Cash-strapped college students often look for ways to stretch their meager resources. Tom McKay did. In 1940, while attending Eastern Washington University (then Cheney Normal School) he gave rides to several students from Spokane to help defray his gas costs. “I had to pay 18 cents a gallon,” he recalled.
One of those students was a pretty girl named Louise. In their daughter’s Otis Orchards home, Louise described their first meeting. “Tom stopped by my house with a friend. These two brash young men were bragging about everything.” She smiled. “They were so cute!”
But Tom especially interested her. They got to know each other during their drives to and from college. “We became friends,” Louise said. “We got friendlier and friendlier.”
They both chuckled. Tom added, “Actually, she had a boyfriend.” That boyfriend didn’t last long. “She told me she got rid of him,” he said and grinned across the table at Louise.
When the college advertised a Tolo Dance (a girl-ask-boy dance) Louise seized the opportunity and asked Tom to be her date.
“We had to dress up like characters from comic strips,” she said. “Tom was Chief Wahoo and I was the Indian maiden Minnehaha.”
Their courtship continued with long walks around the campus. Finally, one day, Tom said, “Well, when do you want to get married?”
They settled on a date and Tom decided he’d better quit school, get a job and build a house for his bride. Building materials were in short supply, but Tom and his dad and brother found an old hotel in Marcus, Wash., that was scheduled for demolition. “We salvaged the boards, lumber and even the nails,” he said.
He found work as a locomotive fireman for Northern Pacific Railroad and worked on the house just east of Hillyard every chance he got. Louise helped too. “She straightened the nails,” he said.
They married on Aug. 17, 1941, at Trinity Lutheran Church in north Spokane. Four months later, Louise was at her parents’ grocery store on East Sprague Avenue when she heard the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. “We were all in shock,” she said.
She feared that Tom would soon be drafted, but because he worked for the railroad he received a deferment. And he continued to receive deferments for three years. Louise said, “I was starting to feel maternal. I said, ‘Why don’t we have a baby?’ ”
Their daughter Colleen arrived Feb. 14, 1944. Six months later, Tom received his draft notice. There would be no more deferments.
“He called me from the roadhouse and I knew,” Louise recalled. “I said, ‘Hello soldier.’ ” Her eyes clouded at the memory. Looking out in the sunshine, she shook her head. “I felt just sick.”
Louise and the baby went to stay at her parents’ farm near Rockford. Tom called her every Sunday from Camp Roberts in California. One Sunday after harvest, Louise told him, “I’m coming down to see you.”
He replied, “No way! This is no place for a woman.”
She came anyway, arriving in a 1937 Cadillac. Louise said, “I thought if he’s going to war and getting killed, I’m going to spend as much time with him as possible.”
When asked what job he was trained for in the Army, Louise answered promptly. “Shooting people.”
The grim reality was that Tom’s company, like many others, were replacement troops – bodies to replace the growing list of U.S. casualties.
In April 1945, Tom watched the invasion of Okinawa from a ship in the harbor. Several days later, he and his unit were packed into landing craft and deposited on a beachhead in the dead of night. He said, “For the next two months it was just a matter of slogging away. The (Japanese) soldiers were extremely brave. They weren’t easy to take. They wouldn’t give up – we just had more people and supplies.”
One afternoon Tom and his interpreter got separated from their company. He said, “All at once a young Okinawan woman came from a cave. The interpreter said she wanted to know if we could take her family to a safer area. I said sure.”
It turned out her family consisted of approximately 30 people who spilled out from the cave. One was a wounded Okinawan soldier carried by his father. Tom’s eyes filled with tears. “His father wouldn’t put him down – he carried him all the way off the island.”
The battle for Okinawa was brutal, and Tom didn’t escape unscathed. He recalled, “One afternoon, we crested a hill and they let loose and killed both point men and shot the medics. It was kill or be killed. I had four hand grenades and I was big and strong. I could throw them farther than they could.”
He hunkered in against a rock and exchanged fire with the enemy. “It went on all morning long.” Finally, he felt a bullet tear through his right shoulder. It went out through the back of his arm, shattering his shoulder. “It didn’t even knock me down,” said Tom. “I said, ‘Well, they got me.’ ”
Sure he was going to die, he staggered to a clump of bushes. “I didn’t die right then, so I drank a couple canteens of water and ate a handful of hard candy.”
He got up and kept moving until he found the remnants of his company. Tom still bears the scars of that battle and can no longer raise his right arm above his head.
When he returned home he went to the railroad to see if he could get his old job back. “They took one look at me and said, ‘You’re all done firing.”
He and Louise sold everything they had and bought a farm with her parents in Ferry County. Tom felt like farm work would be the best rehabilitation for his shoulder.
They enjoyed the work and the beautiful location. Their family grew with the birth of Nancy in 1946 and Tom in 1949.
In the ensuing years Tom added teaching to his resume. He taught seventh and eighth grades in Curlew and then taught high school for six years.
Their daughter Christie was born in 1951. Not long after, Tom decided to finish the education marriage had interrupted. The family moved to Cheney and lived there for three years while he earned his master’s degree. Louise, too, finished her education and earned her Bachelor of Arts in education in 1958.
From there the family moved to Omak where both Tom and Louise taught school. They held onto their property in Curlew and Tom built a log cabin on it. “The kids loved it,” Louise said.
After going back and forth between Curlew and Omak, they finally stayed put in Curlew when Tom retired in 1979. He got busy fulfilling a promise he’d made to Louise. “I promised I’d build her a big new house and I did.”
Using a one-man sawmill, he built his bride a beautiful two-story home. In recent years the couple has wintered in Liberty Lake but still live mainly in their Curlew home.
Recently, they celebrated their 70th anniversary with extended family and friends. Louise wore her wedding dress for the occasion. “Well, I squeezed into it,” she said.
Much has changed in their seven decades together. They weathered the loss of their daughter Christie, who died in a car accident in 1991. Louise said, “There’s nothing like losing a child.”
Their five grandchildren give them joy, and Tom said their marriage has been built on mutual respect and shared values. “The kids can’t believe we never fight, but after the war I felt like I was living on borrowed time.”
He didn’t want to waste precious time quarreling with the love of his life. It’s been many years since the couple carpooled together on their way to college, but Tom smiled at Louise and said, “She’s still my sweetheart.”