My dad died last year after living 85 years and ten months. He was part of the greatest generation, served in World War II and went on to a long life with many accomplishments as a health provider, historian, husband and father in the small town of McHenry, Illinois where I was raised. Forty-four years ago today, at what turned out to be exactly the half way point of my dad’s life - he was 42 years and 11 months then - he, my brother and I faced death on Lake Superior. My dad's bravery that day, along with the courage and quick actions of a few dedicated park rangers gave my dad and his two boys a second chance at life. My dad made great use of his second chance, doubled the length of his life and made the world a better place for all who knew him.
I was eight years old at the time, August 12, 1968. My dad took my older brother Tim and me sailing in a 14 1/2-foot Klepper Passat - a German rubber skinned sailboat with a mahogany frame - on Lake Superior. High winds, large waves and limited sailing experience led to a harrowing day and night stranded on the lake they call Gitche Gumee. Our sails were down and we were rapidly drifting out to sea. If not for the skill, courage and bravery of three Porcupine Mountain State Park Rangers, we surely would have perished.
My mother reported us missing several hours after we failed to return on time. Park Manager Dave Balbaugh, Assistant Park Superintendent John Kesot and Park Mechanic Arnold "Andy" Anderson then went to work. First they drove up to a lookout in the park and using a 10x to 30x zoom telescope, spotted the mast of our tiny boat on the horizon about five miles out and slightly west of the park.
Local newspaper reports from the day report what happened next:
"The three took the park boat and went out into Lake Superior to find the lost craft, but it was nowhere in sight. The park crew spotted a boat with fishermen that told them they had seen the boat which was barely visible, about five to six miles offshore and about seven miles east.
It was approximately 7 p.m. before the rescue boat reached them. The two boys, 8-year-old Peter and 12-year-old Tim, were taken aboard the park boat, but their dad remained aboard his craft as it was being towed in.
Unfortunately, the seas got too heavy and the Wilt boat filled up with water and capsized. Dr. Wilt, who was wearing a life jacket, was then taken from the water into the park boat. The rescue crew then returned to the park dock, arriving around 9:30 p.m."
It was a life changing event for my dad, brother and me. It forced us to appreciate the precious gift life is. Every August 12th thereafter, no matter where we were, we got a hold of each other and remembered that day. Together and separately, we also started to return to the site on several of the anniversaries. Tim was the first to return to the Porkies. i think it was on the 15th Anniversary. My wife and I made the pilgrimage on the 20th Anniversary. Then i went again on the 25th Anniversary. It was on that excursion that I dug through the local newspaper archives to find the names of the rangers and went to the State Park welcome center to track them down, so that i could thank them personally.
I was told that Superintendent Balbaugh had passed away a few years back, John was retired and travelling the country in a motor home and Andy was retired and living in nearby Silver City, Michigan.
The phone book in the Silver City General Store listed an "A Anderson" on Michigan State Highway 64. I drove to the address and parked my car on the edge of the highway. I then walked up a long gravel drive and found an elderly gentleman working in his garden:
Me: "Are you Andy Anderson?"
Andy: "Yes I am. How can I help you?"
Me: "Well, you already have. Twenty-five years ago today, you saved my life and I just wanted to say 'Thank you',"
Andy: "Are you the young Wilt boy!?!"
Me: "Yes I am"
Andy yelling to his wife: "Honey, we have a visitor. Bring out a couple of beers!"
Andy and I had a great afternoon drinking Grainbelt Premium beer and recalling that day as if it were yesterday. He put me in touch with John and we all exchanged Christmas cards for years afterward.
My whole family returned to Porcupine Mountain State Park on the 30th and 40th anniversaries. On the 30th anniversary, we had a very nice final reunion with Andy who passed away a couple years later.
Though John and I kept in touch via Christmas cards, we never reunited until December of 2006. He was 90 years old and living in a senior home in Camden, Tennessee. While visiting my nephew and Godson Evan at Southern Illinois University we decided to make a road trip to visit John and thank him in person.
His daughter and son-in-law helped make the arrangements. We had a great visit with John at his apartment and we told him we'd like to take him to lunch anywhere he wanted. John chose Pizza Hut. His daughter arranged to have the local paper join us and they wrote a nice article about the reunion.
John died a year later. On his obituary page's guest book i wrote:
"My family and i mourn John's passing as we celebrate his life. His heroic actions on Lake Superior on August 12, 1968 gave my father, brother and me another chance at life. Reconnecting with him last year allowed me to see that he was as good and kind a man as he was courageous. We are forever grateful to John for saving our lives, while risking his own. God bless you and keep you."
John was the last surviving of the three brave rangers that I owe my life to.
A few weeks later a box from John's daughter was delivered to my doorstep. Inside was an invitation to John's memorial service in Cheboygan, Michigan, a personal note and a special gift.
In part, the note read:
You gave us the excellent idea of the "Life Celebration" we daughters are holding for my parents.
Please also accept dad's telescope that he said he used to spot you folks that day on the water. I could not think of anyone more fitting than for you to have it...
My brother and I will talk today. We'll remember the events of 44 years ago. We'll remember the men who saved our lives and we'll remember our father who showed us how to live.