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."

Off he went, flying with the 46th Reconnaissance Squadron over the North Pole, conducting some of the first spy missions of the Cold War. To the public, Lucky and his crew were testing equipment. In reality, they were scouting the Soviet border for secret bases. "Oh, we had a couple of [Soviet planes] on our wingtips once or twice," he says, sucking his teeth. "Nothing too dramatic."

In December 1946, Lucky guesses, he earned his nickname. He was piloting a B-29 through heavy ice and fog, lost two engines and crash-landed in a field, barely scrambling away before the plane burned. One of the crew members snapped a photo of the charred flight cabin. "Boy," he said. "You're lucky."

The name stuck.
"In front of us we had 64-below weather, and behind us we had a 500-degree inferno," Lucky remembers. "There were some broken bones, but no one got killed. I was black-and-blue. Nothing to complain about. We went back to the barracks, changed clothes and went to a bar."

Two months later they crash-landed again.

Shortly after midnight on February 21, 1947, a B-29 set out from Ladd Field in Fairbanks, Alaska, for an eighteen-hour circle flight to the North Pole. The plane was nicknamed "Kee Bird," after a mythical creature that stays in the cold weather while smarter birds fly south.

The crew was testing a gyroscope navigation system. Lucky was the flight engineer. This mission, like the others, was secret. Radio silence was crucial. Once the crew left the base, no one knew exactly where they were.

The plane rounded the North Pole, conducted its test and turned back. As it did, a heavy storm hit. Then the crew saw something they didn't expect.

"We picked up land before we were supposed to pick up land," Lucky says. "We couldn't identify it. We had no reason to run into land yet."

Lucky thinks the gyro must have malfunctioned; others suggest the plane was misdirected by bogus Soviet radio signals. Whatever it was, the crew couldn't determine their position. They tried to read the stars, but the plane couldn't rise above the thick cloud cover. The crew circled over what was then uncharted Greenland, lost.

"We didn't know where we were," Lucky says. "We thought we were in Russia. We couldn't find a place to sit down. There ain't any smooth places up there. We were running out of light. We had to land."

Eventually the pilot spotted a frozen lake, and the plane skidded on its belly 800 feet along the ice before coming to a stop near the shore. Miraculously, the plane didn't spin out or burn, and no one was hurt. One of the crew members knelt on the ice and made the sign of the cross.

The temperature was 49 degrees below zero. Lucky and the other ten men dragged supplies from the plane, pitched makeshift tents and huddled in sleeping bags. They took turns draining gas from the Kee Bird, keeping a fire going, melting snow for drinking water and maintaining the generator and radio. A few men climbed a nearby hill and discharged flares, but the signals didn't shoot high enough.

"We didn't have any cards. We didn't have any booze. There wasn't much to do," Lucky says, "except survive."

When the clouds dissipated, the navigator determined their position from the stars, give or take 500 miles, and transmitted a coded message to base. The Ladd Field radio operator asked, "What are you guys doing in Greenland?" A crewman responded, "We came down to shoot a few polar bears."

Then they waited.
At that time of year, darkness lasts eighteen hours at the polar ice cap. Lucky and the others hunkered down in flight suits, parkas and mukluks. Their only food: the K rations of canned pork loaf and crackers. Lucky went hunting once, but he didn't find anything more than the remains of a rabbit.

"There wasn't anything alive out there that I could find," he says.
Eight planes searched for the Kee Bird. When the wreck was found, rescuers dropped a load of supplies, including a girlie calendar from a Fairbanks bar.

Three days after the crash, a C-54 transport plane slid along the frozen lake and gathered up the Kee Bird crew. The rescue earned the team captain a personal commendation from President Harry S. Truman.

The Kee Bird was left behind, with broken wheels, bent propellers and no fuel.

His spy days done, Lucky lived in El Paso, flying Air Force C-54 cargo planes, working as a flight instructor and settling into married life, raising two sons and two daughters. In 1961 he moved to Denver; three years later he retired from the service.

On a lark, he joined a friend in the salvage business and went to work closing Safeways, Albertsons and ice-skating rinks. Somewhere along the way, he discovered an interest in blowing up buildings.

"Wherever you see a new building downtown, there used to be an old one," he says. "We did them all."

Lucky holds up a framed photo of the Swiss Packing Plant crumbling in on itself in a cloud of dust.

"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."

Lucky again.

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.

Lucky was devastated.
"It was a terrible loss," he says. "It was worse than losing your wife. You can replace your wife, but you can never replace that plane."

Lucky closes his scrapbook and returns it to the briefcase. He's done most of what he wanted in life, he says, except win the lottery, which he plans to do before he dies.

And there's another thing: restore an airplane and fly over Colorado like he did as a boy. Sure, he's getting older, slower, and hasn't flown for years, but he's not about to fade away in an easy chair. Besides, he knows someone with an old plane on his hands.

"Oh, I'll get around to it one of these days," he says. "Got to keep things interesting."

Contact Harrison Fletcher at his online address, harrison_fletcher@westword.com, or by phone at 303-293-3553.

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