I’m just a “gear guy” or “Easy does it”

Kay and Mike McCormack

Every winter, for the last few years, Mike and Kay McCormack join others at Magic Works within the Riverton Heights rehab center to pack sandwiches, drinks and candy bars to take on weekly visits to homeless camps under I-5 in Seattle.

It is a cold, wet and a very dreary existence for the tent people under the freeway. Mike and Kay felt they needed to be involved. The Des Moines residents also help clean up the areas. It is, they say, to give back, for a life of living well themselves. Mike likens his life to being a “victim of circumstances”. He’s been lucky, he’ll tell you. Lucky circumstances.

Mike, born in Tacoma 78 years ago, has been fortunate, much of his own making. Now living with Kay at Village Concepts-Adriana senior apartments in Des Moines, Mike will say he has been living a “charmed, easy life”. Kay knows the stories.

Many residents at the Adriana also know the stories in the near two years he has been living there. Stories about Mike’s early life and career as a Navy Seal.

Adopted and raised in the Magnolia area of Seattle, with a 3-star general dad at Ft. Lawton, Mike once swam from Point Dilworth, on Vashon Island to Three-Tree Point,  just because he could. The water is typically 43 degrees year-round. “it was easy. I wasn’t cold,” he beamed.

Mike was in the first graduating class at Blanchet High in 1958. He wanted to be a UW Husky but dad insisted on something more for Mike. Always a fine student, Mike enrolled at Cal Tech, graduating in 1962 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He then acquired a master’s degee in scientific navigation, “how to drive a boat” is how Mike put it.

His dad’s military credentials influenced Mike to join the Navy after graduation. Mike opted for Seal training, eight months of rigor that would test his 5-11 plus, 210-lb body.

Forty-six men went through cold and warm water training in that period. First in the warm Caribbean water where swimming was essential to survival. Finding their own food and living in the jungle helped create a unity among the men. Cold water training near Iceland followed as the team was dropped in the ocean, in gear, with a forced swim to shore. They caught their own fish and bivouaced on the beaches. Many of the men longed for the warm waters of the Caribbean. Out of 46 who started, 18 remained in the program. Washing out was not an option for Mike.

Mike’s Seal training took him to covert infiltration in Vietnam in 1963-64, near the Mekong Delta. The war as still considered a ‘conflict’. Seals are not just Navy guys. More than once Mike rode bareback on horses through Mongolia to observe and report military activities by Russian-backed support teams for arms trading to North Vietnam forces. In that pursuit, Mike had learned to eat more rice than he wanted so his body would exude an aroma of a rice diet. “Better to smell like the enemy,” he said. Mike won’t eat rice to this day even though he has no enemies now. He spent many days in Hanoi, living among the locals, dressed in civilian clothing to disguise his presence. He observed the “Hanoi Hilton” where John McCain was a prisoner in 1967.

Fearless is what we think Navy Seals must be. It is true but Mike would tell you things just came “easy”. Like the time a fellow officer on base turned his back when Mike opted to take the base helicopter on a jaunt out to an aircraft carrier at sea for nice lunch. “They had good food,” Mike explained. Never mind that he had no licence, no training and had no experience flying a helicopter. “It was easy,” Mike said.

Back home and out of the military by 1970, it was not long before he got a call from NASA to take a look at the gears in their satellite dishes in Houston. His Cal Tech education came in handy. He traveled the world working on complex gears, usually on recon satelites exploring the heavens and tracking NASA launches.

Married with two daughters, Mike did not slow down, ramping up another phase of his career with a love of hydroplanes in the early ’70s.

That love took Mike down to Stan Sayers Pits every summer for several years when the Gold Cup hydro races required a guy who understood propellers and gears. Mike figured out the reason for the many gear failures in the hydroplanes. It was due to the hardened steel of the gear teeth and the amount of torque during high speed applications. He advised a softer gear assembly to the mechanics working on the boats. It was a remarkable change. Roger Penske, a noted Indy driver, took note himself. He invited Mike back to the Brick Yard in Indianapolis. Mike helped the Penske team there, also enjoying a 212 mph trip around the famed track.

Mike’s fast paced life included skiing (a great love) and hiking and climbing. He joined climbing guide Lou Whittaker on several summits of Mt. Rainier and other peaks in the northwest. He says he feels good. Has no aches and pains and loves Kay and his life with a view of the water. For all he has accomplished, Mike has humility, calling what he’s done “easy”.

He and Kay think the people living under the freeway, for reasons not entirely their fault, is “not easy”. It is why they volunteer. The tent people are “unlucky victims of circumstances,” Mike said and 180 degrees from Mike’s life. He and Kay want to change that. He approaches this effort the same way he became a Navy Seal. Like swimming to Three Tree Point or flying a helicopter because he could…It was “easy,” Mike humbly said, “I’m a gear guy”.

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