Happy Birthday Mom

If she were still alive, today would be my mother’s 99th birthday. She wasn’t a part of the World War I baby boom, exactly. At least her father hadn’t been a part of the young men who went off to that war. He had been in law school - an incredible privilege for a child of one of Montana’s pioneer families. Both her father and Mother had grown up in Fort Benton, the last stop for the Missouri River Steamboats where they turned around before reaching the Great Falls which were not navigable for them. She was the third daughter born to Vernon and Eva. Eva was the daughter of Roy Russell, a court reporter who had served in Virginia City, one of the early capitols of the Montana Territory, but who had returned to the more settled community of Fort Benton to raise his family. Vernon’s uncle had been a mule skinner who hauled freight out of Fort Benton. When the steamships unloaded, there was a lot of freight that was bound for Helena and other places deeper in the territory and the freighters were the ones to get it delivered. Part of the family lore from the Lewis side of the family is that uncle Ed was the one who was the model for Charles Russell’s famous painting of a mule skinner at the top of the Fort Benton hill. Part of the family lore from the Russell side of the family is that even though the artist had the same name, he was not related to our clan. Hattie Lewis wanted nothing to do with that “whiskey drinking n’er do well.”

Vernon and Eva had settled into a large two-story frame house with a sleeping porch on the front and a field behind where they kept a dairy cow for their family. Vernon practiced law in the area and did every kind of legal work from land titles and transactions to criminal defense to preparing wills and estates. He dabbled in politics and served in the Montana House of Representatives and Senate.

Before she was a teenager, the family had grown to five daughters and the sleeping porch was filled with girls on summer evenings. The Great Depression hit hard in a lot of ways, with folks not having money to pay for legal services. Vernon was sometimes paid in chickens or even legs and often not paid at all. Their family was one of the pillars of the Methodist Church and he served the state Conference and the General Conference of the Methodist Churches. Among the favorite activities of the family were the annual trips to Neihart, where the Methodists held their annual encampment in the Belt Mountains. One of the cabins at the camp was constructed by the family.

They saw tragedy when the fourth daughter died of heart disease, after a struggle with rheumatic fever. Vernon and Eva never wavered from their desire to educate their daughters. The college of choice for the daughters was Intermountain Union in Helena, formed from a merger of Montana Wesleyan College and the College of Montana from Deer Lodge. Vernon served on the Board of trustees of the three-building campus. A series fo earthquakes in October of 1935 rendered the campus unusable. The walls collapsed on the new gymnasium. The classroom building and dormitory were uninhabitable. The college briefly moved to temporary quarters in Great Falls before accepting an invitation to share the campus of Billings Polytechnic Institute. Vernon continued to serve as a trustee and as the college’s lawyer through all of the transitions and the family’s focus shifted to Billings along with the move of the college.

It made sense that their third daughter, our mother, who had her heart set on becoming a nurse, attend the nursing school at Billings Deaconess Hospital, where she could live safely in the Deaconess dormitory and still be able to attend classes at the college. One evening she attended a theatre performance at Losekamp Hall when a paper airplane landed in her lap. She turned around to see a giggling boy in the balcony who had obviously folded the plane from the theatre program and thrown it in her direction. Determined to give him a piece of her mind about proper behavior, she confronted him after the performance. The rest, as they say, is history.

Her boyfriend had his eyes on the sky. He was attending Polytechnic and working in their farm across the road, but every spare minute was spent at the airport fiddling with airplanes. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the twenty-year old fly boy signed up for the Army Air Corps, who were in need of instructor pilots. He was stationed at Victorville in California and the two wrote letters. The next December she boarded the train and made her way to California. She was just 20 and he 21 when they were married in the home of her uncle and aunt by a Methodist minister.

After the war she practiced her nursing and he used GI funds to complete his airframe and power plant certificates at a school in Oklahoma. Then the pair started to look for an airport in need of a pilot/mechanic/operator and a town in which to settle. Several possibilities were considered, including Rock Springs, Wyoming, but after living so far from her family home, she longed to return to Montana and when their Stinson touched down on the grass strip next to the navigation beacon on the hill above Big Timber, they decided to settle in that town.

It was still a while before I arrived on the scene and there were plenty of other family adventures, but before they turned 30 the pair had formed a solid marriage. They had endured a Great Depression and a World War. He had survived a flying career that had killed a lot of his students and earned a purple heart from injuries sustained when he bailed out of an airplane with a non-functioning engine. She had lived in four different states and he in five.

As always, there is more to the story, but for today it is enough to give thanks for that baby girl born 99 years ago who gave me life and faith and love.

Copyright (c) 2020 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!