If two points are destined to touch,
The Universe will always find a way to make the connection,
Even when all hope seems lost.
Certain ties cannot be broken.
They define who we are,
And who we can become.
Across space, across time,
Across paths we cannot predict.
Nature always finds a way.
–From the T.V. Series Touch, episode Zone of Exclusion (initial air date May 3, 2012)
Wheaton-The Bermuda Triangle
By Casey Gauntt
In 2007 a young lawyer, Megan, came to work at my law firm’s office in San Diego. We spoke at her welcome event and I was somewhat surprised to find out she grew up in Wheaton, Illinois, only a few miles from my hometown of Itasca. I told her where I went to high school and practically fell off my chair when she told me her father, Attila, was a teacher, soccer coach, dean of students and ultimately the principal at Lake Park High School from 1974 to 1992. I had missed him by a few years, graduating in 1968. Megan’s mother was also a teacher at Lake Park and that’s how she met Megan’s dad. “Wow! What a strange coincidence,” we both exclaimed. Let me put this in perspective—in all the years since I graduated in 1968 I’ve never run across anyone who went to my high school. Not one person.
Two years later Steve Date was in the middle of editing his film The Letter he shot in Coalwood, West Virginia, and he asked me for a picture of my high school that I mention early on in the film. I climbed up to our attic and looked through my brother’s and my Lake Park Lancer yearbooks, which for years had been relegated to serving as hosts to mold spores, silverfish and dust mites. I came up empty. I then thought of Megan’s dad—he must have a photograph. Megan gave me his contact info and I shot him an email. He didn’t have any photos, but he was kind enough to put me in touch with some of the current administrators at Lake Park. I reached out to them and even mentioned I graduated number two in my class and was voted most popular my senior year. I never heard back—I gathered photo requests were honored only for valedictorians.
I had told Megan and her father I was working on a “family history project.” I hadn’t mentioned anything about the story of The Letter. About a month later I stumbled upon the 1967 yearbook from my junior year buried in a drawer in my law office. On the inside cover was a fantastic wide lens photograph of Lake Park High School that made it into Steve’s film.
I’ve been keeping a journal ever since Jimmy died. Actually, I keep two: one is a small black notebook and the other a Windows Word document on my laptop. I make entries into them indiscriminately, although I find myself writing in my “little black book” my vivid dreams shortly after I wake up, so I don’t forget them, and using the computer version for the more complicated entries such as the following one for Saturday, March 19, 2011.
Today began with an early morning dream of Jimmy. We’re together on the top of the bunk bed in his room. He’s a baby—maybe 11 months—too young for a bunk bed. He’s rolling around, sitting up, and I’m guarding him so he doesn’t fall off—a gentle hand push here and there. He lies back down on the bed. I lean down and kiss his rosy right cheek and I gently scold him “You be careful.” He looks into my eyes and smiles.
I awoke, wide awake, at 6:30 a.m., a half hour before the time set on my alarm. I love waking up from dreams of Jimmy. It is usually a sign of a strong energy day, and today we would not be disappointed.
George Blystone and I are to have our call at eight o’clock this morning to talk some more about the story Want To Go For A Ride?. George has promised to write his version of the story and he wants some guidance from me. After breakfast I reviewed the story, our emails and notes of my previous calls with him. I called George on his cell at the appointed time and got voice mail. I tried him again at 10 and was likewise sent to voice mail. Hilary observed “Maybe you guys didn’t get the time right. Let’s go on a hike in the lagoon.” I checked my email message to him from a couple days ago, and it was very clear—”11 a.m. your time.” George is three hours ahead of us in Connecticut.
“I don’t know, maybe he thinks it was 11 California time. Let’s hang around until 11- if he doesn’t call back, then we’ll go.”
He didn’t and Hilary and I went for a walk in the nearby San Elijo Lagoon at 11:45. That’s very late for us to start a hike. The sun was out, the sky crystal clear, and we sat on Jimmy’s Bench for a while and thought about things and him. The day after Jimmy died, Hilary, Brittany, Ryan and I took a walk in the lagoon to try and clear our heads and slip into the eye of our hurricane, if for only a moment. On that walk we made two decisions. First, we would request that in lieu of flowers donations be made to a James T. Gauntt memorial scholarship fund at Torrey Pines High School to help deserving students pursue the study of the arts in college. This was Brittany’s idea and over $100,000 was contributed to that fund over the next few weeks. And second, we would have a memorial bench placed along one of the trails in the lagoon where we could come and visit Jimmy. That was Hilary’s idea. Nine months and a significant donation to the Lagoon Conservancy later, Jimmy’s Bench came to be.
This day, the waves were pounding the beach several hundred yards away, an osprey dove into the lagoon directly in front of us and emerged with a large fish in its talons and the Palomar Mountains, several miles to the east, were covered with fresh snow. Simply spectacular. As we continued our hike I told Hilary about my dream this morning of Jimmy. Hilary lamented she’s only had a couple of fleeting dreams about Jimmy. “All the moms say the same thing—they don’t dream about the sons and daughters they’ve lost.”
We talked as we walked about Austin Bice, the 22 year old Torrey Pines High School grad who had died two weeks earlier in Madrid. Hilary said “His death is the most like Jimmy’s. He’d been out drinking with friends. He was refused admission at a bar so he split from his friends and walked home. He was a walker, like Jimmy. He fell into a concrete lined river— minimal fence or barrier—no signs of violence or a crime—his wallet, money and cell phone were in his pockets. Another inexplicable, horrible accident. He, too, was the youngest child and the only boy.”
Jimmy spent the summer after his freshman year at USC as a foreign exchange student in Madrid, studying at a university and living with a family. He also loved to walk at night, particularly after an evening of revelry. That poor family—they are only at the very beginning of their nightmare.
We turned around at our customary halfway point—Hilary was on the far left of the path and I was on the right, as usual—and after we walked about thirty feet or so I heard a clicking noise and Hilary made a quick jump to the right. “What was that?!” she exclaimed. We looked back and coiled on the left side of the path was a very large rattlesnake, perfectly camouflaged by the brown dirt and green grasses. It’s head was raised and pulled back, poised to strike—it’s tongue flicking in and out of its mouth. I counted at least ten rattles. We watched it for a couple of minutes as we waited for our heartbeats to return to earth. The serpent finally uncoiled and slithered back into the dense brush. That was close. We figured Hilary was no more than six inches from the snake when she walked past it. It is a miracle she wasn’t bit. We both said ‘thank you’ and pointed our fingers to the sky and also to Jimmy’s bench on the other side of the lagoon.
A couple of minutes before we almost stumbled upon the snake, Hilary had asked “How about Rubio’s?” “Sounds good.” We frequently make these spot decisions as to where or what we’re going to do for lunch after our hike. I didn’t tell her I’d already been thinking about chicken quesadillas and carne asada tacos, my favorite Rubio’s take-out items. But if I had she would have said “Of course you were.” We’ve been married over 37 years.
We got to Rubio’s around 1 p.m. and after putting in our order I went over to the hot sauce bar. I saw some people come in the front door but didn’t really focus on them. “Casey?” I looked up and it was Megan, the young attorney from my office. I said “Hi” and she said, “I’d like to introduce you to my dad. Casey, this is Attila.” We shook hands. ‘You’ve got to be kidding me! I don’t believe this!’ I said to myself. I reminded Attila I was the guy who had asked him for a photo of Lake Park High School. He remembered and seemed equally stunned to run into me.
We talked for quite a while about Lake Park. He started as a rookie teacher in 1974 and his first classroom was the windowless cavern that used to be the weight room. He rattled off the names of several teachers and classmates, most of whom I recalled. He told me that for many years, starting when they were very little, he used to take Megan and her brother to the school on Sundays while he did some work. They loved to ride their hot wheels down the long empty hallways. That brought to mind a couple of scenes from Steven King’s The Shining, but I kept that to myself.
I brought Hilary into the conversation after a minute or so and introduced her to everyone. She mostly talked to Megan and her husband who are expecting their first child in three weeks. Attila told me he is the superintendent of a school district in Wisconsin and was in town for an education conference.
We said goodbye, picked up our food and when we reached the parking lot I said to Hilary “I don’t believe it! I was thinking about Attila a couple of days ago and actually made a note on my To Do list to send him the DVD of The Letter film. This morning I try to get a hold of Blystone, who is the only Lake Park classmate I’ve actually spoken to in over 40 years, and then the former principal from my high school shows up with his daughter at Rubio’s!?”
Hilary said “Oh, it’s a lot more random than that! Megan and her husband live in Point Loma, twenty miles south and she thinks it is beyond strange we bumped into one another. They drove up this way to see some friends, and as they were heading back on Pacific Coast Highway they spotted Rubio’s. They’ve never been here before; they didn’t even know where they were. And look at the time—it’s after one o’clock. We are never here this late, and when we do come it is for maybe four or five minutes, tops. So, that was your window of time to run into the principal of your high school that you reached out to one year ago for that photograph for Steve’s film. That is beyond improbable— synchronicity has struck again!”
We talked about Lake Park and Coalwood—how both have so strangely come back into my life over the last couple of years.
George never did call me back and I thought out-loud: “I hope he’s ok.” Hilary asked “Has it occurred to you that you might have spooked him with all this stuff about The Letter and The Ride?”
And I thought that was the end of the story—and it was a pretty good story running like that into the principal of my high school—but as it turned out this one had only just begun.
When I arrived in the office on Monday morning an email from George was waiting for me. “Sorry I missed our scheduled call but I honestly drove over my cell phone after leaving the damn thing on my trunk. Call me at the office.”
I’m sorry, but my first thought was ‘The dog ate the homework—really, dude?’
I sent Attila the film The Letter and a ‘sorry if this comes hard from left field’ letter, and George and I traded a few voice mail messages over the next few days. By the end of the week we hadn’t spoken and I began to feel badly about the whole thing. On Sunday I emailed George. “I want to apologize. I drag you into the middle of this and then I ask you to go deeper and write something about it. Don’t get me wrong—I’m very glad we reconnected—but sometimes I forget that, even among our closest friends, many are not comfortable at all with whatever is going on here with our family—these random connections. Hell, I even sometimes think it is all a bit nuts. It is selfish and unfair of me to push you, somebody I’ve been out of touch with for all these years, further into it. Let’s take a step off this ride and let it settle for a while and, when we do talk, I’ll tell you about how cute our grandson is and our recent trip to Maui. Your pal.”
I felt better.
But first thing the next morning, there was another email from George. “No apologies required. The only aspect of our reconnect that has been difficult is that the weirdness of these events revolve around the terrible loss you and your family have suffered. I am not uncomfortable re-telling my minor role in this wonderful journey of events that appears to have brought a sense of clarity and closure to all those trying to process the pain of sudden loss. Let’s definitely talk this week.”
I felt even better.
And then it got all weird again.
In 2009 I wrote McKenzies Field—Ole Ole Olson Free, a short story about growing up in the little town of Itasca, Illinois and playing Kick The Can and other games on hot, muggy, summer evenings. One of the kids featured in the story was Buddy Wheaton. We went all through elementary and high school together, played on the same little league teams and were good friends, but ever since we graduated from Lake Park High School in 1968 we hadn’t laid eyes or ears on one another. There is a very tragic accident described in the story, and as I recalled it was Buddy that dodged a big bullet, but I wasn’t a hundred percent sure it was him. I’d had on my To Do list for a long time to track him down and confirm that I got the story right. In fact, the 1967 Lancer yearbook, the one in which I found the great photo of the high school for Steve’s film, was dedicated to the memory of Rodney Hendrickson and Gary Olsen, the two boys who were killed on the fateful toboggan tow ride that winter night—the ride I believed Buddy was supposed to be on.
Over the next couple of days after my email exchange with George, I spent quite a bit of time, to no avail, Googling Walter Buddy Wheaton to find some contact information. I didn’t have Emily Sue Buckberry’s luck when she searched for me to get my dad’s letter back to me. And even if I did, I questioned whether I would have her guts to cold-call Buddy. Three years ago before Jimmy died?—absolutely not a chance. But I didn’t give up and I fired off an email to George and three other childhood classmates I’d also reconnected with over the last year. I told them about our family’s recent trip to Maui and how we left the Kahalui Airport only a few hours before the behemoth, devastating, earthquake struck Japan and forced the evacuation of the entire shoreline of the Hawaiian Islands, including the house we rented for a week on Napili Bay, in anticipation of the tsunami racing eastward at five hundred miles per hour. And then I wrote this:
“Does anybody have current contact information for Buddy Wheaton? I need to ask him a question about a story I’m working on—but not about the one below.”
In retrospect it’s a bit weird why I added that last phrase “but not about the one below.” We’ll get there.
I closed the email by sharing with them how two weeks earlier Hilary and I had run into Megan and her father at Rubio’s.
The only response I received was a week later—another email from George.
“Casey- I just talked with Gus Pasquini. You aren’t going to believe it! Call me.”
Gus Pasquini was Dean of Students at Lake Park when I was there and also the head football coach. George was the star quarterback for Lake Park until he blew out his knee his senior year. George had previously told me he and Gus have remained good friends over the years. I called George right away on the land line in his office—not wanting to take any chances with cell phones and backing-up cars—and got right through. George was amped.
“Hey, pal. OK, this is unbelievable! I’m talking to Gus this morning, shooting the breeze, and I tell him about this email I got from you a few days ago—I’ve told Gus all about us reconnecting and your son Jimmy—and I tell him how you and Hilary ran into that young woman from your office—Megan?—and her father Attila in San Diego a few weeks ago. Gus says he knew Attila well at Lake Park and heard that he had recently taken a position with a school district in Wisconsin. And, Casey—I swear to God—these are the next words out of his mouth.
“You know, George, I think Megan dated or was even engaged to Buddy Wheaton’s son. Buddy and his family lived in Wheaton as did Attila and his family.”
Of course they did. Whatt?!!!!!
George continued, “Casey, I hadn’t mentioned Buddy during my call with Gus. Gus was the one who brought him up. The few hairs I have left are now standing straight up on the back of my neck and I’ve got goose bumps crawling up and down my arms. I then read to Gus the other part of your email about looking for contact info for Buddy, and Gus says to me ‘Well, why don’t you tell Casey to just walk down the hall and ask Megan?’”
“Is this as strange as it sounds?” George implored.
We laughed and then got serious. I gave George the other details about running into Attila and Megan at Rubio’s.
“George, I don’t want to freak you out any more than you already are, but you need to know that once again you have landed square in the middle of this madness. If you and I had spoken when were supposed to that Saturday, Hilary and I would have gone on our hike around 10 as we usually do, and we would have been at Rubio’s before noon, and we would have never run into Megan and her father. But we did. And then I tell you about it, and you tell Gus—the first person you’ve talked to about this—and then Gus tells you “Hey, I think Megan may have dated or was even engaged to Buddy Wheaton’s son.” Buddy Wheaton!—who I just happened to ask about in that email I sent to you and the crew about bumping into Megan and her dad. Really? If you didn’t tell Gus about Attila, he never would have mentioned Buddy and his son’s connection with Megan, and I probably would have never found out about it.”
“Bermuda Triangle, Casey. I told Gus that connecting with you is like going into the Bermuda Triangle.” George shared.
Postscript. A couple of days after my call with George, I sent Megan an email congratulating her on the birth of their baby girl and popped the question:
“I have what I’m sure will seem like an off-the-wall Chicago question. I recently reconnected with one of my best friends from Lake Park, George, who now lives in Connecticut. We were talking about one of our classmates, Walter (we called him Buddy) Wheaton, and George thinks he and his family lived in Wheaton and that you may have known Buddy’s kids. I apologize for this coming from left field, but it is even more strange how Buddy came up in the first place. I’ll tell you later about that sometime.”
I received Megan’s reply two weeks later:
“Such a small world that you were friends with Bud Wheaton! I knew him and his family very well because I dated his son Brad in high school and for quite a few years after too! I’m not in touch with them anymore but I did hear through the grapevine that Bud retired from his job as an executive with one of McDonald’s largest suppliers and is working in the pro shop of a local golf club in Wheaton. He has two sons, Brad and Ryan. Brad is my age and Ryan is a few years younger. I can’t believe all these crazy Chicago connections we have!”
Neither can I.
Megan later shared with me that she and her family also knew Gus Pasquini very well. Gus and her dad worked together at Lake Park for many years and Gus helped her family find their first dog. “And running into you that day at Rubio’s really was serendipitous. We live in Point Loma and had come up to North County to see friends who just had twins. We promised them lunch, but were running late and thought burritos were the fastest choice. Guessing there was a place off the freeway in Solana Beach, we exited and found Rubio’s. Really something.”
Postscript 2. In July, a few months after spinning into the discovery of the connection between Megan and Buddy Wheaton, I was on a run through the streets of downtown San Diego. As I was returning to my office and the athletic club upstairs, a large moving truck blocked the street. On the side of the van, in huge black letters, were the words WHEATON VAN LINES. As soon after I showered and got back to my office I called Buddy using a number I found in an on line phone book for Wheaton, Illinois. Needless to say, Buddy was more than a little surprised to hear from me. We caught up for a few minutes and then I told him about Megan from my office and how I had discovered through George Blystone and Gus Pasquini that Megan had dated his son Brad. Such a small world, and all that. Buddy didn’t know anything about my son Jimmy, the story of The Letter or Want To Go For A Ride? and I didn’t mention any of that on our call. I could tell Buddy was thinking ‘So, you called me just to let me know that Megan dated my son Brad?’ It was a bit awkward, but I plowed forward with the main purpose of my call.
I told Buddy I had written a story a couple of years ago about the tragic accident back in the winter of 1966 that took the lives of Rodney and Gary, and that I thought Buddy was supposed to be on that toboggan tow, but wasn’t absolutely sure. Buddy confirmed that it was indeed him and he told me a lot more about what happened that night that I never knew. How it was his then girlfriend, our classmate Kathy Wentzel, who had called his house as he was standing outside waiting for Rodney and Gary to pick him up. How Buddy’s mom made him come inside and take the call. How Kathy begged Buddy to bring over to her house his biology book so she could catch up on some homework having been out sick from school the last several days. How Buddy was backing out of his driveway in his dad’s car to head over to Kathy’s as Rodney and Gary pulled up. One phone call.
“I’ve never forgotten that, Casey, and I never will.”
Buddy told me a little bit about his sons, and what they were up to. Neither of them were yet married and both were avid outdoorsmen living in Colorado. I don’t recall Buddy asking about my kids—or maybe I preempted the question by telling him about Brittany and our new grandson—don’t really remember. Anyway, Buddy gave me his address in Wheaton so I could send him the story and we cordially wound up the call.
A couple of weeks after our call I sent Buddy the McKenzie’s Field story—at this point we hadn’t put the story up on the Write Me Something Beautiful website. A few weeks later I sent Buddy the link to the website, and the story of The Letter. As I did with George, I wrote and apologized for letting him know about Jimmy’s death in this way, but that I didn’t really know any “easy” way to do it. I followed that up by sending Buddy drafts of the Want To Take A Ride? and Wheaton-The Bermuda Triangle stories so he would have “all the pieces of the puzzle as to how I found out your son dated Megan from my office.” A most circuitous route. I went on to write:
“As I’ve told Blystone, I have no idea why we’ve reconnected after all of these years and in such bizarre ways. I know this wasn’t any of your doing. I apologize if this is upsetting for you. I don’t mean to drag up unpleasant memories for you and I certainly don’t mean to drag you into the middle of ours. But, it’s just so damned unbelievable and, well, I thought you should know about it. Perhaps there are reasons—if so I’m pretty sure my brain isn’t big enough to figure them out. Good health and good life to you, my friend.”
I never heard back from Buddy, and I can’t say that I’m surprised. I imagined he must have thought, as any normal, rational, man would, ‘Poor Casey—he’s been hammered by the loss of his father, and now his son, and is desperate for any thread of hope or shred of something to make sense of it all.’
But, I don’t really know what Buddy thinks about all of this.
Postscript 3. Five months after my last email to Buddy, Megan sent me this note.
“I wanted to stop by and tell you this in person but our family’s been hit with the stomach flu and I don’t know when I’ll be able to catch you this week in the office. I heard over the weekend Bud Wheaton’s younger son, Ryan, passed away at the age of 30. I don’t know what happened. I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but I thought you would want to know.”
On April 9, 2012 we published McKenzie’s Field- Ole Ole Olson Free on this site and dedicated the story to the memory of Rodney Hendrickson, Gary Olsen and Ryan Wheaton.
The Universe will always find a way to make the connection.