Remembering a little boy lost
November 23, 2006
By MATTHEW PREUSCH
Crater Lake – Samuel Boehlke’s parents share their grief and what they’re thankful for today.
After a year of grief piled upon grief, including the loss of her son, there’s one thing Kirsten Becker is still thankful for today.
“For the gift,” she said, “of Sam’s life.”
Becker’s 8-year-old boy, Samuel Boehlke, disappeared last month in Crater Lake National Park.
This week Becker and Sammy’s father, Kenneth Boehlke, spoke at length for the first time about losing their son and the difficulty of their first holiday season without him.
“The things that are special about Thanksgiving are the fact that it’s a celebration of the warmth of home and hearth and the heart of the family,” Becker said. “And this year the heart that held our family together is gone.”
The Portland couple, who divorced in 2005, kept out of the public eye after Sammy vanished into the woods north of Crater Lake while on a trip to the park with his father.
They’re coming forward now in part to thank those involved in the search for their son, but also with recognition that people from across the country closely followed the search for Sammy and wanted to know more about him.
“When one child is lost it touches everyone,” said Becker, 46, a manager at a Portland real estate investment company. “So this is not just a private tragedy, this is a community tragedy, and it touches everyone with a very heavy hand.”
Becker, who is working on a eulogy for a memorial planned for Saturday, said that at Thanksgiving dinner Sammy always declined mashed potatoes and salad, focusing on turkey and his grandmother’s hot rolls.
“He would devour them,” Becker said.
Sammy had a passionate personality, bordering on stubborn. His joys were as deep as his disappointments, Becker said. He also had a mild form of autism, which manifested itself in a fear of loud noises and bright lights.
That complicated the work of the more than 200 search-and-rescue workers who arrived at Crater Lake after Sammy’s disappearance on Oct.14 and couldn’t use the customary air horns or whistles.
The boy and his father had stopped to play on a cinder slope where Sammy saw some yellow he hoped might be gold. As darkness approached and his dad walked a short distance to the car so the two could return to their rented cabin near Diamond Lake, Sammy stayed on the slope, refusing to come down.
Kenneth Boehlke chased up after him, he said, but Sammy, likely thinking it was a game, stayed 50 feet ahead.
“I never caught up with him, and at that point he disappeared over the top somewhere and I lost him,” said Boehlke, 48.
For a week, National Park Service searchers and others scoured the area with dogs, helicopters and heat-sensing cameras, but no trace of the boy was found. Intermittent searching continued until this month when snow started falling.
During the search, the couple were cooped up in a duplex near park headquarters getting briefings twice daily from search commanders, but they weren’t allowed to help because search managers didn’t want dogs to be thrown off by their scent.
“I still would rather have gone,” Boehlke said. “Basically you’re just stuck there waiting.”
Becker said she’s raised more than $6,000 in a fund set up at U.S. Bank that she will use to reimburse some of the expenses of volunteer searchers and hire a tracker next summer to continue the hunt.
“I need evidence (of Sammy) for the final grieving process to occur,” she said.
Any money left over will go toward a scholarship to send children with disabilities to Portland Parks & Recreation summer camps, where Sammy was always happy, she said.
For Becker, the loss of her son wasn’t the only tragedy this year.
The boy’s disappearance came just a few months after the death of her father, Herman Becker, and a close friend. Her dog, Simba, and cat, Killer, also died.
Still Becker laughs out loud as she describes an exuberant phone message that Sammy left her from school last June describing what a good day he was having earning smiley-face stickers from the teacher and playing with his friends.
“That message was important to me before he was lost,” she said, “and now it’s precious.”
Matthew Preusch: 541-382-2006; firstname.lastname@example.org