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December 23, 2021 50 mins

After years of estrangement and hiding his true self, Trent loses his father. His inheritance is a puzzling combination of his father’s beat-up wooden toolbox and a taxidermy duck. In his grief, Trent decides to use his father’s tools to build a wooden canoe and in doing so, he confronts and uncovers his father’s secret history, and reconciles his own.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Family Secrets is a production of I Heart Radio. You
ain't never gonna be man enough. Those words would haunt me.
I would hear their echo in his voice, in the
squish of hunting waiters stepping into a marsh, in the
metallic clinking of his wrenches while he fixed the grain combine.

(00:21):
I would hear those words every morning when I walked
to the one room schoolhouse and watered the ponderous pine.
I would hear them when I was promoted the CEO,
came out of the closet, got married and divorced, and
graduated twice from Cornell University with the Masters and doctorate,
Knowing my father was not present for any of it.
Long after he came home from Vietnam and started fighting

(00:42):
a different war against cancer, I would always remember that
I ain't never going to be man enough. That's Trent Pressler.
Trent is the CEO of Bedel Sellers, an esteemed vineyard
on the North Fork of Long Island. He's the author
of the debut Men More, Little and Often, And Trent

(01:02):
is also the builder of bespoke artisanal canoes. His canoes
have been called the most beautiful in the world. This
is the story of what one man does in order
to make meaning of the secrecy and silence surrounding his life.

(01:31):
I'm Danny Shapiro, and this is family secrets, the secrets
that are kept from us, the secrets we keep from others,
and the secrets we keep from ourselves. Where I grew
up in South Dakota was flat and void of pretty
much anything. In the extreme western part of the state

(01:54):
where we lived, it was you know, it's the prairie,
so it's flat, d aren't many trees. But there was
also some study done by a Berkeley sociologist in the
I think in the eighties or nineties. The tin pointed
the most remote part of the lower forty eight states,
and his his barometer was which part of the U

(02:14):
s where does people live? Where their furthest away from
a McDonald's drive through and the coordinate latitude and longitude
pointed to my family's branch in South Dakota. So we
were just surrounded by by almost nothing, just grass and cattle.
There were five times more cows than people in that
part of South Dakota. What you're saying is that you

(02:37):
could drive for hours and still be on on the
land of your ranch. Absolutely Yeah. There's even a sign,
like an old billboard in my hometown which is called
Faith South Dakota, where it's like, if you haven't filled
up your car with gas now, you should turn around
and go back because the next station isn't like for

(02:57):
another ninety round a mile. What was the origin of
the town being called stas say, South Dakota is just
so poetic and strange. I know there was a time,
I believe in the late eighteen hundreds and around nineteen
o six when my family came from the Ukraine where
that settlement was the last stop on the railroad. The
Burlington Northern I think was the name of it. I'm

(03:19):
not sure which company operated at the time, but if
you took a train from New York City to Chicago
and then Chicago West, like, that's kind of where they
That's as far as they had built it at that point.
And I think that the people got out, you know,
didn't see much when they got out, so it took
an act of faith to sort of settle there. In fact,

(03:40):
the family lore is that my great grandparents got off
that train in faith and looked around and they felt
right at home because they came from the steps of
Ukraine where basically, I mean it's basically Siberian in nature,
and they said it reminded them of home and they
felt comfortable there, so that they were happy to settle
in the days. Tell me about your mother, you know,

(04:04):
from your childhood self, when you were growing up, and
about your family life. What was it like to be
in this vast place with many more cows than people
in a one room school house? Right, Well, it was,
you know, ranch life was rough, and my mother was
always I think I called it running interference, but she

(04:24):
always kind of was the conduit of communication between me
and my father, and she was always kind of softening
the blow of a lot of the harsh things that
happened growing up on a cattle ranch. So my family
had about ten thousand acres of land. My father raised
a couple thousand head of cattle. He formed wheat, barley, alfalfa,

(04:44):
many crops, and then my mom's role was to keep
the home and she had a basically a master class
in food production, these massive gardens and canning and preserving
operations that she was constantly involved in. And I went
to a in room school house which had eight students,
and I would either walk or ride horse to get there,

(05:06):
and you know, Mom would pack my lunch box and
kind of send me along the way. But Dad was
this harsh kind of cowboy, silent, stoic figure in every
quintessential American cowboy way that you can think of. And Mom,
you know, kind of I think shielded me to some

(05:26):
extent as much as she could from the brutality of
ranch life. And we were surrounded by death all the time,
you know, killing chickens for food, or killing beef cattle. Um,
even our pet dogs would get rinnen over by tractors
or kicked in the head by cows or horses. Like
it was just this constant um barrage, which I think

(05:47):
was really traumatic for a young person. So I think
Mom did the best she could. But in Dad's mind,
I don't think there was any shielding us for many
of it. I think he kind of wanted us to
be exposed to it in a way. See how really
is did that violent, kind of raw, kind of punishing existence.
Did it feel to you as a kid, like that

(06:07):
was just the world? Yes? It did. I didn't know
anything else, I mean I had We would go to church,
where we were told a lot of hell fire and
brimstone kind of things. But it was a very sheltered life,
and it didn't seem all that abnormal that we had
to get water from a pump that came out of
a window and you know, the water kind of ran

(06:28):
brown for two seconds before it turned clear. That didn't
seem abnormal to me. Nothing did. It was just like, well,
if you wanted to watch television, Dad had to climb
up on the roof of the house and turn the
antenne to face the cities in the east, and then
we'd watch the TV. And then he'd go back on
the roof and take the antennae down. Trent shared this

(06:51):
upbringing with his sister Lucinda, who was just two years older.
But Lucinda's health began to deteriorate quite rapidly when she
was ten years old, and she fell down and had
a seizure right in front of Trent on a dusty
barn yard. Not only did her mysterious illness add to
the constant barrage of trauma, but it also set in
motion a family pensiant for silence and secrecy. Difficult things

(07:15):
were not spoken of. There were a lot of mysteries
and secrets in our family, and that was one of
the first ones I remember where we just didn't know
what's wrong with Lucy? Why is she suddenly, you know,
unable to do the things that she could always do?
And did you talk about it? No? No, it was

(07:39):
sort of mm hmm, well she's having a hard time.
There was no specificity or clarity, like here's a medical
definition of what's going on with her until much later
in life, when I had to press for it and say,
is there a name for this and what's wrong? And
by that point, she was you know, she died when
she was and you know, by the time I really

(08:01):
understood what was going on, I felt like I had
already missed out on our whole childhood together, you know,
kind of with all the uncertainty about what was happening.
Was it something I was causing? I would have these
nightmares where I felt like I wasn't doing enough to
help save her, and I began to kind of blame myself.
I think my aid or ten or twelve year old

(08:22):
self really somehow believed that maybe I caused it, or
there was this sense that maybe I wasn't doing enough
too to help her. That's the thing about silence. Where
there are secrets, there is inevitably silence, and without even

(08:43):
knowing we're doing it, we fill that silence with our
own stories, our own narratives, to try to make sense
of what isn't being said. In Trench's case, the stories
he spun in his head made him feel guilty and helpless.
Lutherans aren't big talkers, was what my dad always said,
and we weren't. And I think the unfortunate thing was

(09:07):
that children have to fill that silence with their own imagination.
And if it's not a loving environment or a warm environment,
you fill that silence with negative things, and you start
to blame yourself and wonder is this silence sort of
an indication that they're upset or is it just how

(09:27):
just how it is. That's exactly right, it's it's turned inward, yes,
because it's this kind of shapeless thing. It has nowhere
else to go but boomerang back at the child. Yeah. Absolutely.
I think the first time my parents ever normalized secrecy
was with Santa Claus. I mean it was like the

(09:50):
first time your parents lie to you is when they
say Santa Claus is real and he's gonna slide down
this chimney and give you presents. And I remember, you know,
I think was eight or something, and I discovered a
bunch of wrapped presents in the floor and my parents
shoe closet, and I was shocked. Wow, this whole thing
was a myth, and they've been keeping this secret for

(10:12):
me this whole time. Wait, sand is not real. And
so then when I became a teenager, like I got
my first copy of Playboy magazine or something, what did
I do? I put it in the closet, in the
shoe closet, on the floor, because that's where you that's
where you put your secrets. Did your parents discover it?
They did. When I was in high school, I had
like one single VHS tape of porn and one Playboy

(10:34):
magazine and like a glass bottle of vodka and it
was like my secret vice corner. And I hid that
all on the shoe closet and I put like a
box of fish aquarium supplies on top of it or something.
But my mom found it one day and was furious
and what is all this? And she threw it all away.
But that Playboy magazine isn't the real secret, which is

(10:57):
the Trent is gay. He hides it from every especially
his parents, even after he goes east to college, far
far away from South Dakota. At first, he tells very
few friends. I kept up appearances for so long. My
parents belonged to a very strict sect of Lutheranism, where

(11:17):
um it was fundamentalists, and the judgmental ideals of the
Scripture to them were rock solid. And we were told,
point blank, you know, in certain terms, that homosexuals were
condemned to hell forever, and that if you were gay,
you were an enemy of God. And so my whole childhood,
I had been told this, even while I inside knew

(11:40):
I was gay, and I had started experimenting sexually with
boys when I was a teenager. But I always had
a girlfriend, and I always brought girlfriends to family events,
even if I never kissed the girl, just but like,
if there was a girl beside me, I would feel
like I was fulfilling some sort of cultural milestone and
a scent that I wouldn't be judged. And you know,

(12:02):
queer people don't grow up as ourselves, you know, we
grow up playing a version of ourselves. And when we
do these mental somersaults to try to justify who we
are and present one thing to the world and another
thing that we keep inside, and all of that erodes
our authenticity and our sense of self. And it totally

(12:26):
has one purpose, which is to minimize our own humiliation
and our own shame. You know, I knew that if
I came out, my parents would not be okay with it,
and I knew it would cause a rupture. And it's
not until Lucy dies and you go home for the
funeral and you bring a boyfriend of yours. Yes, of course,

(12:51):
I was very distraught and I wanted to bring someone
for support, so I brought him with. You know, in retrospect,
I think, gosh, a straight person probably would never have
to think twice about bringing a significant other to a
family event. It's just kind of what you would do.
You wouldn't have to ask, I guess, permission maybe, But
I just showed up. And it was a devastating experience,

(13:14):
just because my sister had died, full stop. But then
I added in this layer of complexity. I didn't consciously
think that this would be the moment that I revealed
my big secret. It just felt like I was so
desperate for some kind of affection in some sense of
security and love beside me that I didn't really feel

(13:35):
like I had any other choice. You asked for your boyfriends,
as far as your parents were concerned, your friend to
sit with you during the service, and you were told
that's just for family, and he was relegated to the
back row. Yes, you know, I'm there in the front
row with family, and they wield my sister's casket down
the aisle and I look in the back and my

(13:58):
boyfriend's like twenty pews behind us, sitting there staring at me,
and just breaks my heart, my grown up self, just ah.
It was such a sad and devastating moment that there
was a physical representation of what our place was in
the world and in society, and in particular in my

(14:21):
family's structure, and in the church. We were inside, the
very church that I knew condemned people like us. And
so when you then are moved to come out to
your parents, what does your father say? He said, we
ain't never going to talk about that again. And it

(14:41):
was like taking a big gulp, and he was not kidding.
I mean, we never spoke about it again until I
saw him about a week before he died. So he
doesn't blink, doesn't you know, doesn't seem to be register.
He just is kind of blank and still, and he says,
let's not talk about that again. And you go back

(15:04):
east and back to graduate's clown, back to your life,
and you receive a letter. Yes, I got a letter
from the Church of the Lutheran Confession, and it was
essentially an excommunication letter describing that my name had been
removed from the roster of membership at the church. And
there was no in classic Lutheran passive aggressive style, there

(15:25):
was again no specific mention of why, but I knew why.
There could only be one reason why, you know. It
just said you're no longer remember, and if you'd like
to have individual Bible study to read scripture again. They
gave me the number of some minister in Buffalo, New
York who I could go see, which I thought, you know,

(15:46):
their goal probably would be for me to come around
to being straight or something. But again it's the silence
of like even being excommunicated was not clearly articulated to me,
Like it's not a secret to me. I know precisely
why this is happening, but people were just afraid to
say things that occurs to me too, that that means

(16:08):
that your father must have told someone the church. He
did somehow speak of it, But then your understanding afterwards
was that he and your mother never spoke of it together.
They didn't, and that was equally as devastating, because I'm thinking,
how could you not have talked about me, your only son,
and how to fall unfolded? But they didn't. I asked

(16:31):
Mom later in life, did you guys ever bring this up?
And she just kind of sat there silent, like there
was nothing to say. Day people were just I don't know,
something to be swept under the rug. And I knew
in my heart of hearts that that's how it would go.
I thought, if I come out and when I come out,
it's going to go down in such a way where

(16:54):
I am the black sheep of the family, or where
we're just gonna put this pot on the back burn
and let it simmer for thirty years and never really
check inside to make sure that the water is still there.
We'll be right back. Trent earns a doctorate and a master's.

(17:36):
He works his way up in the wine world and
ends up the CEO of an esteemed vineyard. He's living
a successful life, but he never goes home again. After
Lucinda's funeral and his excommunication, he's completely estranged from his father,
so he and his mother still talk. Then one day
his phone rings and it's his mother asking him to

(17:59):
come home for Saying Giving for the first time in
fourteen years. Mom again acting as the great intermediary between
me and my father. She and I did speak through
those fourteen years. Often she would talk when she was
at work on her landline at the University of South Dakota,
so that she wouldn't have to talk I think at

(18:21):
home when Dad was around, and we would have a
relatively normal conversation once in a while. But I had
almost no interaction with my father whatsoever for those fourteen years.
Maybe once or twice if we spoke, it was, you know,
five words were spoken, like hello, how are you, and

(18:41):
Merry Christmas, and then he'd hand the phone back to Mom,
very cold. You describe it in your book as a
silent battle of the wills. Yes, it was. And I
don't know if he thought of it that way. I'll
never know, but I certainly did. Um I was angry
and how I had been treated. I was angry that

(19:02):
they couldn't bring themselves to talk about what it meant
that they had a gay son. I think more than that,
I was angry that they never said I love you,
and I wanted so badly for them to say it
first that it became like this grainy undercurrent of my
life where if I say I love you first, it

(19:23):
would lose value, or if I asked them to say it,
it would lose value. I kind of wanted them to
think of the idea on their own and say it.
But those fourteen years were the Cold War. Then Mom
called in two thousand fourteen, and and Mom and Dad
were kind of on the phone together, and they invited
me home for Thanksgiving. And I thought about it, and

(19:46):
I went. And I had just got a new puppy
in a new car, and I hadn't been to South
Dakota in a very long time, and I thought, you know,
maybe I'll just road trip out there. And I needed
a break anyway. It was the holidays, and so I
got in the car and I drove west. What made
you do you think at that moment and the silent

(20:08):
battle of wills? Why then I knew from years prior
that my dad had calling cancer, but I hadn't heard
much about it, and I thought he had gotten better.
But the sound of his voice on that phone call
was terrifying. It was like this gruff cowboy of a
man that I had always known had been reduced and

(20:31):
his voice was like feeble and hacking, and he was coughing.
It's sent sort of shock waves of terror for me
that this the strong man that I had hated for
so many years was in a weakened state. And I
think that was a big part of my motivation for
going back. So by the time you get this call
from both of your parents on the line saying would

(20:53):
you come home for Thanksgiving, you've moved out of New
York City. You've got this great line somewhere out being
like two country for the city and not city, and
what Yeah, I always felt like I was too gay
for the country, but two country for New York City.

(21:13):
So just this feeling of, you know, sort of being
a fish out of water wherever you were, Yes, yeah, absolutely,
But then you do sort of land this really fabulous
job as CEO of this vineyard, this winery, and you
moved to the water on the North Fork of Long Island,
which is very beautiful and kind of somewhat wild and

(21:37):
desolate place. Even though it's you know, a stone's throw
from the Hampton's, it's a very different world. Yeah, it
was so reassuring to leave the city, and even though
it's still Long Island, it does feel the world away
from New York and you can see the horizon. Living
on the ocean was such a reassuring thing for me
because I realized that being among all the tall building

(22:00):
I kind of would have this claustrophobic feeling like where's
the horizon? Because in South Dakota, on the ranch, you know,
you're always confronted with this flat, uninterrupted, horizontal plane in
front of you. And somehow that's comforting for me, I think,
because it means I can escape and I know, like
where all the exits are in the city. I don't

(22:23):
know where the exits are. And that's where you're living
at the time that you get the call. And you
have a dog who you adore, named Caper. And one
of the things that you write in a book is
every dog of your childhood, and you you mentioned the
violence on the ranch and what that life was like,
that every dog was named Walter, and so like one
Walter would get run over by a tractor, and then

(22:44):
another Walter would appear, and I found that so evocative.
But so you have your own dog, and that dog
is not named Walter, right, I was determined he's going
to have a unique name. But yeah, that was the
sort of brutality of ranch life. Also, like, oh, well
that dog got run over by the tractor. Here's another one.
He's also named Walter. Just brutal. So I never really

(23:07):
formed an attachment to any of our dogs growing up.
I don't remember even how many we had. Um, they
were just all one sort of generic Walter. So you
pack paper in your car and you drive west. Yes,
I drove back and got there and they had Thanksgiving
dinner ready, and my dad had asked me to bring

(23:29):
a bottle of my fancy wine with me. So I
had this Merlot which was served at President Obama's inauguration.
And I was so proud of this wine and I
uncorked it and portous glasses, and you know, I was
just searching Dad's space for any sort of acknowledgement or
recognition that he liked it, or that I did a
good job making it or anything. Um, But his first

(23:51):
response was that he said, I ain't drinking no Obama wine, um,
because he's a he was a staunch Republican, and there's
a lot of red state, blue state kind of things
in our dynamic as well. And but he did take
a sip and he said it was pretty dang good,
which was high praise from him. So I got there

(24:13):
and we had this quiet, awkward Thanksgiving meal and Mom
seemed exhausted. She had bags under her eyes, and she
didn't even have time to make a turkey. She was
kind of a throne together Thanksgiving meal, and Dad looked terrible,
like his clothes were hanging off of his bony shoulders,

(24:33):
and the whole thing was so shocking to me. His
voice had changed, his whole body had changed, and it
sort of this wave of recognition came over me during
Thanksgiving dinner that this was yet another secret. His cancer
was yet another family secret that I didn't know how
bad it was until I got there, you know, fourteen

(24:56):
years later and saw it. And years later I would
ask my mom, why didn't you really level with me
about how bad his cancer had gotten? And it was, oh, well,
we didn't want you to worry. But just another example
of withholding and silence, where in this case, I actually

(25:16):
hadn't filled the void with anything negative because I've moved
on with my life and I was had this great
job in New York and I wasn't filling the void
with Oh God, what if they're quiet because dad's slowly
dying of cancer, But turns out that's what was happening.
I love that expression, filling the void. If silence, shame,
and secrecy create a void, so often we reflexively feel

(25:39):
the need to fill it with whatever our own self
loathing or addiction or guilt. But the distance Trent has
created between himself and his dad has allowed him the
deep knowledge that none of this is his doing or
his fault. He's a grown up, not a child. He's
built his own war. I think in some ways being

(26:02):
gay saved my life because I had to get away.
I had to get away from him and the church
in South Dakota. I fled to New York, and by
cutting the apron springs, I did feel like I could
be my own man and grow up. And in some ways,
like the pendulum swung in the other direction where I
didn't want to be like my dad at all, so

(26:24):
I demonstrably will tell my friends if I loved them,
because I don't want the people around me to wonder
how I feel. So sometimes people are like, oh, wow,
you're really effusive, Like you say how you feel about
me even though we just met. If I'm on a
date or with friends, and I say, yes, I don't
want there to be a mystery. If I feel a
certain way, I'll tell you. During that Thanksgiving dinner and

(26:50):
you're realizing that you're data lot sicker than you had known.
For the first time in thirty seven years of your life,
he acknowledges that you're gay. Yes, it was like the
earth shook. He said, whatever happened to that boyfriend of yours?
And I mean, if I could have dropped my fork

(27:10):
on the plate for dramatic emphasis, I would have, because
you know, I'm looking around the room, like did he
just asked me about my boyfriend? And you know it
said many things to me. But I had had a
relationship years before, and I had been married before gay
marriage was even legal, And clearly Mom had shared all
that information with him because I had told Mom a

(27:31):
lot of things about my life, and I didn't think
she was telling him. Clearly, she was. I expected that
to be a secret because that's how I'd been conditioned,
But then that was one time when she chose not
to keep the secrets, I guess. So yeah, he asked
me about him, and I kind of said something a
little bitter, like, why would you want to know? I

(27:53):
didn't think you cared about my relationships even when I
faked it and had girlfriends in high school and college.
He never invesked about the girlfriends either, So it wasn't
like he was withholding that because of my sexuality necessarily,
but it was definitely a recognition of me being gay,
and I was shocked and touched. We'll be back in

(28:18):
a moment with more family secrets. A week later, Trent's

(28:41):
father takes a turn for the worse. Perhaps that acknowledgement
at the Thanksgiving table was a form of reaching out,
whether consciously or unconsciously, to mend a bridge while mending
might still be possible. He died about a week later.
You know, In fact, the more ning after Thanksgiving, on

(29:01):
Black Friday, I woke up in the house and I
was all alone. Mom and Dad weren't there, and but
the TV was on in the living room and the
lights were all on, and I didn't I was disoriented
and I didn't know what was going on. But after
our sort of last supper, he had gotten sick in
the night and had to go to the hospital, and
Mom had taken him to Sioux Falls to their cancer unit,

(29:22):
and I frantically drove there and we spent about a
day and a half together, and then it was time
for me to go back to New York because I
had busy things to do with my job, and we
had made plans for me to come back and see
them at Christmas. And so my last words to my
father were I'll see you at Christmas. And his last

(29:42):
words to me were drive safe, okay. And I came
back to New York and and he died. And then you,
having just made a round trip to South Dakota, some
thing tells you that you need to drive back there,

(30:03):
that you're you're not going to fly. You describe it
as operating on gut instinct, and that that had always
served you well, something I really understand. And so you
get back in the car with Caper and you drive back. Yes,
there was something he had said to me on the
hospital bed right before I left the first time and

(30:26):
he said that there were some things in the garage
that he wanted me to take. And when I had
gone home for Thanksgiving, I had seen that the garage
was kind of in disarray and there were boxes everywhere,
and it looked like he was kind of cleaning it out.
But I hadn't really put two and two together yet
that he was trying to give me something, something that
was important to him. But then after he died and

(30:47):
I had a split moment to even think about the
possibility of going back to South Dakota, I thought, I
have to drive because whatever it was he was trying
to give me, it's probably something that I'm not going
to show of in a bag to carry on an airplane.
So there I was my second cross country road trip
in a matter of two weeks with my dog in

(31:08):
the winter. Ah gosh, you know, it's been six years
and I still reflecting on this. I still just shake
my head. There's something about family secrets and boxes. Boxes
revealing secrets have been a motif on this podcast since
the first season. Trends story contains not one, but two boxes.

(31:32):
The day after his funeral, Mom and I were kind
of sitting through some things in the basement, but the
main priority for us that day we had to apply
for the federal government's Agent Orange survivor benefit. It was
also revealed to me at that stage by my mother

(31:52):
that the doctors thought that he had died from multiple
forms of cancer that were likely caused by agent orange
exposure in via numb And I had known that he
had a service history in Vietnam that wasn't you know,
a secret. But the funeral was this full military burial
with like the twenty one gun salute and officers folding

(32:14):
the flag and presenting it to us, And I was
baffled by the whole thing that I looked over at
Mom during the ceremony and said, what is all this for?
And she kind of shrugged her shoulders. She wasn't sure either.
She knew that there was going to be like a
local military sort of representation there, but it was all
more pageantry than either of us expected. So there we

(32:37):
were in the basement, she said she needed his discharged
papers from the army to put his number on this
Agent orange paperwork. So there was a shoe box that
was wrapped and taped and duct taped that we brought
up from the basement, and I slid a nice to
the tape and opened it, and we did find the
paperwork discharged papers, so we could finish the Agent Orange application.

(32:59):
But I took out all the other contents of this
box and slowly we began to sort of reveal the
layers of the mystery of my father's history. On the
top in this black box we found a bronze star,
metal and commendation papers from the President and the Secretary
of the Army, and a notation of his heroic acts

(33:23):
on the field of battle. And I thought, Wow, dad
had a bronze star. Mom, this is so great. Why
didn't you ever tell me about this? And she said,
I never knew. I said, you were married to him
for forty some years, that you didn't know he had
a He won a bronze star. While one is a
terrible work to use in this case, but he had
earned a Bronzetar. She said she had no idea. So

(33:45):
I'm sort of reeling from the double secrecy of that
the dad had kept this a secret from both of
us forever, and I think there was some shame there, obviously.
What one has to do in War two earn a
bronze Star, and we also found security clearance papers for Cambodia,

(34:07):
and we found Cambodian currency, and we found this just
one simple sheet of paper from the CIA that just said,
like I, Leon K. Pressler, once I leave service, will
not divulge any of the secret information that I've been
exposed to or any secret aspects of my duty to

(34:29):
the federal government. And he checked the box and signed
it at the bottom, and I said it all out
on the table and I said, Mom, you promised me
you knew nothing about any of this. And she said no,
and she kind of, I think, was a little defensive,
and maybe I felt like I was judging her for

(34:49):
not knowing, and so she snipped back at me that
maybe you were both good at keeping secrets. It's one
of my mom's most cutting lines that she's ever said me.
And I'll never really know what happened. I wrote a
letter to the Smithsonian, to the Archives to request more
information about his service. There's nothing available, so that may

(35:11):
remain a mystery. Yes, Indeed, the mom after the Vietnam
revelations at the dining table, and my head is still
really She takes me by the hand and we go
into the garage in this dusty corner with cobwebs and
a single light bulb from the ceiling. And she says,
he also wanted you to have this. And there were

(35:32):
two things. There was a taxidermy duck and his old
beat up wooden toolbox. And you know, it had like
a broken handle and it look like it had been
kicked by a few horses. And this was not anything
to write home about. This is not fancy in any way.
This is an old rancher's box. And I said, well,

(35:53):
what am I supposed to do with this? And Mom said, well,
we thought maybe you'd find a project or you know,
at the very least, just keep it safe. And I said, well,
this is it, Like this is what he was trying
to give me in the hospital. And she said, yes,
that's your inheritance. And that's it. That's what I got.

(36:15):
Tell me about the taxider made duck. Well, the last
time I ever went hunting with my father um I
had come home from college. We used to go hunting
a lot. Um It was one of the only true
ways where ever felt close to my father when we
were out hunting and exploring nature together. And we had
gone hunting one day on the Missouri River and or

(36:37):
a foggy morning, and I had shot this wood duck,
and it was this beautiful drake wood duck with all
the beautiful, colorful plumage, and my father had never seen
one before. South Dakota is not the typical habitat for
that species. And of the many many animals my father
had killed over the years hunting or fishing, he never

(36:58):
had anything taxed or meat except for this one duck.
And it was I think because I had, in that moment,
told him that somehow the duck reminded me of mucina,
of my sister, because the duck wasn't dead when I
shot at it, kind of only named it, and had
like a broken wing and a broken leg, and it
was floundering, and it was terrible. It was suffering, and

(37:23):
it was up to me to snap its neck and
to put it out of its misery, but I couldn't
bring myself to do it. It reminded me of my sister,
the way her legs would flail out when she was
having a seizure. It was the same kind of thing
seeing this poor little duck, and I had kind of
started crying, and he had roughly like put his arm

(37:43):
around me and smushed my face into his canvas hunting coat,
and then he snapped the duck's neck. So getting that
as my inheritance as well sent all kinds of message.
It gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. But
I know he was clinging to it, maybe for a

(38:04):
similar reason that I remember. And there were the sort
of lighthearted moments that we shared in the outdoors, and
there was the pain of losing Lucinda, and there was
sort of a brief moment of affection from him where
he empathized with my inability to kill something. He remembered
all that. Yeah, So Trent drives home with Caper, the

(38:32):
taxidermy duck, and his father's toolbox in tow. He returns
to his home on the water on the north Fork
of Long Island. Somewhere along the way on that long
cross country drive, he comes to the awareness of what
he's going to do with his father's tools. He's going
to build a canoe. So he clears out his house

(38:53):
I mean entirely, because he's going to build this canoe
in his living room, all of his previous sessions, curtains, furniture, rugs,
suddenly discussed him. All this accumulated stuff from a lifetime
that no longer really had meaning to me or reminded

(39:15):
me of sort of a past that I'd hoped to forget,
and also reminded me, actually, I think most significantly, of
living a life hiding my true self and living a
life of secrecy. And oh, that's the couch that I
had when I was in grad school, when I was
still half in the closet, or you know, that's the

(39:37):
shirt I got from an old girlfriend. Or they were
each like a little memento of some secret that I
didn't want to keep anymore, and I had to get
rid of it all. I purged everything, I've put it
into U haul and took it to the dump. So
then you have a year basically, because you've not only

(39:57):
have you decided that you're going to build a canoe,
but you want the canoe to be finished and ready
to be on the water by the anniversary of of
your dad's death. Yeah, an unrealistic deadline. I suppose I
didn't really know what I was doing, and if I
had known, I might not have even started a project.
I think my blind will was probably a blessing because

(40:18):
I just started in doing it, and without much regard
for the enormity of the task. You go to a
lumber yard and at the at the beginning, because you're
going to buy the wood um to build the canoe.
And it's a professional place. I mean, people go there
who are doing construction and building things to buy lumber.

(40:40):
And you have to put down the name of your business,
and out of your mouth comes Pressler wood shop. And
then like the nature of your business, and you, who
have never built like one iota of a boat in
your life, right down boat building. I mean, it's just
such a great fantas aastic lesson in kind of this

(41:02):
beautiful audacity, because how do these things happen unless there
is audacity. You have to think of yourself as a
boat builder before you build a boat, the same way
I suppose you have to think of yourself as a
writer before you write a book. That's a great point.
I hadn't thought of it that way. In some ways,
it is a manifesting exercise to say, all right, well,
in this moment, I'm not a boat builder. But if

(41:23):
I say I am, then maybe I can become one.
And until you call yourself a boat builder, or an author.
You won't be one, that's for certain. Walking into that
lumber yard was like Lilly Wonka's chocolate factory in the
Land of Oz and I started to dream about it,
and at least for the first couple of months of

(41:45):
the project, I did feel this sort of unbridled optimism. Wow,
I'm really doing this. But then I got into the
meat of building this thing in the living room, and
it was like this slow descent into kay us. And
every time I pulled a tool out of Dad's toolbox
and tried to think about how I'm going to use
it or apply it to the boat, it would remind

(42:07):
me of stories from my childhood, both good and bad.
Some horrible memories resurfaced, and some sort of teaching moments
resurfaced with my father, and you know, living with this
boat for a year, it slowly began to dawn on
me that I was living with this thing that was

(42:28):
the manifestation of my grief. But I hadn't thought about
it that way at all until I was well into
the process. And then I thought, oh my god, this
is like a sea monster here and it is taking
over my life. And I was processing, you know, thirty
seven years of angst and silence and grief and secrets

(42:51):
like just banging these out, and the advice from the
lumberyard gentleman, you know, don't find the grain follow. It
was one of many the big lesson, I suppose in
the end, the big realization for me was that I
was only going to build this boat little and often.
I could only do this one day at a time,

(43:13):
and I had tried and failed. I started it and
kind of in frustration, and once I like hammered it
all to fit with your father's hammer, Yes, with my
father's hammer. I mean, I screamed his name and pounded
this feeble attempt at building the boat. In the first
let's say, the first month or so. It didn't work

(43:36):
out right, Like none of the joints matched. It was ugly,
it fell apart, like clearly I didn't know what I
was doing, and I was just enraged, enraged it myself,
but also at my father. And in a sense it
was like I felt that he had given me these
tools to torment me and to taught me that I

(43:56):
wasn't man enough and I would never live up to
his ideals unless I could really figure out how to
build something with these tools, and in one manic moment,
I bashed everything apart, and I ran out to the
beach and I threw his hammer into the sea and
I told him to fuck off. And it felt really good.

(44:18):
It felt so good. It was like a real turning
point for me in the process that maybe I could
start anew and I could start fresh and take it
slower the second time around. It seems like it turned
into almost a meditation at a certain point. It really did.
As I got into the summer of that year, the

(44:38):
summer and going into the fall, I hit kind of
a rhythm where I had been I think, defeated and
beaten down by this boat and by the years of
silence and by the grief and everything else wrapped up
in this boat. You know, it wasn't just a boat.
There was so much weight in it with my family.
That kind of halfway through that year was like my

(45:00):
shoulders relaxed and I kind of gave into it. Didn't
give up, but I gave into it and just thought, well,
this boats in control now, and I have to make
my life revolve around it. And it became very meditative.
I've come home from work um and blew up one

(45:21):
strip of wood and then you know, clean the shop
and eat dinner and go to bed instead of trying
to force it, and you know, kind of play Old
Testament God to the wood. I was more submissive um
to both the wood and the boat building process, which
I think is similar to writing a book. But you
have to just kind of sit your butt down and

(45:43):
do a little bit every day, and you'll be amazed
at yourself over the passage of time what you can
accomplish that way little and often. The title of Trent's
book can be applied to any discipline, any art form,
and also and be applied I think to self discovery
and to healing. None of it happens in a great

(46:06):
dramatic rush. It happens bit by bit. It was a
completely unrealistic deadline that you gave to yourself, but you
did meet it. Yeah. It was exhilarating and maybe the
biggest relief of my life that the boats floated. First

(46:27):
of all, I didn't think to the bottom of the bay,
but that I had come around to the place where
I realized I didn't need to prove to my father
that I was man enough. He was already dead, and
all of the secrets that he kept. We're gone with him,
and I just had to be comfortable in my own
skin if I was going to make it through this

(46:48):
little thing we called life. And finishing the boat. It
was so gratifying, and I thought I would be a
mess of tears when I paddled the boat. I thought, Oh,
I'm gonna go out. I'm gonna just really cry this out.
But I didn't. I had gotten all my crying out
of the way building the boat, and it no longer
felt like this mournful act of grieving. Once I was

(47:11):
on the water, it felt like a celebration and sort
of a liberation for me. I think from the reach
of my father in a way that I had maybe
absorbed the good and let go of the bad, and
that was at peace with that. Here's Trent reading one

(47:32):
last beautiful passage from his memoir. I nosed alongside the
Robin's Island dock, and there at last I tethered the
canoe to the dock with Dad's rope. I had arrived.
I did it. I felt like i'd cry, though I didn't.
I only smiled. It seemed like such a little thing

(47:54):
and such a big thing at once, like a secret
I would tell myself the rest of my life, though
I didn't understand the meaning of it all yet. I
sat there for several minutes, taking everything in, listening to
the creeks and size of tiny ripples lapping against the hall.
So much was unknown to me, but I didn't have
to know everything. It was enough to trust that what

(48:16):
I did mattered. That I understood the canoe's meaning, without
yet being able to say precisely how, I could trust
my hands knowing they built this canoe, and it was enough.
It was my own sacred and mysterious life, manifested in
a colorful, floating quilt made of wood. As I untethered
Dad's rope from the dock and coiled it around my arm,

(48:38):
I felt his presence there with me. He would always
be with me, no matter what, embodied in the tools
and the wood of this canoe. Through his death, Dad
gave me a new life. He did. It was true.
I could now rightfully call myself a craftsman and a
boat builder who lived in communion with nature. My canoe

(49:00):
was my freedom. With that understanding, some inexplicable pain peep
inside me evaporated. In its place, I felt a flood
of gratitude. I felt whole. I was my own man now,
all of me, and I was ready to paddle home.

(49:35):
Family Secrets is a production of I Heart Radio. Molly
Zukor is the story editor and Dylan Fagan is the
executive producer. If you have a family secret you'd like
to share, please leave us a voicemail and your story
could appear on an upcoming episode. Our number is one
eight Secret zero. That's the number zero. You can also

(49:56):
find me on Instagram at Danny writer. And if you'd
like to know more about the story that inspired this podcast,
check out my memoir Inheritance. For more podcasts for my

(50:27):
Heart Radio, visit the I Heart Radio app, Apple podcast,
or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

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