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Looking for Lee and Finding Hope

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A journey of discovery

by Meridee Dunn and Steve Skinner

As a hobby, genealogy is our number one pastime and there’s almost as many resources for the genealogical researcher as there are people doing research. Meridee Dunn of Hope is one such resource. She’s a volunteer with a website promoting “Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness,” and she does local research in county, museum and cemetery records for people all over the world.

Ruth Skinner grew up in England, not knowing her American father, but the internet makes for a small world, in particular for genealogists. Ruth learned from the Social Security Death Index records online that her father had died in this area, and through RAOGK she asked Meridee to take a photograph of his tombstone. “Our meeting was as simple as that,” Meridee explained, and what follows is their story.

There are a few precious times in life when we are given blessings beyond measurement. Meeting Steve and Ruth Skinner will always be one of those rare blessings for us.

Ruth Skinner was born in 1945 in England. The child of an English mother and an American G.I. stationed during World War II at Ridgewell Airbase in England, she grew up knowing very little of her father or what had happened to him. But as with so many of these children in distant lands, she had a deep desire to locate this man she called “Dad.” It was a journey that would span 58 years and, ultimately, bring her to America with her husband Steve. Life’s blessing would not include knowing this dear man, but it would reward her with one gift she thought she would never see.... a photograph of the man her mother had loved and an answer to many questions about him and his family.

Her father had stayed in touch with her mother after the war. He knew of his daughter and was concerned for her future. But in 1947, word ceased to cross the broad expanse between Idaho and England. They heard no more from this man called Dad. A lifetime of anger and resentment could have followed but for the love Ruth held for him and her deep desire to know more.

About 20 some-odd years ago, some young lads exploring the old site of the Ridgewell Airbase in England happened on an amazing discovery. Lying in the mud at the bottom of a drain, they spotted a glint of metal in the filtered sunlight. Being curious, they went after this possible treasure as only young boys would do. When brought to daylight, they had in their hand a dirty, worn dog tag caked with the accumulated debris of the ages. It was pocketed by one of the young boys as a keepsake, and sparked curiosity about who the person was.

Many years later, after the dawning of the computer age, this same lad, now grown older, would dig out the dog tag from his boyhood treasures and his curiosity would be renewed. There are numerous websites concerning the happenings of World War II in England. He decided to post a message, giving the name on the dog tag and inquiring if anyone had knowledge of who this man may have been. That message languished for many years before the woman we know as Ruth and her husband, Steve, purchased a computer. It was still longer before her own quest in search of her father brought her to that precious message waiting all those years. It was her father’s name on those dog tags! And it opened avenues of investigation that would not have been possible without it.

She was able to contact the man who posted the long ago message and in a short time, she had the precious gift of those dog tags in her hand... the only piece of her dad she had ever known. The search began to pick up speed.

The dog tags gave her a location for her search. The worn letters spelling out Kootenai, Idaho were there, along with a service number. United States military records could now be obtained for him and other records could be found.

We can only imagine the heartbreak and grief Ruth felt in finding out her father had been killed in a terrible accident in 1947. He died very early one summer morning in a collision between a log truck and a train. This could have been the end of the story but for Ruth’s desire to know more about him and a family she had never known.

A lone inquiry was made, again via the computer and a genealogy website, asking for the simple gift of a photo of a headstone in a distant county of America. And that’s where I came into the story.

The rest is history, as they say. Steve and Ruth made the decision to come to America as they had always hoped to do in searching for her father. The time was right, invitations were extended to stay in Hope and the dates were set. The rest was up to British Airways!

Steve's story

First Day—Heathrow

The longest journey begins with the first step. That began at 8 am at Gosfield, (England) where we had stayed the night.

The warm sun boded well for the trip to catch the coach at Stanstead for Heathrow. A small doubt crept in when Richard pulled into the coach park and started a security scare. (Can always rely on Sylvia & Richard to liven things up.) The police were very nice about it when they realised we were up from the country.

A trouble-free ride brought us safely to the hell hole called “London Heathrow.” It seemed all the mad people who had escaped from the lunatic asylums from all over the world had gathered here for their annual get -together. But without doubt the maddest and most disorganised were British Airway staff.

Despite all their efforts we got on the right plane and actually lifted off.

Seattle… here we come! (I think.)

Blue Yonder

Don’t ever mention Frenchmen to me again. Why is it Ruth and I always get sat next to an imbecile? This young French person spent most of the journey bemoaning the fact no one on the aircraft spoke French. As it was an English plane going to an English-speaking country it was hardly surprising. (As it was, a stewardess was French and spoke it quite well.)

On the plus side, the highlight of the flight was passing over icebergs and glaciers over Greenland and Canadian waters. A never-to-be-forgotten sight.

I allowed myself the luxury of wondering what a Frenchman would look like with his legs sticking out of the snow after falling 38,000 feet.

I must mention, in the name of fairness, the cabin crew were very good as was the food, but I don’t think I will ever get used to trying to watch a film at 600 miles per hour.

Soon we saw Seattle waiting in eager anticipation of our arrival.

Sailed through customs.

We’re here!

Ellensburg or Bust

After being talked into a larger car, we were duly handed over the keys and left to it. A diploma in starting and understanding the modern motor vehicle would have been desirable. But after ten minutes or so we were on the move. As we left the car park, Ruth, with uncanny timing, chirped, “Drive on the right,” so I did and promptly drove through a red light.

We eased onto the freeway and I must confess I was pleased to see all the traffic on our side was going the same way as us!

With me going through all the buttons and Ruth reading road signs with the intensity of someone desperately looking for the public toilets, we turned east on Highway 90, determined to make Ellensburg before dark.

We did, and booked into the motel with the smug satisfaction Hannibal must have felt when he crossed the Alps on an elephant. We didn’t see any Indians, but at times felt we were being watched. We hit the hay and slept. Tomorrow we travel to Hope in hope.

Ellensburg to Hope

Refreshed and ready for anything, we left Ellensburg in our wake and headed out across the Columbia Basin. If you’ve never seen nothing, this is the place to come. It’s full of it, but fascinating all the same. Highway 90 stretched to the horizon and when we reached it, there was another.

One by one, we put the horizons behind us and came to Spokane. We gave it a cursory glance and sneaked by. We had somewhere else on our minds.

We cruised to Sandpoint. When we hit town I swear I felt the world slowing down. The town exuded the comforting warmth of a log fire on a cold night. Traffic stopped to let individuals cross the street and not a skyscraper in sight.

The road to Hope snaked ‘round the beautiful lake, the sun reflecting countless jewels dancing endlessly toward the pine-clad hills. After 20 miles of so we turned right, straight into a Disney film scene of deer and rabbits grazing and frolicking without a care. As we pulled into Number 73 we saw Meridee and Gene on the porch, waiting. I thought, “Do they really know what they are letting themselves in for?” Gene then disappeared. Had he gone to get his gun? NAW.

Our first evening was to experience an Idaho potluck across the way at their Canadian friend’s place, who were due to tow their travel home back to Canada the next morning. For potluck, read bar-b-Que and beer. We sat around the campfire demonstrating our cute English accents and telling jokes no one understood. Everyone resisted the urge to poke us with a stick out of curiosity, but when I turned to glance back on leaving, I swear some were sadly shaking their heads. Nice people.

Picture of Home

Unless you are a gatepost, every day is different. This one was no exception. "That’s where he was killed," said Meridee after we had just bumped over a gateless level (Railroad) crossing. Suddenly we were face-to-face with reality. As we progressed along the country road, we passed through beautiful pasture land with mountains standing either side in protecting splendor.

They greeted us in typical gentle, western style to their detached bungalow set in paradise. He handed Ruth the photograph of her father with an easy nonchalance few men could muster on such an occasion.

No words could describe the moment, so I won’t try. After a pleasant lunch, he took us on a short drive to the old homestead where Lee lived. We saw an old log cabin, partially collapsed and overgrown, with fruit trees close by and a large pine tree at the front overlooking sloping pasture land.

We took photos, film and hung around drinking in the whole scene enhanced by warm sunshine. We took our leave, satisfied another miracle had completed its majestic task.

A life-changing day.

Meridee'

There are no words to describe what Ruth must have felt visiting her father’s grave for the first time or wandering about the old homestead he called home as a boy. She was not to meet him in life but, hopefully, she went home with a deep sense of the kind of person he was. The stories she heard of him will long dwell in her memory and the times shared with these two delightful people from England will fill our hearts with joy forever. Her father would be so very proud of this dear daughter named Ruth and equally proud of the man she married.

Steve

Lunch Date

We came to next day so early that time did not even register on my watch but Meridee was already about in the company of half a dozen rabbits, four deer and a pine squirrel. The deer wandered around like spoiled rotten pets as do all the other birds and animals. They just know there’s no hunting here.

Meridee duly chauffeured us to pick up her friend Becky to go to lunch. We were soon joined by Gene and some of his female admirers from his company called "Litehouse" that hauls salad cream in vast quantities to Oregon and Montana, in Gene’s case.

Lunch turned out to be a laugh-a-minute, get-to-know-you occasion, served up by a most friendly and homely waitress who dished up the food with the enthusiasm of someone who’s just been told they won the lottery.

We parked Becky back in her home and returned to Hope. Survived the first day. Catch our breath tomorrow.

Paradise Found

It’s always good to live in hope but to live in this Hope is even better. However, nowhere is perfect. "Did you hear the coyotes early this morning?" asked Meridee. No, we didn’t, but we did hear a grunting, sniffling sound outside our van during the night. When I told Gene, he confirmed my worst fears. "That’s a bear alright!,” unable to suppress his mirth. I wish he had told us of this possibility before our evening walk in the woods the night before.

We passed the day photographing the lake, forest and mountains and, also of course, the deer and their Bambi-like fawns.

In the evening, Gene and Meridee drove us up into the back county along a dirt track for 19 miles looking for elk, moose, cougar and anything else careless enough to show itself.

However, carelessness is not a trait of wild animals. Thanks to Gene’s eagle eyesight, we did see a bull moose across a deep valley which was covered in huckleberry bushes and pine and cedar trees. We soon spotted another one on the trail ahead of us.

As darkness draped its veil over the tree-covered mountains, we drove all the way back more informed about the wilderness than yesterday.

Goodnight deer and bunnies.

Then and Now

In most people’s lives most days begin the same—a cup of tea and a look out of the window to check the weather. On this particular morning it was raining hard, after having glorious weather all week. After a swift look around Wal-Mart and then collecting flowers, we headed to Pinecrest Cemetery to Lee’s grave. As we approached, the dismal weather summed up the mood.

We placed the flowers into containers onto the stone of the grave and put two flags of the Stars and Stripes either side. He would have liked that.

The cemetery was neatly mown, set on a sloping hillside with pine trees behind and breathtaking views over the lake and mountains beyond.

Past and present evaporated as the spirits of father and daughter locked in invisible embrace. As we stood in silent homage, the clouds parted, bathing the scene in warm sunshine. Divine intervention? Surely!

As we left, promising to return the clouds rolled in, the rain fell and time began its march once more. Amen

Relax

We spent the next few days contemplating all that had passed before and pinching ourselves to make sure it was all true.

The weather had turned on the "iffy" side to say the least, but it did not deter the stubborn Brits. We walked around Sandpoint on one day and on another we took ourselves into the forest to find ourselves a bear. A little cavalier, one might think, as we were armed only with a stick to poke it in the eye. A bigger challenge reared up in the shape of a log bridge lying across the fast-flowing Trestle Creek. It was wet and slippery, promising a cold bath. All the Indian blood in Ruth came gushing to the surface and she crossed it with all the aplomb of a forest dweller, resisting the desire to perform a double forward loop with a back flip.

On a hellish wet day, Meridee took us on a long, 200-mile trip into Montana, surely a strong contestant for the most beautiful place in the United States. On the way we stopped in a small town called Noxon; a couple dozen abodes, a school and a bar called Toby’s.

There are temptations in life that need delicate handling and this was one of them.

Toby’s

When we entered we were confronted with a largish bar, every inch decorated with dollar pieces embedded in every place and dollar bills pinned to the ceiling. With various other oddities all over the place, it was quite a sight.

Three or four of the oddities were sitting at the bar drinking straight from beer cans—no sissies here! I raised myself up to my full, five-foot-eight-and-three-quarters, narrowed my eyes, and ambled up to the bar relieved to see no one was packing iron.

The nearest man eyed me up as if it were the first day of hunting and he was wondering what I would look like on his trophy wall. I held his gaze, fingers twitching for the six gun I didn’t have. "Howdy," he said. "Hello," I said and the ice was broken. The locals were friendly and I sensed myself about to be swept along on a tidal wave of alcohol.

A lifetime’s experience pulled me from the brink and we got out sober. (Ruth and Meridee dragged him kicking and screaming from Toby’s in the nick of time)

The most friendly, dangerous place I have been in for a long time.

Cheers, buddies.

Grampa

Thanks to Meridee’s intuitive detective work, the exact location of Lee’s father’s grave was finally pinpointed in Westmond Cemetery.

Over the years Grampa’s name plate had sunk into the soft, lush turf. It was now time for it to see the light of day once more.

We had come armed only with a bunch of flowers and shovels.

Highway 95 runs alongside the cemetery and I wondered what effect the sight of three people in broad daylight digging in the middle of a cemetery had on the car drivers going past. Only the hand of fate prevented a wreck.

We repaired to the funeral director’s called Coffelt’s. We were greeted by a man whose manner and gentlemanly conduct left nothing wanting. We ordered a concrete base. We then called on Pinecrest Cemetery to clean Lee’s gravestone. With father and son seen to, we returned to Hope, satisfied with our day’s work.

Rest in Peace, both of you.

Seeking Bigfoot

As the queen is at home in Buckingham Palace, so Gene is at home in the forest. “Put these on,” he said as he threw me a bundle of clothing. “We’re huntin’ bear.”

With the rain pounding down, I waddled out to get into his four-wheel-drive wearing more layers than an onion.

We drove up into the mountains, parked, and hiked through rain-sodden foliage for one-and-a-half miles to a lookout position looking across a wide valley where we could observe a large area.

It seemed we chose the day that all the bears had taken the day off to go to a picnic. We stuck it out in constant rain until we began to resemble a couple of moss-covered pine trees. Despite signs of wild animals passing across the trail, they had all decided only an idiot would venture out in this weather. Later, Gene managed to dispatch a grouse to the happy hunting ground, so at least we would not be returning to camp empty-handed.

A memorable experience. Thanks, Gene.

The Last Round-Up

An interesting day dawned firstly by dropping Meridee’s dog Molly off at the vet, then took the winding journey to Schweitzer Ski Resort above Sandpoint. Despite the sunshine, a stiff breeze kept the wind chill to about  minus 6.

Winding our way down, we repaired to Mitzi’s for lunch, meeting up with a gaggle of girls, one of whom was celebrating a birthday with gusto that belied her advancing years.

Soon we rescued Molly from under the vet’s knife and headed home.

The next evening, Gene and Meridee treated us to an excellent meal in town with Ruth and myself tackling the steak with unashamed enthusiasm.

Next day, the temperature soared in celebration of our impending departure. Much of the packing was done in the morning with all the keenness of someone preparing their own funeral. In the afternoon sunshine, we attended the Draft Horse Show. Gene was hungry enough to eat a horse but at the last count none were missing.

Tomorrow we head west to go east.

 Wagons Roll

The day of departure had arrived. We were up early to say "hasta la vista" to Gene before he left for work. Reluctantly we bade farewell to Meridee, Jason, the trailer home and all the two- and four-legged critters that had been our buddies over the last three weeks.

We headed west to Seattle from whence we came and under blue skies and sunshine, we wound our way through Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene, then picked up Interstate 90, planning to stop in Ellensburg as before. Once again we grabbed the last room and bedded down.

After a hearty breakfast of pancakes and coffee we continued our journey, stopping off at rest places to keep the blood circulating and to photograph the magnificent views.

We approached Seattle on the four-lane highway with the Sunday traffic building up. With Ruth navigating and one particular dollop of good luck, we homed in on the airport without a wrong turn. We handed back the car and had our luggage checked in before you could say: Farewell America

Up and Away

As our jumbo jet lifted off, the fiery sunset made its final salute and as the sun sank beneath the last horizon, we swung northwest, turning our backs on friendship, civility and good neighbourliness as we headed into the advancing darkness.

British Airways brought us down to earth, metaphorically speaking, by serving up the sort of food even a hungry dog would cock his leg at. Unfortunately for me we hit turbulence as I was about to attempt to eat it, resulting in the majority of it sailing down the front of my shirt. This caused me some consternation as the thought of the plane crashing and my remains being identified by the food down my shirt did not appeal to me in the least.

Coming into Heathrow, we knew we were back in England by the number of turbans about, one of them throwing our bus around like a demented fool.

Richard and Sylvia picked us up at Stanstead without incident and delivered us home, tired but contented. My body is back at work but my brain is still on holiday.

Thanks for everything U.S.A. Especially Meridee, Gene and Jason.

Editor's Note: I tried to keep Steve’s English spelling and phrasing from his journal notes, but I just couldn’t manage to include punctuation outside of quote marks as the English do. Sorry, Steve. TG

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Noxon, travel, genealogy, Hope, Meridee Dunn, Steve Skinner, Toby's Silver Dollar Bar

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