Greetings from Missoula, Montana — Big Sky Country. Whenever I travel to Montana, I remember why they call it Big Sky Country. Big mountains. Big valleys. Big expanses. Everywhere. I’ll tell you more about how we got to the Big Sky Country in a moment, but I want to start this post with a story. A big story.
We arrived in Seattle late Friday night to begin Chapter Two of the Epic Ride. Our bike, “Orca,” was kept in the good care of Dee’s cousin Shawn, who, smartly, put a few miles on her to “keep ‘er sharp and ready.”
Our plan was to hit the road Sunday and head eastward to Coeur d’Alene (honestly, I’m a little tired of trying to remember how to spell the name of that city). That gave us Saturday to do a some local touring of Seattle.
I’m starting to love the Pacific Northwest. It’s lush and green, a departure from the parched, drought-scarred landscapes of LA. Shawn lives in Woodinville, which is north of the city. Woodinville is almost anti-urban, with greenbelts, lakes and bike paths everywhere. Really beautiful.
We stopped first at Snoqualmie Falls, then Dee indulged my love of all things airplane with a tour of the Boeing Museum of Flight. This is a world-class aviation museum, not to be missed if you’re an aviation and space enthusiast like me. I can easily name 90 percent of the aircraft on display at almost any museum, which puts me somewhere between fascinating, if you’re an aviation nerd, and an annoying smartypants if all you really want to do is read the placard that tells you the history of the bird in front of you without me yammering in your ear about development histories and operational envelopes.
So here’s my Big Story.
One of the first aircraft you’ll see on display when you enter the museum is a still-flying B-17G “Flying Fortress.” The B-17 is one of the most iconic aircraft from the World War II flight era (1936-1946), along with the P-51 “Mustang” fighter. This particular B-17 has been restored to near-perfect detail and is, frankly, both beautiful and frightening, when you consider that its primary mission was to kill people, which it did quite well.
As Dee and I walked around the B-17, we noticed a slightly-built older gentleman standing in front of the aircraft. He was wearing a leather flight jacket, the twin bars of an Army Air Corps captain on the collar, plus campaign ribbons and the coveted gold wings of a military aviator above his heart. He was also wearing a docent badge and was on duty to help explain the history of this fearsome fighting machine.
His name was Dick and, as we learned, Dick was 93-years-old and piloted a B-17 on bombing runs over Germany. He is the museum’s only currently living docent to have actually piloted a B-17 in combat.
Wow. You could’ve knocked me over with a feather. I have serious hero-envy of even modern day airline pilots. Don’t get me started on military aviators, let alone one who flew in World War II. In a B-17! I mean, really, wow!
Believe it or not, I know when to talk and when to listen. This was the listening time.
Dick told us his story of being 19, living in Bakersfield, California, and begging his mother every day to let him join the Air Corps and fight, only to be told no repeatedly. She was a single parent and he was her only son. Dick told us he finally convinced her to sign off on the application by saying, “Look, Mom, I’m 135 pounds and five-foot-seven. How long do you think I’ll last in the infantry?”
Two years later, Dick was a 21-year-old lieutenant flying in the aircraft commander’s seat in a B-17F over Nazi Germany, in charge of a crew of 10, dropping bombs on targets and watching many of his friends drop out of the sky in burning aircraft, some never to return.
When Dick was finished telling us about his time flying the B-17, I shook his hand and thanked him, along with his buddies, for saving the world. I couldn’t be more serious about that “saving the world” thing and, someday, I’ll tell you about my father-in-law and mother-in-law’s contributions to saving the world, too.
We owe this “greatest generation” everything. Now most of them are gone, with more passing everyday.
As we walked away, I stopped and watched Dick standing there, alone, looking at the bird. And I couldn’t resist it. I told Dee to hang on and that I had one more question for Dick.
I walked back up and he looked at me earnestly, like a good decent does, probably thinking I wanted to know yet another mechanical aspect of flying the -17, but that wasn’t it.
I said, “Sir, I do have one more question, but I didn’t want to embarrass you in front of my wife.”
He smiled, and leaned toward me, as if already knowing what I was going to ask (and he probably did).
“At age 21, you and nine other scared kids climbed into this thing, full of fuel and bombs, flew through flak-filled skies and won the war. Can you tell me, sir, just exactly how big are your balls?”
He busted up laughing at that. We both did. He just slowly nodded his head, knowing he had lived a life in which he would never have to prove anything to anyone. Ever.
The magnificent B-17G on display at the Boeing Museum of Flight. My new buddy, Dick, is the shorter of the two men in the photo. I’m amazed all of his parts fit in the photo.
Snoqualmie Falls near Seattle. This is in the summer when the water level is down. Imagine it in April.
Sign of the Times #1: Snoqualmie Falls. I’ll bet they added this sign AFTER the “incident.”
My pre-birthday dinner at Matt’s Rotisserie in Redmond, WA. No one just “likes” oysters. You either love ’em or hate ’em. Ditto liver, or haggis.
Sign of the Times #2. It’s important to follow instructions. Saw this somewhere between Seattle and Coeur d’Alene. I’m really tired of spell-checking Couer… Core… dammit… Coeur d’Alene!
Breakfast with Aunt Donna and Uncle Schu (Earle) at Frankin’s Hoagie in Coeur d’Alene. Great breakfast menu. Donna’s not really my aunt. She’s actually Bird’s aunt, but I don’t have any living aunts, so I’m claiming Aunt Donna. So there. Donna and Earle “escaped” LA for CDA (I give up) over 20 years ago and never looked back. Smart folks.
Highway 97 between St. Maries, Idaho and St. Regis, Montana. 120 miles of twisting near-perfect-motorcycling-road-bliss along the St. Joe River, followed by…
17 miles of downhill twisting gravel-and-dirt-motorcycling-not-so-blissful road into St. Regis, Montana. Some parts of me felt very small during this portion of the ride.
Travel safe. And often.