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The Frontier Beckons
On the day the Beatles invaded the United States with their first live appearance in concert, in Washington, D.C., Sarah Palin was born in Sandpoint, Idaho, the third of four children to Chuck and Sally Heath. The date was February 11, 1964, and she was greeted by a family of teachers and runners. Her father, Chuck, taught science and ran in the Boston Marathon. Her mother, Sally, caught the running bug, too, later competing in Anchorage 's Mayor's Marathon.
Sarah's mother, the former Sally Sheeran, was raised in Richland, Washington, part of the Tri-Cities area of southeast Washington State. Sally's parents, Clem and Helen Sheeran, had moved there from Salt Lake City in 1943, three years after Sally's birth. The United States was in the throes of World War II and in a race with Germany to develop the nuclear bomb. The Hanford Site in Washington, 60 miles up the Columbia River from Richland, was a centerpiece of the Manhattan Project, producing the plutonium needed to manufacture the weapon. Clem, a veteran IRS administrator, was recruited by Hanford as a labor relations manager for a workforce numbering in the thousands. Hanford scientists were at the forefront of their field, but the facility's woeful waste-disposal systems eventually left the site a toxic disaster. Today, the site is a decommissioned nuclear production complex. Shut down after the Cold War, it now is home to one of the largest environmental clean-ups in the country.
While the Washington-born Clem worked at Hanford, his Wisconsin-born wife, the former Helen Gower, was a doâ??it-all homemaker and whiz with the sewing machine, making clothes, windowdrapes, and furniture upholstery. They had six children in all, including Sally. The practical skills Sally learned from her mother were later passed on to her own children. "She taught me to be self-sufficient," Sarah told People magazine about her mother. A recreational swimmer and tennis player, Sally was a 1958 graduate of Columbia High School, which has since been renamed Richland High. From the start, the Sheerans were a family that valued hard work, education, religion, and community service. Helen volunteered at local nursing homes. Sarah Palin's late uncle, Pat Sheeran, received a doctorate from Gonzaga University and served as a District One judge. After the war, Clem returned to civilian life and went on to a career in arbitration, specializing in workplace issues. Clem and Helen were steadfast churchgoers and had all the Sheeran kids baptized as Catholics. Clem also introduced the kids to tennis, golf, and swimming. "My father was an athlete," Sarah's mother remembered. "I think he wished we all excelled at sports, but we had fun with it."
Sally Heath's Pacific Northwest childhood was never far from her heart, and she and her husband, Chuck Heath, made annual family trips back to Washington with their kids even after they moved to Alaska. Sally's sister, Katie Johnson, recalled an active, little, doe-eyed Sarah who loved to swim in a public pool across the street from her grandparents' house in Richland. "The girls and Chuck Jr. would come to Richland, and Mom and Dad would give them pool passes and they'd stay there all day; that was a big deal for a kid from Alaska," Katie said. When Sarah attended college in Idaho in the mid-1980s, Richland was her second home. During school holidays, Sarah and Chuck Jr., who was also attending college in Idaho, made the 150-mile trek from Moscow, where they were enrolled at the University of Idaho. "Everything she 's ever done she 's excelled at," said Sarah's uncle, Ron Jones.
The trait of excellence ran on both sides of the family. Sarah's father, Charles R. Heath, who went by Chuck to his friends, was born in March 1938 in Los Angeles to a sports photographer father, Charlie, and a schoolteacher mother, the former Nellie "Marie" Brandt. His father photographed many of the legendary fighters and wrestlers of the day and even entertained many of the greats at their Los Angeles home.
"My mother taught school in North Hollywood, and Dad covered boxing and wrestling matches at the Olympic Auditorium. I have pictures of me with boxers Joe Louis and James J. Jeffries," said Heath. "One of my earliest memories is finding a rat caught in a trap at the Olympic Auditorium." Decades later, Heath would work for Alaska's department of agriculture and develop an expertise for exterminating nuisance rat infestations devastating native bird populations.
His family moved to Hope, Idaho, in 1948 when Heath was ten. "My parents wanted to get away from L.A.," Chuck Heath said. "Mom came to Hope and taught school, and Dad worked as a freelance photographer and drove a school bus."
Heath's only sibling, a sister two years his senior named Carol, died of cancer at age forty-two.
The move to Hope, Idaho, exposed young Heath to the great outdoors, as he took up hunting and fishing. His father was so into fishing that he handcrafted lures and started a small lure company. Heath attended high school ten miles away in Sandpoint, where he earned his diploma in 1956 and played football under legendary high school coach Cotton Barlow. Heath, a running back, had the privilege of having his path through the defense cleared by Green Bay Packers legend Jerry Kramer. "He made me look good," Heath said. Kramer, a big Sarah Palin fan, said he was "hooked" by the Alaskan governor when her candidacy was announced. "How can I not like a girl from Sandpoint?"
But Kramer also knows what can happen when a quarterback enters a game too early in his career. After Sarah was selected to run with McCain, he predicted that she might get roughed up on the campaign trail. "She appeared from the bushes to save McCain, save the Republican Party, and save the world.... I'm just afraid they're putting too much of a burden on her," he said. "But you like her character and the qualities she brings."
On the job, Sarah often wears gold earrings in the shape of the state of Alaska, but Idaho claims her as one of its own. After high school, her father, Chuck, enrolled at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, a few miles from the Sheerans' Richland, Washington, home. He played football, studied science, and met his future wife, who was interested in a career as a dental assistant. "We were in a biology lab together, and Chuck picked me as his partner to do a blood test," Sally said. "He thought it would be fun to prick each other's fingers."
On their first date, they went to a drive-in movie, which Chuck paid for with a sock full of coins. "To this day he does not walk past a penny on the ground without picking it up," she said. "He is a great saver."
Katie recalled meeting Chuck for the first time after Sally brought him back to the Richland house to meet their parents. "I remember Sally bringing Chuck home on a date, and when he wasn't paying attention, she giggled, 'Isn't he cute?' " The introduction was a success. Clem, a football and basketball referee and an avid tennis player and golfer, approved of his daughter's choice. "Dad liked Chuck because Chuck was into sports," said Katie.
In 1959, the year President Eisenhower signed the declaration making Alaska the forty-ninth state of the Union, Chuck transferred to Eastern Washington University in Cheney to finish up his college degree. Sally followed, taking a job as a dental assistant in nearby Spokane. Before graduation, Chuck landed a teaching job back in Sandpoint and returned to work, finishing up his college degree at night school. In the summer of 1961, Chuck and Sally applied for a marriage license and wed at St. Joseph's Roman Catholic Church in Sandpoint. Sally gave birth to a quick succession of children Chuck Jr. arrived on February 7, 1962; Heather was born on January 28, 1963, followed by Sarah a year later. Their fourth child, Molly, was born two years after Sarah on November 26, 1966, after the family had relocated to Skagway, Alaska.
Old Sandpoint neighbor Loralee Gray, an artist, recalled the Heaths as a young and active family. Chuck coached basketball to ninth graders and spent his leisure time hunting and fishing with pal Bill Adams, a teacher whose wife befriended Sally, a stay-at-home mom.
"Chuck took me under his wing," Adams said. "I was a small-town kid from Montana, and [Chuck] said, 'We 're going to teach you the Idaho way.' "
But like his father before him, Chuck aspired to something greater for himself and his family. He was stretched financially with three new mouths to feed, and there was only one place that could satisfy his wanderlust and ambition the Alaskan frontier. By the time Sarah was born in February 1964, he had already mailed out job applications to cities throughout Alaska. "The call of the wild got to him," Adams said. In addition, he was lured by the forty-ninth state 's growing service industry. "We had a great little neighborhood there in Sandpoint," said Gray, who lived in the house behind the Heaths' rental home. "But schoolteachers in Idaho weren't making much. Wages were abysmal."
Not in Alaska. With the oil boom just around the bend, the state was recruiting good teachers from the Lower Forty-eight, and the pay difference was substantial. The region had another draw for the outdoorsman in Heath; it had the best hunting anywhere. "The talk was that it was the best place to go for that," said Katie. "He talked Sally into it by promising, 'Let's try it for one year and see what happens,' and they loved it."
Looking back, Sally reflected, "I didn't think it would be for forty-five years." She chuckled. "When I married him I knew I was in for an adventure and had to be ready for his crazy ideas."
Chuck was a popular science teacher and coach in Sandpoint, but the wilderness beckoned. "I applied all over Alaska but took the job in Skagway," he told the Anchorage Daily News in 2007. Undeterred by the colossal March 27, 1964, Anchorage earthquake that registered 8.4 on the Richter scale, Chuck wrapped up his teaching duties, packed up the family, and headed for the last frontier in June 1964. He drove the family station wagon alone to British Columbia, where he caught a ferry for a two-day cruise to Skagway, which wasn't accessible by car at the time. Sally, joined by her mother, flew in by plane with the kids after Chuck found a place to live. "Chuck was the pied piper of Sandpoint; he led an exodus of locals to Alaska," said Gray.
When he arrived, "I had a fishing pole in one hand and a gun in the other," Chuck said. "I guess I still haven't put them down."
They first settled in a duplex at the White Pass tank farm that was once an old military complex and then rented a second home before moving into a larger turn-of-the-century, three-bedroom home on the south side of town known in Skagway as the Elmer Rasmuson house.
When Sarah visited the town in 2007, the memories came rushing back: porcupines hiding under the house, hikes along the Chilkoot trail, the wooden sidewalks leading to town, catechism classes at a nearby Catholic church, and basketball games coached by her father. "I used to walk around by myself," she told the Skagway News.
The tiny city of Skagway was situated on the scenic Chilkoot Inlet, one hundred miles north of the capital city of Juneau on the southeastern peninsula of Alaska. A tourist attraction for the cruise liners and ferries, the town needed educators for the service industry population. They had offered Chuck a grade-school teaching position at the Skagway City Schools, which operated a kindergarten-through-twelve program out of a two-story building near the center of town. The school yearbook showed a burly young Chuck Heath with a receding hairline and wearing a pressed, white short-sleeved shirt and black tie. In his four years at the school, he taught grades five through seven and coached the high school basketball team. Students recalled a "tough" teacher when he visited Skagway with his governor daughter in 2007, Chuck bumped into an old student and reminded him he owed him a book report. The student apparently had been caught using comic books as a source for his paper, and Chuck remembered.
The school didn't have cooking appliances to prepare hot food, so kids went home for lunch, except when the temperature outside dipped down to 10 degrees below zero, not uncommon in the winter because of the windy conditions. "On those days the kids took a sack lunch," said Barbara Moore, a Heath family friend whose husband, Paul Moore, taught with Chuck.
Though nowhere near the oil fields on the state 's North Slope, Skagway was still remote. This tiny old mining town was nestled on a flat riverbed amid 7000-foot snow-capped peaks. The local inlet waters teemed with king and silver salmon while the surrounding mountains were filled with wild game, bears, mountain goats, and Dall sheep. It was hard living for the local population. Basic services and information were difficult to come by. There was no direct television signal because the state didn't have a satellite, so television shows were taped and shipped in for rebroadcast. A single radio station and the region's sole major daily newspaper were based in Juneau, a six-hour ferry ride down the inlet, and also a scenic glacier field that draws tourists from around the world.
Skagway had a single paved road, State Street, an improvement residents actually fought against because they felt it impinged on the city's rustic appeal. The winters were cold and windy, and an early spring thaw sometimes flooded the streets and forced residents to head for high ground during high tide. But the tradeoff was a wilderness unmatched for its natural, rugged beauty.
On a map, Skagway is located near the southern edge of the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park, a favorite hiking destination for the Heaths. In the late nineteenth century, when the Alaska gold rush was at its height, the town's population surged past ten thousand. It has a very basic layout buildings and streets on one side and the railroad, marina, and airport on the other, nearest the water. During World War II, the economy was robust as the railroad passed through town and funneled supplies and workers building the Alaska Highway to the north. "Chuck worked for the railroad in the summertime," said Sally. "He was a gandy dancer, and he loved it. They'd take the tracks up into the mountains and tap ties into place." During tourist season, both Chuck and Sally drove taxicabs. On Sundays, Sally walked the kids to church at St. Therese of the Child Jesus parish while Chuck worked or went hunting with a friend. He also organized family hikes in the mountains in search of artifacts left behind by the miners of the Klondike gold rush. "He got into the hunting," recalled Sally. "Not many residents did, so he and his buddies had the mountains to themselves. At that time you could hunt seals. He would go out in a small dinghy and wait for a seal to poke its head through the water. We kept the hides, but there was a local family that loved the meat, and we shared it with them."
Skagway in the mid-1960s was scrambling to increase basic services for its then 800 residents, who could get by without a laundromat but worried after the local hospital closed and the only doctor in town retired. For a couple of years, a nurse-midwife was the sole medical practitioner in town. Families had to wait for dentists, eye doctors, and physicians from Haines to make periodic visits, or if there was an emergency, they had to rush to them by sea or by air, since the only highway leading into Skagway wasn't built until the 1970s. "If you needed to see a doctor or a dentist, you had to fly to Juneau, or fly or take the ferry forty-five minutes to Haines twelve miles down the Chilkoot Inlet," said Paul Moore, a business teacher. During an official visit to Skagway in 2007, Governor Palin herself remembered when her brother, Chuck Jr., burned his foot terribly running through a fire and Sally had to take him all the way to Juneau by ferry to get proper medical treatment at a hospital. "All these years later, that's still what people have to rely on here in some instances," Sarah recently told a reporter. There is still no direct road to Juneau, and residents remain split on whether one should ever be built.
In the Skagway years, the Moores and the Heaths became good friends, and they remain in touch today. "Chuck used to borrow my eighteen-foot Reinell boat to take the kids to the dentist," said Paul Moore. "There were no [life-threatening] emergencies I can think of; our families were blessed by guardian angels."
Chuck Heath also took up fur trapping, inspired by a neighbor who used to show off his pelts, said Moore. "I remember a veteran trapper in Skagway telling Chuck not to bother trying to trap wolverines; they're too smart, and you'll be wasting your time. So what does Chuck do? He goes and traps not one but two wolverines. I believe Chuck has hunted just about everything there is to hunt in Alaska. Before the Marine Mammal Act went into effect, we hunted seals and sea lions and sold the hides. We sold our bear hides, too."
But the annual moose hunt was the highlight of the year. Licensed hunters in Alaska today are allowed to take one moose per annum, but only one in three hunters who try is successful. To get a moose, Heath and Moore would fly twenty minutes to Yakutat, a small fishing village located on Monti Bay. After shooting the moose, the legs are severed and the head removed, and the carcass is quartered on the field and hauled out in backpacks on foot, not too far from the source of transportation, usually a boat or an ATV. It takes more than one trip to remove the meat from a 700-pound moose, so hunters have to be on the lookout for bears. Once Chuck and Paul returned to Yakutat, they transported the meat by plane back to Skagway, where the wives and kids were ready to go to work. "It's an assembly-line operation," said Moore. "We'd grind the meat into hamburger, roasts, and stew. The kids packed up the meat and put it in the freezer. We had this great commercial meat grinder, and one night we ground four hundred pounds of moose meat. A couple of moose could last you the winter depending on how large your family was."
The wild game sustained families like the Moores, who had thirteen mouths to feed, including their own, and the Heaths. "Skagway had no beauty parlor, no barber shop, and if your car broke, you fixed it yourself; if your washer broke, you fixed it," Moore said. "You wore many hats: carpenter, plumber, electrician, and boat mechanic; you did all your own stuff. We had just two grocery stores in town there was no fresh milk, and the produce ship came twice a month. Banana skins are yellow, but our kids grew up thinking they were black, so we ate a lot of banana bread. We ordered clothes from catalogs and in those days they sent the clothes first and then you paid, just in case things didn't fit. They don't do that anymore."
Moore also noticed that Chuck was a bit of a pack rat and never wanted to part with anything. He mounted trophies of his kills in his home caribou, moose, bears, Dall sheep, and mountain goats and they lined the walls of his home like natural history museum pieces. Pelts were laid over chairs and couches, and skulls and jars of fishing lures also found their way into the nooks and crannies of the Heath household. "All that business started in Skagway," Moore recalled. "Chuck didn't like to part with anything he might have use for. Chuck was blessed with an inquisitive mind and interested in anything that was outdoors. It wouldn't surprise me if he were hunting right now. The wild game and fish that's food and not just a hobby."
It's a philosophy inherited by his daughter Sarah, who has said Alaskans are raised on local sources of protein and prefer wild game to grocery-store meat if they can help it. There is an old photo of young Sarah as a mere toddler, standing in a blue jumper in a Skagway yard dangling two shrimp from her tiny hands. Her clothes are soaked, and her pearl skin is filthy, her brown hair tousled. "That was Sarah for you," Moore said. "She wasn't your typical little girly-girl."
While Sally took the kids to church every Sunday at St. Therese 's, "Chuck was his own keeper," Moore said. "There were just three churches here at the time, and on Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving we'd have interfaith celebrations," said Barbara Moore. "I don't know why Sally changed churches later in Alaska, but sometimes you go where there is a church, and if you get out into a place where there are just a few, the choices you have are dependent upon what's available."
Sally and Barbara became good friends, and they coâ??starred in a community theater production, a melodrama called Love Rides the Rails. They performed for a group of teachers during a conference. "She was a good actress," Barbara said. "I played a mother, and she played a heroine, and then she switched parts since we both had memorized each other's lines."
Barbara got to know Sally well because she relied on the Heaths' washer for backup when hers broke down, a frequent occurrence, since she was washing clothes for a family of thirteen. "It was the neighborly thing to do and a good excuse to catch up over snacks and a cup of tea. I'd bring my laundry over; we'd make a day of it," said Barbara. "We 'd sit and talk, and the kids played. Everyone got along just fine. We didn't worry too much about decorating; it was more like whether we had enough money to keep our kids in shoes and warm clothes for the winter."
One afternoon, Barbara was folding her last bit of laundry when Sally invited the Moore clan over for dinner. "All of us?" Barbara asked. "We had eleven children, and that was the first time and the last time they invited all thirteen of us." Paul Moore laughed. "But we had a great big spaghetti feed."
David Moore, Paul's son who was close friends with Chuck Jr. and now lives in Anchorage, remembered those boisterous get-togethers, which included fifteen kids in all. "We didn't have a TV so we always went over to the Heaths' to watch TV," he said. But the TV schedule was between 3 p.m. and midnight. "TV didn't play a role in their lives or ours," David Moore said. "The nice thing about living in Skagway was that when it came to hunting and fishing, it was all right there."
Sarah bonded with Moore's younger sister, Mary, and most days were spent outdoors, hiking in the woods, playing cowboys and Indians in the summer, cross-country skiing in the winter. After dinner, the families would huddle around the Heaths' wood stove, and Paul and Chuck would break out the boxing gloves and referee matches between the kids. "Sarah boxed with Mary and the older boys," he said. "She was a tough little girl." Years later, Chuck would describe his daughter as both tough and stubborn. "She was strong-willed," he said. "From an early age she thought she was always right, and she usually was." He chuckled. "If I needed something done, I could bend the other kids one way or another, but Sarah was strong-willed, and it was hard to change her mind. That's still her."
In 1969, the Moores watched the moon landing on tape delay at the Heath house. It wasn't long after that Chuck and Sally packed up the brood and moved to Anchorage, where they stayed with relatives of old football buddy Jerry Kramer, who was starting his last season in the NFL. There were now four kids to move, with the addition of the Heaths' third daughter, Molly, who arrived the day after Thanksgiving in 1966. At that time, Barbara Moore said, a doctor from Haines was flying in when the pregnant women went into labor, and babies were born at the local clinic.
"Chuck saw the growth potential in south-central Alaska," said Paul Moore, who later retired back to Sandpoint with his wife after their children were grown. "Chuck and Sally were just down here two years ago having supper and regaling us with stories of trapping rats off St. George 's Island in Alaska and chasing ducks and seagulls off the runway at small airports along the coast. Chuck Heath is a character, blessed with an inquisitive mind, and interested in anything that moves."Copyright © 2009 by Lorenzo Benet