A little past midday on September 11, 2001, I walked out of my apartment on West 34th Street and started walking east. The sky was famously, brilliantly clear. But as I turned away from the sickening plume of smoke, and headed north towards Times Square, I remember small pieces of flaky white debris floating through the air, like snowflakes.
I knew that my wife was safe. Jen had left our apartment just after daybreak, and was ensconced at her teaching job at St. Brigid’s School in Brooklyn. Our only child was safe as well, inside her belly. My parents and siblings were all accounted for. News was trickling in in dribs and drabs about friends and other relatives, but cell phone service was shot, and social media didn’t exist. So I stumbled forth, as so many of us did, in a stupefied cloud of numb speculation.
It was in this state of mind that I had made the strange decision, about an hour earlier, to keep a business meeting I had had on the books for weeks. It was a pitch meeting with a man from England whom I did not know. His name was Minter Dial. He had baited me with the same hook I had fallen for many times before. I have an extraordinary story to tell.
At the time I was an aspiring screenwriter with zero commercial success. I had not yet sold a screenplay, and had no foothold in Hollywood. My business meetings were confined to the thatchy world of fellow wannabes and hangers-on: two wet sticks trying to rub out a spark.
I walked into Connolly's Pub on West 47th Street. Minter was there: affable and Euro-polite. We sat and remarked on the unforgettable nature of the day, how absurd both of us were for actually keeping the meeting. But you know, what the hell, right?
We ordered a bit of food, and Minter told me his story.
Almost 90 years earlier, in March of 1911, Minter’s grandfather was born into a wealthy South Carolina family. He attended private high school in Washington D.C. in the 1920s, and went on to the Naval Academy, with an officer’s career in his sights.
(Here is the lone tangle in an otherwise clear story: Minter’s grandfather was also named Minter: his full name was Nathaniel Minter Dial. For purposes of clarity, I’ll refer to his grandfather as Minter Sr.)
Even among the Greatest Generation’s best and brightest at Annapolis, Minter Sr. was a star. He was a leader on the lacrosse team; one of his teammates, George Washington Pressey, called him a “wonderful man.”
Minter Sr. graduated in ’32 and married in ’34, head over heels in love with a gorgeous young actress named Lisa. Protected from the Depression’s sting by means and military commission, Minter Sr. and Lisa enjoyed a blessed early chapter of marriage. They had two children, Victor and Diana. Then came the call of duty.
Before Pearl Harbor had even been struck, Minter Sr. was on a transport ship cutting west across the Pacific, preparing for the inevitable. He had been given his own command, a tugboat in the Philippines. Minter Sr. and his small crew landed in Manila, where they were able to prep for only a few months before the bombs began to fall.
Few people of my generation know that the Japanese attacked the Philippines on the same day they struck Hawaii: December 7, 1941. (I had no idea.) But more and more people of my generation, thanks to stories such as Unbroken, have now begun to understand the barbaric horrors endured by Americans soldiers in the Pacific theater, especially those sent to Japanese prison camps.
Minter Sr. was one of those valorous few. The only swatches of information documenting the details of his captivity are the letters he was able to scratch out to Lisa. A dignified and principled southerner, Minter Sr. spared his young wife the details of the torture he was no doubt enduring. But there can be no question that he was deeply, unimaginably brutalized by his captors. Minter Sr.’s captivity lasted two and a half years. He very nearly made it out alive.
One January day in the war’s final winter - there can be no exact knowledge of the date - Minter Sr. was mortally wounded, struck in the side by a .50 caliber bullet. At the time he probably weighed no more than 90 pounds. As he lay dying, tended to by a friend and fellow prisoner, a fellow Navy man named Douglas Fisher, Minter Sr. took off his Annapolis class ring, which hung loosely on his starved finger. Minter begged his friend Doug to return his ring to Lisa. And then Minter Sr. passed.
A few months later, at Lisa’s home in Long Beach, there was a knock on her door. Her children answered it before she did. Young Victor, just seven years old, still remembers the sight of the man in the Navy dress whites, filling the doorway. Diana, who was only five, remembers thinking that her father had somehow returned from the dead.
Lt. Cdr. Doug Fisher took off his hat and sat down with Lisa. He recounted her husband’s dying moments: the ring Minter Sr. had entrusted him with, and his dying wish to see it returned to her.
Trembling, Doug Fisher confessed that he no longer had the ring. He had lost it, probably in Korea, where he had been airlifted, half-dead, following the liberation of their tattered group of surviving prisoners.
Lt. Cdr. Fisher apologized as deeply as he could. Then he stood up and said goodbye.
* * *
Eighteen years later. 1962. John F. Kennedy is in the White House. World War II is a distant memory. Even the Korean War has long since concluded. But the United States still maintains a considerable military presence in South Korea.
One day in Incheon, South Korea, two Korean laborers stood at the bottom of a massive pit, digging the foundation for a building. They kibitzed as they swung their shovels, the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Minter’s tale.
The laborer whose shovel had struck metal dug the gold ring out of the dirt. He rubbed it clean, showed it to his companion, and pocketed it, telling his friend he would pawn it later that night.
His companion worked a side job as a limousine driver, chauffering a US admiral to and fro. Following the day’s dig, the companion climbed in his car and picked up his client. The admiral sat in the backseat, silently reading the newspaper.
The driver casually mentioned, “My friend found a ring today that looks just like yours.”
The admiral looked up from his newspaper.
On his finger was a gold Annapolis ring. The admiral replied, “What are you talking about.”
The chauffeur recounted the story. The admiral was transfixed. “Where is this ring now?” he demanded.
My friend sold it.
Take me to him.
I have no idea where he is -
The driver sped off, into the tented part of Incheon with the pawnshops and vendors. At the admiral’s command, the chauffeur located the pawnshop where his friend was most likely to have sold the ring. The admiral and chauffeur stormed in. Translating for his boss, the chauffeur asked the proprietor if he had seen the ring. Indeed he had: he had purchased it only an hour earlier. The admiral demanded that he produce it. The proprietor pointed to the fire, where the ring lay at that very moment - it was in the process of being melted down for raw material.
Take it out! barked the admiral.
The proprietor obeyed, pulling the ring out with steel tongs. Fortunately, only a small corner of the ring had been altered by the heat. As it cooled, the admiral took it in his own hands. He looked inside the band, and saw the inscription:
“Oh my god,” said the admiral. “My best friend.”
The admiral’s name was George Washington Pressey. Thirty years earlier, Pressey had been Minter Sr.’s friend and teammate on the Annapolis lacrosse team: the friend who had called Minter Sr. a "wonderful man." (That's Pressey in the team picture below, seated right next to Minter Sr.)
The context in which Pressey referred to Minter Sr. as such was the letter Pressey wrote to Victor, who was now 24 years old, and a Navy man himself. Pressey mailed the letter to Victor, along with the ring. Victor received the package and brought it directly to his mother Lisa, who had never told her children the story of their father's missing ring. Lisa opened the package, and placed the ring on her finger. Thus was her husband's dying wish granted.
* * *
Fifteen years later, I am proud to say that I was able to help Minter Jr. tell his grandfather’s story. We made a short documentary together (it’s about a half-hour long), and it's had a nice run on the festival circuit. (It won “Best Foreign Film” at the Charleston Film Festival just a few weeks ago.)
But the heart of this post is not about fundraising; it's about just how pliable, adaptable, and indefatigable great stories can be. This story was initially told to me out loud - which, for my money, is still the best way to experience a story. As we headed out onto the sidewalk on September 11, Minter Jr. and I made grand plans to make the feature film - the Saving Private Ryan/English Patient/Spielberg-y version of the story. And who knows: maybe someday we will.
But I am even more intrigued by the smaller, personalized way that this story has continued to endure. Minter Jr. now travels from city to city telling this remarkable story, as a TED talk of sorts. Telling his grandfather's story has become his mission in life. That's a journey I am extremely proud to be a part of.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention the story's chilling epilogue.
In 1967, only five years after the ring was returned, it was stolen by burglars in the middle of the night. It remains at large to this day. Part of Minter Jr's mission to tell this story around the world is to honor his grandfather, to be sure. But a small, secret part of him is also yearning to recover the ring, once again.
So the next time you're in a pawnshop...
[By the way, if you have a story like this, buried in your family's backstory - or one even half as good ;) - I'd love to hear it. Follow me on Twitter @shelovj and we'll take it from there.
And as always, if you'd like future blog posts emailed to you directly, go ahead and subscribe in the form below.]