Remembering 'Kernal Mac'
It’s the laugh that comes first when I think of Jerry McNamara, when the Red Onion was packed with locals after the departure of the last ship on a busy day. You could pick out his laugh from the other side of the room. It was so loud and continued to unfold like dominoes falling away, only to start again.
Jerry was much more than good humor and a nice guy. For many in Skagway, he and his popcorn wagon, Kernal Mac’s, became a hub of summer social gatherings. On any and every day, you would find several people just standing around the wagon talking, debating, eating, drinking coffee. Politics was a main staple, national, regional and of course, local. How deep was the biggest puddle on Broadway and could we lose a tour bus in it? This one made the front page of The Skagway News.
All voices were welcome and Jerry created a safe environment for diverse opinions. Ideas were exchanged openly and honestly, always with a smattering of humor from the “Kernal” inside or perched in the Dutch door.
Folks used the wagon as a place for complaints, stories, rumors or just a place for a little private thought. It was a hub of the town. You were always guaranteed the same joyful smile and welcome by the Popcorn Man with the blonde hair the color of silk on an early summer day in a Wisconsin cornfield.
But it was more than a place to buy popcorn and stand around chatting with neighbors. Many of Skagway’s youngsters got their first economics lesson from the Popcorn Man. Small hands would reach up and hand Jerry paper or coins through the magic opening in the impeccable oak wagon, and were handed back a bag of white popped tiny clouds. It was sometimes a first date, a place to treat someone special. Jerry would eject popcorn puffs out the window at all dogs.
Jerry’s childhood in Wisconsin was hardscrabble. At age 15, for two years, he travelled the country selling magazines. Self-taught, he earned a high school GED, followed by a scholarship to the University of Wisconsin. His college buddies commented on how hard they had to work to keep up, and Jerry got good grades without studying.
A brilliant mind, adventurous soul and light heart, Jerry fell in love with skydiving. Nothing brought him more joy than leaping out of an airplane, not even riding his beloved motorcycle along Wisconsin two-lane roads.
It all changed in the winter of 1968 when Jerry jumped out of a plane at 10,000 feet and neither his parachute nor his safety chute opened. He landed in a frozen field in the sitting position, alive against all odds.
Jerry defied his doctors’ prognoses time and time again: he would not live, he would be paralyzed from the neck down, then the waist down, he would never walk again. Two years later he walked out of the hospital under his own power, with metal braces and a gait that was hard for many to keep up with.
After travelling along the West Coast he landed in Alaska, which is where I met him in 1981. I watched him strip his popcorn wagon every year and varnish it anew. My dogs had their birthday parties at Jerry’s wagon. When fall came Jerry retreated to his Dyea cabin and his other true passion: reading.
It wasn’t long before love struck the Popcorn Man. A beautiful, talented Midwest young artist, Carol DeTaeye, came to town and they fell in love. Soon after they headed further north, marrying and settling in Sutton, Alaska. Then magic –a girl named Mariah, now 15, was born as Jerry turned 50.
Nine years ago Jerry was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and has been drifting away ever since. Carol has been able to care for Jerry at home far longer than expected. Jerry died peacefully in Palmer Hospital on January 18, 2013. Many of us have lost a dear friend.
Those of us privileged to know Jerry share wondrous memories. I will miss his joy of life, endurance, humor and intellect. His spirit lives on in the stories.
– David Present