Lowell T. McKinney
Retired: Retired: 1 September 1980
Children: Suzanne, Catherine
Grandchildren: Ian, John
I was born on Tams Mountain in southern West Virginia on August 6, 1937. My father died when I was ten and my mother slipped into insanity as a result. For various reasons there were no “safety nets” in place to render care for our family, and I experienced first-hand the rigors of hunger, poverty and near death as an “Urchin of Appalachia.” At age twelve I came down with appendicitis and peritonitis, but as bad as that was, it brought attention to the squalid conditions my family had undergone for two years. My mother was committed to a state hospital, and my brother and I were placed in separate adoption homes. I was placed in a strict environment. Back talk or even showing emotion was forbidden. It was a 30-acre farm and there were many chores to do. Each evening I was ordered to study for two hours whether I had homework or not. I put the time to good use.
After graduation from high school, I spent one quarter at Virginia Tech, which at that time was a military school. The Corps of Cadets was a disciplined environment, but for me that part was a piece of cake compared to my teen years. I also worked in the dining hall to supplement my tuition. My problem was, due to the hectic schedule I could not stay awake in class. After one quarter, I realized that I was wasting tuition money so I dropped out, but I didn’t return home. Instead, I worked for a brief time on the Norfolk and Western Railroad.
It was the close of the steam locomotive era at N&W, an experience that had great impact upon me. I used to fuss when those behemoths would rumble by and blow smoke and cinders in my eyes, but God, how I miss them now.
After a year on the railroad, I landed a job with the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station (at VA Tech) and worked there as a lab technician for two years. Then in 1959 I got a draft notice from Uncle Sam, and to avoid the draft I enlisted in the Air Force.
The results of my Air Force entrance tests were shocking to both my recruiter and me. I scored eighth out of a group of 400, and qualified for training in electronics. I suppose all that studying had begun to pay off. I went from basic training to Lowry AFB to Armament/electronics School and then to Lockbourne AFB, Ohio, where for the next year I worked on B-47’s. Then I took the Air Force Officer Qualification Test, and was accepted into Officer Candidate School (OCS) in January 1961. After OCS. I went to Keesler AFB to study ground electronics and was selected for instructor duty.
In 1964 I was reassigned to 5 th Tac Gp, Clark AB, Philippines. It was a two-year tour in a unit that specialized in pulling together deployable RADAR site packages for deployment to Southeast Asia. 5 th Tac Gp allowed me to go on TDY trips to exotic places such as Udorn, Da Nang, Dong Ha, Hue/Phu Bai, and lastly, Bangkok.
Upon return to the ZI, I attended the Communications/Electronics Staff Officer Course at Keesler, and once again, was “tapped” for instructor duty. While at Keesler, I attended SOS (in 1969) where one of the instructors looked very familiar – Gordon Links (Academic Instructor in OCS). He had not changed much, but instead of playing the organ, he played the accordion. His music was of the same ilk.
Also during my Keesler tenure, I was able to take advantage of the tuition assistance programs provided by the Air Force, and spent many hours taking evening college courses. I received my bachelor’s degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 1970-71 (alongside some guy named Harley Yarber).
My next assignment was to the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) as a Contract Monitor. There was not a lot to do, and when I was not eating or drinking to excess, I completed the Air Command and Staff Officer Course via correspondence. After that lovely assignment, I was reassigned to the NORAD Cheyenne Mt. Complex, where I worked shift duty as a systems controller (alongside some guy named Ed Steele).
My next assignment was to Hq. USSOUTHCOM in the Canal Zone, where I served on the Comm/Electronics Staff, part of J-3, USSOUTHCOM’s equivalent of a J-6. There I became intimately acquainted with all the US communications and RADAR systems in the Canal Zone. I also did staff work on the turnover of the Canal Zone to Panama. It was then that I first realized that Departments of State and Defense do not always see eye-to-eye, nor get along well.
My family and I were billeted at nearby Albrook AFB, by far the best assignment of my career. While there, I earned my Master’s Degree through the University of Oklahoma extension program. I also taught Sunday school at the Albrook Base Chapel, which was where I began one of my books, the one on religion (the other one is a compilation of poetry that I wrote wherever I was).
My favorite pursuits while at Albrook were fishing and camping. Lake Gatun, the fresh water lake that feeds the locks on both sides of the Canal, is teeming with Peacock Bass, one of the quickest hitting and hardest fighting fish that I have ever encountered. On a Bad day, one could catch 25. The nights that I camped on the banks of the Canal (in my screened shelter of course) were majestic. A campsite could be leased from the Panama Canal Commission for 24 dollars a year. Needless to say, I did not want to leave there!
After retirement from the Air Force, I returned to the Distant Early Warning Line (DEW Line) as a communications/electronics/cryptographic technician and weather observer. The working environment was lonely, but I grew to love the Arctic. It is truly a lovely, yet unforgiving place, and not a healthy place to stay for extended periods of time. The pay, however, was good and I had two daughters in college. After two years in northern Canada, I landed a job with Northrop Corporation, Rolling Meadows, Illinois as a Logistics Engineer, once again communications/electronics but from a logistics aspect.
In 1984 I took my Logistics Engineering experience to General Electric, King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and I lived in Valley Forge, less than a mile West of the national park. Valley Forge was a somewhat rural setting at that time, and Freedom Foundation was practically my next-door neighbor. Many times I have walked through Medal of Honor Grove there. It is a sacred spot.
During the 15 years I worked in the King of Prussia area, my office was merged, divested and sold numerous times. I retired in 1999 (actually, I was “downsized” but I qualified for Social Security, so I never looked back).
I now live in West Chester, Pa. I have two Grandsons, one in Denver, CO and one in Valley Forge, Pa (8 miles away). I keep myself busy working on my Model A Ford, which I purchased in 1962 for the exorbitant sum of $275.00. When not doing that, I enjoy doing carpentry, electronic/electrical projects and writing. I have published two books through an on-line publisher. I also square dance and round dance. I live alone. My wife and I separated in 1996, and she lives in St. Petersburg, FL. We are on cordial terms.