A love story: from 48 years of despair to hearts united

Amelia Island, Fl. — As he scanned the handwriting on the envelope postmarked from Norway, Ken McGruther’s heart sank to his shoe tops.

This wasn’t the familiar gentle curves of cursive from his soulmate of so many years who everyone knew by the nickname Jory.

No, this lettering was more primitive in style. The letters had sharp angles and jagged edges that appeared almost to be stabbed on the envelope. Whatever the envelope contained, McGruther knew it couldn’t be good.

McGruther was serving in the U.S. Navy when the ominous letter had arrived.

He was a native of Birmingham, Michigan, a quiet town just north of Detroit.

Ken McGruther in 1961

In 1960, Ken served on “The New Year’s Eve” dance committee that selected ‘silver shadows’ as the dance theme for their Birmingham Seaholm High School classmates. Ken was the senior class president, on the varsity baseball team and named as a prestigious “Who’s, who” of Seaholm.

By contrast, Jory Pettersen was quiet and stayed in the background. As an American Field Service program exchange student at Seaholm from Tromso, Norway she was trying to find a comfort zone with her American classmates.

She arrived at Seaholm for her first day of school with the formal name  Jorunn, which is pronounced in an American tongue almost as urine.

Jory in Michigan in 1960

“No way!” her homeroom teacher exclaimed. “From now on, you’re Jory.”

As an exchange student, everybody wanted to know about Jory.  She was featured in the 1960 first edition high school newspaper.

“Bermuda shorts are a favorite of Jory’ s since she came here two weeks ago. The first thing she did was to buy seven pair and she has
been very happy with them.  Also for the first time Jory encountered hamburgers and pizza, which she is fond of at the moment.” the newspaper reported.
“Americans are so friendly and they are always smiling,” was her
comment when asked what her impressions were of the people she
had met.

When they first caught a glimpse of one another in the hallway, Jory and Ken had felt the ‘connection.’ The Silver Shadows dance would be bittersweet, because as 1960 became 1961, the teenagers knew only five months remained before Jory would have to return home to Norway.

“Unbeknownst to all but some very close friends, the two of us fell quite in love in the weeks just before and after Graduation back in 1961. We dated just about every day, ‘hiding in plain sight’ in a sense, but then had to go our separate ways,” Ken said.

Ken would go one to Dartmouth, graduating in 1965 and then his Navy career. In 1979, he would become the commander of a guided-missile destroyer and rise to the rank of captain.

Jory indeed went back to to Tromso, married and had children.

McCruther as a naval officer in 1979

Despite the separation, Ken and Jory wrote letters to one another. As a military by-the-book officer, his letters were respectful of Jory’s marriage. The two kept in touch frequency with updates on their respective lives.

Then sometime in the mid-1960s, “the letter” arrived.

It was from Jory’s husband, Tore, who asked Ken to respect the marriage and to stop writing Jory.

“I know you two still have feelings for one another,” the husband wrote.

Distraught, but knowing Jory’s husband was right, Ken stopped writing. He never told Jory that there would be no more letters.

In Norway, Jory couldn’t understand why there were no letters from Ken. She would wonder for the next four decades why Ken stopped writing.

The years flew by and Ken went on to become a professor at the U.S. Military War College, and Special Advisor to U.S. Intelligence Agencies on the long term U.S. strategic issues as they pertain to China and Russia.

Jory and her husband Tore were married for 44 years.

In 2011, it was time for Seaholm’s Class of 1961 50th high school reunion.

“I had stayed in touch with classmates over the years and told them to keep me informed of any reunion plans,” Jory explained. “I always wanted to come back and visit Birmingham.”

Ken, now retired, was excited to see old, hometown friends for the 50th.

Jory and Ken had no idea the other would be attending the reunion.

“After 48 years of no contact, I had long ago buried all those feelings for her,” he said. “But I never stopped thinking about her.”

The night of the reunion, Jory and Ken worked their way individually thru the crowd of old friends. Finally, their eyes met again after all those years.

Ken and Jory at their 2011 meeting again after 50 years.

“The same ‘thunderbolt’ hit again – we almost by accident were right in front of each other and both of us simultaneously experienced what can only be described as an ‘Eternal Moment’ when the floor simply fell away from beneath us,” Ken wrote on Seaholm’s 1961 class website. “For all the rest of our lives and loves over the last 50 years, we both knew in an instant that at some deep and important level we still had a place in each other’s heart.”

But was this indeed love or a deep hurt that had festered for so long that it needed this by chance meeting to heal?

Fate was dealing the couple a favorable hand. Jorunn was not immediately returning to Norway. She had planned to spend three weeks after the reunion visiting friends across the country. So she asked Ken to visit her in New York City.

“We wanted to see if what we felt at the Reunion was real and eternal, or maybe just a mirage and a wonderful 50 years old echo,” Jory said.   “We did meet. We found it was real, and is real. And it is growing. What we felt at being together for two days in New York City far exceeded what either of us had any right or reason to expect or even dare hope for.”

Ken and Jory shared their amazing story on the Seaholm 50th Reunion website.

“We now accept that we are firmly and deeply back in each other’s hearts and hope and plan to stay there. What exactly it will become we do not yet know, and the Atlantic Ocean is still wide, but we have agreed between ourselves that whatever else it becomes there is something wonderful and powerful happening and we want to ride it as far as we can, and we are not going to hold back this time, or let “practicality” this time get in the way of building a love for the ages,” Ken wrote to classmates.  “We look forward to many happy times together, and entertain the possibility that at some point it won’t be just visiting each other, but that we will be traveling together forever wherever we go.”

The couple eventually married and now live in Fernandina Beach, Fl.

Ken and Jory at the 2018 Spring Fling

We were seated at the same table as Ken and Jory for the “Spring Fling,” a special dinner-dance where they shared their story. The other couples at the table sat in amazement and awe of their enduring love story.

Jory was about to embark for Norway to visit her kids and Ken was following about a week later.

The best ending for this story is perhaps Ken’s last line from the high school website.

“Talk about a reunion, right? So thanks, Dave (a classmate), for asking, and for enabling what was for the two of us certainly the very best reunion of all!”

 

 

 

 

 

Is it me? How ‘tall’ are the waves?

I’ve noticed recently that in TV news reports, newspapers and internet the use of the word tall in place of the word high.

Example, covering the awful recent California wildfires a reporter described the flames as 20 feet tall.  Isn’t it the flames were 20 feet high?

If you visit Manhattan and you look up at the Empire State Building, do you ask “how tall is that building?” No, it’s how high is the Empire State Building.  It’s 1,454 feet by the way.

Weather reports say the surf will be 4-to-6 feet high, not tall.

People are tall, flames are high. Donald Trump wants to build 30-foot high walls. But I hear it reported 30-foot tall walls.

Just one of those irritating language abuses. Old ears and eyes I guess.

Buckets of shrimp and baseballs

The seeds of innovation take many forms. In the case of Billy Burbank III, he relies on a higher power.

Burbank’s grandfather, William Burbank, was the founder in 1915 of Trawl Maker Burbank Nets, considered the finest quality shrimping nets in the world.

“He started as a shrimper and made his own nets. He caught more shrimp than any other boats, so everybody wanted his nets,”  Burbank said.  “Soon we became the largest shrimp net supplier in the U.S.”

Based on Amelia Island, the family motto is “the sun never sets on a Burbank net” because shrimp boats in Asia, Africa, South America and Europe are outfitted with the custom designed nets.

Business was prosperous for seven decades when all of a sudden the U.S. Shrimping industry was delivered a gut punch.  New Federal wildlife regulations, bloated fuel costs and an aging marina were driving away shrimp boats. Suddenly, the lucrative shrimp net business was shrinking dramatically.

“I didn’t know what to do, I was lost. So I just prayed,” Burbank recalled, as his eyes rolled towards the ceiling.

Days later, a friend came into the shop with a customer in tow. The man wasn’t a shrimper, he was the local high school baseball coach.

“We need some batting nets. Can you make them?” he asked Burbank. “We can sure use some help.”

Burbank smiled and said, “All I need are the specifications and we can get it done.”

Initially, Burbank figured the baseball thing was a ‘one off’ opportunity.  He made other nets for the high school for football and soccer, but it wasn’t enough to offset the losses on the shrimp side of the ledger.

Then, as often is the case, that first relationship blossomed into a bigger opportunity. The high school coach had left to become the head baseball coach at the University of Florida.

“Hey, we’re going to need a lot more nets,” he told Burbank.

Word quickly spread among the baseball community about the quality and durability of Burbank’s baseball nets and soon Major League Baseball came calling.

Today, Burbank Sports Nets supplies netting and cages to 70 percent of college baseball and softball programs as well as the Atlanta Braves, Chicago White Sox, New York Mets, Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks.

Burbank Sports Nets produces batting cages, protective field netting and pitcher’s nets from an old, massive brick building that was once used to grind fish into fertilizer.

William Burbank IV, who goes by his middle name Hunter, is in charge of the sports net business.

“He’s a lot smarter than me. He graduated with a business related degree from the University of North Florida.  Hunter also played baseball so it’s a natural fit with customers,” Billy said of his son.  “It’s a competitive business but we think we have an edge.”

For years, Major League teams and colleges used steel mesh screens to protect fans from foul balls and errant throws.  Some college programs even used chain-link fence to save money.  But both screens restricted the fans’ viewing experience.

Burbank was the first company to use high-grade molecular polyethylene, the same material incorporated into military and law enforcement body armor in its shrimp nets. Those strands make Burbank Sports Nets the thinnest and strongest nets on the market.

“They’re extremely light and the fibers are 10 times stronger than steel.” Hunter explained.

Hunter Burbank and his dad Billy in 2012.

Shrimping has also had a revival of sorts and Billy Burbank devotes most of his time to producing hand made nets.

“We’ve got a back order of about 20 nets which we’ll be able to fill in about two weeks,” Burbank said.

Burbank first began making nets mentored by his father and grandfather at the age of nine and joined Burbank Trawl Makers full time in 1972.

“I drove them crazy because I was always asking why do we do it this way or why is the net shaped like that,” Burbank recalled.

Those questions drove Burbank to innovate new designs of the Burbank shrimp net.

In 1974, he created “The Mongoose” net, which is actually two nets in one and dramatically increased the ease of use and number of shrimp caught.

That design caught the attention of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Sea Grant Program, who commissioned Burbank in 2000 to design a shrimp net that would prevent sea turtles from being

Billy Burbank III is the master of shrimp net design.

trapped in nets with the shrimp.

Burbank said he once again turned to prayer and the design came to him in a dream.  He was able to design a “turtle exclusion” chute to incorporate in shrimp nets that releases turtles while channeling the shrimp into the main pouch of the net.

That innovation would earn Burbank the NOAA Environmental Award. Today, Burbank is on about his 12th design revision of the turtle exclusion chute.

Burbank Shrimp nets can also boast the biggest catch in shrimp net history.

According to Burbank, during the 1980s at the height of the Cold War, a shrimp boat snagged a huge object that put to the test the strength of a Burbank net.

“The line attached to the net was actually dragging the shrimp boat backwards in the water. The boat began taking on water and was sinking,” Burbank said. “Thankfully the net line snapped. Soon after, the crew saw an object far off on the surface trapped in the net.  It turned out to be a Russian submarine. The ship got out of there fast. Now that’s a real fish story.”

Retirement isn’t an option at this point for Burbank.

“Shrimp and nets have been my life and my family’s life. This business is over 100 years old,” Burbank said.  “I love figuring out just how good a net can be.”

It takes about 24 miles of twine to weave one Burbank shrimp net.  Burbank works his magic among bales of netting imported from China and Thailand in a 20-foot long shed behind the sports net building.

Farm-raised shrimp from China, Vietnam and Thailand have also contributed to the decline of locally caught shrimp in grocery stores.

Those farm-raised shrimp can be harvested in about 5 weeks, compared to wild-caught domestic shrimp take up to 5 months to become “jumbo” sized. The farm-raised, imported shrimp is now more than 80% of what is sold in  local groceries.

Burbank has a consumer alert regarding Asian shrimp.

“Ever seen a fish tank that has never been cleaned?” he asks. “Well those are enclosed shrimp farm tanks. Same concept applies. Enough said.”

 

 

 

 

 

“I like getting roughed up.”

He was paddling like a man possessed. Jack Meany’s arms were a blur as he stabbed the blades of his paddle into the curling waves that were battering his 15-foot kayak on numerous fronts.

Although this was a bright, blue sky Sunday off Peters Point, the breath of Hurricane Jose some 600 miles northeast had the shoreline off Amelia Island stirring with potent rip currents and ocean swells that had the face of churning waves cresting to five feet.  And,  a constant 25-mile-per-hour wind added to Meany’s difficulties to keep his kayak on track.

Although slight of build and at an age when most men would rather walk the beach, Meany was in his element awash in the broiling waters.

“I like getting roughed up,” Meany said while pumping buckets of the Atlantic out of his faded red, Eclipse kayak named “Carolina.”  “I also like succeeding after failure.”

Amelia Island, kayak surfing

Meany, an Amelia Island resident for the past 10 years, is a self taught kayak ocean surfer.

He’s at home on the water when few others  dare to challenge the surf.

“I’m out on the ocean when no one else is around except for a few surfers and they really don’t want me out there,” Meany said, his voice quieting in recognition of the solitary nature of his pursuit. “The boat is big and intimidating to them. I get it.”

Like surfers, Meany’s task is to position his kayak on the face of a tumbling wave so the kayak planes on the water.  At 15-feet in length, navigating the boat into the correct position is a much more difficult assignment then on a lighter, shorter surfboard.

“I’ve got 15-feet of boat, which means I’ve got 15 feet of ocean pushing against me on all sides,” Meany explained. “In surf like today, that’s a lot of resistance in the water and you get pushed around a lot. You’re using a lot of energy to keep the boat in the right place.”

Compounding Meany’s task were the elements of not only Hurricane Jose but the faint remnants of Hurricane Irma, which had struck the island just the week before.

“There’s at least three different swells out there and when they converge, it  depends how the boat is angled whether you can catch a wave or if you’re going to get slammed. It’s chaotic and unpredictable,” he said excitedly.  “It’s stormy riding, but it’s fun to be in.”

Originally from Philadelphia, Meany admits he has spent the majority of his life playing in or around the water.

“Sailing, surfing, water skiing. I’m a water (Zodiak) sign,” Meany said.  “I’ve traveled the world, done my share of hitch hiking, taking my shot at seeing what life is about to form an opinion.”

 

He has zig-zagged between the California and Florida coasts numerous times. Meany said he dabbled in the early days of Silicon Valley before starting a hot tub company named Redwood, which eventually failed following the death of his brother.

“That was tough. You question life and even about going on,” Meany revealed.

For awhile, Ultimate Frisbee occupied the majority of his time, as Meany said he once again embraced a vagabond lifestyle.

“But that’s a story for another time,” he said.

After finally settling on Amelia Island, Meany said a friend from Delaware who has a kayak shop arrived for a visit.

“He had three kayaks. We paddled the back water and marshes and had fun. After his visit, he left this Kayak behind,” he said.

Despite all his travels, Meany is repeatedly called to the sea.kayak surfing, Amelia Island

“As a kid, every toy I ever had I dragged down to the beach and figured out a way play in the water,” he recalled. “So naturally I dragged the kayak to the ocean and headed out.”

He watched YouTube videos and was coached on kayak surfing by his Delaware friend.

“I’ve had enough water experience sailing, surfing and skiing.  I understand the ocean, balance, and how the ocean moves, so yeah I can teach myself,” he explained.  “Somebody else might be stumped, but I understand the pressure on the back and the pressure on the front, and oh I’ve got to do this and learn to feel that. You take your rolls, drag it back to the beach and drain it.”

When he says ‘roll’ that means he has turned his kayak over in the waves, taking on unwanted water. After Meany has tipped over, he is forced to bail out of the kayak cockpit, beach the water logged boat and start over.

Most proficient kayakers can perform an ‘eskimo roll,’ a maneuver requiring a hip snap combined with the downward stroke of the paddle to resurface their boat.

“In this size boat, in this size surf I just don’t have my wits about me enough to roll it back over,” he confessed. “I’m thinking I have to hold my breath like anybody else would and about the waves and after about 20 seconds I just bail out. A pro wouldn’t think about that. He would roll the boat back over and go on.”

He would spend 2 hours in hand-to-hand combat with the surf this day which had begun with a setback.

“I was just getting off the shore when a wave crashed into the boat digging the nose in the sand and shot me over end-to-end,” he said. “You know it’s going to be a tough day when that happens. But the ocean, the surf, that’s my therapy. The kayak, that’s my couch.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Margaritaville” in Pineville, N.C.

Shari and I awoke this morning 371 miles from our island oasis as refugees fleeing Hurricane Irma.

Pineville, N.C. is a sweet little town about 10 miles southeast of Charlotte. It’s the last place you’d think of as “island life.”

Charlotte is home to the NASCAR Hall of Fame, smoked meats and the Billy Graham Museum.

So you can imagine how startled we were while taking a morning walk around a local shopping center near our hotel to find a colorful parrot sitting atop a multicolored bicycle that was parked outside a donut shop.

I could hear Jimmy Buffett singing Son of a sailor and Margaritaville as my eyes took in all the cool design elements of this very tropical bicycle.

Inside sipping coffee was Myra, a Pineville resident, who proudly raised her arm when I inquired “who owns the parrot bike?”

Myra had acquired the aqua and yellow themed “Margaritaville” model bike from Wal-Mart just three weeks ago.

Myra’s husband was  advised to begin exercising for health reasons , so the couple decided to buy bicycles. “I wasn’t going to go riding by myself,” he said.

So while strolling among the rows of bikes at the giant retailer, Myra said the colorful two-wheeler immediately caught her eye.

“It looked pretty and fun.  And it looked like it would be more enticing for me to get out of the house and ride,” Myra said. “I love my bicycle, I love the breeze on my face and it makes me feel happy when I ride it.”

The bicycle is adorned with sayings such as “Island Life,” “Get Aw

ay” and “Margaritaville,” with bright yellow fenders and a parrot

perched centered on the handle bar. The parrot does double duty as a horn. On the front fender is a large, yellow, wire mesh basket.

“I’ll be riding by people’s houses and they’ll say ‘cool bicycle’ or ‘I like your bike.’ Everybody loves the parrot, especially when I give it a honk,” she said.

Myra has now become a familiar face around the neighborhood.

“We’re riding our bikes five or six days a week,” she said.

Her husband has a new bike as well after someone stole his yellow-colored bike.

“The bikes were parked together. They ignored the Margaritaville bike and took his,” she explained. “Guess they weren’t island people.”