Lost Souls on Ice

Their Arctic saga was a dusty memory. Then their descendants started digging, and uncovered a startling tale of danger, deceit and devotion.

Cover Story

October 06, 2002|By Gary Dorsey | By Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

A box of old photographs, a file of crumpled papers and a sense of time running out sometimes converge in a man's life. Then there is no option. An advertising executive gives up golf to study history; a retired mechanic goes to inspect gravestones; a graying car dealer disappears into a library.

It happened to Silas Ayer about 15 years ago. Sometime on the passage through middle age, Silas realized he had no one left -- no father, no mother, no sibling -- to remind him of his family's past. No one remained to speak reassuringly of the loam from which he had come.

"All of my immediate family's dead," says Silas, a 71-year-old retired insurance man who lives with his wife in Howard County. "My father's dead. My mother's dead. It's just me."

One day, about 10 years ago, a distant relative suggested he visit an old woman in Ithaca, N.Y., named Betty Balderston, the daughter of a man Silas knew to have been one of his grandfather's closest friends. "She has this whole trunkful of stuff," he was told. Perhaps he would find something there.

Silas owned his own equivalent of a trunkful of stuff -- hundreds of aged photographs and two wrinkled, leatherbound diaries, neither of which he had read, left after his father died in 1958. He had stashed them away for more than 30 years, suspecting the pieces should be placed in a library some day, but never finding time to do it. Until he heard about Betty, he had mostly forgotten about his collection.

Of course, Silas had always suspected the documents might be important to someone. They traced a seafaring adventure of his grandfather, Louis Bement, and Betty's father, Clarence Wyckoff, two of a group of men who had sailed to the Arctic in the summer of 1901 to rescue the famous explorer Robert Peary -- the man most often credited as the first to reach the North Pole.

"You could say it was family lore," Silas recalls. "But the story was also pretty well known around Cornell [University], where my grandfather owned a clothing store. When I was a boy, anybody in Ithaca who knew Bement in the same breath knew he was the man who went up to find Peary. It was synonymous."

When Silas drove to Ithaca and met Betty, then in her 80s, he found out she not only knew his father and his mother, she also remembered his grandfather. She opened her old trunk and showed him her treasure: hundreds of pictures from the Arctic adventure and a diary, Clarence Wyckoff's own jottings of the journey.

"Meeting this person who knew so much about my family was wonderful," Silas says.

But Betty did not know everything they both might have wished for.

"Silas," she confessed. "I was told everything but I didn't pay attention. Now we've got all these pictures and things and I don't have it together. What are we going to do, Silas? What are we going to do?"

The retired insurance man never would have guessed the trip back to his parent's hometown would become a story within a story, an intimate exploration of something more common than heroism, more valuable to him than a trunkful of old treasures.

It was Tuesday, July 9, 1901, the hottest day in memory. On the train to Halifax, Nova Scotia, Louis "Louie" Bement stopped in New York City for a farewell dinner with members of the Peary Arctic Club. They ate at Shanley's, one of the finest restaurants in the city, then spent the evening at the theater. He and his young friend, Clarence Wyckoff, had wandered the streets that day buying snowshoes, felt boots and supplies for their journey north.

Just 260 miles from Ithaca, and already Louie was having the time of his life. "We are traveling like kings," he wrote in his diary. "Everything going fine."

Unlike Clarence, who had inherited $1 million from his father's investment in Remington Typewriter and, at 25, had eagerly plowed his fortune into patent medicines and real estate, Louie lived a more tranquil, domestic existence. He made his living selling hats.

At 35, Louie was balding, civic-minded, married with three children. He was a family man of modest stature given to high band celluloid collars, percale pattern shirts and classy hosiery. He was not an adventurer. He was an ordinary man of ordinary means. Hobnobbing with the likes of Clarence's high-rolling business associates at the Arctic Club -- financial supporters of the vaunted Peary expeditions to the North Pole -- must have been exciting. But lighting off for a few weeks in Greenland was almost beyond imagining.

There was a certain amount of intrigue to this business -- Clarence had confidential information that Peary's latest expedition to the Arctic had stalled. The explorer had reportedly fallen ill and a doctor was forced to amputate all but three of his toes. His wife and daughter, who had set sail the previous summer to rescue him, also had disappeared.

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