A Wing and a Prayer

Even at 100, Cole Kugel is ready for takeoff.

The wind is cold, sharp, and blowing steadily from the east at five knots. The clouds are thick but airy, blotting the sky in patches. The temperature hangs at a chill 37 degrees.

Cole Kugel squints into the noonday sun and smiles.

He is anxious, excited. He has waited a long time for this moment. During the past year, he broke his hip, lost his wife of 65 years, sold the plane that had taken them so many places. At times, he thought he would never fly again: After 72 years in the air, he might finally be grounded.

John Johnston
The wild blue yonder: The Longmont Flying Ranchers then (Cole Kugel is ninth from the left).
The wild blue yonder: The Longmont Flying Ranchers then (Cole Kugel is ninth from the left).

Yet here he is, at the Longmont airport, climbing into the cockpit once more. With friends and family members looking on, he slides his seat forward, clicks the seatbelt in place, checks the instruments and glances at his co-pilot. A moment later, the engine starts with a roar, and the glossy white Cessna rolls from the hangar onto the runway and then into the air, where it soars higher and higher until it is a speck in the clouds.

The hundred-year-old pilot is aloft.

"I asked Cole once about his secret to longevity, and he looked at me and said, 'Just keep on living,'" says Warren Rempel, a longtime friend.

Cole Kugel was born over a year before the invention of mechanized aviation. He has witnessed the creation of the atomic bomb and the Pocket Fisherman, test-tube babies and cloned sheep. And yet, as he describes his century on this planet, he's as dry as a piece of notebook paper: "Oh. Well. Been interesting, I guess."

He pauses a minute.

"Not over yet, though."

Then he grins.

This is Cole: Simple, direct, deadpan. He's exceptionally bright, very funny and quite chatty once you get to know him, but he prefers to approach things -- flying, for example -- head on, as straight as the furrows on a farm. And although he's spent 10,000 hours in the air, he says only this of his lifelong passion: "Oh, I enjoyed it."

He sits a while at his kitchen table, dressed in a buttoned-up brown shirt, creased brown trousers and scuffed brown ankle boots, sorting mail, watching sparrows, listening to the TV, then adds: "I guess that's about it."

Cole turned 100 this month, but his story starts more than a century ago -- on the hot, dry morning of September 16, 1893, when a serious and determined Czechoslovakian settler named John Kugel sat nervously in his saddle, eyeing six million acres of grazing land that were about to become the Oklahoma Territory. Sitting all around him -- on horseback, covered wagon, buckboard, buggy, two-wheel cart and bicycle -- were 100,000 other settlers nervously eyeing the same thing.

The federal government had acquired the land from tribal leaders for three cents an acre, divided it into 160-acre settlement parcels, and delivered simple instructions to the men, women and children who came from all points of the compass for the great Cherokee Strip land rush: Get there first and it's yours.

That's exactly what John Kugel intended to do. He had his sights set on a fertile quarter a few dozen miles from his parent's farm in Caldwell, Kansas, where he'd ventured from time to time to collect firewood. To improve his chances of success during the race, he brought a younger brother, who piloted a grub wagon beside him.

At noon a bugle sounded, and they were off.

Almost immediately, riders were thrown, wagons upended, people trampled.

John Kugel rode hard, but another homesteader rode harder, and by the time he reached his firewood spot, it had been claimed. So he rode onward and finally staked a claim about forty miles from Kansas. On that land, near what would become the town of Billings, he built a sod home, plowed furrows, scattered seeds and settled in.

Not long afterward, at a Bohemian dance hall in the nearby town of Garber, John Kugel met a serious and determined Czechoslovakian woman named Rose Vacin, who had taken a break from her teaching job in Nebraska to visit her folks living near the town of Salt Fork, Oklahoma. The couple fell in love, married, sold John Kugel's Billings parcel, moved near Rose's folks, bought more land, plowed more furrows, scattered more seeds and settled down.

And that was the start of a family spread that would eventually include wheat fields, apple, peach and pear orchards, vegetable gardens, ten horses, three milk cows, a few cattle, several hogs, assorted chickens and five children: four boys and one girl. Cole was the middle kid, born on March 14, 1902. Although he loved the farm and everything that went with it, he has one overriding memory from his childhood: work.

"Oh, we worked," he says, his scratchy voice crackling like an adolescent boy's. "Weren't worked to death, but we all got into it. Gathered the eggs. Fed the chickens. Milked the cows. Fed the pigs. Got the horses. Fed the horses. Harnessed the horses. Went to the fields. Once school was out, we went home. Didn't play football or other sports. Farm kept us busy. Whatever needed to be done, we did."

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