[January 20, 1964]
[Benchmark Lodge – Benchmark, Montana]
They reached the front door of the lodge and went inside. It was done tastefully in, of course, knotty pine. There was a high-ceilinged great room with a long chest-high desk along the far end. Huge picture windows covered one wall and afforded a breathtaking view down the valley. Various groupings of couches and easy chairs sat around a very large central fire pit. The fire was roaring and gave off the tang of burning pine. Bill looked around and saw the sign for private dining rooms – his destination.
Without seeming to, he guided Molly towards that door. They went through and were greeted by an older woman. “Hello. Welcome to Benchmark Lodge. Table for two?”
Bill paused a moment and then answered. “Hello. Just the two of us, Bill and Molly.”
“Ah.” She said. “Follow me please.”
She turned and walked towards an open alcove and then stood aside as the two of them entered.
Around fifteen people jumped up and shouted “Surprise!”
* * *
‘Oh. This man! He is forever surprising me. And, I hope he never stops. My life will never be dull with him around.’
* * *
Molly’s mouth opened in surprise and then she began to redden about the ears. Bill thought that she was at her most beautiful when she blushed. He hugged her to his side. “Happy birthday, Honey. Again. Welcome to your party.”
Phillip and Paula came up and escorted her to her chair at the head of the table. They each kissed her cheek as she sat. “Happy birthday, Sis.” Pronounced Phillip.
“Tell us about the plane ride, Molly,” said Jennifer, a girl about Molly’s age who lived next door to the Stiles. “I’ve always wanted to do that.”
“Later, later,” Bill’s dad said from down the table. Right now we need to have a toast. Does everyone have their glass – except you, Bill? Hand him his apple juice someone.”
Bill was handed his glass of juice while his dad cleared his throat and began. “Molly. You came into our lives just a short time ago. During that time you’ve enriched our family with your presence. I, and the rest of us, couldn’t be happier with the choice our son made when he married you. Now, in just a few short months, you’ll give us yet another member of our family.” There was a collective gasp from a few people that hadn’t heard Molly was pregnant.
“But this moment, however, is just for you. We all wish you happy birthday. Cheers!”
“Cheers!” They all echoed him. They drank. Bill leaned over and kissed her. It lasted until someone said “Wow! Give her air, Bill!”
The servers came in from the kitchen and began dealing out platters of food. The cuisine was pure Montana woods. They had venison, elk, greens, potatoes, game gravy, and all that went with it. Everyone dug in. Bill didn’t have to explain elk to Molly as she was familiar with what they looked like. She took a bite of elk roast, chewed, swallowed, and pronounced it “delicious”.
Conversation flowed around the table as they ate. Glasses were refilled from time to time (except for Molly, who stopped at her first one). In ninety minutes or so, everyone began to slow down. A huge flat cake appeared at the kitchen door with twenty-one candles alight on it. Everyone sang Happy Birthday to Molly, who got teary-eyed. With sniffles, she thanked everyone for the wonderful party and cut the cake to their cheers.
Bill thanked everyone for coming because he knew it was a long trip – several hours – over from Great Falls. The general consensus was that it was ‘no big deal’. Bill asked Molly if she would like to walk around a bit. She said she would so they excused themselves and donned their coats in the hall. She took his arm and, as they passed the desk, the clerk wished her a happy birthday also. “Thank you,” she said. “It was all so wonderful.”
“You be sure to get your husband to fly you back sometime. This is a great vacation place.”
“I will. Maybe we could come back this summer if we get free; before I get too big, that is.” She giggled.
The clerk looked thoughtful. “Ah. I see.” She broke into a huge smile. “And congratulations for that also.”
Molly dimpled and gave her thanks again. They left and went down the front steps towards a walkway that wound though the pines and past the vacation cabins. “Want to see the cabins?” Bill asked.
“Sure. I have to do something to walk off that meal. What a huge lunch!”
“Yeah. I’m stuffed also.” They walked slowly down the path. “Is it okay if I ask Jennifer to fly back with us?” Bill asked. “She’s been dying to have me take her up. I won’t if you don’t want me to.”
“Sure, Bill. I don’t have a problem with that. I’ve had my surprise – surprises – today. I’d like to have her come. It’ll give me someone to talk to while you fly. Darn. That sounds so silly for me to say that: ‘while you fly’. You always astonish me with the things you know and the things you do. I had no idea you were a pilot.”
“Like I said before, I’ve been one now for almost two years. I don’t get a lot of flying in; just enough to keep my ticket current. I had my flight physical just last week so I could do this flight. It was fun getting all this together without you finding out. Usually I have no secrets from you. It was tough. Phillip almost gave it away a couple of days ago when he asked me if I had an up-to-date chart. I guess you didn’t hear that.”
“I did, but I didn’t know what that meant. I knew you call weather maps ‘charts’ so I guess it didn’t register as anything else. I’m glad you surprised me. It’s the best birthday I’ve ever had. And now I’m twenty-one also. I can have a glass of wine with my dinner if I want. I really missed not being able to do that except at home. Now I can go out and do it.”
“Yup. Just as soon as we get back to Great Falls, I’ll take you out to a really nice, light, dinner at the Officer’s Club. How about that?”
“Wonderful. Just the two of us?”
“Just the two of us, Honey. You and I. Gazing into each other’s eyes and sighing. I love you, my wife.”
“And I you,” she said, completing their little ritual. They kissed right there in the middle of the path under a bright sunny sky that only the Big Sky country could provide.
They got back to the lodge in about an hour and sat with the rest of the gang in the great room with their feet up towards the fire. Loud, boisterous, laughter and talk permeated the room. Their party was joined by several other couples. One couple, who sat right next to them, appeared to be having fun, but didn’t take part in much conversation. When the woman leaned over to her husband and spoke in German, Bill understood why.
He leaned towards her and asked, in German, if they were talking too fast for them. She turned rapidly towards Bill and looked up in astonishment. She replied that they were having such fun just listening to us have a good time. He asked their names and where they were from. She told him that they were traveling across the States and a friend in Billings had told them of this lodge. They called for a booking and here they were. She tapped her husband on the shoulder and he joined the conversation, happy to be able to communicate as he knew very little English. His wife was the translator for them both. Bill got their names: Heinz and Frieda Gruber.
When there was a lull in the general hubbub, Bill jumped in and introduced the two of them to his clan and their friends. His mom and dad spoke to them in German as well as another couple. From then on, they rapidly changed between the two languages at will to suit whomever they were talking to at the time.
Bill patted Molly’s knee and walked over to where Jennifer was sitting. He knelt at her side and asked if she would like to fly back with the two of them. Her face lit up brightly. “Oh! Can I? Wonderful! Just let me know when you’re ready to go.”
“About a half hour. If we leave later than that it will be pitch dark by the time we get back to the base. That’s not a problem at all,” Bill hastened to add. “But it’s just that night flying is trickier than daytime because of the reduced visibility.”
“No problem, Bill. Just let me know and I’ll be ready.”
He looked at his watch and shrugged a little. “Maybe we’d better start saying goodbye then.”
Bill went around the circle, thanking everyone for coming and reached his mom who waved Molly over. They hugged and his mother wished her a special birthday greeting just from her. Molly kissed his dad’s cheek and shook hands with everyone else. Bill’s brother and sister hugged her as well. Out by the coat rack, the three of them donned their coats and gloves.
Their walk to the FBO was halted by a red light on the post this time. Way off down the valley two beams of light appeared. Another light plane was on approach. Bill pointed it out and the three of them watched it land. In a burst of wind it swept past them and down the runway, slowing, until it turned off towards the ramp.
The light turned green again and they crossed to take the walk up to the FBO building. Bill filed a return flight plan and told the girls to wait here if they wanted to stay warm. Neither one did so they followed him out. He walked around the plane, pushing and pulling controls and then took out his fuel sampler and drained a little from each tank. “To make sure there isn’t any water in it.” He answered in response to Molly’s question. Then he lifted the engine cowling to check the oil level, found nothing amiss, and closed it back up. The desk had told him the tire he’d asked about was two pounds low so they had added some air.
“Well, girls. No time like the present I guess. Jennifer, do you and Molly want to sit in the back seats, or one of you in front?”
Molly hesitated, and then told Jennifer to sit up front because the view would be awesome for Jennifer’s first time. Molly would sit in the back so she got in first and settled down. Bill handed her a small blanket which she tucked over her legs. He also noticed that she fastened the seat belt expertly this time. He knew that he was definitely going to have to get her some lessons.
Jennifer was next. Bill assisted her into the seat, tucked her legs into the well, and told her not to stick them out too far or they would hit the controls. She nodded, looking slightly apprehensive. Bill reached into the bag on the back of the seat and pulled out two pairs of earphones. This particular plane had the ability to put everyone on intercom and leave one ear open for the pilot to hear the radio. He explained how everything worked and then closed the door.
After Bill ran around and hopped into the pilot’s seat he made sure the door was secure. Then he primed the engine and hit the starter. The engine coughed once and then began running smoothly. The propeller spun in a blurry arc. In rapid succession, Bill set the controls up, adjusted the radio panel, and set the autopilot for the altitude he wanted. They were just over two thousand feet higher here than Great Falls so he would be going downhill all the way.
After checking the intercom out with the two girls, Bill toggled up the mic and announced his intensions. The FBO operator came back and cleared him to the runway threshold and they began moving slowly towards it. On the way, he added a notch of flaps and set the heading bug for the autopilot. Since Great Falls International was directly in their path, he’d have to jog north around it again in order to land at Malmstrom. This wasn’t a problem at all with a heading hold autopilot.
The engine sounded good to Bill so he announced he was pulling onto the runway for takeoff. Once there, he settled on the center line, ran the engine up, checked the magnetos, and then released the brakes. They rolled down the runway and lifted off at about the three-quarters mark. Once they were steadily climbing, Bill eased the flaps off and flew the plane manually down the valley.
Jennifer was practically drooling on the window. Her hands were fluttering all around as she pointed out stuff to Molly. Molly, on the other hand, tried her best to look almost bored – bless her. Bill could see her eyes looking everywhere also. Soon, both girls were talking up a storm on the intercom. Bill broke in and told them he would be off the channel for a bit. Jennifer okayed and Molly gave him a crisp ‘roger’. Bill spent some time with Great Falls Approach informing them of his intention to fly north of them at five miles and three thousand AGL. It was approved and he was given a transponder code which he dialed in and pushed the ident button. They came back with radar confirmation and wished him a nice trip.
Almost an hour later, nightfall was closing down on them. The sun was disappearing behind the mountains and throwing long shadows across the plains below them. Over the engine noise Bill could hear Molly and Jennifer talking but not specific words. He clicked his right ear to intercom.
“…and that’s why I don’t go out with him any more.” Jennifer was saying.
“Excuse me ladies, but I thought you might like to watch the city go by. We’re approaching it now. Over to the right is the airport – that flashing green and white light and those sequential runway flashers are the active runway. That means the one planes are landing and taking off from.”
“So that’s what those flashing light are. I’ve seen them from the ground on foggy days. It’s sort of like a big signpost saying ‘land here’ isn’t it?”
“Just that, Jennifer. Wait a second; I have to call Malmstrom again.”
Bill checked back with Malmstrom tower and received permission to enter their pattern so he terminated with Great Falls Approach and reset his transponder code. The wind had shifted enough so Malmstrom reversed the runway direction from the one they had taken off. Now they were assigned runway twelve. He circled around at five miles until he was aligned and called back that he was on final. With permission now to land, he set up his approach and started down.
The landing was uneventful, except for a double chirp – the wheels and Jennifer’s yip. She didn’t expect such a loud noise. Bill told her that she was only about four feet, if that, from the wheels so it sounded much louder. She laughed with relief. He taxied over to the flying club’s apron and shut things down. Another guy came out of the office and took down the particulars of the engine usage and the like. Bill told him he had about a third of a tank in each wing. He nodded and made a note of that. Stiffly, Jennifer and Molly got out of the plane and followed Bill into the warmth of the office. They stood, flapping their hands and arms in front of the space heater until he had signed all the paperwork.
Bill’s folks wouldn’t be back from the hills with their bus for another hour so they just took a base taxi back home. Jennifer thanked him with a peck on the cheek, for which she’d received permission from Molly. “Thanks very much, Bill. It was wonderful. I loved it. Molly, you’re one very lucky girl, that’s all I have to say. To be able to just fly off when you want to is great. I gotta go now. Bye.”
She hugged Molly and wished her another happy birthday then lit off for her house in the dark. Bill turned and put his arm around Molly and ushered her into the house. “Now, I believe I’ll have that drink.” He announced. “I deserve it.”
* * *
‘You certainly do, my husband. Today is the most marvelous day I’d ever had in my life. First I get scared we might end up in jail and they we fly off into the mountains for a wonderful meal. Then we fly home. I will never stop wondering what the next thing Bill will prove to me he can do.’
* * *
That night, after their little nightcap, they readied themselves for bed. Bill caught Molly’s profile as she turned towards the full-length mirror on the closet door. Yes, she was definitely beginning to show. He wondered if she was conscious of it yet. She caught him looking.
“What?” She said suspiciously.
“Nothing. I was just thinking how beautiful you were tonight.”
She dimpled. “Thank you, my love. You just wait until I look like a fat old cow.”
“Never happen. You’ll always look great to me.” He walked over and kissed her as she got into bed.
Bill took off his clothes, washed up a little, and put on his night shorts. Molly whistled at him when he crossed the room and turned off the light. “Hi there, Sailor. Looking for a good time?”
“I sure am! And I bet I find it too!” He quickly pulled up her nightgown and blew a raspberry on her stomach. She screeched in mirth and tried to twist away. He bent down and did it again.
“Sorry about that.” He said, insincerely. “I’ll take that back.” And so he kissed her again on her tummy. This always gives her the shivers and she didn’t disappoint him. Her arms flew upwards and pulled at his neck.
“Mmmmm. Don’t stop now on my account.” She murmured into his neck.
And, he didn’t.