In the summer of 1955, when my father was 8 years old, he won 5 acres of lakefront property in a Davy Crockett cartoon coloring contest.
The contest was sponsored by Hood Milk and the now defunct Boston Post and was open to children ages 13 and under. Weekly winners, announced throughout the summer, were offered a variety of smaller prizes, including flannel shirts and Little Golden Books. Second place was a set of dinnerware by “unusual ceramicist” Sacha Barton, and third was an 8mm camera. The grand prize was the land on Lake Mooselookmeguntick in Rangeley, Maine, and it came with a prefabricated Davy Crockett cabin and playhouse to be delivered to the property by flatbed truck.
My grandmother, a visual artist with a degree in painting and drawing from Boston University, had reportedly frowned at my father’s entry, saying it was too plain and not flashy enough to catch the judges’ eyes. “Some kids put glitter on theirs,” my father said, recalling his competitors’ desperate moves. “Davy Crockett didn’t wear glitter.”
Upon hearing the news of my father’s impressive win, a neighbor offered $50 for the property — or about $485 today. My father said no.
At such a young age, my father already knew what it meant to own a piece of property — and what it meant not to.
His family had no home. His father, whom I never met, had left my father, his older brother, and my grandmother when my father was an infant, fleeing to California to start a new family. My father and his mother and brother moved into my grandparents’ three-bedroom house in West Roxbury in 1948.
That was where he plotted his future — he would become a soldier, like Davy Crockett, until he retired to his cabin in the woods. The Army would be his family, stable and structured, with clear-cut rules and chains of command. The Army was a family that would never break apart.
I don’t remember when I first started hearing about “the land,” but we went to visit it when I was around 8 years old myself. Lot 13 was on a dirt road in thick woods, and it was pure, untouched woodland. There was no path to the water, so we crept over fallen branches and wild brush to get to the small piece of lakefront. The water was choppy and rough, but the shore was covered with smooth rocks. I picked one up to keep with me and lost it in one of the many moves we made for Dad’s career in the military.
For reasons no one can quite remember, my grandmother never followed up on the other prize, the prefab cabin and playhouse.
“She really blew it not getting that cabin up there,” my father often said when I was growing up. “It’s too late now.”
Throughout his life, Dad toyed with realtors, checking in on the property’s estimated sale price every couple of years and then slamming down the phone in a rage over an inadequate offer.
In 1994, a few years after he separated from my mother, he moved to a tiny cabin on Mount Washington in New Hampshire. It made no sense to me then, but when I look at a map now, I see that it was a direct drive to the lake in Maine. He was trying to get closer to the land.
When I was 26 years old and living in Los Angeles, my mother called, frantic. I needed to fly home immediately, she said. My father was surely dying, and I had to say my goodbyes. He had suffered a massive hematoma. Doctors were unsure if it was due to an old head injury he’d suffered from a rocket-propelled grenade in Vietnam or if he had fallen while hiking alone and had forgotten about it.
It was the day before Christmas Eve. I purchased an outrageously expensive plane ticket and was at his bedside the next morning. He was conscious but altered, shaking his head from side to side. The first thing he said to me was “Lizzie . . . no less than $300,000.”
I knew what he meant right away. The land was at the forefront of his mind even on his presumed death bed. His price was triple what others in the neighborhood were asking for their land, but I just said, “OK, Dad.”
“It’s lakefront,” he said, before drifting off for the briefest of sleeps.
My father didn’t die that day.
He worked for months in physical therapy and seemed mostly recovered a year later, but his fantasy of building his own cabin on the land faded. He was broke. He moved back in with my mother, taking over the living room couch.
In late 2019, a few months before COVID-19 hit, Dad was diagnosed with Agent Orange lymphoma. Nearly two years of chemotherapy didn’t help. “Time is short,” the doctors told my parents.
My mother, who rarely spoke up about anything, was concerned — both of my grandmothers had lost all they had to the state when they went into nursing facilities. “You better sign that land over to the girls right now,” she warned my father.
And so, after 67 years of holding on, he let the land go. Word spread that the coloring contest kid had given up his land. The pandemic real estate boom had already reached rural Maine. Three months after he signed the land over to my sister and me, a real estate agent called about a buyer. We all had expenses. My parents’ house was in need of repair. I was raising a disabled child in an expensive city. My sister was on the verge of making her own art business profitable and needed help getting over the hump. We negotiated a price, exchanged paperwork and signatures, and it was gone.
I look at the photo of my father, his mother, and brother beaming with joy back in 1955 at the coloring contest awards ceremony. I want to hold on to this moment where they all look so happy, even though I know the rest of the story. We’ve all known plenty of loss. It’s nice to look back and see us win.
Liz Brown is a writer and mother in Los Angeles.