Prairie Lights: The pleasure of their company

Joe Med

Pete Souza

I never did meet Barack Obama, but he and I both got to meet Joe Medicine Crow, seen here on the day in 2009 when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

I’ve spent the past 10 days or so immersed in Montana history, working on a project that I hope will bear fruit soon.

As part of that immersion, I’ve done interviews with people who’ve had front-row seats — when they weren’t down on the floor, in the thick of things — on some of the most momentous events in Montana’s history over the past 50 years.

Ed Kemmick

Ed Kemmick

It made me think of two things: how much I like talking about the past with people who really know it, and how fortunate I’ve been, as a Montana transplant, to have crossed paths with so many interesting Montanans. Here are a few snapshots from those encounters:

Having K. Ross Toole as a Montana history professor back in the mid-1970s at the University of Montana was an introduction to this place that made me feel more deeply about my adopted state than I had felt about my home state of Minnesota.

Toole told the history of Montana as a stirring narrative and he invested that history with passion and meaning. He made you want to learn everything you could about this place, then do everything you could to protect it from heedless exploitation.

Norman Maclean signed my copy of “A River Runs Through It,” but if he said anything to me I don’t recall it. No matter. As a young journalism student, I had just heard him give a public reading from his recently published novella, in a banquet room at the Florence Hotel in Missoula.

As a result, I’ve had the inestimable pleasure of hearing his voice and seeing that grand, tragic face every time I’ve read that book, or anything else by the master, for all these years.

When I was a gas boy for Johnson Flying Service in Missoula, also in the mid-1970s, I worked with Bob Johnson, company founder and legendary mountain pilot. After he sold the flying service to Evergreen Air, and after losing a thumb to cancer, he was allowed to come in whenever he wanted and work in the machine shop, which he did because he disliked inactivity and loved being around all the old mechanics and pilots still employed there.

I remember once when a pilot came in, having made a detour of many hundreds of miles in hopes of meeting Bob Johnson. I was delighted to lead him back to the shop, where Bob, dressed in khaki work shirt and pants, was intently at work on the band saw. We both stood and watched him finish the job before presuming to interrupt him.

I also got to meet, on several occasions, two of Montana’s most famous veterans of World War II — Joe Medicine Crow and Ben Steele. Medicine Crow was a hero of the traditional kind, having completed, as an infantry scout, all four tasks required of a war chief, including counting coup (touching but not killing) on a German soldier.

Steele was a hero for having survived the Bataan Death March and then years of almost unimaginable suffering as a prisoner of war in the Philippines and Japan. He not only survived; he became something of an ambassador of peace and reconciliation.

They both died in 2016, Medicine Crow at 102, Steele at 98. They don’t make them like that any more, and they didn’t make many of them in the past.

My life was enriched and my love of Montana history was deepened when I met Johnnie Lockett Thomas. Born in Alabama, she married a soldier from Miles City, Bill “Bunky” Thomas, who would later become the first African-American inducted into the Range Riders Museum Hall of Fame in his home town.

Johnnie was a self-made historian who gave talks around the state, and who devoted the last few years of her life to chronicling the life of her husband, who had had endless stories about family members and acquaintances who were, even by Miles City standards, first-class characters.

Beyond those people, whose names were known to so many, were all the dozens and hundreds of lesser-known Montanans I had the privilege of meeting because I happened to have a job that paid me to seek out and talk to people who had done something notable, something extraordinary, something noble or something surpassingly weird.

I have made their acquaintance in all four corners of the state, talking to them in cars, bars, houses, hospitals and homeless shelters. They have been cowboys and athletes, trappers, paleontologists, musicians, ministers, conservationists, transients, professors, sheriffs, smeltermen, miners, beggars and thieves.

No matter how strange or inexplicable the world has grown or might yet become, I can take solace in thinking of all the people here who convinced me many years ago that this was where I wanted to be, and where, as a result of no planning and dumb luck, I still get to be.

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