So the reason Dick and I have driven up to Vancouver Island to be here for the last weekend in July is, as I mentioned in an earlier post, to come to a family reunion. Actually, it’s a two-family, international reunion—the Schmidts from the United States and the Rayers from Canada.
The story, as told by Audry Rayer, who died in 2008 at age 95, goes something like this:
In 1939, Audry and her husband Len Rayer were onboard a ferry between Washington state and Victoria, B.C. It was wartime for Canada, though the U.S. would not enter World War II for another two years. The ferry traveled through the islands off the coast of Canada, dropping passengers along the way. When there were few passengers left, the Rayers heard a call over the ship’s public address system instructing all passengers to go to the lifeboats. The crew was preparing and lowering lifeboats, and the passengers were being ignored. The Rayers went to a lifeboat and found another couple there—Christoffer and Elizabeth Schmidt from Sacramento, Calif.
Audry loved this part of the story: “We didn’t know what was going to happen, if we were going to have to pilot the boat or not. My husband looked at Mr. Schmidt said, ‘Do you know anything about boats?’ And Mr. Schmidt said, ‘No, I’m an accountant.’ And my husband said, ‘Well, I’m a mechanic, but I don’t know anything about driving boats.’ ”
Both couples were mightily relieved when it turned out they were involved in a lifeboat drill. They laughed, shook hands and went their separate ways once the ferry dropped them all in Victoria.
The story would have ended there if not for an odd coincidence. A couple of days later, Audry was in her local butcher shop when she saw the couple they’d met at the lifeboat walk by outside. She ran outside and said, “I’m the woman you met on the boat!” They all laughed to meet each other again by chance, but Audry took even more decisive action. She invited the Schmidts to her home for dinner. That was the beginning of a friendship that has spanned two generations and has lasted to this day.
In the summer of 1960, the Schmidts and their three children—Dick, 17; Margery almost 13; and Stephen, 11—drove the family’s new Chevy Impala from Sacramento to Saratoga Beach on Vancouver Island, just south of the small town of Campbell River, to visit the Rayers. There were no interstate freeways, and the road to Campbell River was a two-lane highway. The children still remember that trip as a remarkable one. The family climbed Mt. Lassen and saw the capitals of Oregon and Washington. They marveled over the Parliament building in Victoria. And the Schmidt kids met two of the Rayer kids—teenagers Louise and Murray at their parents’ oceanside campground, the Sea-Esta in Saratoga Beach.
Louise remembers being intrigued by the oldest Schmidt son, Dick, a blond, blue-eyed California boy who thought it might be fun to try swimming off Vancouver Island. Dick recalls that he lasted less than five minutes in that frigid ocean water. He signed a copy of his high school graduation photo to Louise, which she still has.
The elder Schmidts and the Rayers remained close for the rest of their lives—the Rayers made the long drive from Saratoga Beach to Sacramento for Dick’s wedding. Even after Len, Christoffer and Elizabeth had died, the Schmidt kids continued to travel up to Campbell River to visit Audry until her death.
So that’s why we’ve all gathered in Campbell River at Louise and her husband Bill’s house to commemorate the 50th anniversary of that trip north. It’s the 71st anniversary of the ferry trip that brought the two families together.
Tomorrow we will all go to Saratoga Beach to see the Sea-Esta. It’s still there—not the same, Louise says, but still there. We will take photos of these grownup “kids,” as we did tonight at Louise and Bill’s house when they hosted us for dinner. Stories and particulars of the present-day families are being exchanged each time we see each other.
And I imagine that the spirits of those four who met in the lifeboat are hovering around, too. I hope they are as delighted as their offspring by this longtime connection that spans the end of one century and the beginning of another, this international friendship that, with luck, may last another generation.