DES MOINES, Iowa -- A father and son will sit together at the Thanksgiving table Thursday for the first time in nearly 60 years.
"But we're both too old to throw a football," said Gary Anderson, 61, of Berwick.
Marvin Shimel, 85, recently reappeared in his life.
All these years, Anderson thought his father had been killed in Vietnam. All these years, Shimel wondered where his son lived. The boy's name had changed with each of his mother's many new husbands.
It seems unlikely today, when people are tracked with advanced technology, but this father and son lost each other. The tale of their improbable near misses and eventual reunion has left them mourning the lost days of having a football catch, but thankful to be together again.
The last thing Anderson remembers of his father was around his fifth birthday, when a photograph was snapped of Gary on a bicycle, and he followed his father to the car. Shimel carried around the photo for 56 years.
Shimel had married Barbara Johnson in 1951, and Gary was born in a Chicago hospital in 1952. But by 1955, the couple had divorced. In the 1950s, before widespread joint custody and co-parenting, a child was thought to be a woman's to physically raise. Johnson remarried and changed Gary's middle name and last name to match her new husband's.
Shimel left to join the military. His service took him to 30 countries in a 23-year career as a military photographer and videographer. He filmed everything from Bob Hope's military shows to combat in Vietnam.
Growing up, Anderson rarely thought of his father. He was too busy fending for himself while his mother went through numerous husbands and boyfriends. He even occasionally found himself left behind, alone for days.
"I survived, I guess," he said. "The tough times, I got through on my own. I didn't make excuses."
He graduated from high school and started a career and family. Not until the early 1980s did he press his mother for information about his father. She told him he'd died in Vietnam.
Shimel made more than a half-dozen attempts to find his son, he said. He would contact relatives or friends who thought they might have seen or heard of his son's whereabouts and would fire off letters to officials in those towns to help him. He thought he was close, just around the same time Anderson was told he was dead.
Shimel was living in Grand Terrace, Calif., where he had married Virginia and helped raise her four children. He had contacted a sister in Iowa, who was sure she had seen his ex-wife meeting a man Gary's age by a bus in Des Moines. The bus had come from Nashville, Tenn., she thought. Shimel followed the trail to Nashville, but turned up nothing.
He later found out the bus in Des Moines had the name "Nashville" on its side, but that had nothing to do with where it had come from. And it was his son at the bus stop.
Anderson also didn't know that he once lived only 2 miles from his aunt in Marshalltown, Iowa, and his cousin had attended the same elementary school.
"So close," Shimel said, "and yet so far."
Years passed. Anderson married Vicki, and they each brought two children to the mixed family. He took to giving them the father he never had.
"I had so much turmoil growing up - I didn't want turmoil," Anderson said. "Fix it, and you don't need to fight."
In 1990, they bought a house in Berwick, a tiny outpost just north of Des Moines, and Anderson became a distributor of Little Debbie snack foods. His mother died two years later.
"I don't know how she took it to the grave," he said. "She was my mother, so I loved her, but she was a selfish, hateful person."
Shimel settled into retirement, traveling widely with Virginia. They celebrated 52 years of marriage together before she died in the autumn of 2012.
In mourning his wife, the grief over the loss of his son deepened.
So he called Marshalltown nephew Freddie Cheville, who had heard that Gary might be living in the Davenport area. Shimel launched his eighth attempt at finding him.
"I'm not in the business of tracking down lost people," said Frank Donchez, Davenport's police chief. "But this guy's letter touched me. He just lost his wife of 50 years. He had nobody. I figured I have the resources at my fingertips."
Donchez and Lt. Brett Morgan also figured their databases would easily locate the son. They initially came up empty.
"I found out Barbara Johnson had married the guy she was fooling around with and got arrested for shooting the guy, and for tax evasion. So we followed her trail. Married and arrested several times."
They tracked the name of one of her husbands and found a daughter in Kansas City, Jamaica Cope, who told them the boy was given the name of various husbands.
It finally led them to a Gary Anderson in Berwick.
Vicki Anderson got the call in June and didn't believe that Donchez had found her husband's father.
"He died in Vietnam," she said.
Suspicious, she took the police officer's number. Gary called him from work. When he heard the details, he was dumbstruck.
"I didn't think he was alive."
The first phone call between father and son was awkward at first, but their easygoing natures soon meshed, and they launched a plan. They would meet in California in August.
When Anderson pulled the rental car up to Shimel's home, the garage door was already rolling up. There stood his father, eagerly waiting.
They looked at each other, and any thoughts that a DNA test would be required went out the window.
They had the same eyes, nose and narrow face. They were both thin and healthy - 5 feet 11 inches, 170 to 180 pounds.
They hugged, and Shimel wept.
"Unbelievable after all this time," he said.
They learned about each other. Father learned that his son had much strength, overcoming his difficult childhood to become a responsible father and husband. Son learned that father had seen much in his world travels and had stayed active and engaged in retirement.
"Lost time. Nothing you can do," Anderson said. "You put your life back together and fill in the blanks."
They planned a Thanksgiving together. Shimel would travel to Iowa. Thirty relatives would pack the Berwick home, including Anderson's four children and seven grandchildren, framed by a quote etched on the dining room wall:
"There is always something to be thankful for."
They are sorry for what they missed, but thankful for a new father-son bond. Telling of it, Shimel said, could inspire others to keep looking for lost family.
"I talk to my wife every week. I tell her about him," said a tearful Shimel of his graveside visits. "She didn't get to see him. I know she'd like him."