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
It is hard to make that boat go as fast as you want to. The enemy, of course, is resistance of the water, as you have to displace the amount of water equal to the weight of men and equipment, but that very water is what supports you and that very enemy is your friend. So is life: the very problems you must overcome also support you and make you stronger in overcoming them.
—George Yeoman Pocock
On a stormy night in November 1924, Thula Rantz went into labor in her cabin at the Gold and Ruby mine. As she lay moaning in her bed, Harry set off for Bonners Ferry, Idaho, eighteen miles away on twisting mountain roads, to fetch a doctor. He promptly came to a washed-out bridge on the only road out of town. With help from some of the miners, he rebuilt the bridge, made it to Bonners Ferry, and returned just in time for the doctor to deliver his first daughter, Rose. But it had taken all night.
That was the last straw for Thula. She was done with the cabin, done with the mine, done with Idaho. A few weeks later, they packed up the Franklin, picked up Joe from the schoolhouse, drove to Seattle, and moved into the basement of Thula’s parents’ home on Alki Point. For the first time in a year, they all lived under one roof.
It didn’t go well. Thula, with yet another infant to tend to, was no happier in their cramped quarters in the basement than she had been in the cabin. Once again Joe in particular seemed to be always underfoot. So when Harry got a job as a mechanic with the Hama Hama Logging Company out on the Hood Canal—a half day’s journey west of Seattle by car and ferry—Joe had to leave too. Harry took his son, still ten, to live with a family, named Schwartz, near the logging camp.
By 1925 Harry had saved up a bit of money from the Hama Hama job and used it to put a down payment on an auto repair and tire shop in Sequim, on the north side of the Olympic Peninsula. The shop was located right downtown on Washington Street, the main thoroughfare through town, squarely on the route of anyone traveling from Seattle to Port Angeles or farther out onto the peninsula. It seemed a good location, and it got Harry back to doing what he loved most, tinkering with cars. The whole family moved into a small apartment over the shop. Joe enrolled at the Sequim school. He spent his weekends helping his father work on cars, tinkering with carburetors and learning to vulcanize rubber, partly out of eagerness to exercise his own expanding mechanical aptitude and partly out of eagerness to stay out of Thula’s way upstairs. When the mayor of Sequim smashed up Harry’s Franklin while ogling a passing girl—breaking its wooden frame—he bought Harry a newer model, and Harry gave Joe the older Franklin so he could learn by repairing it. A second daughter, Polly, was born that year, and as his business took root Harry bought a stump farm—160 acres of recently logged land southwest of town. There he began to build, with his own hands, a large farmhouse.
Sequim sat on a wide expanse of prairie between the snowcapped Olympic Mountains to the south and the broad, blue Strait of Juan de Fuca to the north. Vancouver Island was just visible on the horizon. Nestled in the lee of the mountains, sheltered from the storms that rotated in off the Pacific from the southwest, the area was far less rainy than most of western Washington, and the skies were blue more often than gray. The weather was so dry, in fact, that early settlers had found cacti growing in places. It was the kind of town where people got together on weekends to build a new church, to hold Sunday-afternoon ice cream socials, or to kick up their heels at Saturday-night square dances. In Sequim your butcher might also be the volunteer firefighter who saved your house or barn, as well as the neighbor who helped you rebuild it. It was a place where native women from the nearby Jamestown S’Klallam tribe might share recipes with a Protestant minister’s wife over a cup of coffee at Dryke’s Café, where old men sat in front of the post office on Saturday afternoon spitting brown arcs of tobacco juice into strategically arranged spittoons, where boys could sell melons purloined from local vegetable patches to Honolulu Pete at his fruit truck parked on Seal Street, where children could wander into Lehman’s Meat Market and be given a free hot dog in a bun just because they looked hungry, or where they might stop by Brayton Drug Store and be handed a piece of candy just because they said “please.”
The farmhouse that Harry set about building amid the tree stumps outside of town became a work perpetually in progress. With Joe’s help, he dug a ditch to divert water, illegally, from an irrigation canal flowing out of the nearby Dungeness River. He rigged up a sawmill powered by the water he had diverted. He felled the few crooked trees left behind by the lumber company that had recently logged off the property, and then milled enough rough-cut lumber to frame the two-story house and apply cedar siding to part of it. He and Joe collected smooth river rocks from the Dungeness and laboriously erected an enormous stone fireplace. The house was still only half completed when he decided to sell the car repair shop and move his family out to the stump farm.
Over the next few years, Harry and Joe kept pounding nails when they had the time. They built a wide front porch and a woodshed, a ramshackle henhouse that soon became home to more than four hundred chickens, and a rickety milking barn for half a dozen dairy cows that grazed among the stumps. Harry rigged a flywheel and generator to the waterwheel that powered his sawmill, ran electrical wire into the house, and dangled lightbulbs from the rafters. As the supply of water from the irrigation ditch waxed and waned, the lights flickered on and off and glowed with varying degrees of intensity. But he never quite got around to finishing the house.
To Joe the condition of the house made little difference. Once again he had the semblance of a home and a new world to explore. Behind the house there was a meadow of nearly an acre, carpeted in summer with sweet wild strawberries. During the spring, water flowed over his father’s waterwheel with such force that it excavated a pool nearly ten feet deep and twenty-five feet long. Soon salmon and steelhead and trout from the Dungeness made their way up the irrigation ditch and gathered in schools in the pond. Joe rigged up a net on a long pole, and whenever he wanted fish for dinner he simply took the net out behind the house, picked out a fish, and hauled it in. The woods just beyond the property were full of bears and cougars. That troubled Thula and made her understandably nervous about her flock of small children, but Joe thrilled at night when he heard the bears splashing as they fished in the pond or the cougars screeching as they met their mates in the dark.
Joe was a good and popular student. His classmates found him outgoing, freewheeling, handy with a joke, and fun to be around. A few who got to know him better found that he could suddenly and unexpectedly turn somber—never nasty or hostile, but guarded, as if there was a part of him he didn’t want you to touch.
He was a particular favorite of Miss Flatebo, the music teacher. Through barter and the generosity of a few friends, he soon owned a ragged collection of old stringed instruments—a mandolin, several guitars, an old ukulele, and two banjos. Sitting on the front porch every day after school, working at it again at night when his schoolwork was finished, he patiently and painstakingly taught himself to play each instrument proficiently. He took to carrying one of the guitars onto the school bus every day. He sat in the back, playing and singing the songs he loved—boisterous tunes from vaudeville acts he had heard on the radio, long comical ballads, and sad, lilting cowboy songs—entertaining the other students, drawing groups of them toward the rear of the bus to listen and sing along with him. It wasn’t long before he found that he had one particular devotee, a pretty slip of a girl named Joyce Simdars—with blond curls, a button nose, and a fetching smile—who more and more often sat next to him, singing along in perfect two-part harmony.
To Joe, Sequim was shaping up to be near paradise. For Thula, though, it was yet another disappointment, not much of an improvement over Boulder City, her parents’ basement, or the apartment over the tire shop. Stuck in a half-finished house surrounded by rotting stumps and wild animals of all sorts, she felt as far removed as ever from the sophisticated life that she envisioned for herself. Everything about farm life appalled her—the daily milking of cows, the ever-present stench of manure, the relentless collecting of eggs, the daily cleaning of the cream separator, the always flickering light fixtures hung from the rafters. She despised the endless chopping of kindling to feed the woodstove, the early mornings and the late nights. And she was perpetually irritated by Joe and his teenaged friends and their makeshift bands, out on the wide front porch, making a racket day and night.
All these miseries seemed compounded into a single horrific moment one misty winter morning when she turned from the woodstove with an iron skillet full of hot bacon grease, potatoes, and onions and tripped over Harry Junior, who was lying on his back on the floor. She dropped the skillet and its contents directly onto the boy’s neck and chest. She and her son screamed simultaneously. Harry ran out the door, tore off his shirt, and threw himself into a snowbank, but the damage was done—his chest was hideously burned and blistered. He survived, but only after contracting pneumonia, spending weeks in a nearby hospital, and missing a full year of school.
After that, things began to sour once more for the whole family. In the fall of 1929, a hole opened up in Joe’s life. Joyce Simdar’s family home burned to the ground on the night of September 29, while the family was away. Joyce was sent off to live with an aunt in Great Falls, Montana, until the house could be rebuilt. All at once, the bus ride to school was not what it had been.
A month later came a much more serious calamity. The rural economy of the United States had already been in desperate straits for some time by that fall. Huge surpluses of wheat, corn, milk, pork, and beef produced in the Midwest had caused the price of farm commodities to crash. Wheat brought in only a tenth of what it had nine or ten years before. In Iowa a bushel of corn fetched less than the price of a packet of gum. And the price collapse began to spread to the Far West. Things in Sequim were not yet as hard as on the Great Plains, but they were hard enough. The Rantz farm, like countless others across the country, had so far barely managed to remain profitable. But when they picked up the Sequim Press on October 30 and read what had happened in New York over the last several days, Harry and Thula Rantz knew with cold certainty that the world had utterly changed, that they would not long be sheltered from the storm on Wall Street, not even in Sequim, out in the far northwestern corner of the whole country.
Over the next few weeks, things continued to unravel at the Rantz house on Silberhorn Road. A week after the financial crash, wild dogs began to appear daily on the farm. Dozens of families had simply walked away from their homes and farms in Sequim that fall, many leaving dogs behind to fend for themselves. Now packs of them began chasing the cows all over the Rantz property, relentlessly nipping at their legs. The bellowing, distressed cows lumbered among the stumps until they were exhausted and stopped giving the milk that was the farm’s principal cash product. Two weeks later, minks stole into the henhouse and slaughtered dozens of chickens, leaving their bloody corpses piled up in the corners. A few nights later, they did it again, almost as if for sport, and now the egg money dwindled away. Harry Junior would later say of events that fall, “Everything just stopped dead in the water. It was almost as if someone said to God, ‘Go after them!’”
Then late one rainy afternoon in November, the school bus dropped off Joe just as darkness was enveloping the house. Walking up the driveway to the house, stepping over potholes full of rainwater, Joe noticed his father’s Franklin, its engine running, plumes of white exhaust billowing from the tailpipe. Something was tied to the roof of the car, with a tarpaulin over it. As he drew nearer, he saw that the younger kids were sitting in the backseat, among suitcases, and peering out at him through steamy windows. Thula was sitting in the front seat, staring straight ahead, looking at the house, where Harry stood on the porch, watching Joe approach. Joe mounted the porch steps. His father’s face was drawn and white.
“What’s up, Pop? Where are we going?” Joe murmured.
Harry looked down at the boards planking the porch, then raised his eyes and gazed off into the dark, wet woods over Joe’s shoulder.
“We can’t make it here, Joe. There’s nothing else for it. Thula won’t stay, at any rate. She’s insisting.”
“Where are we going to go?”
Harry turned to meet Joe’s eyes.
“I’m not sure. Seattle, for now, then California maybe. But, Son, the thing is, Thula wants you to stay here. I would stay with you, but I can’t. The little kids are going to need a father more than you are. You’re pretty much all grown up now anyway.”
Joe froze. His gray-blue eyes locked onto his father’s face, suddenly blank and expressionless, like stone. Stunned, trying to take in what he had just heard, unable to speak, Joe reached out a hand and laid it on the rough-hewn cedar railing, steadying himself. Rainwater dripping from the roof splattered in the mud below. Joe’s stomach lurched. Finally he sputtered, “But can’t I just come along?”
“No. That won’t work. Look, Son, if there’s one thing I’ve figured out about life, it’s that if you want to be happy, you have to learn how to be happy on your own.”
With that, Harry strode back to the car, climbed in, closed the door, and started down the driveway. In the backseat, Mike and Harry Junior peered through the oval rearview window. Joe watched the red taillights recede and disappear into a dark shroud of rain. He turned and walked into the house and closed the door behind him. The whole thing had taken less than five minutes. The rain was thundering on the roof now. The house was cold and damp. The lightbulbs hanging from the rafters flickered on for a moment. Then they flickered off and stayed off.
✵ ✵ ✵
Rain was still pounding the roof of the half-finished house in Sequim when Joe woke up the next morning. A wind had come up during the night, and it moaned in the tops of the fir trees behind the house. Joe lay in bed for a long time, listening, remembering the days he had spent lying in bed in his aunt’s attic in Pennsylvania listening to the mournful sound of trains in the distance, with fear and aloneness weighing on him, pressing down on his chest, pushing him into the mattress. The feeling was back. He did not want to get up, did not really care if he ever got up.
Finally, though, he did get up. He made a fire in the woodstove, put water on to boil, fried some bacon, and made some coffee. Very slowly, as he ate the bacon and the coffee cleared his mind, the spinning in his head began to diminish and he found himself creeping up on a new realization. He opened his eyes and seized it, took it in, comprehended it all at once, and found that it came accompanied by a fierce determination, a sense of rising resolution. He was sick and tired of finding himself in this position—scared and hurt and abandoned and endlessly asking himself why. Whatever else came his way, he wasn’t going to let anything like this happen again. From now on, he would make his own way, find his own route to happiness, as his father had said. He’d prove to his father and to himself that he could do it. He wouldn’t become a hermit. He liked other people too much for that, and friends could help push away the loneliness. He would never again let himself depend on them, though, nor on his family, nor on anyone else, for his sense of who he was. He would survive, and he would do it on his own.
The smell and taste of the bacon had stimulated his appetite mightily, and he was still hungry. He got up and rummaged through the kitchen to take inventory. There wasn’t much to be found—a few boxes of oatmeal, a jar of pickles, some eggs from the chickens that had survived the mink attacks, a half a head of cabbage and some bologna in the icebox. Not much for a fifteen-year-old boy already approaching six feet.
He made some oatmeal and sat back down to think further. His father had always taught him that there was a solution to every problem. But he had always stressed that sometimes the solution wasn’t where people would ordinarily expect it to be, that you might have to look in unexpected places and think in new and creative ways to find the answers you were looking for. He remembered the mushrooms on the rotten logs in Boulder City. He could survive on his own, he figured, if he just kept his wits about him, if he kept his eyes open for opportunities, and if he didn’t allow his life to be dictated by other people’s notions of what he should do.
Over the next few weeks and months, Joe began to learn to fend entirely for himself. He drove iron stakes into the ground to fortify the chicken coop against future mink attacks and treasured the few eggs he gathered every morning. He foraged in the dripping woods for mushrooms, and with all the recent rain he found basketfuls of them—beautiful, fluted, orange chanterelles and fat, meaty king boletes that he fried in some bacon grease Thula had saved in a tin can. He gathered the last of the autumn’s blackberries, netted the last of the fish from the pool behind the waterwheel, picked watercress and added the berries and made salads of them.
Berries and watercress would only go so far, though. It was clear that he was going to need some money in his pocket. He drove downtown in the old Franklin his father had left behind and parked on Washington Street, where he sat on the hood and played his banjo and sang, hoping for spare change. He soon found that there was no such thing as spare change in 1929.
The crash had started on Wall Street, but it quickly brought down communities from coast to coast. Downtown Sequim was desolate. The State Bank of Sequim was still afloat but would fail within months. More and more storefronts were boarded up every day. As Joe sang, dogs sat on their haunches on the wooden sidewalks watching him idly, scratching their fleas in the rain. Black cars bounced down the unpaved street, splashing through muddy potholes, sending up jets of brown water, but the drivers paid Joe little heed. About the only audience he could count on was a bearded character everyone called the Mad Russian, who had been wandering Sequim’s streets barefoot and muttering to himself for as long as anyone could remember.
Joe dug deeper into his imagination. Months before, he and his friend Harry Secor had discovered a spot on the Dungeness River where huge chinook salmon—some as much as four feet long—lay in a deep, green, swirling pool, waiting to spawn. Joe found a gaff hook in the barn and began to carry it secreted in his pocket.
Early one misty Saturday morning, he and Harry worked their way through a dripping tangle of cottonwoods and alders lining the Dungeness, evading the game warden who regularly patrolled the river during salmon-spawning season. They cut a stout pole from a young alder, lashed the gaff hook to it, and then stealthily approached the swift, cold river. Joe took off his shoes, rolled up his pants, and waded quietly into the shallow riffles upstream from the pool. When Joe was in position, Harry started throwing large river rocks into the pool and beating the surface with a stick. In a panic, the fish dashed upstream toward Joe in the shallows. As they flashed by, Joe aimed the gaff at one of the largest of them, thrust the pole into the water, and deftly snagged the fish under the gills, where the hook would leave no telltale marks. Then, amid much shouting and splashing, he stumbled out of the water and dragged the thrashing salmon up onto the gravel bank.
Joe feasted on salmon that night, alone in the house. Then he set about turning the poaching of salmon into a business. Each Saturday afternoon Joe hiked the three miles into town with one or more of the enormous salmon slung over his shoulder on a willow switch, their tails dragging in the dust behind him. He delivered his catch to the back door of Lehman’s Meat Market and to the back doors of various households around Sequim, where he sold them for cash or bartered them for butter or meat or gas for the Franklin or whatever else he needed that week, solemnly and good-naturedly assuring his customers that, yes, indeed, he had caught the fish on a hook and line, fair and square.
Later that winter he found another entrepreneurial opportunity. With Prohibition in full swing and Canada just fifteen miles across the Strait of Juan de Fuca, Sequim was a lively port of entry for hard spirits of all sorts. Much of it made its way to the speakeasies of Seattle, but one bootlegger specialized in local customers. Byron Noble roared into the outskirts of town every Friday night in a long, sleek black Chrysler, depositing hip flasks full of gin, rum, or whiskey behind particular fence posts where his customers knew to look for them. Soon Joe and Harry Secor also knew where to look for them.
Dressed in dark, heavy clothes on frosty nights, they followed Noble around on his nocturnal route, pouring the contents of selected flasks into fruit jars and replacing the liquor with dandelion wine that they brewed themselves in Joe’s barn. That way, they figured, rather than seeming as if someone had stolen the goods, it would seem to Noble’s customers that they had simply gotten a bad batch of hooch. But they were careful not to purloin too often from the same location, fearful that Noble or his customers might be lying in the weeds, waiting for them with a shotgun. After a night’s work, Joe silently delivered the fruit jars full of the good stuff to the fence posts of his own discreetly cultivated clients.
When he wasn’t poaching fish or stealing booze, Joe worked at any kind of legitimate work he could find. He dug tunnels under stumps in his neighbors’ pastures and pried them out of the earth with long iron bars. When prying didn’t work, he stuffed sticks of dynamite under them, lit a fuse, and ran like hell as the dynamite sent the stumps and a black plume of dirt and rocks high into the air. He stooped and scraped with a shovel, digging irrigation ditches by hand. With a long-handled, double-edged axe, he split fence rails from massive cedar logs that washed down the Dungeness in the spring. He dug wells. He built barns, crawling around in the rafters and pounding nails. He hand-cranked cream separators and lugged 120-pound cans of milk and sweet cream around dairy farms, loading them onto trucks for delivery to the Dungeness-Sequim Cooperative Creamery. As summer came on, he labored under pale blue skies in the dry fields surrounding Sequim, cutting hay with a scythe, forking it onto wagons, and hoisting it by the ton into the lofts of his neighbors’ barns.
In all of this Joe grew continually stronger and ever more self-reliant. Through it all he stayed in school and earned good grades. At the end of the day, though, he remained stoically alone, returning each night to the empty, half-finished house. He ate solitary meals, sitting at one end of the large dining table where his family had previously gathered for boisterous dinners. Each night he washed the one plate he used and wiped it dry and set it back in its place on top of the stack of dishes Thula had left behind in a kitchen cabinet. He sat down at his mother’s old piano in the front room and plinked at the keys and floated simple melodies through the dark, empty spaces of the house. He sat on the front steps and played his banjo and sang quietly to himself.
✵ ✵ ✵
In the months that followed, Joe hunted for new opportunities in Sequim. Just down Silberhorn Road, he found part-time work helping his older neighbor, Charlie McDonald. McDonald made his living logging—harvesting enormous cottonwood trees that grew in the gravelly bottomlands along the Dungeness River. The work was backbreaking. The cottonwoods were so immense—their diameters so great—that it sometimes took an hour or more for Joe and Charlie to fell just one, pulling an eighty-four-inch two-man saw back and forth through the soft white heartwood. In the spring, when the sap was running, it jetted up out of the stumps three or four feet into the air after the trees finally toppled over. Then Joe and Charlie lopped off all the branches with axes, pried the bark from the logs with long iron bars, and harnessed them to Charlie’s draft horses, Fritz and Dick, so they could be dragged out of the woods and sent off to a pulp mill in Port Angeles.
Charlie had been gassed in the Great War, his vocal cords all but destroyed. At best he could manage croaks and whispers. As they worked together, Joe marveled at how Charlie could command the ponderous draft horses to do his bidding with a barely audible “gee” or “haw” or, as often as not, simply a whistle and nod of his head. Charlie would give a signal, and in unison Fritz and Dick would squat down on their haunches while he chained them up. He’d give another signal, and the two would rise and pull as if they were one horse, their movements crisply synchronized. And they pulled with all their hearts. When horses pulled like that, Charlie told Joe, they could pull far more than twice what each could pull alone. They’d pull, he said, till the log moved, the harness broke, or their hearts gave out.
In time Joe began to take some of his evening meals with the McDonald family, in exchange for his labor. He quickly became enormously popular with their preteen daughters—Margaret and Pearlie—staying after dinner and late into the evenings most nights, strumming his banjo and singing for the girls, or lying on the braided carpet in the front parlor, playing dominos, mah-jongg, or pickup sticks with them.
He soon found another way to make a few dollars, while entertaining himself as well. He and two of his school friends, Eddie Blake and Angus Hay Jr., formed a three-man band, with Joe on banjo, Eddie on drums, and Angus on saxophone. The trio played jazz tunes during intermissions at the Olympic movie theater in Sequim in exchange for an opportunity to watch the films. They played for square dances at the Grange Hall in Carlsborg. On Saturday nights they played at a dance hall in nearby Blyn, where a farmer had turned, with the addition of some strings of electric lights, his chicken coop into Sequim’s most popular dance venue. Girls were admitted to the Chicken Coop free of charge, boys for twenty-five cents, but Joe and his bandmates paid no admission when they performed. That meant a lot to Joe; several weeks earlier, Joyce Simdars had returned from Montana, and free admission meant that he could afford to bring her along on dates. He soon found, to his chagrin, though, that she was allowed to go only rarely—only when her mother was available to accompany her, riding primly and vigilantly in the wide, plush backseat of the Franklin, taking control of the dangerous territory.
✵ ✵ ✵
If there was one thing in the world Joyce Simdars wanted, it was for her mother to be less vigilant.
The Simdars household was austere, Joyce’s upbringing severe. Descended from German and Scottish immigrants who had settled in Sequim as pioneers, her parents both believed that work was an end in itself, that it straightened a wayward soul, and that no amount of it was too much. Joyce’s father, in fact, was well on his way to working himself to death. Suffering from an enlarged heart and inflammatory rheumatism, he nevertheless continued to plow his fields the old-fashioned way—behind a team of mules. By the end of his life, the mules would be more or less dragging him across the field from shortly after dawn till evening, sometimes six days a week during planting season.
Joyce Simdars at sixteen
But it was Joyce’s mother, and in particular her mother’s religious views, that most oppressed Joyce. Enid Simdars embraced the strictures of Christian Science, a faith that taught that the material world and all the evil that attended it were illusory, that the only reality was spiritual. This meant, among other things, that prayer and only prayer could heal afflictions like the rheumatism that afflicted Joyce’s father, and that doctors were a waste of time. It also meant something that affected Joyce even more personally as she was growing up. Enid believed there was only a “good Joyce,” that a “bad Joyce” was a theological impossibility, that any such person who might appear was by definition an imposter in the guise of her daughter. When Joyce misbehaved, she simply ceased to exist for her mother. The bad Joyce was made to sit on a chair and was not acknowledged in any way, or allowed to leave the chair until the good Joyce spontaneously reappeared. As a result, Joyce had spent much of her childhood wrestling with the notion that any wicked thought or misbehavior on her part meant that she was not worthy of love and, in fact, was in imminent danger of ceasing to exist. Years later she remembered sitting in the chair, sobbing and checking on herself over and over again, thinking, “But I’m still here. I’m still here.”
If she had a refuge, it was in working out of doors rather than in the house. She detested housework, in part because it had no end in the Simdars household and in part because it held her under the bell jar of her mother’s watchful eye. And it did not help that since her midteens Joyce had begun to suffer from arthritis, apparently a genetic gift from her father. The endless washing of dishes and scrubbing of floors and wiping of windows was the kind of repetitious work that aggravated the pain in her hands and wrists. Whenever she had a chance, she slipped outdoors to work in the vegetable garden or to tend to the animals with her father. He was hardly effusive with his affection, more apt to cuddle the family dog than one of his children, but at least he always seemed vaguely glad to have her around, and Joyce found the farmwork he did more interesting than housework. It often involved solving practical problems or making something new, and that appealed to her considerable and burgeoning intellectual curiosity—a curiosity that had already made her an unusually proficient student at school, scholarly even. She was always eager to delve deeply into whatever piqued her interest, everything from photography to Latin. She loved logic, loved to take things apart and put them back together, whether it was a speech by Cicero or a windmill. At the end of the day, though, dishes and more housework and her mother’s vigilant eye always waited for Joyce in the dark and close confines of the house.
And so when Joyce had first laid eyes on Joe Rantz, sitting in the back of the school bus strumming a guitar, singing some funny old song and flashing his big white toothy grin, when she had first heard his boisterous laugh and seen mirth in his eyes as he glanced up the aisle at her, she had been drawn to him, seen in him at once a window to a wider and sunnier world. He seemed the very embodiment of freedom.
She knew what his circumstances were, knew how marginal his existence was, how poor his prospects. She knew that many girls would turn away from a boy like this, and that perhaps she should as well. And yet the more she observed how he handled those circumstances, how strong he was, how resourceful he could be, how he, like she, enjoyed the challenge of solving practical problems, the more she came to admire him. In time she also came to understand that he, like she, lived with self-doubt gnawing continually at his heart. Most of all, she marveled at and exulted in the simple and undeniable fact that he seemed to care for her just as she was, good or bad. Slowly she resolved that someday she would find a way to compensate for the way the world had so far treated Joe Rantz.
✵ ✵ ✵
In the summer of 1931, Joe received a letter from his brother Fred, now a chemistry teacher at Roosevelt High School in Seattle. Fred wanted Joe to come to Seattle, to live with him and Thelma and take his senior year at Roosevelt. If Joe graduated from a school as highly regarded as Roosevelt, Fred said, he just might be able to get into the University of Washington. From there, anything might be possible.
Joe was wary. Since Fred had first taken him in, back in Nezperce when he was five, Joe had always felt that Fred was a bit overbearing, bent perhaps as much on directing Joe’s life as helping him out. Fred had long seemed to think that his little brother was just a bit inept, and that he needed to set him straight on any number of things. Now, just as Joe was finally beginning to get his feet under himself, to make it on his own, he wasn’t at all sure he wanted Fred, or anyone else for that matter, telling him how to live his life. He wasn’t sure he wanted to live with Thula’s twin sister either. And he had not really contemplated going to the university before. Still, as he pondered Fred’s letter, the notion began to work on him. He’d always done well in his classes, he was insatiably curious about any number of subjects, and he liked the idea of testing his intellectual abilities. More than that, though, he knew that Sequim was never likely to offer him a path to the future he was starting to imagine, a future that centered on Joyce Simdars and a family of his own. To get there, he knew, he would have to leave Joyce behind, at least for now.
In the end he boarded up the house in Sequim, told Joyce he’d be back at the end of the school year, took the ferry to Seattle, moved in with Fred and Thelma, and started attending Roosevelt. It was a strange turn: for the first time in as long as he could remember, he found himself with three square meals a day and little to do except attend school and explore his interests. He threw himself into both. Again he excelled in the classroom and quickly worked his way onto the dean’s honor roll. He joined the glee club and relished the opportunity it gave him to sing and perform in plays and make music. He signed up for the men’s gymnastics team, where his prodigious upper-body strength made him a standout on the rings, the high bars, and the parallel bars. At the end of the day, he sometimes went out on the town with Fred and Thelma, eating in real restaurants, taking in Hollywood movies, even going to musicals at the 5th Avenue Theatre. It seemed, to Joe, a life of extraordinary ease and privilege, and it confirmed what he had been thinking—he did want something more out of life than what Sequim could offer.
One spring day in 1932, as Joe was practicing “giants” on the high bar in the gym, he noticed a tall man in a dark gray suit and a fedora, standing in the doorway and watching him intently. The man disappeared, but a few minutes later Fred walked into the gym and called Joe over to the door.
“A fellow just came into my classroom and asked who you were,” Fred said. “Said he was from the university. He gave me this. Said you should look him up when you get to the U. That he might be able to use a fellow like you.”
Fred handed Joe a card, and Joe glanced down at it:
ALVIN M. ULBRICKSON
HEAD COACH, CREW
UNIVERSITY OF WASHINGTON ATHLETIC DEPARTMENT
Joe pondered the card for a moment, then walked to his locker and put it in his wallet. It couldn’t hurt to give it a try. Rowing couldn’t be any harder than cutting cottonwoods.
✵ ✵ ✵
By the summer of 1932, Joe had graduated from Roosevelt with honors and was back in Sequim. If he was really going to attend the university, he was going to need to scrape together enough money for rent and books and tuition. It would take him a year just to earn enough for his freshman year. He’d worry about the second year, and the third, and the fourth, later.
Joe was glad to be home. As he had feared, in Seattle Fred had directed his every move. It had been with the best of intentions, Joe was sure, but he had felt suffocated by the ceaseless rejoinders and advice—on everything from what classes to take to how to tie his necktie. Fred had even suggested that he date particular girls at Roosevelt, suggesting that the Simdars girl out in Sequim might be a bit of a country bumpkin, and that perhaps he should set his sights a little higher, on a city girl. And there had been something else. As the year went by, Joe had gradually begun to suspect and then to believe that Fred and Thelma knew exactly where his father, stepmother, and half siblings were, and that they were not far away. There had been bits of conversation overheard, topics abruptly dropped, glances hastily averted, phone calls carried out with muffled voices. Joe had thought about confronting them, but he’d always reconsidered, pushed the subject out of his mind. The last thing he wanted to know was that his father was nearby and making no effort to reach out to him.
In Sequim, Joe worked continuously. He counted himself lucky when he landed a summer job with the Civilian Conservation Corps, laying asphalt for the new Olympic Highway for fifty cents an hour. The money was decent, the work brutal. For eight hours a day, he shoveled steaming asphalt out of trucks and raked it out flat in advance of the steamrollers, the unrelenting heat rising from the black asphalt melding with the heat from the sun overhead, as if the two sources were competing to see which would kill him first. On weekends he cut hay again with Harry Secor and dug irrigation ditches for local farmers. By winter he was back in the woods with Charlie McDonald, cutting cottonwoods, chaining them to the draft horses, and skidding them out of the woods in snow and sleet.
But there was a saving grace. Almost every afternoon now, Joyce got off the school bus on Silberhorn, down by the river, rather than at her home in Happy Valley. She rushed through the woods looking for Joe. When she found him, he always hugged her tight, smelling, as she would remember seventy years later on her deathbed, of wet wood and sweat and the sweet wildness of the outdoors.
One radiant day in late April, she hurried to Joe as usual. When she found him, he took her hand and led her to a small meadow among the cottonwoods on the south bank of the Dungeness. Joe sat her down in the grass and asked her to wait a moment. He wandered a few feet off and sat down and began to inspect the ground carefully, pawing through the grass. Joyce knew what he was doing. He had always had an uncanny knack for finding four-leaf clovers, and he loved to present them to her as small tokens of his affection. How he found them so easily mystified her, but he always told her that it wasn’t a matter of luck at all, that it was just a matter of keeping your eyes open. “The only time you don’t find a four-leaf clover,” he liked to say, “is when you stop looking for one.” She loved that. It summed up in a few words what she most loved about him.
She lay back in the grass and closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her face and legs. After a short while, shorter than usual, she heard Joe approaching. She sat up and smiled at him.
“Found one,” he said, beaming.
He held out a closed fist, and she reached out to receive the clover. But as he slowly unfolded his hand, she saw that it held not a clover but a golden ring with a small but perfect diamond sparkling in the rare spring sunshine.
Freshmen on Old Nero