Growing up, my parents spent every weekend building their A-frame vacation home on Ketron Island, a place I would later call the “island of broken dreams.”
The sun had barely risen on a recent Maine Saturday when my husband woke me with the news. “A plane was hijacked from Sea-Tac and crashed on Ketron Island!” Still half asleep, I listened to fuzzy audio already up online between air traffic controllers and the suicidal pilot, who confessed he was “just a broken guy.” As sad as the story was, it seemed only too fitting that this troubled Horizon Air employee would end his life on the small island in the Puget Sound that I grew up lovingly calling the “island of broken dreams.”
When I was just five weeks old, my parents had taken a private ferry over to Ketron Island in order to hear an inflated real estate pitch for the modern new community to be built there. A newspaper ad claiming “Captain George Vancouver slept here” had grabbed the attention of my father, a dreamer who easily fell for sweepstakes schemes and bad investments. With no idea that the visit to Ketron would be an all-day affair — one in which the son of Alaska investor J.C. Morris (who had bought the island in 1946) sold a vision of a future development with school, church and shopping center to my trusting parents — my mom had only brought one diaper with her. After they bought a piece of land, my parents quickly learned that any visits to the island required full supplies. For eight years, we would rent a small boat from nearby Steilacoom marina and motor over to the beach for picnics at which driftwood logs served as our makeshift privies. These visits would always be accompanied by my parents’ promise, “Someday, we’re going to build a house here.”
They eventually did, with the shell of a modest A-frame cabin constructed in that bicentennial summer of 1976. As my parents learned how to install plumbing and hang drywall thanks to Sunset magazine how-to guides, my 8-year-old self listened incessantly to the radio as “Afternoon Delight,” “Year of the Cat” and “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” kept me company on an island with many more deer than humans. It took several years with every weekend spent at the cabin for my parents to complete their getaway. Even into high school, I spent most of my weekends there, rather than engaging in the typical activities of my peers (like going on the ski bus up to the Cascades or any kind of organized sports). It was only in 2012 that my mom reluctantly sold the cabin that had been so central to my family’s sentimental life.
During our 44 years on and off of Ketron Island, we watched as development scheme after scheme failed. J.C. Morris’ vision of an island suburbia was never realized, and the infrastructure that he had put in place — notably a marina with a swimming pool and a small store for boaters — slowly crumbled. The dilapidated marina, with an empty pool full of dead frogs and old gas pumps that still oozed violet and amber oils, was a magical (if eerie) sepulcher in which I played with the island kids. It was also a convenient hiding place from one of the scarier island kids (much older than me and my playmates), who would end up in a maximum-security prison for a horrific double murder committed off island.
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Investors — for both the marina and the island more generally — came and went and usually involved individuals who would later wind up with legal troubles for fraud in other locales.
Meanwhile, the marina slowly rotted away. When a neighbor found our small sailboat adrift out in Cormorant Passage, my parents decided to sell the boat. When my mother’s leg crashed through the decayed planking on the dock, we stopped walking out on the pier. Today, an abandoned ferry — the M.V. Olympic — sits aground at the ruins of the docks. One of our former neighbors, another purveyor of dreams, had it towed there as part of his latest schemes.
After I moved away from Washington state and my visits to Ketron became scarce, my parents would fill me in on the latest rumors of a new investment dream — anything from a Microsoft retreat to a casino. For many years, I suffered from a recurring nightmare. In it, I returned to Ketron to find it completely built up. Down at the “lagoon” on the western side rose a casino and hotel. Condos dotted the area by the ferry dock. Restaurants, stores and houses had filled in what had once been forests and meadows. In some versions of the dream, a bridge connected the island to the mainland. And in many of these literal “development nightmares,” I would scream impotently in rage at what had become of my beloved island.
I haven’t had this nightmare for a long time, but every so often it resurfaces, and it reminds me that it is precisely because Ketron was an “island of broken dreams” that it became my misfit family’s refuge.