Woman born on ferry 30 years ago has a special guest at wedding

  • Wed Oct 14th, 2009 11:45pm
  • Life
Top photo: Sonia Helen Mattoon and her parents

Top photo: Sonia Helen Mattoon and her parents

The Evergreen State pulled up to the ferry landing as Dave Jorgensen and Sonia Mattoon exchanged wedding vows on the Orcas Hotel lawn Aug. 15.

It was an extra special moment for the bride, who might have considered the ferry more wedding guest than seagoing vessel.

She was born on the ferry 30 years ago.

The day before the wedding, “We were standing there on the lawn at the Orcas Hotel, talking about set up, and the ferry pulled in,” Mattoon said. “My mom hadn’t seen that ferry since then. It was a good luck omen.”

Then, during the wedding the next day, the ferry returned — in time for vows and to be included in the wedding pictures.

“We got to incorporate the islands and the actual ferry into the wedding,” the groom said of the coincidental arrival of his wife’s birth ferry. “The whole day was so overwhelming, it’s hard to judge how much more that meant to her. But it was one more element to the wedding that was great for her.”

Mattoon’s birth on the Evergreen State at 3:20 p.m. Oct. 12, 1979 is a memory made stronger by its 30th anniversary.

“I don’t think I’ll ever forget it,” said Dr. Walter Vom Lehn, a retired doctor now living in Prescott, Ariz. “The Associated Press devoted five paragraphs to the story, and the parents Doug and Kathy gave me a gold pocket watch that I still treasure.”

Journal reporter Jo Bailey — later of “Gunkholing” book fame — happened to be on the ferry. Her story, “Ferry arrives with one more passenger,” topped the next edition’s front page.

Here’s what happened.

Kathy Mattoon went into labor but fog precluded her from being flown off island. Dr. Colbert Browne of Inter-Island Medical Center gave her husband, County Engineer Doug Mattoon, an emergency kit and the couple drove to the ferry en route to Island Hospital in Anacortes.

Town Marshal Jay Hurlburt found Dr. Vom Lehn and his then-wife, Sandra Harold, in the ferry overload line and arranged for them to board the ferry “just in case.”

Vom Lehn visited the Mattoons at their vehicle. “They remained in their vehicle on the car deck. I made frequent visits to their car, and soon it was apparent the baby was unwilling to wait until we got to Anacortes,” he recalled.

Mrs. Mattoon was carried on a stretcher to the purser’s office. “I delivered daughter Sonia Helen without complications, and they were whisked to Island Hospital by ambulance” upon arrival in Anacortes, Vom Lehn recalled.

Sonia Helen was born as the Evergreen State was off Upright Head on Lopez Island. Vom Lehn referred to her in his memoirs as a “high-seas infant” and her birth certificate substantiates that characterization: Her place of birth is given as “San Juan Straits (off Lopez Island),” the hospital as “Evergreen State ferry.”

Sandra Harold, Vom Lehn’s ex-wife, admired the mother’s courage as a usually private event became a public affair. The purser’s office had a small bunk for the mother to lie on. Reporter Bailey was waiting outside the door. Ferry passengers were curious and, as Bailey reported it, “felt an excited part of the unusual event.”

“My job was to get water, towels, stuff like that,” Harold said. “It wasn’t scary because my husband knew what he was doing and I’d worked in hospitals. It was more an awesome experience, but it was not an easy situation for the parents.”

That’s how Sonia’s mother remembers it.

“It was quite traumatic for me,” the mother said. “The doctor was moving and I didn’t have a regular doctor. The doctor manning the clinic said he wasn’t going to go with us and handed us a ditty bag. We were fogged in so we had to get off by boat.”

Dad Doug Mattoon said, “I can’t tell you how pleased I was when Dr. Vom Lehn walked up. We were ecstatic. I had had a lot of medical training in my ski patrol days, including how to deliver a baby, but I wasn’t looking forward to delivering my own daughter. We were so happy to have a doctor there to attend the birth. It relieved a lot of stress.”

In the ensuing years, the people involved in that day moved on or moved away. Dr. Vom Lehn is long retired; he and Sandra Harold divorced but are good friends. The Mattoons divorced; the former Mrs. Mattoon is now Kate Kimmons and lives in Idaho, and Doug Mattoon is a county commissioner in Asotin County. The Evergreen State baby grew up in Spokane, Bellevue and Clarkston, served as a Navy hospital corpsman at Bethesda Naval Hospital, got a nursing degree and now lives in Edmonds with her new husband.

But the Evergreen State has periodically reentered their lives, a reminder of that special day years ago when a new life eagerly entered the world.

Sonia Mattoon said she and her older sister periodically rode the Evergreen State when the family would visit the islands. “My sister would take me to the purser’s office, pick me up and let me peek in. She’d say, ‘See that’s where you were born.’ “

When Mattoon turned 12, her father arranged for her to visit the bridge of the Evergreen State. The captain let her take the wheel and he sang “Happy Birthday” to her. Her dad sometimes refers to her as “Boat Baby.” And when Von Lehm visited the island in summer 2007, the Evergreen State pulled into the harbor, bringing the memory again to the fore. And then, the wedding on Orcas Island.

“It was a big event. I think about it from time to time,” said Harold, who was given an opal necklace by the parents. “It was a privilege to be a part of her birth. It was a joy to be a part of that.”

Vom Lehn said he hasn’t seen Sonia since that day 30 years ago. If he saw his high-seas baby again, what would he say to her? “I could say I’d never forget her. Docs have all sorts of stories, but this is pretty near the peak.”