Category Archives: Gerry and Ann Cunningham

The People I Never Really Knew

In spite of their lifelong determination to live surrounded by nature rather than people, my parents attracted a rich variety of friends. When I was growing up the crunching of tires on our gravel road usually signaled a chance to sit in our sunny living room and listen to conversations that I now realize exposed me to experiences and ideas far beyond what most young people encounter. Mountain climbers came from all over the world to see the workshop where some of their favorite climbing gear was made. Grandparents, great aunts, and cousins came from New York, Michigan, and Idaho to spend a few weeks in the fresh air. Our most frequent visitors were the Hanssons and Metcalfs, two families who had met at Antioch College. They brought the world of universities, business, psychiatry, and wildlife management. Colorado’s first state botanist, Hazel Schmoll, ran a guest ranch just down the road from us.Local sheriff Roy Fling and his wife Goldie lived log cabin down the road decorated with white antlers that stood out starkly against the dark wood. They regaled us with tales of mountain rescues and Roy’s efforts to keep the peace as hippies, old mining families, and summer visitors intermingled.

Part of my experience of reflecting on Mother and Dad’s lives has been to realize how fascinating all these people are and how little I know them. As a child I took them all for granted. They fit into the context of my world, but I never wondered about the wholeness of their lives. The first time I realized this was when, in my early twenties, I realized that my Great Aunt Florence, who played a big part in my mother’s upbringing and sometimes brought me presents from her overseas travels, would be a very interesting person to get to know as an adult. I tried to visit her one summer, but she was out of town and she died before I had another chance. The more Mother has shared with me about her, the more I regret not knowing her better.

Today I started to write an entry about my father’s guitar playing. It was family friend Dolores LaChapelle who got him started, and I decided to try to contact her. I remember Dolores as a tall, warm, earthy woman with a long thick braid of hair hanging over her shoulder. She and her son Randy (later known as David) spent a few summers with us in Colorado while her husband Ed followed the ice and snow to Alaska. I also remember visiting them in Alta, Utah in the winter. Their home was a small chalet up the hill across the valley from the ski area and accessible in the snow only by a rope tow. Visits were warm and friendly and permeated with the smell of damp wool and warm ski wax. They had a howitzer on their front porch which Ed used to shoot down potential avalanches before the lifts started up in the morning.  A bit of Internet searching placed these personal memories in the context of three influential lives. Dolores wasn’t just someone who played the guitar and served us hot chocolate when we came in from a day in the snow. She was an internationally known pioneer in powder skiing technique, a scholar, a researcher, and a philosopher. Her husband wasn’t just a guy with a job keeping the ski slopes safe. He was a scientist who studied snow structure and glaciers and a pioneer in the development of the avalanche beacon. And their son Randy/David who was just a kid my age who shared my love of the outdoors when we were growing up made a name for himself as a wilderness guide and writer, following his mother’s deep love of and connection to the earth. And they are all gone. The Internet told me that, too. Dolores died in February, 2007, active until the end. Ed died just a few days after attending her memorial service. David died in the summer of 2009. Just like that, they are all gone, and I will never have a chance to sit and talk to them and get to know them outside the lens of childhood.

All this makes me grateful for the people from my childhood that I have spent time with as an adult. Meg Hansson, an astute businesswoman with a warm heart that welcomed a parade of exchange students into her home when I was young welcomed me into her home when I moved back to Colorado almost fifteen years ago. I call or visit her several times a year and through our conversations I have begun to fill in the context of many lives from my childhood. I have also spent time with Dad’s army buddy Bob Swartz and his wife Dorothy, and Stan and Ginny Boucher, old climbing friends of my parents. The memorial services we held on our old mountain home brought other people from my childhood into my adult life. As I close this entry (guitar playing will have to wait) I remember a promise I made to another family friend that since my last two phone calls to her were to bring the sad news of my parents’ deaths I would call her again just to talk. She lives on the West Coast, so it’s still early enough.


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The worst times make the best stories.

In his first letter of April, 1943 Gerry relates one of those days that is no fun to live through but makes for good storytelling after the fact. After a long frustrating day on K.P. they are called to roll out in full field gear to evacuate the camp. His description gives us some idea of the kind of training that was finally taking place, relieving the boredom he had experienced at first at Camp Hale, though he is still hoping to transfer out. His alternate plan is to become an instructor, in which case he would stay at Camp Hale when they are deployed. He has begun urging Ann to join him in Colorado, though he thinks she would stay in Canon City, not Red Cliff where she actually stayed.

I have delayed starting to add the April letters because there is a drawing in the first one and my scanner is currently not functioning. I like to include the actual drawings and diagrams from the letters, but for now I have just inserted a description in brackets.


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March 1943 WWII Letters Complete

I have now completed transcribing the March 1943 letters my father wrote my mother from the 10th Mountain Division at Camp Hale, Colorado. (See link at right.) In the second half of March the postal service is still delivering letters in bunches with gaps in between, causing Ann to worry that Gerry has been deployed. Meanwhile he copes by becoming philosophical: “The best I can do is try & get interested in what I’m doing at present & the fact we may be moving this summer makes our daily training rather vital. As I said before it’s just a case of fooling myself. I don’t dare think how really much better everything would be if we were together.” Then he continues trying to change over to the Air Force for the present and planning for his and Ann’s idyllic life after the war, living off the land in a high alpine valley. In these last few weeks he also writes about designing better camping equipment, in this case a pack that more evenly distributes the load. He meets the man who will become his new tent-mate and lifelong friend, Bob Swartz, and mentions the imminent arrival at Camp Hale of another lifelong friend, Pete Hurst.


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More WWII letters coming soon

For those of you who have been reading the Camp Hale letters, I plan to start posting more during 2011. To keep myself on track I am participating in WordPress’ Post-a-Week program. Thank you for your patience and interest. I was amazed when I logged into my dashboard for the first time in months to see that a small but steady stream of visitors has continued to find this blog.


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Where do old boats go when they die?

Last week my brothers and spouse went down to San Carlos (Sonora, Mexico) to scatter the rest of Dad’s ashes and decide what to do with his boat, the Birinci Mevki. After a few days of cleaning and maintenance they were ready to sail from the marina to one of Mother and Dad’s favorite anchorages. Now, the San Carlos Marina is situated in a way that almost requires a motor to navigate, especially if the afternoon wind is howling through the slot at the entrance. Gerry Cunningham was notorious, however, for only having a tiny outboard with barely enough power to maneuver the boat in an emergency–and it didn’t usually work in an emergency anyway. He was also known for being able to maneuver the boat under sail in impossible situations. Though we all have memories of sitting on the bow with our feet fending us off docks and moored boats, Dad had an incredible sense of exactly what his boat would do and how to use that to accomplish his goals. He made many successful entrances and exits without a problem. None of the rest of us have spent enough time on the Birinci Mevki to achieve that sense, and Peter and David eventually had to abandon their attempt to sail out to the cove. Instead they put their efforts into fixing the motor and went out again the next morning.

We had planned to offer it to the San Carlos Marina in gratitude for all they had done for Dad through the years.  However, the desperate economy has left the marina with a backlog of abandoned boats that they are trying to sell, so they declined the offer. Peter, David, and David’s wife Jeanne, after seeing the condition of the boat and attempting to sail it, came to the conclusion that it is no longer truly seaworthy. The fact that Dad was still sailing it is more a testament to his understanding of and love of its idiosyncrasies than the quality of the boat itself. They decided to offer it to the local diving community. The marina will salvage anything of value, after which the divers will take it and sink it to make an artificial reef and dive location.

When my brothers told me what they had decided, I was at first heartbroken, because I had imagined one of Dad’s many fans buying it, excited to be sailing the Sea of Cortez in the boat built by Gerry Cunningham, that body of water’s most dedicated chart maker and promoter. I understood why they had decided not to sell it. Dad had bought the Birinci Mevki as an empty Rawson 30 hull. He designed and built the cabin himself, including foam-filled compartments that were designed to make it unsinkable. In 1992, the same year that Hurricane Andrew decimated Florida, Hurricane Lester passed through San Carlos and left behind a huge pile of beached boats with the Birinci Mevki on the bottom.  Only the sturdy interior construction made it salvageable, but it was never quite the same after that. Truth be told, sailing it had always been a bit like driving a big old cumbersome Cadillac with squishy springs. (Thus Peter and David’s unsuccessful attempt to exit the marina under sail.)

The Birinci Mevki’s predecessor, the Gioconda, was a different story. It was a O’Day Dolphin 24, also bought as an empty hull and finished by Gerry. Though the interior wasn’t nearly as nice or roomy as the Birinci Mevki, I loved sailing it. It leaped across the waves rather than wallowing through them, immediately responsive to the tiller and easy to stop when anchoring. The Gioconda had its own fitting end. It is now a piece of playground equipment in a Mexican orphanage.


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March 1943 letters continued

I added a few more letters today. Dad was still trying to get out of the 10th Mountain Division, but he also has the option of becoming an instructor. That choice is tempting because it would at least use his skills and would definitely have some perks. He is still planning the world tour that he and Mother wanted to take once the war was over. It is interesting to hear his enthusiasm about traveling through Afghanistan–a very different perspective from what today’s 10th Mtn. soldiers have.


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Camp Hale Letters January 1943 is finished

I have just finished putting in all Dad’s January 1943 letters to Mother from Camp Hale. Dad is just about to get sick leave after spending 7 weeks in the camp hospital. Disillusioned with the lack of training and purpose in the 10th Mountain Division, he is determined to transfer to something where he will be able to actually participate in bringing the war to an early end so he and Mother can get on with their lives. He has spend his hospital time pursuing a transfer to be a navigator in the Air Corps and planning out a world tour for the Cunninghams and Pete Hurst and his possible wife.


Posted by on July 18, 2010 in Gerry and Ann Cunningham


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