The note on the envelope read simply, "From your father."
But Christopher DeGroff never knew his father.
Sitting beneath a memorial at Chicago's Navy Pier on March 3, the attorney opened the envelope and pulled out the thin piece of metal inside.
For the first time in 40 years, he felt he finally knew something.
As if on cue, the clouds parted and warm sunlight spilled onto the pier.
"I'm not the most religious or spiritual person, but I just couldn't help but think that this was meant to be," DeGroff said.
On June 14, 1971, Navy Lt. William Bruce DeGroff was killed when his A-7 Corsair II slammed into a mountain outside the mining town of Silver Peak, about 220 miles northwest of Las Vegas.
William DeGroff was 25 years old. His twins, Christopher and Sarah, were 16 months old.
Wife Kathi was at home giving the babies a bath when a knock at her door brought news of the crash.
Her husband left their house near Fresno, Calif., at 7:30 that morning for a typical training mission. The knock came about 5 p.m., and Kathi's heart sank as she opened the door to see a black limousine in her driveway and several Navy officials standing on her porch.
The officials told Kathi, who also was 25 at the time, that a huge explosion left nothing of the plane. She also was told that everything was top secret because the aircraft and its armaments were being used in the Vietnam War. It just wasn't possible for her to see the crash site, the officials said.
"It's all so very bizarre, finding out now that there is still wreckage," Kathi DeGroff said four decades later. "I pleaded with them to let me go to the crash site. I needed to see it."
She said that for the past 40 years she and her family have lived under the impression that there was no physical evidence.
But outside of Silver Peak, part of Vanderbilt Peak is still strewn with debris. Hikers found William DeGroff's dog tag amid the wreckage 20 years ago.
That was what Christopher held in his hand for the first time earlier this month as he sat weeping on that sunlit pier in Chicago.
How he got that dog tag is a tale unto itself.
About four months ago, Goldfield resident Allen Metscher went to the Nye County Clerk's office in Tonopah to donate a book he co-authored about plane crashes in Nye County. Court Clerk Lee Guthridge was working that day and seized the opportunity to ask the expert about a plane crash she hiked past often when she lived in Silver Peak.
To her surprise, Metscher knew exactly what wreckage she was talking about. He said it was a Navy plane, piloted by Lt. William B. DeGroff, who had been stationed at Lemoore Naval Air Station in California's Central Valley.
Metscher has been researching plane crashes since he was 19 years old. About 20 years ago he and his brother, Phil, visited the DeGroff crash site to search for clues. Among the thousands of tiny pieces of debris, they happened upon a single dog tag crumpled into a ball.
"I still remember that day like yesterday," Metscher said. "It was just amazing that Phil found that little dog tag out of all those pieces."
They took it home and straightened it out. Surprisingly the metal did not break. The dog tag spent the next several years hanging on a nail in Metscher's office as he tried to track down the DeGroff family. Years of research yielded some old obituaries, but few clues about the wife and two small children the lieutenant left behind.
Piqued by Guthridge's curiosity about the crash, Metscher made one more attempt to track down the pilot's family.
Unable to find any articles on the crash in the Tonopah Times-Bonanza archives, Metscher contacted Craig Fuller, an aviation archeologist in Long Beach, Calif., he met while doing research for his book.
Fuller quickly unearthed news articles about the crash from the Nevada State Journal and the Reno Evening Gazette, and Metscher shared the information with Guthridge. That's when she joined the search to put this piece of family history back into the family's hands.
After searching the Internet for about four months with little success, Guthridge began sending out messages on Facebook to anyone with the last name DeGroff. Eventually, she got a response from a woman named Robin DeGroff who thought she could help.
Robin's relation to the family is still unclear, even to family members, but Guthridge received an e-mail from Robin on Feb. 27 stating that she had just gotten off the phone with Christopher in Chicago. She said his twin sister, now Sarah Pinter, lives in New Carlisle, Ind.
Last Saturday, Guthridge, along with friend and fellow clerk Debbie Melott, drove to Silver Peak and hiked through the wreckage to take pictures for the family. While they were there, they picked up a small zipper attached to green material and the metal clip from a clipboard that reads "U.S. Property Type MXU-163/P Clipboard, Pilot's Property from Felsenthal Instrs. Co., Chicago, IL."
They also found what they believe to be the chain on which the dog tag once hung.
"It's still all so new to me. Ever since I could remember I've pictured that mountain, and now all of a sudden I'm seeing it on my computer in high definition pictures, and it is really jarring," Christopher said. "I will say, though, it has been an overwhelmingly positive experience for me."
The envelope was delivered to Christopher inside a FedEx box Guthridge sent to his work.
"I decided I didn't want to open it in the office. I wanted it to be more purposeful than that. Besides, it just wouldn't do to have a partner in the law firm sobbing in the office," he said with a chuckle.
The next day Christopher DeGroff took the box to Navy Pier.
"It's kind of my spot. I go there to watch the air shows, and they have a naval memorial out at the end of the pier. It's just a spot where I've always felt very close to my father."
Christopher said he sat there with the dog tag in his hand. Then he went and drank a beer in honor of his dad.
Several members of the DeGroff family are already planning to visit the crash site. Christopher says he probably will visit sometime this summer and thinks he will do it privately.
As soon as word came about the debris field, Kathi's current husband, Dean Foster, began talking about getting the car tuned up. He told her, "Let's go tomorrow."
Then they thought of a reason to wait a little while.
"I really want to get something, a flag or a cross, something neat to put out there," she said.
They probably will make the long trip soon from their home in South Bend, Ind., to the mountainside in Esmeralda County.
"That's really more of his burial place than in Iowa," said Kathi, referring to Lt. DeGroff's grave site in Spencer, Iowa, where his parents lived.
Sarah is also talking about visiting the spot where her father's Navy jet went down.
In the meantime, an effort is under way to preserve the lieutenant's story near the place where he died.
Metscher said that within a month he hopes to have some sort of memorial display at the Central Nevada Museum in Tonopah featuring a picture of DeGroff, information about the crash and a map of the accident site.
Contact reporter Kelci Parks at email@example.com or 775-727-5102, extension 23.