By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"See that?" he says, his face beaming. "That was a perfect demo. Everything came down just the way you wanted it."
Hotels. Bars. Warehouses. Lucky wasn't too particular. Besides, he often found items that caught his eye: a tin ceiling from the old Tabor, velvet curtains from the Bonfils mansion, a pharmacist's scale from the Interstate Trust building. All now reside in Lucky's home.
For a time he rented an abandoned flour mill near the railyards, where he ran a grocery-store equipment business. There he befriended a collection of hoboes, tramps and eccentrics who roamed the Platte River.
Officer Ann Hughes patrolled the area for seventeen years. "Everything he touches turns to gold," she says of Lucky. "And he doesn't always want it. If he had his way, I think he'd rather be a tramp."
That's not an insult, she says. Quite the contrary. Some of the most intelligent, resourceful and wealthy people she knows happen to be tramps.
"They're well-read, well-educated, independent people who simply prefer not to deal with society and institutions," Hughes says. "They never make a complaint about anyone. They do things their own way. They're hardworking. Most of them are quality people."
Lucky and his friends taught her to see the big picture, she says, to take things easy, to realize that even a truckload of dead squirrels can be a blessing.
"They would say, 'The sun came up today and it will come up again tomorrow.' 'I'm alive today, but I might be dead tomorrow.' 'A baby got killed, but those things happen. It's just a matter of fact. Just the way it is.' Looking at life that way makes it a whole lot easier."
Lucky shrugs when asked about those days.
"We had a lot of fun down there, I guess," he says. "Until everything got modern."
Back in the Seventies, most Denverites avoided the old industrial yards and the men and women living there. But Lucky found them fascinating.
"They were people who could tell you stories you wouldn't find in the newspapers or anywhere else," he says. "Most of the time, they didn't give you any trouble. But they did set things on fire."
Once a man made a home under the railroad dock on the mill's west side. He fixed it up nicely, with his bedroll and belongings arranged just so. He collected plastic water bottles used by railroad workers, refilled them and arranged them by the dozen inside his dugout.
One morning when Lucky arrived at work, he saw a fire blazing under the dock. He ran inside his office, retrieved a fire extinguisher, sprayed its contents on the flames and ran back for another. After several trips, he realized he was getting nowhere. Any minute, he thought, the flames would catch the roof on fire.
"All of sudden it stopped," he chuckles. "The plastic water bottles melted and put the fire out."
In 1989 a retired Florida pilot named William Schnase called Lucky with an idea: retrieve the Kee Bird from Greenland.
The plane had been discovered four years earlier by a British pilot on an Arctic expedition. By now, only one of the 4,000 B-29s built during WWII was in flying condition. The Kee Bird, partially frozen in ice, was remarkably intact; Schnase wanted to repair the plane and fly it back to the United States.
"Why not?" Lucky said.
Over the next few years, he and Schnase (mostly Schnase) developed a detailed, three-phase renovation and retrieval plan, wading through red tape and preparing a packet titled "The Snow-Bird Project." Then Lucky had back surgery, and Schnase disappeared. His phone was disconnected, and mail addressed to him was returned. Lucky thinks Schnase suffered a heart attack and died. "That's all it could be," he says. "I never heard from him again."
In the meantime, another Kee Bird project had been launched by several California businessmen, who planned to restore the plane and sell it to a museum or private collector. The partners spent more than $500,000 coordinating the endeavor and meticulously restoring the plane to flying condition.
As the project gained international attention (it was documented on Nova), the original Kee Bird crew reunited. Lucky, who'd been assigned a minor role, traveled to Greenland and stood beside men he hadn't seen in 47 years. "I wanted to be the pilot, co-pilot or flight engineer," he says. "I could have done it. I had the original manual somewhere."
But in May 1995, as the Kee Bird was about to take flight, Lucky was sidelined in a Greenland hospital with a blood clot in his left leg. He hated to miss the action. "Checking myself into the hospital was the hardest thing I've ever done," he says. "But if I got sick, I didn't want them to go through what they went through with Kriege."
(A year earlier, Rick Kriege, the restoration crew's 39-year-old chief mechanic, had become ill at the restoration site in Greenland. He died two weeks after being evacuated.)
While Lucky recovering from surgery, his wife visited the hospital with bad news: The Kee Bird had caught fire and burned. The renovation crew had forgotten to replace a defective connection to the plane's auxiliary power unit in the tail. When they fired up the engines, the $10 component broke and spewed fuel over a hot generator. The crew sat on lawn chairs and watched the plane disappear in flames.