Back Country Cure

permission to disconnect
Man riding horse in wilderness
Photo by Hector Perez

I recently discovered an article in the National Geographic that warmed my heart and spun my memory back three-quarters of a century.

Ray Knell, a Green Beret and a ten-year Afghanistan combat veteran undertook a 1,000-mile wilderness ride from Colorado to Montana along North America’s Continental Divide. He completed his trek using wild mustangs because the horse gave him focus and allowed him to disconnect. This he needed to do to heal his own PTSD. He also hoped to set an example that other traumatized veterans could follow.

an ancient syndrome – a new guise
WW I - Men in trenches
Photo from British Library

The term PTSD didn’t enter my vocabulary until the early 1980s. Many of my classmates, men and women, had served in the armed forces in the Vietnam Conflict. They returned home suffering from a disabling array of mental disturbances. Due to the controversial nature of the war, their suffering may have been worse than that experienced in the past. But it was not a new syndrome. Ancient documents describe post-combat symptoms similar to the high levels of stress and anxiety the young combatants of the 1970s experienced.

One evening after my children were in bed, a close friend from college, now decommissioned and on his way home to St. Paul, stopped to spend the night at our home. He arrived at ten at night, hungry and tired.  I fixed him a B. L.T. “Ah,” he said, “this is the kind of food we dreamed about in ‘Nam.” He and I sat up long past midnight. I tried not to cry as I listened to the horror stories he had to tell. I prayed there would be a source of solace for him once he stepped again on Minnesota soil.

And I finally understood the full meaning of a journey I had taken when I was not quite four years old.

detour on the way home

1946 ChevroletEarly in the morning of the Memorial Day weekend, 1946, my dad John De Jager, slid behind the enormous wheel of his family’s retooled 1942, four-door, Chevy sedan. His right arm across the wide front seat, he checked to make sure all was set in back. His brother, my Uncle Jimmy, sat in the passenger seat, resting a brawny arm along the open car window. In the back I commanded one window seat and my grandmother, the other. My brother John, who was almost two years old, sat on a booster chair between us. The trunk of the car had been piled high with suitcases, and we still had some containers under our feet. As my Dad turned the key and started the big engine, I knelt up and leaned my arms on the back ledge to wave a wild good-bye to family we left standing in the drive-way.

WW II Sailor kissing girl
Photo by Jorge Gardner

World War II had officially ended the September before when U.S. General Douglas MacArthur accepted Japan’s formal surrender aboard the U.S. battleship Missouri, anchored in Tokyo Bay.  Sometime during the winter my uncle had been discharged from the Navy. Throughout the war, he had served on ships in the Pacific as a radar specialist and seldom saw the light of day. On the evening he had returned to us, he swooped in and grabbed me and swung me around the room. Then he plopped his navy cap on my head.  “Here, Judy,” he said. “It’s all yours. I’m done fighting.”

to be whole again
Ranch in Canada
Photo by Jon Phillips

It seemed that we had my dad’s happy-go-lucky brother back. But we didn’t. What I wouldn’t know until later was that Jimmy wasn’t able to concentrate at the job that was waiting for him. He joined his family on Sunday at church, but no longer joined in the hymns. Worst of all nightmares caused him to wake the family in the middle of the night with his screams. The family doctor advised a “rest cure.”

Because his mother had grown-up on a ranch in Alberta, Canada, the family decided what Jimmy needed was time away from Detroit, its crowds and its demand. He needed the wide-open spaces and the down-to-earth labor of the ranch to help him regain his equilibrium.

Jimmy wasn’t the only one suffering from the aftermath of the conflict that had taken the lives of millions, leaving the survivors reeling in shock.  My mother’s only brother, John, had died in combat in Belgium, shortly after her father had succumbed to a heart attack. Deep in mourning herself, she struggled to stay strong for her mother.

Grieving older woman
Photo by Christian Newman

My grandmother sat in darkened rooms staring at old photos and shunning society. She had been a woman who loved dancing, singing, cooking and entertaining. She had given the reception for my mother’s wedding in her backyard, doing all the decorations and food preparation on her own. But now, nothing interested her. My mother fear for her mental health. Her concerns for her mother distracted her from caring for my brother and me. She did not, of course, neglect us, but could get no real joy from being a mother.

What I understand today is that my entire family lived under the pall of post-traumatic stress disorder. Yet, they had no name to give it. They only knew the world was at peace, but that peace eluded them.

follow the sun
Yellowstone National Park
Photo by Paula Hayes

The little girl happily waving goodbye from the backseat of the Chevy only knew she was off on an adventure. For my Dad who would be returning to Detroit and my mother, this was his vacation. Everything about it looms in my memory like scenes from a fantasy or a fairy tale. The geysers at Yellowstone National Park both frightened and delighted me. The mountains in Glacier National Park suggested hidden homes of giants and elves. I was certain that the hotel on Lake Louise as we neared our destination was actually a palace.

Our last stop before the ranch was my Great-Grandmother Koopman’s home in Banff. I’ve never forgotten that since wasn’t at home when we arrived. So, my father hoisted me on his shoulders to crawl in through the open kitchen window.  I landed in the sink and scrambled down to the linoleum. It was getting dark and I didn’t know which way to go in the strange house, but my father was shouting, “Find the front door.”

I tentatively peered through a door. No ghosts.  Just a gigantic dining room table and chairs.  I crept around it, holding onto the backs of the chairs as though I needed to be anchored to the floor.  Through an archway, I saw a living room full of plastic-covered heavy furniture, and, thankfully, a big white paneled door. I let go of a chair and ran to the door, twisted the lock and let my family in.  My Great-Gran was quite surprised to find us all sitting in her living room when she arrived home. It was late at night when we turned off the gravel highway onto the rutted, dirt driveway into the ranch, but my Great-Aunt Elsa waited with a lantern on the back porch as we drove up. She engulfed me in a giant bear hug that felt just right.

living with heroes
Cowboy on ranch
Photo by Flo P

From that moment on the whole summer was one magical adventure for me. I trailed my great-aunt wherever she went. Together we fed chickens, milked cows, baked bread, and tended her kitchen garden.  I suppose my little brother was there somewhere, but in my memory, it’s just my great-aunt and me.  I do remember we had a second birthday party for my brother and all the cowhands attended.  The cowhands lent a great deal of mystique to that summer. Their worn, wide-brimmed leather hats and the leather chaps that protected their Levi’s transformed them into mythical creatures for me. I loved getting up at the crack of dawn so I could share their breakfast hour.

daring deeds
Soaring hawk
Phot by Ezequiel Garridao

My other favorite ranch characters were my teenage cousins, who worked the ranch, but took particular pride in protecting the chickens from the hawks. This entailed getting behind the wheel of an enormous pre-War auto and careening around the ranch.  One cousin would drive while the others clung to the running boards, rifles in hand.  They let me ride on the back window ledge for these excursions.  As we hurtled along back and forth, the boys would take aim and more often than not bring down a hawk. Why my great-aunt let me go on such outings I have no idea, but child raising practices were different back then.

some happy endings
Child hugging older woman
Photo by Ekaterina Shakharova

At the end of the summer Dad brought my mother with him to pick us up.  After a summer on the ranch, my uncle felt better able to resume civilian life. had been just what he needed. My parents stayed a few days to rest for the return trip to Detroit. But when it was time to go, I clung to my great-aunt and begged to stay.  I told her, “I want you to be my mommy.” The look of betrayal on my mother’s face is one I’ll never forget.  Yet, I persisted. Instinct warned me perhaps that life with my traumatized mother would never be easy.  But four-year old don’t get to decide their fate. I had to give my great-aunt one last hug and climb in the car.  It was the last time I visited Alberta. Maybe my mother didn’t dare take me back.

“We were not allowed to speak of the unseen wounds of war. We were not allowed to prepare for them.” Thank You For Your Service Brig. General Loree Sutton,

What are your earliest memories of human warfare?

3 Replies to “Back Country Cure”

  1. I visited Alberta and stayed on Aunt Tilda’s farm for a few days with 9 college friends in 1972. She knew we were coming, but didn’t know my friends were 6 women and 3 men and was quite shocked. She made us a turkey for dinner and I recall her picking the meat off the bones afterwards. I asked if she wanted help, picking up a carving knife. She just held up her fingers and said, “that’s what God made these for!”

    I agree, that was a wonderful experience on the farm. I never heard the story about dad’s recovery from PTSD.

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