could hold and more than he would ever be able to wash from his memory.

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A little more than a year later, in the summer of 1919, five-year-old Joe found himself on a train for the second time in his life. He was heading back west this time, summoned by Fred. Since Joe had been sent to Pennsylvania, Fred had graduated from college and, though only twenty-one, secured a job as superintendent of schools in Nezperce, Idaho. Fred had also acquired a wife, Thelma LaFollette, one of a pair of twin sisters from a prosperous eastern Washington wheat-farming family. Now he hoped to provide his little brother with something like the safe and secure home they had both known before their mother had died and their grief-stricken father had fled north. When a porter helped Joe off the train in Nezperce and set him down on the platform, though, he could barely remember Fred, and he knew not what to make of Thelma. He thought, in fact, that she was his mother and ran to her and threw his arms around her legs.

That fall Harry Rantz abruptly returned from Canada, bought a lot in Spokane, and began to construct a new house, trying to piece his life back together. Like his older son, he needed a wife to make the new house a home, and like his son he found just what he was looking for in the other LaFollette twin. Thelma’s sister, Thula, at twenty-two, was a lovely, slender, elfin-faced girl with a whimsical pile of black curls and a fetching smile. Harry was seventeen years her senior, but that was not about to stop him, or her. The basis of Harry’s attraction was obvious. The basis of Thula’s was less so, and somewhat mysterious to her family.

The elder Rantz must have seemed a romantic figure to her. She had lived thus far in an isolated farmhouse surrounded by vast fields of wheat, with little to entertain her beyond the sound of the wind rustling the bone-dry stalks each autumn. Harry was tall and good-looking, he had a glint in his eye, he was relatively worldly, he was full of restless energy, he was abundantly creative in a mechanical sense, and most of all he seemed to be a kind of visionary. Just by talking about them he could make you see things off in the future, things nobody else had even thought of.

Matters proceeded apace. Harry completed the house in Spokane. He and Thula slipped across the state line and married on the shores of Lake Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, in April 1921, to the great displeasure of Thula’s parents. In a stroke Thula became her twin sister’s mother-in-law.

For Joe, all this marrying meant another new home and another adjustment. He left Nezperce and moved in with a father he hardly knew, and a young stepmother he knew not at all.

For a time, it seemed as if something like normalcy was returning to his life. The house his father had built was spacious and well lit and smelled sweetly of fresh-sawn wood. Out back there was a swing with a seat wide enough for him and his father and Thula to ride three at a time on warm summer nights. He could walk to school, cutting through a field where he would sometimes filch a ripe melon for an after-school snack. On some vacant land nearby, he could while away long summer days by digging elaborate underground tunnels—cool, dark, subterranean retreats from Spokane’s sometimes searing dry heat. And as the old house had been when his mother was alive, the new house was always filled with music. Harry had kept Nellie’s most precious possession, her parlor grand piano, and he delighted in sitting at it with Joe, belting out popular tunes, as Joe gleefully sang along: “Ain’t We Got Fun” or “Yaaka Hula Hickey Dula” or “Mighty Lak’ a Rose” or Harry’s favorite, “Yes! We Have No Bananas.”

Thula considered the music that Harry and Joe enjoyed coarse, she was not particularly happy to have Nellie’s piano in her house, and she disdained to join in. She was an accomplished violinist, far out of the ordinary in fact, her talent so highly valued in her home that growing up she had never had to do the dishes for fear that her fingers would be damaged by soap and water. She and her parents all harbored the conviction that someday she would play in a major orchestra, in New York or Los Angeles perhaps, or even in Berlin or Vienna. Now in the afternoons, when Joe was at school and Harry was at work, she practiced for hours on end—lovely classical pieces that rose and fell and floated out through the screened windows and drifted across the dusty, dry city of Spokane.

In January 1922, Harry and Thula had their first child together, Harry Junior, and in April 1923, they had a second son, Mike. By the time Mike was born, though, family life had begun to fray in the Rantz household. The age of the big dreamer was passing into history before Harry’s eyes. Henry Ford had figured out how to manufacture his automobiles on a moving assembly line, and soon others were following suit. Mass production, cheap labor, and big capital were the watchwords of the day now. Harry found himself on the cheap-labor side of the equation. For the past year, he had been living and working weekdays at a gold mine in Idaho, then traveling 140 miles on twisting mountain roads home to Spokane each Friday in his long, black four-door Franklin touring convertible, returning to Idaho again each Sunday afternoon. Harry was glad to have the work. It meant a steady income, and it made use of his mechanical skills. For Thula, though, the change meant long, dismal weeks alone in the house, with nobody to help out, nobody to talk to at night, nobody to sit down to dinner with except for three clamoring boys—an infant, a toddler, and a strangely guarded and watchful young stepson.

Then, not long after Mike was born, during one of Harry’s weekend visits, in the middle of a dark, moonless night, Joe suddenly awoke to the smell of smoke and the sound of flames crackling somewhere in the house. He snatched up the baby and grabbed Harry Junior by the arm, yanking him out of bed and stumbling out of the house with his little half brothers. A few moments later, his father and Thula also emerged from the house in singed nightshirts, bewildered, calling out for their children. When Harry saw that his family was intact, he dashed back into the smoke and flames. Several long minutes passed before he reappeared, silhouetted against the fire at the garage entrance to the house. He was pushing Nellie’s piano—the only thing of hers he had left from their marriage. His sweat-slick face was a mask of anguish, his every muscle straining as he leaned into the big piano, moving it by brute strength inch by inch through the wide doorway. When the piano was finally out of harm’s way, Harry Rantz and his family gathered around it and watched, awestruck, as their house burned to the ground.

Standing in the glare of the flickering light, as the last remnants of the roof tumbled into the fire, Thula Rantz must have wondered why in God’s name Harry had chosen an old piano as the one thing he would risk his life to save. Joe, now nine, standing by her side, felt again what he had first felt in his aunt’s attic in Pennsylvania five years before—the same coldness, fear, and insecurity. Home, it was beginning to seem, was something you couldn’t necessarily count on.

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With no place else to go, Harry Rantz packed his family into his Franklin touring car and headed northeast, to the mining camp where he had been working as a master mechanic for the past year. Founded in 1910 by a character named John M. Schnatterly, the mine was located in the far northern panhandle of Idaho, squarely on the Idaho-Montana border, where the Kootenai River flowed south out of British Columbia. Originally the business had been named the Idaho Gold and Radium Mining Company, after Schnatterly claimed to have found a vein of radium worth millions. When none materialized, the government ordered Schnatterly to stop calling it a radium mine, so he blithely renamed the concern the Idaho Gold and Ruby Mining Company, the rubies apparently being small garnets that were occasionally found among the mine’s tailings. By the early twenties, the mine still had not produced much, if anything, in the way of gold, or rubies, or even garnets for that matter. That, however, did not keep Schnatterly from importing a steady stream of well-heeled eastern investors, feting them on his luxury yacht as he transported them up the Kootenai to his mining camp and ultimately bilking them out of millions of investment dollars. Along the way he alienated more than a few people, managed to get into three gunfights, and collected three gunshot wounds for his efforts before finally dying a fiery death when an explosion rocked his yacht. Nobody could say for sure whether it was an accident or revenge, but it had the smell of the latter.

Virtually all of the company’s three dozen employees and their families lived in Schnatterly’s mining camp, Boulder City. Its various ramshackle buildings—thirty-five small, identical, rough-hewn cabins with attached outhouses, a blacksmith shop, a machine shop, a bunkhouse for single men, a church, a water-powered sawmill, and a modest homemade hydroelectric plant—clung to the mountainside along Boulder Creek, linked together by a network of wooden sidewalks. A one-room schoolhouse sided with cedar shingles stood among pines on a flat piece of land above the camp, but there were few children, and the school was sparsely and irregularly attended. A rutted dirt wagon road plunged from the schoolhouse down the mountainside through a long series of tortuous switchbacks before straightening out and crossing a bridge over the Kootenai to the Montana side of the river, where stood the company store and a cook shack.

It was a dismal settlement, but to Harry it was a tinkerer’s paradise and the perfect place to try to forget Spokane. With his prodigious mechanical aptitude, he happily set about repairing and maintaining the water-driven sawmill, an electrically driven rock-crushing plant, a forty-five-ton Marion steam shovel, and the mine’s many assorted vehicles and odd pieces of machinery.

For nine-year-old Joe, Boulder City offered an astounding cornucopia of delights. When his father operated the huge steam shovel, Joe perched happily on the rear end of the machine and took merry-go-round rides as Harry spun the steam-belching behemoth around and around. When Joe tired of this, Harry spent a long evening in the company shop constructing a go-cart. The next afternoon Joe laboriously dragged it all the way up the wagon road, to the top of the mountain, pointed the contraption downhill, climbed in, and released the brake. He raced down the road at breakneck speed, careening around the hairpin turns, whooping at the top of his lungs all the way to the river and across the bridge. Then he climbed out and began the long trek back to the top of the mountain and did it again and again until it was finally too dark to see the road. Being in motion, outdoors, with wind in his face made him feel alive—it brushed away the anxiety that since his mother’s death had seemed to be nibbling continuously at the corners of his mind.


Joe with Harry, Thula, Mike, and Harry Jr. at the Gold and Ruby mine

When winter closed in and the mountainside was deep in powdery snow, his father got out the welding equipment and built Joe a sled on which he could sluice down the wagon road at even more terrifying speeds. And eventually Joe discovered that when no one was watching he could take Harry Junior up the mountain, help him into an ore car at the top of a rickety trestle that ran alongside Boulder Creek, give the car a shove, hop in himself, and again rattle down the mountain at terrifying speeds with his little half brother in front of him, shrieking in delight.

When he wasn’t hurtling down the mountain, helping out at the mill, or attending the one-room school above the camp, Joe could explore the woods or climb among the 6,400-foot-tall mountains in the Kaniksu National Forest just to the west. He could hunt for deer antlers and other treasures in the woods, swim in the Kootenai, or tend the vegetable garden he nurtured on a small plot of ground inside the picket fence surrounding his family’s cabin.

For Thula, however, Boulder City was about as forlorn a place as could be found on earth. It was unbearably hot and dusty in the summer, wet and muddy in spring and fall, and filthy pretty much all year round. Winter brought the worst of it. Come December, bitterly cold air flowed down the Kootenai Valley from British Columbia, made its way through every crack and crevice in the walls of her flimsy cabin, and sliced through whatever layers of clothing or bedding she tried to take refuge in. She was still saddled with a screaming infant, a bored and complaining toddler, and a stepson whom, as he grew older and more difficult to control, she was starting to think of as an unwanted reminder of her husband’s previous and all too precious marriage. It did not help that to pass the time Joe plucked incessantly at a ukulele, singing and whistling the campy tunes that he and his father enjoyed so much. Nor did it help that when Harry came home from work he often tracked grease and sawdust into the cabin. That came abruptly to an end one chilly mountain evening when Harry came trudging up the hill in his greasy overalls at the end of the day. When he entered the cabin, Thula took one look at him, shrieked, and pushed him back out through the front door. “Take those filthy things off, go down to the creek, and wash yourself off,” she commanded. Sheepishly, Harry sat down on a log, took off his boots, stripped down to a pair of white cotton long johns, and hobbled barefoot down a rocky trail toward Boulder Creek. From then on, regardless of temperature or time of year, Harry dutifully bathed in the creek and came into the house carrying his boots, with his overalls draped over his arm.

Growing up, Thula had always been treasured by her family, not only for her beauty—which exceeded that of her twin, Thelma, by a wide margin—and for her extraordinary talent with the violin, but also for the refinement of her taste and the sensitivity of her nature. She was so exquisitely sensitive, in fact, that everyone in her family believed her to possess “second sight,” an idea that was dramatically reinforced when they read the newspaper on the morning of April 15, 1912. The night before, Thula had awakened suddenly, screaming about icebergs and a huge ship sinking and people calling out for help.

Thula was educated and artistic and determined to seek finer things than a wheat farm had to offer. Now that she was marooned in Boulder City, her few social companions consisted of the ill-educated and hardscrabble wives of sawyers and miners. Increasingly, she was painfully aware that she was about as far as she could imagine from any means of fulfilling her dream of sitting proudly front and center, as first violin in a major symphony orchestra. She could hardly even practice. In the winter her fingers were too cold to dance up and down the fingerboard; in the summer they were so cracked and sore from the dry Idaho air that she could hardly hold the bow. Her violin mostly sat on a shelf these days, calling out to her, almost mocking her as she washed endless piles of dishes and dirty diapers. This was the kind of thing her sister, Thelma, had been raised to do, not her. Yet Thelma now lived comfortably in a nice house in Seattle. The more she thought about the unfairness of it, the more tensions mounted in the cabin.

Finally one warm summer afternoon, those tensions boiled over. Thula was pregnant with her third child. She had spent much of the afternoon on her hands and knees, scrubbing the cabin’s pinewood floor, and her back was throbbing with pain. As dinnertime approached she began the nightly routine of laboring over the hot woodstove, feeding kindling into the firebox, trying to get enough flame to draw a draft up the chimney. Smoke billowed out from under the cooktop and clawed at her eyes. When she finally got a fire going, she set about trying to cobble together an evening meal for Harry and the boys. Between her limited budget and the scant selection of foods available at the company store, it was hard to put a decent meal on the table every night. It was even harder to keep it on the table long enough for her children to eat a square meal. Joe was growing like a weed, and he inhaled food as fast as Thula could make it. She worried constantly that her own boys wouldn’t get enough.

She began shoving pans around on the stovetop angrily, trying to make room, not sure what she was going to cook. Then suddenly she heard a shout from outside the cabin, followed by a long, painful wailing sound—little Mike’s voice. Thula dropped a pot on the stove and bolted for the front door.

Joe was outside, down on his hands and knees, tending his vegetable garden that afternoon. The garden was a kind of sanctuary for him, a place where he, not Thula, was in charge, and it was a source of enormous pride. When he brought a basket of fresh tomatoes or an armful of sweet corn into the cabin, and then saw them on the dinner table that night, it made him feel that he was making a contribution to the family, helping Thula, maybe making up for whatever he might have done most recently to annoy her. Working his way down a row in the garden that afternoon, pulling weeds, he had turned around to find eighteen-month-old Mike following him, imitating him, happily plucking half-grown carrots out of the ground. Joe turned and bellowed at him in rage, and Mike unleashed a heart-rending scream. A moment later Joe looked up at the porch and saw Thula, red faced and seething. She ran down the steps, snatched Mike up from the ground, whisked him into the cabin, and slammed the door behind her.

When Harry came home from work later that evening, Thula was waiting for him in the doorway. She demanded that Harry take Joe out back, out of her sight, and give him a good hiding. Instead Harry merely took Joe upstairs, sat him down, and gave him a good talking-to. Thula exploded in the face of what she saw as lax discipline. Feeling trapped, growing desperate, she finally declared that she would not live under the same roof with Joe, that it was him or her, that Joe had to move out if she were to stay in such a godforsaken place. Harry could not calm her down, and he could not abide the thought of losing a second wife, certainly not one as lovely as Thula. He went back upstairs and told his son he would have to move out of the house. Joe was ten.

Early the next morning, his father led him up the wagon road to the shingle-sided schoolhouse at the top of the hill. He left Joe sitting outside on the steps and went in to talk to the male schoolteacher. Joe sat and waited in the morning sunlight, drawing circles in the dust with a stick and staring morosely at a Steller’s jay that had perched on a nearby branch and begun screeching at him as if scolding him. After a long while, his father and the teacher emerged from the schoolhouse and shook hands. They had struck a deal. In return for a place to sleep in the building, Joe was to chop enough kindling and split enough wood to keep the school’s huge stone fireplace stoked day and night.

So began Joe’s life in exile. Thula would no longer cook for him, so every morning before school and again every evening he trudged down the wagon road to the cookhouse at the bottom of the mountain to work for the company cook, Mother Cleveland, in exchange for breakfast and dinner. His job was to carry heavy trays of food—plates heaped high with hotcakes and bacon in the morning and with slabs of meat and steaming potatoes in the evenings—from the cookhouse to the adjoining dining hall, where miners and sawyers in dirty coveralls sat at long tables covered with white butcher paper, talking loudly and eating ravenously. As the men finished their meals, Joe hauled their dirty dishes back to the cookhouse. In the evenings he trudged back up the mountain to the schoolhouse to chop more wood, do his schoolwork, and sleep as best he could.

He fed himself and made his way, but his world had grown dark, narrow, and lonely. There were no boys his age whom he could befriend in the camp. His closest companions—his only companions since moving to Boulder City—had always been his father and Harry Junior. Now, living in the schoolhouse, he pined for the times when the three of them had formed a kind of confederation of resistance to Thula’s increasing sourness, sneaking out behind the cabin to toss a ball around among the pine trees or to roughhouse in the dust, or sitting at the piano, pounding out their favorite songs whenever she was safely out of earshot. Even more he missed the times he’d spent alone with his father, sitting and playing gin rummy at the kitchen table while Thula practiced on her violin, or poking around under the hood of the Franklin, tightening and adjusting all the parts of the engine as his father explained the purpose and function of each of them. Most of all he missed the times he and his father would sit out at night on the cabin’s porch and stare up into the astonishing swirls of stars shimmering in the black vault of the Idaho night sky, saying nothing, just being together, breathing in the cold air, waiting for a falling star to wish upon. “Keep on watching,” his father would say. “Keep your eyes peeled. You never know when one is going to fall. The only time you don’t see them is when you stop watching for them.” Joe missed that, something terrible. Sitting alone on the schoolhouse steps at night and watching the sky alone just didn’t seem the same.

Joe grew rapidly that summer, mostly vertically, though the treks up and down the mountain quickly built up muscle mass in his legs and thighs, and the constant swinging of an axe at the schoolhouse and the hoisting of trays in the cookhouse began to sculpt his upper body. He ate ravenously at Mother Cleveland’s table. Yet he still always seemed to be hungry for more, and food was seldom far from his thoughts.

One autumn day the schoolteacher took Joe and the rest of his students on a natural-history field trip into the woods. He led them to an old, rotten stump on which a large white fungus was growing—a rounded, convoluted mass of creamy folds and wrinkles. The teacher plucked the fungus off the stump, held it aloft, and proclaimed it a cauliflower mushroom, Sparassis radicata. Not only was it edible, the teacher exclaimed, but it was delicious when stewed slowly. The revelation that one could find free food just sitting on a stump in the woods landed on Joe like a thunderbolt. That night he lay in his bunk in the schoolhouse, staring into the dark rafters above, thinking. There seemed to be more than a schoolroom science lesson in the discovery of the fungus. If you simply kept your eyes open, it seemed, you just might find something valuable in the most unlikely of places. The trick was to recognize a good thing when you saw it, no matter how odd or worthless it might at first appear, no matter who else might just walk away and leave it behind.


George Pocock, Rusty Callow, Ky Ebright, and Al Ulbrickson