Read an Excerpt
Our SarahMade in Alaska
By Chuck Heath, Sr.
Center StreetCopyright © 2012 Chuck Heath, Sr.
All right reserved.
Taking the Stage
And our Sarah—the one we’d known all our lives—finally took the stage.
Light from the street, unusually bright and glaring, shone overhead as our motorcade rolled off the highway and onto a broad avenue. Around us the sidewalks were lined with people, all of them staring at us, hoping for a glimpse through the tinted glass of our black SUV. Near the middle of the block, a row of television trucks was parked at the curb, their satellite antennas pointed toward some unseen link in the dark sky.
Moments later, motorcycle patrolmen whizzed past us, then came to a stop in the center of the street. The patrolmen dismounted and took up positions along our route as the lead car in our motorcade turned left and disappeared from sight. In quick succession, each of the cars ahead of us did the same as we made the corner and rolled down a concrete ramp that led beneath the Xcel Energy Center, an 18,000-seat arena. Usually home to the National Hockey League’s Minnesota Wild, the night we arrived it was the site of the 2008 Republican National Convention.
As the motorcade idled to a stop near the underground entrance, security agents stepped up to our SUV and opened the doors. I climbed from the backseat, straightened my jacket, and reached back to offer my mom a hand. Then we followed our group inside. With me that evening were my parents, Chuck and Sally Heath; a few friends from my hometown of Wasilla, Alaska; and our mother’s sisters, Kate and Colleen, who had flown in from their homes near Richland, Washington.
Just beyond the building entryway, we were met by a campaign assistant who escorted us down a broad corridor that led behind a stage that had been constructed in the main arena. Noise from the crowd already gathered there echoed through the hallway. The tension was palpable and we all whispered nervously, wondering how we’d look when the cameras caught us, if our friends back home would see us, and whether the night would turn out as well as we hoped. None of us had ever experienced anything like the event we saw unfolding before us. It was the biggest night of Sarah’s political career and the biggest event we’d ever seen. My palms felt damp and clammy as I walked backstage.
Behind the stage we came to a door that led to the green room, a holding area where Sarah made her final preparations before heading out to the platform. The aide leading us through the building paused by the door and waited as we all caught up. When everyone was together and ready, the aide pushed open the door. And there she was—our Sarah—looking as calm and collected as ever, working the room, smiling and hugging everyone. Aunt Colleen stepped forward to greet her, ready with a quick word of encouragement, but Sarah beat her to the punch. “Isn’t this fun?” She smiled. I couldn’t believe she was that relaxed. We all shared a moment with her, trying to think of something to say, hoping not to distract her too much.
After a few minutes, the aide returned and led us from the room. We followed her back to the corridor and out to the convention floor. I looked around at the arena, packed to the rafters with delegates and supporters, my eyes wide with wonder. Campaign signs hung from the railings above our head and ran all the way around the upper level. In front of us, more signs filled the air as delegates waved them back and forth. Everywhere people were shouting and chanting their favorite campaign slogans. In my mind I thought, What in the hell am I doing here?
Just five days before, I’d been in my classroom in Anchorage, teaching and discussing current events with elementary school students. Now, here I was in St. Paul, Minnesota, at the Republican National Convention. Not merely attending as a bystander, but as an honored guest of the party’s vice presidential nominee, my sister, Sarah Palin. To say the moment seemed surreal would be an understatement.
The aide led us through the arena and up the steps to our seats directly above the Alaska delegation. We recognized many faces in that group and waved to them all, proud to be with them and not really caring how hokey we might appear. Not long after we were seated, an announcer introduced Sarah and she walked onto the stage. After an enthusiastic greeting from the crowd, she began to speak.
Perhaps it was the size of the crowd, or the fact that she had to devote the first few minutes to introducing her family, but for whatever reason, the words seemed forced and the cadence labored. I leaned forward and whispered in my father’s ear, “This doesn’t sound like Sarah.” He just nodded and kept his eyes focused on her. I leaned back in my chair and continued to listen, but what I heard was not at all like the Sarah we knew.
After she introduced our parents, the speech began to pick up. Then, near the ten-minute mark, she mentioned that she’d been a hockey mom who signed up for the PTA to make her child’s public education better. A group from the Alaska delegation picked up the phrase “hockey mom” and began chanting it over and over, waving hand-lettered signs in time with their voices. The interruption broke Sarah’s delivery. Rather than let the moment pass, though, she grinned. “I love those hockey moms. You know what they say is the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull?… Lipstick.” The crowd responded well and she relished the moment. And our Sarah—the one we’d known all our lives—finally took the stage.
Later, when we were with her again in the green room, she told us the teleprompter got ahead of her and was running the pages out of sequence with her delivery. She knew the text well enough to continue but had to disregard the screens. Doing that freed her from the written pages and let her convey the ideas instead of simply reading the text—using her own voice and her own style to deliver the content with passion and conviction. The speech was a rousing success and launched the McCain-Palin campaign into a period of phenomenal popularity.
In the weeks that followed, we watched—sometimes up close and sometimes from a distance—as she wrestled with the rigors of life on the campaign trail and the stresses of being the newest member of a campaign team that had jelled months before. We also watched as the media and liberal pundits ripped into her record, experience, and character. The picture they painted of her was so far from the truth as to be unrecognizable. In the process, many in the country lost sight of the real Sarah.
Our town of Wasilla, Alaska, is a long way from the podium at the Republican National Convention and a long way from the style of a presidential campaign. We live in a region dominated by oil-field workers, commercial fishermen, hunters, military families, and the ordinary people who make America great. Most national politicians live in a world far removed from ours. Yet Sarah made that trek from where we were—both as a community and as a family—to become a legitimate contender for national office, facing a future filled with the promise of even more opportunities to come. How she made that journey is a tale much bigger than the story of a single person. It’s a tale of family, faith, determination, and hard work. Of friendship and loyalty in a community that blossomed in an era when “yes we can” actually meant something.
When she was First Lady, Hillary Clinton wrote a book about children in America and how she thought government could help them. The title of that book was a play on the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child.” I’m not a big fan of Hillary Clinton, but I am a schoolteacher and I know we are all influenced by family, friends, and the community where we live. Sarah is no different. Her character was not formed in a vacuum but in the context of the lives of those whom she knew and loved and who loved her in return.
So, if you want to know Sarah Palin, the real Sarah, our Sarah, you have to understand the places, people, and events that shaped her. And you have to talk to the people who know her best.
I have been blessed to have been raised in this last frontier.
At the last possible moment, the avalanche split in half and swept past me on either side, leaving me untouched. I’ve never seen that happen—before or since.
From the windows near my dining table, I can look out across a broad, glacial valley toward the Chugach Mountains. Tall and majestic, they tower into the sky along the eastern side of Knik Arm in the upper reaches of Cook Inlet, north of Anchorage. On a clear day, the sky above the peaks is as blue as any you’ve ever seen. Golden streaks of sunshine paint the tallest peaks with brilliant and vivid colors. In the winter, the mountains are covered with snow. Wind roars down the valley and howls around the base of those mountains with the force of a hurricane. In the summer, the mountains are lush with wildflowers, goatsbeard, and prickly rosebud.
A little way up the valley to the east I can see Pioneer Peak. Named in honor of New Deal colonists who came to settle the valley in the 1930s, it rises almost seven thousand feet above the Knik River. In the spring I often stand on our deck and scan the slopes through my spotting scope, watching herds of sheep as they scamper up the saddle near the top.
I climbed that mountain once as part of a mountaineering class. By then I had climbed many mountains, but I needed credit from a class to satisfy the annual continuing education requirements for teacher certification. A friend offered to give me the credits I needed from his course on mountain climbing. I had no choice but to take it. The final project for the class was a climb up Pioneer Peak. Our class consisted of university students, a few professionals like me, four guys from a nearby Army installation, my son, Chuck Jr., and my daughter Heather, who came along for the fun of it.
After a few days of classroom instruction we gathered at the base of Pioneer Peak and set out for the top. My friend, Dave Johnston, once ran from the base of the mountain to the top in a little over two hours. Our pace was considerably slower. We took two days.
With most mountains, there’s an easy way and a hard way to reach the summit. Pioneer Peak has a hard way, and a harder way. We chose the more difficult path, a course that took us up the face of the mountain. Through part of the trip, our ascent was almost vertical and as physically taxing as anything I’ve ever attempted. By the time we reached the final push for the top, two of the Army guys were exhausted. They waited and watched from below while the rest of us clawed our way up. I think it was a little embarrassing for them, being bested by the mountain and a sixth-grade science teacher, but they were wise not to push on. People have died climbing that peak.
Alaska is like that—unsurpassed beauty on the one hand; raw, untamed wilderness on the other; and all of it as close as the view from your own home. It’s a place where breathtaking scenes greet you at every turn, and a place where death is never far away, especially in the winter.
We lost a friend, Aaron Arthur, a few years ago in a massive avalanche at Turnagain Pass, a popular location south of Anchorage on the Kenai Peninsula. People from the valley near our home go there in the winter to ski and ride their snowmachines. “Snowmachine” is the Alaskan term for snowmobile. Aaron was an avid fan of snowmachines.
Snowmachiners are a rambunctious bunch and often push life in the wilderness to the limit. Todd Palin, Sarah’s husband, rides in the annual Iron Dog race, a two-thousand-mile snowmachine race through the bush country from Big Lake, through Nome, and ending in Fairbanks. Part endurance, part speed, racers blast across the snow at speeds near a hundred miles an hour. Many of the riders suffer frostbite before they reach the finish line. Others find the trail much more challenging. Todd once completed the last four hundred miles with a broken arm.
The snowmachiners who frequent Turnagain Pass don’t travel that fast, but they like to push things to the limit. One of their favorite games is called “high-marking”—riding up the face of a slope until the snowmachine can’t go any farther, then arcing down to the base in a challenge to see who can climb the highest. It’s fun, but it’s also dangerous. Those beautiful snow-covered mountains can turn deadly in an instant, as they did for Aaron and five others that day when their high-marking set off a devastating avalanche. It roared down the mountain, burying everything and everyone in its path beneath a massive layer of snow.
The first five bodies were located within a few days, but Aaron was nowhere to be found. I joined a team of volunteers and spent weeks probing the snow with long metal poles, trying to locate him. Aaron’s parents set up camp in a motor home in the parking lot below the pass and vowed not to leave until we found him. Fifty-three days later, as winter turned to spring and the sun began to melt the snow, Aaron’s brother-in-law spotted something blue sticking out from the crust. It was the sleeve of Aaron’s parka. His body was frozen solid.
When the state troopers arrived, they wanted to airlift the body into Anchorage and perform an autopsy to determine the cause of death. Aaron’s parents were livid. It was obvious what had happened to him. No one needed a physiological explanation to understand the cause of his demise. After a heated argument, the troopers relented and we propped Aaron’s frozen body at the table inside his parents’ motor home. Chuck Jr. and Aaron’s parents sat with him for the ride into town and talked to him all the way, recalling the things he’d said and done in his much-too-short life. Someone remembered his last words were “Livin’ the dream!”
Aaron’s not the first person who came to Alaska in search of a dream, only to find that dream cost them the ultimate price. I’ve come close to death myself, and it wasn’t from anything as extreme as high-marking with a snowmachine.
The mountains of Alaska are filled with flocks of ptarmigan. A small bird in the grouse family, they are gray-brown in color through spring and summer, but in winter they turn white. As soon as my children were old enough to negotiate the mountain trails near our home, I took them hunting. Ptarmigan were one of our favorite game birds. Sarah learned to shoot by plinking birds on the mountain slopes. She doesn’t have much time for hunting anymore, but she still shoots skeet with her friends at the range not far from town.
One day in the winter, while hunting ptarmigan with my friend Brad Snodgrass, we shot a number of birds that landed on a snowy mountainside, one a lot like the mountain where our friend Aaron played with his snowmachine. I didn’t like the angle of the slope and there was a large cornice above us—a ridgeline where the wind had blown away the snow, hollowing out a crusted overhang of snow and ice. We were skiing that day with long cross-country skis and carried full packs on our backs. In spite of those limitations, Brad was sure we could dash onto the slope, scoop up the birds, and get back before anything happened. We both knew better, but we made a run for it anyway. Just as I suspected, our ski strokes across the snow sent vibrations up the slope and the cornice gave way. A wall of heavy white snow thundered down the mountain toward us.
Unlike what you might imagine, an avalanche is not a gentle slow slide. The snow cascades down the mountain, gathering momentum as it goes, often reaching speeds in excess of a hundred miles per hour. Wind pushes ahead of the growing wall of snow, ripping the tops off trees in its path. When the snow moves like that, its force is measured in tons.
One-third of those caught in an avalanche are killed outright by the trauma of the event—they’re hit by slabs of ice, broken tree limbs, and other flying debris, or their bodies are ripped apart by the force of the snow. Another third are buried and suffocate. It’s a fantasy to think one can dig himself out of a firmly packed encasement. Those who survive say that they couldn’t even move their fingers, open their eyes, or expand their chest enough to breathe. I’ve attended classes that suggest you can survive by “swimming” on top of the snow. That’s almost impossible. In reality, the only way to escape is by moving laterally.
That day with Brad, I had skied too far out on the slope to get back to safety and, to make matters worse, in my effort to move quickly I fell through the crust into waist-deep snow. Brad, who was much closer to the edge, made it out of the way. All I could do was stand there and watch as the snow came toward me.
I remember thinking things like, Here I am, in a predicament that I have preached to others they should avoid. And, This can’t be happening to me. I know all there is to know about avalanches. As irony would have it, at the time this happened I was teaching an avalanche safety course. Yet, there I was, staring certain death squarely in the eye. Brad told me later that he was marking my spot as best he could, in hopes of later recovering my body. Even he was certain I was going to die.
Seconds later, a gust of wind swept across my face. Driven by the onrushing snow, it felt cold and crisp against my skin. A slab came toward my head. I ducked to one side and dodged it. Then, at the last possible moment, the avalanche split in half and swept past me on either side, leaving me untouched. I’ve never seen that happen—before or since.
Alaska is a place of adventure, which means it’s a place where humans face the very real possibility of death or serious injury. I’ve lost four friends to avalanches and spent days searching for each of them. I’ve lost friends to other tragedies too.
Our region of the continent is home to all three North American bears—polar bears, black bears, and brown (grizzly) bears. Though encounters with bears are statistically rare, those encounters often prove deadly. Marcie Trent and her son were killed when they surprised a bear on a trail near Anchorage. Marcie was an accomplished long-distance runner and held four world records in her age group. She died almost instantly when the bear’s claw struck her neck. Alaska is bear country, a fact my family and I have witnessed firsthand.
When the children were young, we took them on a caribou hunt. I killed a caribou the first day and we hauled it back to our camp. With everyone helping, we gutted the animal and tied it to the top of the car, thinking it would be safe there. That night, I was awakened by a bear that was standing beside the car, gnawing on the caribou carcass. I wanted to shoot it, but the kids were sleeping in a tent that I had pitched for them just a few feet away. I knew I could hit the bear but I wasn’t sure I could kill it with a single shot. If I wounded it, the bear would land on the tent. I managed to scare it away, but a few hours later it returned. After I chased it away a second time, we gathered up the kids and spent the remainder of the night in the car with an up-close view of the bear as it returned once more to dine on the caribou. Two days later, a hunter from the Fish and Game Commission killed the bear. It was a twenty-eight-year-old grizzly with a record of terrorizing camps and cabins.
During Sarah’s last year as governor, she and Todd invited Sally and me to go with them on an official visit to the McNeil River State Game Sanctuary, one of the best bear sanctuaries on the continent. Located on the upper end of the Alaska Peninsula, the McNeil River is about thirty-five miles long, flowing from McNeil Lake in the interior of the peninsula down to McNeil Cove at the coast near the mouth of Cook Inlet. In the summertime, a strong tidal surge pushes salmon up the rivers and streams all along the inlet. As a result, McNeil River has a tremendous salmon run. Those salmon, in turn, attract a large number of brown bears, making the sanctuary one of the most popular wildlife attractions in the state.
While gorging themselves on salmon, the bears along McNeil River pay no attention to humans. During our visit, we sat just a few yards away from them and watched as they snagged fish from the water with their paws and dove beneath the surface to catch them with their mouths. More than forty bears were gathered there that day.
At one point, the bears wandered as close as three feet from where we were seated. The ground shook when they walked by. Armed guides from the Fish and Game Commission stood near us to make sure the bears didn’t harm us, but no one has ever been injured by a bear attack there. Just to be safe, when we arrived I told the guards that if a bear got on top of me they should shoot it and not worry about hitting me. I’d rather take my chances with their marksmanship skills than with the bear.
Bears are a challenge to life in the wild, but they aren’t the only risk we face in Alaska. A few years ago, I was on a moose hunt with my friends Adrian Lane, Dave Reeves, Craig Lyndon, and Mike Hodsdon. We hauled our four-wheelers out to a spot off the Denali Highway not far from the Maclaren River, then rode into the woods. At the river we loaded our gear and four-wheelers onto an airboat operated by our friend Fred Haynes. He ferried us across to the opposite side and we continued on another ten or fifteen miles. Doing that put us well beyond the area covered by typical hunters. We’ve hunted like that for the past twenty years.
About a week into the hunt we received a call on the satellite phone from Dave’s wife. They had an emergency at home and he needed to get back to town quickly. Dave packed his gear and prepared to leave. For safety, we never traveled alone, so Adrian and I accompanied him on our four-wheelers back to the river crossing. Fred was waiting for us when we arrived. Dave drove his four-wheeler onto the airboat, then took a seat near the back. Normally, Fred added ballast to the stern of the boat to counteract the weight of the four-wheeler lashed to the bow, in order to make the boat sit level in the water. This time, because he was in a hurry to get across the river, he chose to make the trip without the ballast.
The Maclaren River is a glacial river. The water is cold and moves swiftly. That day, the water was particularly high and moved unusually fast. As Fred turned the boat to make the crossing, a wave caught the bow and forced it down beneath the surface. Already overloaded in front with the four-wheeler, the bow sank quickly. The force of the current caught the boat and sent it tumbling end over end downstream. They had lifejackets, but rather than wearing them, the jackets lay at the bottom of the boat.
Dave was thrown free of the craft and swam hard trying to keep his head above the surface. He did his best but the cold water quickly sapped his strength. Water that cold feels like needles stabbing your skin. It also rapidly depletes body heat. In just a few short minutes, Dave was exhausted and in serious trouble. He told us later that he reached a point where he was certain he’d made his last stroke. Prepared to die, his body sank into the water. At that very moment, his feet touched bottom. Dave is six and a half feet tall. If he’d been any shorter he would have drowned, but that day he made it safely to the riverbank, saved by his height. Not long after he pulled himself from the water, two men in an airboat found him, wet and hypothermic. They built a fire and helped him get warm.
Fred was not so fortunate. We spent the remainder of the day searching for him, the boat, and the four-wheeler, but found no sign of them. Soldiers from a National Guard unit arrived late in the afternoon to help. State troopers finally arrived the next morning. We located the four-wheeler about a mile downstream. Someone found Fred’s body on a sandbar. They never found the boat.
Alaska is a place of extremes, a characteristic that is readily discernible to even the casual visitor. We have bitterly cold winters; twenty-hour summer days, followed by twenty-hour winter nights. The terrain is marked by imposing mountain ranges and remote wilderness areas that never have been touched by human footprints. Seeing it for the first time you might think the region produces hard people with little heart or empathy for others. Nothing could be further from the truth. In contrast to the often harsh weather conditions and challenging terrain, the people of Alaska are warm, friendly, and have an infectious, though ironic, sense of humor. Nothing exemplifies that spirit better than the story of Louie Liken and the Sour Toe Cocktail.
Back in the 1920s, Louie worked in the Alaskan bush as a hunter and trapper. One winter he suffered frostbite on his big toe. With true Alaskan grit and determination, he amputated the toe himself to prevent gangrene. Rather than dispose of the toe, he pickled it in a bottle of rum.
After Louie died, a friend named Bill Holmes cleaned out the cabin and found the bottle with the toe inside. He took the bottle to the Eldorado Hotel in Dawson City, Yukon, where it sat on a shelf in the hotel bar until one night when a woman saw it and took a drink from the bottle. Thus began the tradition of the Sour Toe Cocktail—a drink consumed with the well-preserved human toe resting at the bottom of the glass.
As with most other things, rules developed about what counted as a true Sour Toe Cocktail. At first the drink was required to be alcoholic, and patrons had to completely consume it in various ways and forms. These days the drink can be of any variety and there is only a single simple rule contained in the oft-repeated phrase, “You can drink it fast, you can drink it slow, but the lips gotta touch the toe.” Touching the toe with your lips is all that’s required, but some have been more enthusiastic than others in the way they did it.
Eventually, the toe passed through several owners and now resides at the Downtown Hotel in Dawson City. However, the current toe is not the original one. As of the last time I checked, the one now used for the cocktail is toe number seven. Four were swallowed by overly enthusiastic drinkers and two others were stolen. Various donors have supplied replacements, the most recent coming from a man who included a specific bequest of his toes in his will.
You might not share this kind of Alaskan humor, but many of us have a certificate to prove we are official Sour Toe Cocktail drinkers. My wife, Sally, and I drank one with Sarah and Todd at the end of the Over the Top snowmachine trek, an annual two-hundred-mile snowmachine ride through the bush from Tok to Chicken, Alaska, then across the river into Dawson City. We have the certificates to prove it. Our friends Adrian and Marilyn Lane were with us.
A few years ago, my son spent the Fourth of July in Manley Hot Springs. It’s a small mining town about 150 miles northeast of Fairbanks. Independence Day is still an occasion for celebration in rural Alaska, and Manley hosts one of the best. Townspeople gather at the local park for games and races. Natives from villages like Tanana and Minto come into town. Gold miners leave their claims and join celebrants in the village to eat, listen to music, and swap stories.
On this particular Fourth of July, a bar called the Roadhouse held a community barbecue. Everyone from miles around showed up. A band, featuring Alaska’s own Frank Gurtler, kept the dance floor packed. In the middle of one of the songs, a big burly ex-Marine named Buzz Burr suddenly collapsed on the floor. The music stopped and when the crowd realized Buzz wasn’t breathing, two men began performing CPR. One man did the chest compressions while the other breathed into Buzz’s mouth. This went on for ten minutes or so, and then my son took a turn. He tilted Buzz’s head back and blew air into his lungs, watching his chest rise and fall with each breath. After what seemed like half an hour there still was no response from Buzz. Finally, everyone realized he was dead and there was nothing else they could do for him. Someone called the state troopers, but since Manley was in a remote location, it took a while for the troopers to respond.
Everyone in the bar had been watching this scene play out and when they realized Buzz was gone, someone grabbed his baseball cap and, in a gesture of honor and respect, hung it on a rack above the bar. Someone else found a blanket and spread it over the body. No one wanted to move his body before the troopers arrived, so they left him lying right there in the middle of the dance floor. Then the band started playing again and everyone continued dancing around his body. In between songs, people told their best Buzz stories and drank a toast to him. It was a great way for him to go out. He was with his best friends, in his favorite place, listening to great music and dancing with beautiful women.
That’s Alaska—a place of wonder and beauty, a place of danger and grace. As majestic as the towering mountains and as unforgiving as the cascading avalanche. It remains the last American frontier, where brain and brawn confront raw, unvarnished nature in a struggle that shapes them both. And it was to that Alaska that I brought my family during the summer of 1964. What we found there made us who we are today. For Sally, me, and our children—Chuck Jr., Heather, Sarah, and Molly—it was a life-changing adventure. One that brought us face-to-face with nature, tragedy, death, and opportunity, and in the process made us more alive than we ever could have imagined.
The first people to settle in the valley where we live arrived there on a quest. Most of them came seeking their fortune from the natural resources of the region. Russian trappers came in the 1700s. In the 1800s, someone discovered gold in Willow Creek, about twenty-five miles north of Wasilla, and gold miners flocked to the area. During World War I, men came to mine the coal deposits that lay north of Palmer. At the height of the Great Depression, the federal government created the Matanuska Colony and resettled more than two hundred families in the valley. They came from Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota—regions hit unusually hard by the economic collapse.
Though we came many years later, we encountered similar challenges of climate, terrain, and inaccessibility that confronted those early settlers. Like them, we came to Alaska in search of a better life and found it in the struggles we faced.
On the map, we moved from Idaho to Skagway, then from Skagway to Wasilla. In the broader scope of things, the personal journey we began with that physical step took us much farther than any map could measure. Some people thought our move to Alaska was the result of a whim—that we were going off on a lark and only decided to leave on the spur of the moment. I’m sure others thought we’d lost our minds. Actually, our move was part of a much bigger story, one that encompassed the lives of several generations and had been a long time in the making.
Alaska kids grow up fishing the state’s three million lakes in the summer and racing across them in winter on snowmachines, kicking up rooster tails of snow.
For some reason, Grandpa got the idea it would be fun to fly a biplane upside down over Hollywood Boulevard.
Our family history in America stretches all the way back to the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. I heard stories about that from childhood but never knew the details of our lineage until after Sarah was nominated as John McCain’s running mate in 2008. During the months that followed, researchers traced her ancestry and made it available to the public as part of the political vetting process. That sense of historical perspective didn’t influence us much as children. Most of what shaped us—from a family history perspective—began with our paternal grandfather. His friends called him Charlie. We knew him as Grandpa.
Grandpa was born Francis Oriel Heath in 1901, in Chicago, Illinois. His mother died the following year and shortly after that his father took him to California, where they settled in the Los Angeles area. A year later, his father married a woman known to the family only as Agnes. They raised the boy who would become our grandfather under the name Charles F. Heath. He was an adult before he learned that Agnes, whom he’d known throughout childhood as his mother, wasn’t his biological parent.
As a general rule, Grandpa refused to talk much about his father, but from the few memories that have survived I’m sure their relationship must have been tumultuous. He attended elementary school, then dropped out and went to work. His father had owned a bicycle shop in Chicago, but in Los Angeles he operated a radio and electrical supply business. The two worked it together with Grandpa helping out in sales.
Selling electrical supplies helped pay the bills, but that’s all it was—a way to make a living. Grandpa’s first love was sports and, second to that, photography. He was a quick learner and taught himself to use a camera. A naturally gifted salesman, with a penchant for being in the right place at the right time, he combined his two interests—sports and photography—and began covering events in the Los Angeles area. It wasn’t long before he left the electrical business for a career as a photographer. He took pictures of many things, but most of the photographs that survive today are of sports events and celebrities, primarily people involved with boxing and wrestling.
The events he covered were local. Boxing and wrestling at the Grand Olympic Auditorium, Hollywood Legion Stadium, or Wrigley Field (Los Angeles). Midget auto racing at Loyola High School Stadium and Gilmore Stadium. College football at the Rose Bowl. With its moderate climate and thriving motion-picture business, Los Angeles attracted many national celebrities, and Grandpa took full advantage of that.
By then he was married to our grandmother, Marie Brandt, and they often invited sports celebrities to their home. They entertained the likes of heavyweight boxing champions James J. Jeffries, Joe Louis, and Primo Carnera, along with professional wrestling’s first superstars, Gorgeous George and Man Mountain Dean. They also were friends with Barney Oldfield, an early automobile-racing celebrity, and many lesser-known boxing figures such as Manuel Ortiz and Tony Olivera, both of whom fought in the bantamweight division.
Covering sports events opened other opportunities too. George Temple Jr., a professional wrestler whom Grandpa photographed many times, was an older brother to the childhood actress Shirley Temple. As a rising young Hollywood star, Shirley needed publicity photographs. George suggested Grandpa for the job and it wasn’t long before he was one of her photographers too.
An expanding array of friendships also gave him the opportunity to work in the film industry. He appeared as an extra in a number of motion pictures, including several of the popular children’s short comedy films in the Our Gang series, episodes of which were later syndicated for television as The Little Rascals. As a child I was fascinated when he told me about how excited the kids became when action in a scene called for them to break a window. The glass was made of sugar and after it broke, all the kids scrambled to eat the pieces.
As a young man, Grandpa watched the aviation industry flourish and, like many of that era, he was intrigued by airplanes. Never one to pass up an opportunity for adventure, he obtained a pilot’s license and took to the skies above Los Angeles. Not long after that, he got the idea that it would be fun to fly a biplane upside down over Hollywood Boulevard. The commotion that followed was a little too much for the authorities, and an investigation was launched to determine the pilot’s identity. It wasn’t difficult to figure out who was flying the plane. We have a photograph of Dad as a young boy standing beside a plane when he went for his first flight. The tail number was registered to a Waco GXE, a biplane with three seats that was manufactured in 1928. I like to imagine it’s the same one Grandpa flew.
In 1938, when our father was born, the family, including Dad’s older sister, Carol, lived in a small house on Farmdale Avenue in North Hollywood. Dad spent the first ten years of his life in the raucous world of Hollywood at its golden age, a time that coincided with many of the events my grandfather covered as a sports photographer. Together, the two of them palled around Los Angeles—Grandpa in his forties, Dad just a kid. They saw many of the memorable sporting events of their day and met sports celebrities most people could only admire from afar. Some of Dad’s earliest memories are from events at Grand Olympic Auditorium, accompanying his father into the locker room after boxing matches, and seeing wrestlers who were enemies in the ring laughing and joking afterward. Often, on the way home, Grandpa stopped off at a café or bar for a drink with a few of the boxers and wrestlers. Dad, though only a child, was right there with him.
When he wasn’t with Grandpa at an event, Dad walked with his friends over to Republic Studios, seven or eight blocks away, and slipped under the fence to watch movies in the making. Republic made low-budget, black-and-white cowboy films and was home to Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. Dad and his friends watched as the action unfolded in Republic’s soundstage studio buildings or on the lot outside.
With the outbreak of World War II, Grandpa felt a sense of duty to participate in defending the country. Well past the draft age, he volunteered for service in the Navy and was inducted as a photojournalist. Much to his dismay, a few months later he was granted an honorable discharge and sent home. War, as it turned out, really was a young man’s battle.
Like many American families, they spent the war years learning to live in a rationed economy. Dad and his neighborhood friends sold war bond stamps. A scaled-down version of war bonds, customers purchased stamps, often for pennies each, which were placed in a booklet. When the booklet was filled, it could be redeemed for an actual bond. The program was targeted toward children. Dad and his friends received free movie tickets for every book they filled.
By the end of the war, Los Angeles and the neighborhood in North Hollywood had changed. Industries associated with the war effort brought thousands of new people to the area and life moved at a frenetic pace. At the same time, the classic era of motion pictures was coming to a close. Television was on the rise.
That same year, Dad caught his first fish off the Santa Barbara Pier, a sea bass that weighed about five pounds. Carol was with him and for several days they carried it around like a trophy. Catching that first fish might not sound like much, but it ignited the adventuresome nature already well formed in Dad’s soul. Like many young boys, he had dreamed of fishing and hunting for most of his life but, living in Los Angeles, those dreams seemed far-fetched. Grandpa was infected with the same idea, and between them they began to discuss locations where they might explore their growing interest in the outdoors. Before long, the talk turned serious and our grandparents began to consider a move to the country.
Over the following weeks and months they took several vacations, wandering through Northern California and traveling east into Nevada. Our grandparents didn’t know much about roughing it but they did their best to make the trips an adventure, camping by the side of the road and eating meals prepared over a portable stove. Most nights they slept in the car.
In the spring of 1948, they drove through the northern tier of states on a trip that took them to Sandpoint, Idaho. At the time, most of the state was still rural and untamed. Lake Pend Oreille, a beautiful expanse some sixty-five miles long, was only just being discovered as a sportsman’s favorite. Timber and logging were the mainstays of the economy. Tourism had not yet become the region’s primary attraction. As a result, the area retained much of its rustic charm while also providing most of the conveniences Americans were beginning to expect—electricity, running water, and paved roads.
After exploring the town and surrounding countryside for a few days, they settled on a house and farm near the town of Hope, a small community on the east side of Lake Pend Oreille, about fifteen miles outside Sandpoint. They made the move that summer. Dad was ten years old, and he couldn’t have been happier.
In human relationships, drawing causal connections from one generation to the next seems a little risky. However, when I look at our family, that move—from California to Idaho, from a life focused on sports photography to one focused on living an outdoor life—marked a major turning point for Dad, one that had a profound effect on the generations that followed.
Like ripples from a rock striking the surface of a pond, relocating to Idaho and the life it afforded sent ever-expanding waves through the succeeding generations. From a fish caught on a dock in Santa Barbara, to a string of fish from Lake Pend Oreille, to hunting deer and elk, first our grandfather, then our father, and then the children and grandchildren were captured by a spirit of adventure. Not that all of us have become hunters, but we all have found our lives propelled by a force that compels us to press against our comfort zone in whatever we do. When we run, we want to run faster. When we hunt, we want to nab larger game. When we fish, we want to catch one more. To really run, really hunt, really fish, always pressing forward for an experience more authentic than the last. That same progression is evident in Sarah’s life.
Excerpted from Our Sarah by Chuck Heath, Sr. Copyright © 2012 by Chuck Heath, Sr.. Excerpted by permission.
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