Nuclear Tourism, WWF & Old Westerns

On this day last year, the earth lost a legend. He was mostly soft spoken, from what I remember, but I am sure to the troops he led in the Marine Corps, there is a different perspective on that. He served in Korea and Vietnam in the infantry and as military police. He was shot three times, and as a child he’d let me feel the bullets still lodged on either side of his spine. Most notably, in our family rhetoric, he was shot in the buttock diving into a fox hole. He embodied Semper Fidelis, the Marine motto, in all things he did. He served his country honorably, even earning a purple heart, but that’s not why he’s a legend.

Murray McKinnon entered my family in 1948, when my mother was just about a year old. He loved my grandmother fiercely, and he cared for my mother’s children like they were his own grandchildren. I know he and my mother had some trouble at times, but he taught her all the things a father would and protected her against (most) boys he thought were not good enough. He was the perfect model of a stepfather, which then allowed me, as a child receiving a stepfather, to feel confident that I could be loved in the same way, blood or no blood. His love story with my grandmother was absolutely the best I’ve heard and most definitely the best I’ve seen–married from age 20 until death, and hopefully death does not even part them. He was the man behind family trips and wilderness adventures. He took my grandmother all over the world after retirement because, as he once told me, “The purpose to life is to see everything, to do it all.”

Murray McKinnon was my “Papa”. We spent a lot of time together while I grew up, and I was able to have some really fantastic memories with him. It was never really apparent to me that he wasn’t my mom’s real father, as he was the only one around (my mother’s father died in Vietnam). Some of my favorite memories of Papa were when he’d tell me stories about how he and his brother would ride dragonflies on roller skates, how they’d go on wild adventures fighting bears. He was a fantastic storyteller with a wild, hilarious imagination, and I would sit at his feet, playing with Lincoln Logs, enthralled by what would come next. I was fortunate enough to live close to my grandparents growing up–about a 15 minute drive, and I was there to clean their house or for a family gathering pretty often. I struggled getting along with my grandmother even as a small child, but Papa kept me coming back. After I cleaned their house (making probably about $10 for the indoors and outdoors…), we’d sit in the living room, where I learned all about Macho Man, Hulk Hogan, and my other favorite World Wrestling Federation wrestlers. Then, we’d watch Bonanza, Highway to Heaven, and the A-Team after that. He told me he was giving me a “cultural experience” every time we watched TV together. But I think the thing I loved most was watching old westerns with him, especially John Wayne movies (his favorite), where it was clear he’d memorized all the best parts. Half the time I watched the movie, and half the time I would just watch him. He was such a cowboy that the house was decorated in John Wayne pictures, turquoise, landscapes of the old West, cowboy boots, among other things. He even sneezed, “Yeehaw!”, shaking the entire house. At first those things scared me, but then they were the things I looked forward to most. That and being named his “favorite”, which all the cousins competed for over time. He was the heart and soul of my family.

I was the youngest grandchild and came pretty far after the next youngest, which means that my grandparents were quite old when I came around–my mother was nearly 40 when I was born, so that meant they were 60, about to retire, about to plan the adventure into the “Golden Years”. My Papa really did believe in “work hard, play hard,” and the Golden Years were going to be all about play and all about time with Gramma. And then there was me. By the time I was old enough to go on wilderness adventures and road trips, I didn’t have a familial partner (my other siblings and cousins were much closer in age), and my grandparents were struggling with even the thought of going on road trips themselves–all the driving caught up to Papa after a while. But I had been looking forward to it, and he really wanted to give me the opportunity.

In summer of 1996, I was given my opportunity to road trip with my grandparents. Papa was on a hunt for more turquoise from a trading post in Eastern Arizona, they had planned to see a nuclear testing site they hadn’t gotten to in New Mexico, and my cousin needed to be picked up to go home from working in the Grand Canyon for the summer as a server. And, of course, I wanted the opportunity to see how the West was won with the man who taught me to love it. We set off while I was still asleep, with Papa transferring me from the guest room to the car, and by the time I awoke, we were in the Western Arizona desert. I hadn’t seen many national parks, not even Yosemite, so we stopped at them all. That, coupled with all the nuclear testing sites between San Diego and Amarillo, Texas, made for the trip and adventure of a lifetime. With Papa’s stories and jokes leading the way. Most notable:

  • He bought me a bat at Carlsbad Caverns. He enrolled me as a Junior Ranger for a day. We saw the bats leave the caverns at dusk. I fell in love with rocks and understood the difference between stalactites and stalagmites. We made up stories about my bat, and he even helped me with a letter to the new family addition.
  • He took me to Roswell, New Mexico, Area 54, and Meteor Crater. We stayed on military bases and took tours of the radiation grounds. We even got clearance to drive out to where the Manhattan Project first camped while testing the atomic bomb.
  • He added to my beach sand collection with stolen sand from White Sands Monument, where we played for hours, sliding down the dunes and climbing back up them. He told me we were “surfing”.

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  • Not only did he let me have adventures and play like a kid, but he played like a kid himself, pulling out a Mexican blanket from the car and riding down the dunes himself, filled with laughter. This was one of the best things to see–that even when you grow up, you can be playful.

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  • He took me to Lincoln, New Mexico, where Billy the Kid was shot. We went on tours of the town to all the places they chased him. Then, we headed to Santa Fe to look at art and community gardens and where Kit Carson laid his head to rest. We spent a full day looking at art and architecture from New Mexico and marveled over the pottery of such greats as Maria Martinez (my now favorite potter) and carvings from the Anasazi tribes. He giggled at Georgia O’Keefe paintings and made my grandmother blush. He taught me the history of the Southwest that sparked my infatuation with Southwest and Anasazi art and architecture. In New Mexico, I met Kokopelli and adopted him as my guide. Papa solidified this spirit guide with my very own silver ring, welded down to my size, at the same trading post where he found his favorite turquoise ring.

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  • We ended our tour in the Painted Desert and the Grand Canyon, where I was able to have a partner for the last day of the trip. We circumnavigated the Rim and spent way too long in the gift shop. He told me that one day, I needed to hike down into the Canyon and go white-water rafting…something still on my bucket list. He taught me respect for National Parks, the appropriate use of sunscreen while still tanning, and to never leave a trace. And throughout all of this, he made my grandmother laugh and giggle and smile.

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This trip came at a time before much of the pain in my life accumulated. Soon after this trip, I began to withdraw and never gave the trip we had together the reverence it deserved. My Papa lost the ability to have adventures soon after this, with a stroke, and unfortunately, we didn’t have another outing like this again. In all honesty, this trip changed my life completely. Never would I have begun to love Southwest art and art history, never would I have spent the time wondering why he made so many jokes at the Georgia O’Keefe museum, never would I have been enchanted by the New Mexico desert, never would I have fallen in love with camping, hiking, and exploring. Never would I have been ready for my summer the next year, staying on the Navajo reservation with Vanessa’s family. Never would I have kept up my rock and sand collection with so much care.

For a few years, the rift between my grandmother and myself (and my grandmother and my mother), mostly driven by ego, caused me to stay away from my grandparents’ home. My heart had an emptiness and longing for time with Papa. I began to shut off the sense of wonder he had fostered inside of me. While I saw my grandparents over the years, the pain and shame I held inside from not getting help for my trauma cut off the relationship I could have fostered with them as they aged.

Early last year, my mother and I discussed how I would like to be there for them and make sure they felt empowered at end of life. We’d planned a trip to gather my aunt, uncle and grandparents together to really talk. But my diagnosis of cancer pushed out that timeline, and I was unable to even be part of the family reunion that occurred in July 2015 in San Diego because I wasn’t cleared to fly. During that family reunion, Papa died. And I never was able to reconcile, tell him what he meant, or to say goodbye. While I was trying to be happy about no longer having cancer, I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest. The heart of the family was gone in an instant.

From that experience, I learned so many lessons, but two I think are the most critical. First, you never know how long you have with someone. Be vulnerable, love freely and deeply, communicate, and fight through the struggle you may have. Never put off what you could do today. It’s just not worth it. Second, cherish the ways in which you are fundamentally entwined with another person. Over the last month or so, I have realized that I am my Papa’s granddaughter. So much of what we shared lives on in me, which means that he lives on. Which means that he never really left me at all. There is comfort in knowing that we imprint upon others, for good and for bad, and it’s just so much better to imprint the good on this world. Papa definitely did that for me. Papa taught me unconditional love. He taught me that we all make choices, and that those choices affect others. He taught me to love Duane ‘The Rock’ Johnson, to have great belly laughs, and to play miniature golf. He chose to treat me the same way as my cousins, even though I wasn’t his blood. He chose to love my mother as his daughter, to the best of his ability. He chose to share his love for the world and appreciation for the world freely and without shame, so that others could love it too. He chose laughter, storytelling, and kindness over the intense stoicism he had been taught in the military.

I am honored that his life is something I can teach others, that I can carry on his legacy to share with my friends, loved ones, and especially the next generation of my family. Today, my brother brought into the world a beautiful baby girl–the first grandchild that will never know Papa. We all have the responsibility to share the legacy of him that lives inside of us and ensure that part of their understanding is the importance of WWF, nuclear tourism, and old Westerns.

I love you, Papa. Happy Trails ’til we meet again.

Love,

Blonde

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