It’s been over ten years since Steve Date made his film about the letter from my father that was side-railed for over 40 years.  

THE FILM-THE LETTER

Steve and I are amazed by how his film continues to reach and impact people in unique and different ways.   But we never thought the film could rekindle a romance!

Pete Boynton was one of the guys I met and befriended in Coalwood WV during the summer of 1968.  My family’s Chicago- based construction outfit had been hired by the Olga Coal Company to install a 2,000 foot ventilation shaft for a new section of the mines. My dad thought it would be a good learning experience for me to go work on that job.  Pete and I were both 18 and fresh out of high school.   Pete grew up in Coalwood.  His father was a coalminer and Pete became one too. 

I hadn’t seen or heard from Pete, aka “Big Pete,” in over 52 years.  

Standing L to R: Zachary Fleming, Muss Alger, Marty Valeri and Pete “Big Pete” Boynton
Seated: Tafon Hylton, Hub Alger, Casey Gauntt and Ringo Kirk

And then I got a FB message from Pete in April.   He had recently seen Steve’s film.

Hello Casey, this is Pete.  I just saw the video you made about your letter from your dad. Here’s hoping you and your family stay safe in this pandemic.  The letter made me kinda tear up.  Thanks for doing the video.  Take care

I sent Pete a brief thank-you and well wishes.

Four months later I received this follow up message from Pete.

I didn’t know you well but do remember Marty and me playing cards in your room at the Clubhouse. I think I lost a dollar, maybe two.  I’m the big guy standing behind you in the picture.  Glad you’re doing well.  No parent should bury your own child; that would be heart wrenching to me.  Heart felt sorry to you and family. 

That summer you were in Coalwood I lost the woman I wanted to marry.  Her mom made her move to another state with them while I was in Richmond trying to get money together for a place for us to live, and other necessities in life for settling down. 

But just a few days ago we reconnected.  She is widowed.  Thanks to seeing your video, I finally let her know how I felt and still feel.  We’re talking again and it might work out this time– never know.

I consider you a friend from long ago.  Me?  I’m just a Coalwood boy. A bunch of us call each other patch kids. Special place Coalwood –was a simpler place, simpler times.  Later my friend

Hub, Casey and Zachary

It wasn’t surprising Pete had seen the film.  Although Steve’s home is in Minneapolis, he is well-known in Coalwood having previously made a wonderful one-hour documentary about the small town in 2009.  That film and The Letter found their way into the hands of the townsfolk.

No, what struck and touched me deeply was the extent to which Pete had been moved and motivated by the core messages of Steve’s film.

It’s never too late to reach out and tell someone how you feel-that you love them—no matter how many years have gone by.

It only took 38 years for my father’s loving words to reach me. The film emboldened Pete to reach out to his high school sweetheart 52 years after their break-up.  52 years!  ‘And let her know how I felt and still feel.’  That’s just beautiful.  

Pete was also moved to send me his heartfelt condolences and, as a friend from many, many years ago, tell me he feels our pain.  As I’ve written before IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO SEND CONDOLENCES

Pete also took away from Steve’s film that it is never too late to repair or rekindle a relationship thought broken or just over—38 years later, 52 years later—it doesn’t matter.   I was certain my relationship with my father was forever broken with his death in 1970.   His letter, arriving when it did, opened the door and launched the rebuilding of our relationship. 

Casey and Dad in Panama 1969

Pete is hopeful he might rekindle the relationship with that sweet Coalwood girl.  He’s not sure.  But he’s made the effort.   He stepped up and reached out, no matter how many years have passed.  He made the connection. That’s the key.  He took that first big step. 

Reach Out

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge once again another very important person and lesson from The Letter:  It is never too late to reach out to someone, with a message, or something that belongs to them, that might be important to them, no matter how many years have gone by. 

Emily Sue Buckberry

Emily Sue Buckberry found the letter my father wrote to me that summer.  She thought I threw it away when I moved out of the Clubhouse to head home.   As the years rolled by, she could have very easily decided: It’s too late to get that letter to Casey. He’ll think it’s weird.  He’ll think I’m weird.

But for some reason that even she can’t really explain, Em Sue decided to try and find me and get the letter to me.  40 years later.  Not knowing how it would land and that it would change my life forever.  

Connection.  It’s all about making those connections and reconnections.  It’s about trusting your gut, your intuition, whatever you might call it. Not overthinking it.   Just doing it.  It is so simple.  Why do we make it so hard? 

Postscript

I get a very strange feeling when I look at this photo.  Tafon, Hubb, Muss and Marty all had died before I was drawn back into Coalwood by Ms. Buckberry.   I’ve reconnected with the other boys in that photo including the one who took it—Tim Bowman—and many other Coalwoodians I met that summer.  All because Em Sue took a leap and got that letter to me.  

The waves and ripples from that one connection continue to fan out. 

Coalwood Clubhouse

If you’d like to read more about Coalwood, my summer there, and the wonderfully unique characters who became my friends, here are links to

THE COALWOOD CHAPTER in Suffering Is the Only Honest Work

FROG LEVEL ROW-COALWOOD MEMORIES-in collaboration with Tim Bowman

Casey and Tim Bowman November 2010

3 responses to “THE LETTER-MORE COALWOOD MAGIC”

  1. AvatarKay Weiss says:

    Casey, this is truly so very sweet and moving. I agree that it is Never too late to reach out to someone you care about. I have old friends from my Texas childhood. You have motivated me… thank you for all you do. Hugs to you and H! Kay

  2. AvatarArt Asbury says:

    I lived in Coalwood in the 1940s & little of what has been written is much like my experience from Mrs. Zick’s 1st Grade class to Gladys Cox’s 5th. Mr R.L. Likens was a good principal. The Carter Coal Company was very community minded & employed many from his Carrol County, Virginia area but there was far more to the Community than “Rocket Boys.”

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Author Bios

Write Me Something Beautiful Authors - Casey and Jimmy Gauntt

Casey Gauntt

is a retired attorney and former senior executive of a major San Diego real estate company. He lives in Solana Beach, California, with his wife, Hilary. Casey grew up in Itasca, Illinois, graduated Lake Park High School in 1968, and received B.S., JD and MBA degrees from the University of Southern California.

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Jimmy Gauntt

was born and raised in Solana Beach and graduated from Torrey Pines High School in 2002.   A prestigious Trustee Scholar at the University of Southern California, he majored in English and Spanish. He authored six plays, five screenplays, and a multitude of poems and short stories. Beginning in 2010, the USC English Department annually bestows the Jimmy Gauntt Memorial Award—aka “The Jimmy”—to the top graduates in English.  Jimmy passed over to the other side in 2008 at age 24.

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