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Monday, February 25, 2008

A cabin in the woods, the sequel

John Halverson/The Week

We were three men staring at an empty field as though it was an abstract painting and we were trying to make sense of it.

Mark, Gary, their GPS system and I had arrived at a lot near Lake Como. We thought it was the site of a cabin where the Halvey family spent three summers in the 1950s.

The Halvey brothers had received leads from several callers after they'd read about their quest in the Jan. 24 issue of The Week.

"I remember going down this hill," Gary said as we neared our destination. "This feels familiar."

"Approaching destination," GPS said, a bit too mechanically for my taste.

The navigation system had taken us to a series of empty lots with a half dozen structures nearby but a navigation system can't be expected to perfectly triangulate history.

So we employed the help of Patrolman Robert Linder, the Lake Como clerk's office and finally hit the jackpot with Dee and Bob Cramer of the Lake Como Beach Property Owners Association.

Dee, moving with the speed and assuredness of a woman who knows her business, tracked down a plat map, checked it with other records and narrowed down the location to its 20-foot-by-100 foot lot which was marked "undeveloped."

Arriving near our destination, the Halvey brothers probably felt like kids waiting at the top of the stairs Christmas morning.

The Halveys looked at the nondescript stretch of trees and snow, trying to find something that would spark a memory, but all that scratching failed to get rid of the itch.

"I'll be back in spring," Mark said, a hint of resignation in his voice. "We'll definitely be back."

He hoped to find a foundation or some other sign of a previous life.

It was not found that day and for good reason.

When Gary and Mark returned the next week they discovered that we had ended up near where the cabin stood but a few lots off.

With the help of the resolute Dee Cramer, they found the right location a little farther up the hill.

Besides Dee and patrolman Linder, the Halveys want to thank Tim Walsh, proprietor of the In the Drink, a local watering hole and restaurant, where they spent several hours paging through neighborhood yearbooks.

As it turned out, we would have been better served by Gary's instinct than GPS. When he said, "This feels familiar," we were passing the actual location.

There they found the cabin's foundation and two trees that framed the cabin in a 1957 photo that had stirred their original quest.

"It would have meant nothing if a house had been built there," Mark said, noting that newer homes abutted the property. It reminds me of the children's story, "The Little House," where civilization encroached on childhood innocence--but in this story the Halveys refound their innocence before it was ruined.

Civilization had arrived at the doorstep of their memories just close enough to give them perspective.

Fifty years had changed it, wore it down to its foundation, and the memories of three boys filled in the blanks.

Walking with their parents from the Lake Geneva train station ... wearing Converse All-Stars ... a crank up record player and a toaster that used a gas stove as an energy source ...

Only the eyes of the beholders can see the past so clearly in a photograph or find it again in an empty lot.

The author is general manager of The Week.

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