Remembering Dad on Memorial Day

Remembering Dad on Memorial Day

I’ve spent the past month helping Mom move out of her apartment. Through that process I’ve been taking a moment to scan photographs before packing the pictures to ship.  OK, I’ve been taking a little more than a moment to preserve the photos, but it’s well worth the time investment. I love having these photos digitized, and accessible to the family on Flickr.

Michael H. Schwartz remembering dad on memorial day

I made a point of setting aside these photos of my dad from his tour of duty in Vietnam in 1968-69, so I could put them up for today’s Memorial Day post.

Michael H. Schwartz

Bronze Star, Vietnam War

Michael H. Schwartz

Michael H. Schwartz

Michael H. Schwartz

Michael H. Schwartz

Michael H. Schwartz

Michael H. Schwartz

Thank you Dad, and Grandad, Aaron, Alex, David, and everyone else that served.

The Brute Squad

Shortly after we were engaged, Aaron and I went to dinner with some friends. We got to talking about my family, so I pulled this picture of my dad and brothers from my wallet.  Lars looked at the picture a moment, then set it down on the table while backing away a bit.

He turned to my husband and said, “Dude, whatever you do, don’t piss her off.”


So far, so good.

The Last Frontier, Alaska 1947

The Last Frontier, Alaska 1947

When my Grandparents moved to Alaska in the 1940s, it was still very much a frontier. It was both the wild, wild west, and the frigid north.

Grandma took notes. By compiling and transcribing her notes, and sharing them on my blog, I’m fulfilling a promise to her to make these stories available and accessible to the rest of the family. I have created an archive to which I am slowly transcribing and adding these documents: McKinley Family Archives.

I’ve left these stories exactly as she wrote them, although I have been hunting down photos for illustration.

Here she is again, Doris McKinley, in her own words.


McKinley Kids - Alaska 1947

Steve, Karen, and Rodger with the family plane

The Last Frontier, Alaska 1947

Anchorage, a thriving business community, is the nerve center of western Alaska. In 1939 it had a population of 3000, now with the post-war influx, it boasts of nearly 15,000 – causing a serious housing shortage. Building in all classes is progress, but far too short of its needs.

Ft. Richardson, located only five miles from Anchorage is a combined Military, Naval, and Air Command with a personnel of about 12,000. The United States Government is pouring tremendous sums of money into the development of Ft. Richardson as the permanent headquarters of all Alaska Defenses.

Thus, there are some 25,000 local people served by Anchorage business. This is exclusive of the “bush.” The term “bush” is used to identify outlying terretory. “Bush pilots” are very efficient airmen, piloting their own planes. Their business consists of scheduled and unscheduled hops to almost any point within a radius of 400 to 500 miles. Residents of these remote localities, traders, trappers, and miners rely on the bush pilot and his light plane as readily as persons in the States use the bus or train. For in all Alaska there are only about 2000 miles of automobile roads.

The Alaskan economy is dependent on the various phases of aviation.

One day we saw a shy native boy carrying a baby seal. Walking along the street, he was drawing considerable attention. He had found the seal on the shore, it apparently had become lost from its mother. It lay quite content and quietly in the boy’s arms. The face seemed much like a dog’s, tho larger, with a rather pointed nose. The heavy brown body and flippers were interesting.

When my Father was in Anchorage last March, he saw several native Indian women carrying babies on their backs. As he was talking with one, he noticed severe sores along the baby’s jaw. Inquiring of the Mother what caused the sore, she replied, “Just rubbing.”

On a motor trip to Valdez, a distance of 300 miles by highway, which I am sure is not more than 75 by air, we saw a fish wheel in operation. This wheel was similar to a conventional water wheel, excep that each peddle had a wire screen which built up the side and end. The inside was left open so that as the river current turned the wheel, a fish was caught and held until that section reached the top and the fish dropped out onto a slide thence into a tank of water. The native then picked up the fish, split and cleaned it, then hung it by the tail on a nail with rows of other fish. Drying frames were built in a square and a fire smoldered in the center. Smoked, dried fish are a staple diet of the seld dogs and natives in winter. The use of these wheels are limited to the native population.

McKinley Family - Alaska 1947

McKinley Family log home

Salmon fishing is most popular and during the season it is very common to see men, women or children on the streets with their fishing tackle going to Fish Creek near the Railroad. One day an old-time showed us the procedure. We bought stought fish line, heavy sinkers and large three pronged hooks. The idea is to throw the hook into the stream and jerk it back. Really, we snag salmon as they do not bite. Some time passed and we had no luck, our friend insisted, however, that the salmon would be at that spot about 15 minutes after the tide came in.

Shortly afterward a little boy, possibly 8 years old said, “If you’ll throw your hook right over there, Doc, you’ll catch a fish!” Sure enough, Lee brought in a nice four or five pound salmon, and brought in several more in a short time. The youngster caught two, pulled them onto the shore, but before he could get a good hold on them they flopped back into the water. He went on fishing as tho nothing had happened. When we were ready to leave, he handed two other fish to my husband, saying “Here, Doc, you take these. My mother wont let me bring any more fish home!” Lee skinned and filleted them, and we cooked in a friend’s kitchen that evening. They were truly delicious.

These were the silver salmon and were about 18″ long, later in July the big king salmon appear which may weigh 10, 15, or 20 pounds.

The famed Matanuska Valley farming project which was publicized a few years ago is located about 50 miles from Anchorage on the only highway which joins Fairbanks and Anchorage. The project is managed on a cooperative basis, is successful, and is developing into a real asset to Alaska. These farms, many only ten or fifteen years removed from the wilderness, are remarkably fertile. Farmers are farm owners as tenant farming is frowned upon. The valley produces vegetables of unusual size due to the very long days during the growing season. Dairying is being rather slowly developed because of the difficulties of carrying the herds thru the long winters. Farm buildings, built with Government assistance follow identical plans and are built of logs. Most farm work is, however, carried on with tractors and modern machinery.

How a scary looking kid helped me get my head screwed on straight

How a scary looking kid helped me get my head screwed on straight

The first night I met him, he glared at me then leaned back a ways before slamming his head down on to the table. That thud of skull connecting with wood was so hard it made the walls shake and the windows rattle. I choked a bit on my heart, and my stomach churned with that nauseous fear that comes when everything is wrong. Very, very wrong. What were we doing with this kid in our home?

To say I wasn’t thrilled about my mom’s decision to take in foster kids was an understatement. That she was specifically interested in taking developmentally challenged kids, made it worse. This was a bad idea. I was sure of it.

Matt’s case manager told mom that he was a “head banger.” Those two little words were inadequate to describe the frequency and force with which his head made contact with any nearby hard surface.

He was difficult to look at. His brain had not developed properly, and he was born with cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus.  His hair grew in funny little tufts around the patchwork of scars on his head. His face was scarred, and frequently bloody from the head banging. He couldn’t stand up straight, and could barely walk.

And he was angry. Mad. Furious at the world. And with good cause.

It was Matt’s story specifically that finalized my Mom’s decision to become a foster parent.  At the time she first heard about him, he had been living in a motel with hired care givers taking shifts sitting with him in that room, because they could not find a home that would take him. He had extensive medical needs, that required a great deal of work to manage. And developmentally he was a two year old, still a baby.

He didn’t know what was going on; he just knew that most people were mean, and he didn’t know who to trust.

It was a long period of adjustment: him getting used to our large boisterous family, and us getting used to this new person in our midst with so many new needs (like needing help with toileting, among other things), and of course, that head banging.

But one day we discovered something.  If you put your hand on the table, or wall, or whatever else was the target of his swiftly moving head, he would stop mid-swing. He would bang his head, he would hit things, he would break things, but he would not hit us.

That discovery started a little shift.  For one thing, it helped us significantly cut down on the head banging by just putting a hand in the way. But it also started to change the way we saw him: self-destructive, yes, but not violent towards others.

He got easier to look at over time as well.  Eventually, we started to see past all the scars, and notice other things, like that mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Matt was a little prankster, especially once he got comfortable with us.  He was funny. He’d blame his farts on you. He’d pull your chair out as you were trying to sit down. If he was done with you, he’d dismiss you: “Bye!”

And he was gentle, so very gentle, especially with babies.

lesson from matt

The obvious lesson here is about not judging the book by the cover, or the person by how they look.  But there’s more.  It wasn’t just the way Matt looked that was scary at first. It was his behavior that terrified us. Matt also taught us a lesson in looking past the angry in others – that the attitude is likely a hard-earned, self-protective shell, and not necessarily indicative of what’s inside.  Its a difficult lesson, and one I forget frequently.  But I’m still trying.

Over the years, Matt went through dozens of procedures and surgeries.  His hydrocephalus was managed by a shunt that drained the excess fluid from his brain. That shunt frequently had issues, perhaps caused by the head-banging, but that pressure may have also been the cause of the the head banging – the pressure caused a great deal of pain, that bang momentarily equalizing the pressure.

He actually became quite popular, at school, at church, in the community. He passed away from complications of surgery when he was 24.  He was still a toddler developmentally, but he was a happy toddler. When he died he was surrounded by his family, foster family perhaps, but family still. And he knew he was loved. His funeral was standing room only; the community had learned to love him as well.

It has been 11 years since his death, today would have been his 35th birthday. I still think of him often.  He taught us so much about accepting others, and about resilience and redemption. I’m still learning that lesson about forgiving and understanding the angry.

See also: My Mother’s Gift for more on this story.

Socialite to Pioneer in 3500 Miles

My grandmother was born 1/11/11 – 1911, that is – one hundred years ago today. She didn’t live to meet that milestone, she passed away just a few months ago. But in those just shy of 100 years, she led a remarkable life.

I wanted to write a biographical blog post to tell her story today, but it’s too much.  She went from being very active in Detroit’s social scene, to being a pioneer in a (then) remote area of Alaska, active in Territorial, and later, State politics as the wife of a politician, and even running for State Legislature herself  – all this was done while running an active farm, raising her seven children, and managing the office of my Grandfather’s dental practice, as well as the family’s Medical/Dental Supply business.  That deserves more than one blog post.

Instead, I’ll use her 100th birthday to kick off the first of a series of posts about my Grandmother.  In this first one, I’ll let her tell her own story of her first trip to Alaska.  A few years ago, she let me copy some of her personal papers with the idea that I would post them online, making them available to the rest of the family.  It’s taken me until now to do anything about that.

So here she is, Doris McKinley in her own words. I just added a title and a couple photos. It’s a long post, so grab a cup of coffee, kick your feet up, and settle in for a story of the rugged North.

The Alaska Highway is an overland route connecting the United States with Alaska through Canada. During the summer and early Winter of 1942, United States Army Engineers blazed the original road through 1,523 miles of unbroken wilderness. They put over a project of road building in eight months never duplicated in history, and considered by experts impossible in less than two years.

Their record is as glorious as that of any combat unit fighting on the front, for here, too, men suffered and died in a battle of the wilderness so that America might be made safe. These men endured mud, rain, fought hordes of voracious mosquitoes, and lived at times on subsistence rations with the constant threat that their precarious supply lines might be broken and they would be isolated in the wilderness.

On their heels or sometimes in step with them, came the United States Public Roads Administration with its civilian contractors and road workers, using the Army road as a base and making it into a highway as fast as they could. During the next summer the road was made into a permanent wilderness gravel highway, wide enough for two or three vehicles to pass with ease.

The present route was selected from the point of view of military strategy, intended mainly to serve as a link between various airports strung northward across Western Canada to Alaska. A tourist route would have been laid closer to the Canadian Rockies.

It stands as a symbol of friendship between nations unparalleled in history. The name Alcan, an unofficial designation, was subsequently changed to Alaska Highway by agreement of the two governments. It starts at Dawson Creek, British Columbia, a village at the end of the Railroad line 300 miles northwest of Edmonton, Alberta, and terminates at Fairbanks, Alaska, a distance of 1,523 miles.

lee and doris in 1948

Doris and Doc (Lee) McKinley

My husband, Lee, made this trip to Anchorage in October with our 12 year old son, Blake, and Frederick York, a young laboratory technician. They drove a Hudson pickup truck and expected to be able to have certain heavy supplies shipped by boat from Seattle. However, shortly after they arrived there, it became apparent that the West Coast Shipping Strike would not end soon. So, three weeks later, Lee took a plane to Seattle and then East to Detroit. He was most enthusiastic in his first impressions of Alaska and insisted that I drive back with him.

I hurriedly collected clothing for Arctic wear. At Peter’s Sportswear Clothes Shop I found a down-filled jacket, parka and leggings, and fleece lined gloves and stadium boots. The leggings were most comfortable which I wore in place of slacks. They are cool enough in the heated cab of the truck and warm at 40 degrees below zero.

This time we drove a Dodge one-ton express truck. Our neighborhood garage men had put forth great effort to hurriedly build a strong frame of 1″ pipe over the truck  bed. This was covered with large tarpaulin and tied securely. On the running board we carried four, five gallon army gasoline cans, and acetylene torch and new axe.

We left home at 9:30 A.M. Monday, November 18, 1946. Our route was Highway 12 to Chicago. Then Minneapolis and the fourth day we arrived in Fargo, North Dakota. We enjoyed three perfect Autumn days, cool and bright, then ran into sleet and snow.  In Fargo, we placed the truck in a garage where booster springs, airplane tires and fire extinguisher were installed the following day. We now felt we were properly equipped.

Leaving Fargo Saturday morning on our way to Montana, we drove through the wheat prairies with their great elevators in every village. At the Immigration Center in Coutts, Alberta, we spent two hours making arrangements to travel through Canada. Stopped overnight in Calgary, and arrived in Edmonton Tuesday afternoon, November 26th.

Our instructions at the border had been to see Mr. Eveleigh of the Control Board at Edmonton. He looked over our credentials and checked our list of extra supplies – tire irons, jack, air pump, extra tires and tubes, patching supplies, flashlight and extra batteries, extra electric wire and friction tape, fan belts and spark plugs, extra gasoline and oil containers, general repair tools tow chain and numerous other articles.

I was eager to see the shops in Edmonton so took a few minutes while Lee was having the truck serviced. I was certainly surprised to find that stocks of warm winter clothing were as meager at Hudson’s Bay Company as they were here. The stores generally are fine, modern buildings with good merchandise.

It was 4:30 when we slid past the outskirts of Edmonton and into the prairie Northland. We were on concrete until we passed the airports several miles out, where the road became black-top. Then this, too, ended and we settled down to a straight-away grind over typical Canadian prairie road. This was not the endless wheat-field prairie we had traversed south of Edmonton. We were now headed into the flat, bush country of the (more…)