A Wing and a Prayer

Even at 100, Cole Kugel is ready for takeoff.

And they did most of it without help. Water was pumped by hand or powered by windmill. The farm didn't have a tractor until 1915, and that one lasted only a year. In the winter, for the two-mile trip into Salt Fork, John Kugel would heat a stone in the wooden stove, then wrap it in a quilt and put it in the back of the two-seat surrey, where it served as a portable heater for Cole and his siblings.

"Back then on the farm, you just did what you could to survive," Cole recalls.

Still, he had time to yearn for adventure. While his family would attend the occasional Wild West show, Cole often found himself gazing at the Oklahoma sky and imagining soaring with the meadowlarks in a contraption called an "airplane."

Cole standing in front of the hangar today.
John Johnston
Cole standing in front of the hangar today.
Adventures in pairidise: Cole Kugel in the cockpit of his old plane.
John Johnston
Adventures in pairidise: Cole Kugel in the cockpit of his old plane.

"Just wanted to go places," he recalls.

When he was eighteen, he made it as far as Stillwater -- 66 miles from home. After he graduated from Lamont High School, in 1920, his mother wanted him to attend Oklahoma A&M, but his father wanted Cole to remain on the farm. So his parents compromised: His mother bought a house in Stillwater, where he went to college half the time; the other half, he'd be home working the farm.

One day, though, Cole and a buddy saw something that made them forget about both their studies and the soil: a barnstormer offering rides in a pasture. Cole hopped in. For fifteen glorious minutes, in the open-air cockpit of a biplane, without goggles or a helmet, high above the farmland, he was "just like a bird."

In the fall of 1926, the Methodist church in Lamont sponsored a gathering for new teachers and eligible bachelors. Being both a new teacher and eligible bachelor himself, Cole decided to attend.

"Well, they had a dance party," he recalls, knitting his thick hands behind a half-bald head ringed with white hair. "And they put the teachers in one circle and the young bachelors in another circle. They circled one way and we circled the other way. Whoever you stopped in front of, you met."

Cole met Mildred Kemper: a "pretty nice-looking" 23-year-old math teacher from Chickasha, Oklahoma, with brown hair, green thumbs, "pretty good common sense" and a habit of collecting knickknacks and doodads and hanging on to them forever.

The two hit it off.

"Well, not immediately," Cole admits. "But not too long after. She accused me of holding her hand. That kind of started it."

He'd recently graduated from A&M with a degree in commerce and marketing. Instead of returning to the farm, though, he'd wound up doing blackboard duty as a favor to a high-school superintendent who needed an emergency replacement until he found a longer-term substitute for an AWOL English teacher.

"Seems he forgot about the substitute," Cole says. "I taught there a year and a half."

He also sparked a romance with Mildred. When she accepted a teaching job in southern Oklahoma, Cole fired up his Model A coupe and visited. When she accepted another teaching job in eastern Oklahoma, Cole fired up the Model A and visited. When she spent summers overseas, Cole waited several months, then fired up his Ford and visited after she returned home. For ten long years, Cole rumbled along the rutted roads of the Sooner State to see his sweetheart.

"We had a long courtship," he says.

The couple wanted to marry, but the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression hit small Oklahoma farmers hard. Cole's family was no exception.

"Wasn't any money to get married on," Cole explains. "She was making more money teaching school than I was on the farm. Wheat was only 25 cents a bushel."

When a bank in Lamont closed, Cole's father, who sat on the board of directors, sank $8,000 in debt. If oil speculators weren't paying for rights to a little of the family's land, "that likely would have killed him," Cole remembers. But the Kugels had the farm, and so they never went hungry. What they couldn't grow themselves, they acquired through trade.

"When someone was ailing, Doc Watson came by, and Dad would give him an old hen," Cole recalls. "You traded things so everyone would survive."

In a state with the motto "labor omnia vincit," or "labor conquers all things," Cole not only survived, but eventually saved enough to buy Mildred an engagement ring. They were married on October 25, 1936. For their honeymoon, Mildred had selected China, but a seaman's strike routed them to San Francisco, where they spent all of their money before the labor troubles lifted.

"Missed China," Cole recalls. "Saw Chinatown, though."

Back in Oklahoma, the couple set up housekeeping, but they never had children. By the time they married, Mildred was already 32 and Cole was 34. For many years, they had to help care for Mildred's ailing mother, who had suffered a series of debilitating strokes. And there were always the demands of the farm.

"Just wasn't time to start a family," Cole says.

In 1939, Cole paid a visit to his younger brother, Paul, who had moved to Longmont, Colorado. With farming in Oklahoma still a struggle, the brothers decided to buy dry-land farms near Platteville. Within two years, they'd harvested bumper crops of wheat that pulled them out of their Depression-era debt. In 1943, Cole decided to move to Longmont for good.

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