The Ghosts of Our Present

I've been working on a short story about the spooky coincidences that have happened since I started my genealogy work. The tale has ballooned far outside my intended word count, and I'm not sure where I'll trim it down yet, but I thought it might be fun to share the first segment I've done.

The Ghosts of Our Present

            It started with a letter dated November 6th, 1944. Crinkled turquoise onionskin, replete with the words of a grief-stricken mother. Typewritten letters in fading black ink, appealing to some government entity:

Nineteen thirty-three, the crux of the Great Depression: little Ralph Conrad McKinnon, called “Ralphie” to discern him from his namesake, lost his life to appendicitis at only four years old. A granite lamb was carved atop his grave.

He was named for his father, a Skipper at the Luckenbach Steamship Company in Brooklyn, New York. Captain Ralph McKinnon was a gregarious tower of a man who made the papers from time-to-time for his various antics abroad. He had built a swimming pool for his passengers to play in as they awaited passage through the Panama Canal. He once dropped anchor mid-stream to stop a knife fight aboard his ship. But perhaps his most notable handiwork came just months after the death of his dear son.

On December 31st, 1933, while America celebrated its first “wet” New Year’s Eve in thirteen years, Captain Ralph was preparing for a unique celebration of his own. He arrived from New York at his home port in Oakland with much more than a suitcase. Meeting his wife, Angela, at the pier, he introduced a freckled little boy from Boston to a brand-new life. This curly-haired child vagabond was Joseph A. McInnis, my grandfather.

            Rumors ran rampant in the extended family. A love child? A replacement for Ralphie? Who adopts a child on the other side of the country at a time like this?

            No explanation was given and none was ever requested from the grateful orphan. Joe integrated into his new home, terrorizing his older sister and playing with Sheilah, the family dog. He attended school as Joseph Christopher McKinnon. His former life dissipated into little more than a single set of photographs from his third birthday, where he stood in a shabby oversized coat at the helm of a lonely tricycle in the dirt.

The secrets surrounding the adoption sank to the bottom of the ocean in 1943, with their stoic keeper lost too soon. Captain Ralph was at the helm of the S.S. Harry Luckenbach, positioned in what fellow mariners described as “coffin corner” of a WWII fleet, transporting ammunition to England. He dodged at least eight torpedoes in three hours, then steamed ahead in attempt to outmaneuver the next attack. He was ordered to fall back in line; an order that would take the lives of 80 men.[1]

It is unknown how many were lost at impact, as a torpedo ripped through the Harry and ignited the ammunition aboard, but reports claim Ralph fired off distress rockets as his surviving crew boarded lifeboats. In a harrowing twist to this glimmer of hope, the three lifeboats were failed by not one, but two rescue ships.1 The boats drifted into the night, never to be recovered. More tragic still, news of the fate of those lifeboats never reached the McKinnon family. They were left without answers, saving every newspaper clipping of the war that might serve as a clue to Ralph’s fate.

Joseph McKinnon was a mere fifteen years old when the Mariner’s medal was given to what was left of the only family he had ever known; a solemn photo that circulated in newspapers the following year.

Angela clung to the memories of her beloved husband and the extended family he left behind. Letters, photos, and newspaper articles were placed in album after album, kept safe in her possession until her passing in 1982. Joe’s sister, Clare, held them for the following nine years, willing them to my mother in 1991.


I remember rows of big blue plastic bins in the garage growing up. Some were full of old electronics, others were books, but one was full of treasure that only a family member could appreciate. It was Angela’s collection. My mother cracked it open with me, once.

“You have a great grandfather that went down with his ship,” she told as she held up a photo of Ralph at the helm of the William Luckenbach with a pipe between his lips.

This misinterpreted fact was all I knew of my mother’s paternal family for many years. Dust collected on the plastic blue treasure chest as it disguised itself once more among its many matching siblings. It is with a heavy heart that I admit that I forgot. I forgot about the stories hiding in the aging blue bin.


It was 2014 when I heard an advertisement on the radio for AncestryDNA, a genetic testing service offering to trace your ethnicity. I sprung for the test on a whim. The decision set me on an incredible course of discovery.

“Maybe you can figure out who your grandpa’s birth parents were,” Mom said in response to my remark about it.

Birth parents? If I had been told about my grandfather’s adoption in my youth, I had certainly scrubbed my memory of it. At twenty-nine years old, I was sure this was my first time hearing of any mysteries in my family tree.

Like a long-lost tomb, the blue bin emerged from its shadowy crypt and slid back into our lives. Inside was a mummified world, left undisturbed for thirty-six years. Its stories consumed me. I dissected the contents, read every letter, examined every photo, documented every clue into the wee hours of the morning for weeks on end. The sunrise was a regular friend of mine.

There was only one letter that mentioned my grandfather’s adoption. It was dated November 6th, 1944, after the war had ended and Ralph was lost. Onionskin paper with typewritten words. Nearly eleven years after that fateful day on the pier, Angela was soliciting for formal adoption of Joe. I studied the letter again and again for clues. be continued...

[1] Ed Offley, Turning the Tide: How a Small Band of Allied Sailors Defeated the U-boats and Won the Battle of the Atlantic (New York: Basic Books, 2011), 144-145.