My 76-year-old husband, Eugene B. Smith, and I just returned home from a 10-day trip to Alaska traveling aboard Alaska Airlines. It was a trip neither of us expected to make at our age.
The Kirsch family moved to Alaska from Minnesota.
When my husband graduated from high school in 1948, he and two of his hunting and fishing friends tried to figure out how to get to Alaska. Their solution was to join the Army and request duty in Alaska. Uncle Sam obliged and in December of ’48 they boarded an old creaky World War II era troop ship in Seattle, Wa. and began their “Alaskan Cruise” to Whittier and eventually, Fort Richardson, in the choppy winter waters.
At that time the Alaskan Railroad ran a Fisherman’s Special, which dropped off outdoorsmen along the train route Friday evenings and picked them up Sunday evening. During one of these camping trips the three soldiers became acquainted with a homesteader in the Telkeetna area, J.V. Kirsch, his wife Rose, and one of their four sons, 12-year-old Dave Kirsch, still at home. A warm friendship developed between the soldiers and the Kirsch family, and they stayed in the Kirsch hunters cabin and home many times during their 3-year tour at Fort Richardson. After returning home to Bellefonte, Pa., in 1952 from his tour in Alaska my husband kept in contact with JV Kirsch.
When he and I married in 1956, he asked me to send an announcement to JV Kirsch and tell him the last holdout of the three soldiers had finally said, “ I do”. This resulted in an exchange of three letters between JV, already in poor health, and me. Though we had often dreamed of going to Alaska, college, jobs, children and parent’s health kept us in Pennsylvania.
Fifty-one years passed and my husband, a survivor of hearts attack in ‘84 and ‘92 and cardiac surgery in ‘92, started making a DVD of his life’s story. In going through his Army footlocker he came across JVKirsch’s letters to me. This led him to wondering, “ What ever happened to 12 year old Dave Kirsch? ” Late one night I checked the white pages on the Internet. No David Kirsch listed in Alaska, but there was a John Kirsch in Anchorage. Gene called John and asked “ Does Sunshine, ARR mean anything to you? ” John answered, “ My grandfather lived there.” We had a connection and found Dave Kirsch lived in Wasilla. Husband Gene e-mailed copies of his grandfather’s letters to 53-year-old John, and after learning how much they meant to John, mailed the actual letters. This led to a series of phone calls between John, Dave and my husband and a growing desire on my husband’s part to return to Alaska and see his old friend and the family homestead, now Fireweed Station Bed and Breakfast.
My husband is a diabetic with congestive heart failure and has a pacemaker, defibulator He uses an oxygen machine at night, and sometimes during the day. How could he go to Alaska? John Kirsch said, “ You bring your oxygen machine and get up here and I’ll rent a van and get you anywhere you want to go.” Our eldest daughter, Kathi kept pushing him to go and made airplane and motel reservations for us, almost before we ourselves were convinced we could do it.
June 15 we headed to small University Park Airport in State College, Pa. to board a Delta flight to Chicago. The next day we boarded Alaskan Airlines and were on our way to Anchorage, Alaska, dragging a portable oxygen machine behind us. Daughter Kathi and son-in-law Dan from Sacramento Calif. arrived in Anchorage 60 minutes behind us. We had a wonderful 4-day visit with them and saw places of interest in the Seward and Anchorage areas.
Friday June 22 we were waiting in our motel room, anticipating meeting John, whom we had never seen. How would we know each other? This was solved when my husband checked out of the motel room and John, seated in the lobby area, recognized his voice. Outside, John had a white rental van, stocked with food.
He packed our luggage and the oxygen machine and we were on our way to Wasilla to pick up his “Uncle Dave” Kirsch.
When Gene and his buddies visited the Kirsch homestead in the late 40’s, early 50’s, the only way in was by Alaskan Railroad. Now there was a road leading to the homestead, now the bed and breakfast, Fireweed Station owned by Tom Kluberton and Hobbs Butler. We were surprised to learn the homestead had been listed as an Alaskan National Historic Register site.
After a visit with the present day owners, a tour of the home and visiting JV Kirsch’s gravesite near the house, we returned to the main road and headed toward Denali Park. That night we stayed at the Denali Princess lodge and the next day toured the outskirts of Denali Park seeing moose and wolves, then traveled to Fairbanks and another Princess Lodge.
Sunday we returned to
Anchorage with stops at Talkeetna for the Moose Droppings Festival and a visit to the Alaskan artist Curt Wagner’s studio. Mr. Wagner is 92 year old and has a large mural in the Anchorage Airport.
It was a wonderful chance for Gene and Dave to renew their friendship of 50 some years ago, and to become better acquainted with John Kirsch, who was an excellent tour guide and would not let us pay any of the expenses connected with the three day trip.
After a day to rest, Gene and I boarded Alaskan Airline flight # 154 at midnight in Anchorage, two very grateful, happy 76 year olds needing wheelchair assistance, one carrying a diamond willow cane from Dave, checking four suitcases with orange pompoms attached for easily recognition and dragging an rechargeable oxygen machine.
At the request of John Richardson of Alaskan Airlines Customer Care, this was written as a human-interest story. He said he would consider forwarding it to Public Relations.
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