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Lucky Strikes

Squirrels were dying. Lucky didn't know what was killing them off, but there they were, collecting in his Park Hill neighborhood like fallen leaves.

Never one to let anything go to waste, Lucky tossed the tiny carcasses into the back of his pickup. They'd make a good meal for the neighborhood crows, he thought. Unfortunately for the birds, mealtime wasn't exactly Lucky's first priority, and the squirrels piled up in the truck until his friends could practically smell him coming.

One day, while Lucky was making his rounds of the salvage yards, a buddy noticed the stench and took a look inside the truck. "How much you want for the squirrels?" he asked. Lucky shrugged. "How much you want to give me?"

It turned out the buddy tied fishing flies and was in the market for squirrel tails. He opened his wallet and counted off the greenbacks.

Lucky struck again.

It's 6:30 p.m. Robert "Lucky" Luedke sits at his kitchen table washing down a stale peanut-butter sandwich cookie with a huge mug of Taster's Choice. He and a friend have spent the day hauling shelves, counters and restaurant equipment from a closed-down Furr's Cafeteria, and he hasn't had time to eat supper.

Actually, it's a small miracle he made it home this early. He's usually busy, usually late and usually bound by only one schedule--his own. Even his wife, Lucille, can't keep track of him. "For fifty years I haven't known where that man is or what he's doing," she says. "I tell him, 'What happens if there's an emergency? What happens if I need to reach you?' But he just comes and goes. You can't change him."

On this evening, he's wearing a white denim work shirt and white denim work pants, both smudged with grime. One shirt pocket is bursting with receipts, memos and whatnot, the other sags open and empty. Lucky's thin white hair is combed straight back and curls behind his ears (he hasn't had time for a haircut), and his cheekbones ride high under a pair of wary eyes. In the light of the overhead lamp, he could be a cousin of Jack Palance's.

"What did you say you were writing about again?" he asks, half grimace, half smile, voice rough as sandpaper. "Hmmm."

At age 74, with a sore back and bad circulation, Lucky would rather keep to himself, poking around Denver, dreaming about flying and making his peculiar mark on this city. Ask him about his "stuff," though, and his face brightens.

The petrified fox in the front room: "My son ran over it in Washington. It's supposed to be a red fox, but it was frozen quite a while and don't look too red now."

The cockatoo fluttering around the room and perching atop his head: "It's named Dusty or Rusty or something and gets mad if I don't let him out."

The worn photo album inside a metal briefcase he bought from a cop: "Oh, I don't know," he says, flipping through the pages. "I've had a few interesting things happen to me, I guess."

Lucky describes his childhood like this: "Sun came up, caught the bus, went to school, came home. Sun went down, we went to bed."

He was born on May 24, 1923, in West Point, Nebraska, and raised in Fort Morgan along with an older brother and two older sisters. His father was a sugar-beet farmer who lost everything during the Depression and died when Lucky was fourteen.

For fun, Lucky would tear through the countryside in a stripped-down Model A, leaning over the side with a shotgun and blasting pheasants. Sometimes he'd stand by the tracks watching trains rumble by.

When Lucky was sixteen, a Ford tri-motor passenger airplane landed in a wheat field, and the pilot offered rides for one dollar. Lucky raised his money ("took about a month," he says) and soon soared over the Colorado farmland.

"It's kinda hard to forget something like that," he says. "It was my first plane ride."

After he turned eighteen, Lucky moved to Los Angeles with his older brother and took a job building airplanes for North American Aviation. A few years later he was flying most of the planes he built.

By then, World War II had started. Lucky signed up as soon as he could, zigzagging between California, Utah and Arizona, learning to fly Black Widow night fighters. Not long afterward, he survived his first plane crash.

"Wasn't nothing," Lucky says. "Another plane hit me on the runway. Neither one of us were going fast enough to hurt anything."

Soon Lucky was trained as a mechanic, flight engineer and pilot, but he'd watched the war pass him by. Finally he was assigned to a B-29 bomber and given a mission in the Pacific in August 1945. A few weeks later the war ended. "Of course we were disappointed," he says. "We couldn't wait to fight. That's how stupid we were."

As soldiers were discharged and sent home, an officer strolled through Lucky's unit seeking recruits for Alaska. Most of the men laughed; Lucky volunteered. "It was exciting," he says. "A chance to see something new."

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