A Wing and a Prayer
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.
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."
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."
"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.
With their farms producing and their finances improving, Cole and Paul decided to indulge a mutual passion: flying. Although Cole had been the first to climb into a cockpit, Paul was the first to receive his pilot's certificate, in 1944. Cole acquired his the next year.
In 1929, before he'd been grounded by the Depression, Cole had flown quite a bit in Oklahoma and even accumulated a dozen solo hours of airtime in an American Eagle biplane. In Colorado, though, he had to prove himself all over again. As part of the test, he flew 5,000 feet high, then headed straight down.
"You had to put yourself into a spin and come out the way you went in," he explains. "You'd get up to good altitude, close the throttle, pull it up into a stall and kick the rudder, and when it starts down, you'd count the turns -- three or four of them -- and come out alive. Oh, I was a little nervous, I guess. But I went through it okay. It worked out pretty good."
In 1946, Paul was instrumental in the construction of a new airport in Longmont. He'd helped convince Longmont officials to buy 220 acres of farmland west of the city and had agreed to manage the airfield with his partners at the Longmont Flying Service. With Cole's help, Paul even built the first hangar and first runway.
"The city provided gravel, we got a truck from the farm, got a grader from the county and went to work," Cole remembers.
And Cole soon had his own plane to park at that airport: a $2,300 three-seat Piper Super Cruiser. He booked a passenger flight to Pennsylvania, went to the Piper factory in Lock Haven, inspected his purchase, waited for a rainstorm to pass, gassed up and "headed west."
"Back then, flying was an experience," he recalls. "Didn't have a radio. Didn't have an aerial map. You just followed highways and railroad tracks. When it was clear, you'd take off and go. If you ran into weather, you'd turn around. When the gas gauge got low, you'd find a town, look for a water tower, circle around and find a little airport."
Landing in New Philadelphia, Ohio, Cole gobbled a sandwich at the airport cafe, filled his tanks and celebrated Thanksgiving. Then he climbed into his plane and, steering a wide berth around St. Louis, which was too big and scary to fly over, made his way to Oklahoma.
After visiting a few days, he fetched Mildred and they flew home to Colorado. It was their first long-distance aerial adventure.
While Paul and Cole Kugel were looking at flying as entertainment, a group of farmers back in Stillwater began realizing the practical uses of the airplane. They could zip between their farms and big cities in a fraction of the time it took by car or train. They could fetch machine parts directly from factories instead of waiting weeks for delivery. They could survey their fields, livestock and fences in hours instead of days.
They could have fun, too. They could pack a lunch, hop inside their planes, zip across the state, set down on a farm somewhere and have a party. By 1944 they were doing this so often that they decided to form a club: The Flying Farmers and Ranchers.
Six hundred miles away in Longmont, Paul Kugel and his friends caught wind of this development and organized their own chapter in 1946. Cole joined a year later and helped build a hangar for the chapter, which started out as the Longmont Flying Ranchers.
Over the next few decades, whenever the Kugel brothers weren't planting, irrigating or harvesting, they were flying from Longmont to Limon to "wherever they had a good airstrip," Cole remembers. "You'd get together at someone's farm or ranch, bring a basket lunch and have a good old time. Nothing too special about it."
But the members of the Colorado Flying Farmers, as the group eventually was known, thought otherwise. They were so impressed with Cole's participation that in 1955, they elected him president. Around the hangar, he was known as a serious, meticulous pilot. He never experienced an in-flight emergency and never put his plane or his passengers at risk. His only mishap occurred when he inadvertently snapped a power line while landing in an Oklahoma pasture -- and aside from the power line, Cole says, "nothing got hurt."
Delmar Lemons was Cole's vice president.
"I've never seen him get riled up," Lemons recalls. "He's always very cool and very confident in whatever he does. He's always prided himself on having nice radios. Everything on his plane was top of the line. Everything had a utility. And everything always worked."
"Oh, he's real good in the air," agrees Howard Reid, a former United Airlines captain and a current Flying Farmer. "He's very cautious. Very thorough. He knows what he's doing up there, that's for sure."
One time, Cole, who likes fishing almost as much as he likes flying, became so frustrated with the "little fish" he was catching in Colorado and Wyoming that he took a trip to Saskatchewan, where he discovered a picturesque spot called East Trout Lake. The problem was, there were no roads: The only way in or out was a crude landing strip hacked from the trees.
"By gosh if he didn't go up there," Reid says. "And by gosh if he didn't catch big fish, too. Pike and walleye. I'll tell you what, that Cole sure is adventurous."
So was Mildred. Whenever Cole lifted off, she was usually sitting beside him. He was the pilot and she was the navigator. And while Mildred never received her pilot's certificate, she took enough courses to "get it on the ground without busting it up," Cole says. Two knee surgeries and a hip operation couldn't keep her down: When she struggled to climb into the cockpit, Cole built her a stepladder.
"I don't know how she did it," recalls Gary Kugel, the couple's nephew. "Whenever she could, no matter how sick she was, she'd fly with Cole."
"She didn't like staying at home," says Nancy Dworak, the Kugel's neighbor of 31 years. "If he was going somewhere, she was going with him."
Together, Cole and Mildred logged nearly 10,000 hours of airtime. They flew to Alaska, Yucatán and Canada. And wherever they went, they used the call letters 29 CM -- short for Cole and Mildred.
In 1977, the couple was named Colorado Flying Farmers' "Ambassadors of Good Will." The club also elected Mildred "Queen of the Year" and "International Woman of the Year." Cole, meanwhile, was named International Flying Farmers "Man of the Year" and "Oldest Pilot."
"Oh, we went in a lot of directions," Cole says. "She was always raring to go. Weather didn't bother her a bit. She'd just sit there through the turbulent air, bobbling around, and then she'd go to sleep."
Whether up in the air or on solid ground, Cole never seemed to slow down. Even after he retired in 1978 and rented his 1,500 acres of farmland, he kept busy.
To his friends and family members, he's simply inspirational.
"He walks with a spring in his step," says Dworak. "He does not walk like an old man."
"He's an amazing standard of how someone can stay sharp physically and mentally," Warren Rempel says. "Most of us will never make it that far, but he's what we're shooting for."
"My folks have a pool," says Nelson Kugel, Gary's son and Cole's great-nephew. "About fifteen years ago, we were all swimming, and he gets up on the diving board -- he must have been 85 -- and he dives right in. All the adults were sitting at the side of the pool with their cocktails, but there was Cole, in the water with the kids."
"He's real sharp with a wrench, too," Rempel says. "He's always had the ability to fix things, think things through and engineer things. Whatever needs to be done, he can do it."
"Oh, he's an excellent mechanic," Reid agrees. "A natural."
"Anytime we had a problem, he'd say, 'Well. A fella could...' And then he'd get to work," Dworak recalls. "He'll sit and work on something until it's done."
"His house still has the original dishwasher," Gary Kugel says. "People keep saying, 'Just get a new one.' But he just keeps fixing it."
"A while ago, the water heater in his basement develops a leak," Reid remembers. "He calls the plumber, who wants so much money to do the job. And Cole says, 'That's ridiculous.' So he buys a new water heater, drags it to his basement by himself, hooks up a block and tackle, hauls the old one out, puts the new one in and hooks the whole thing up. Then he says, 'I saved $600. And I had fun doing it!'"
"He reversed our refrigerator door, turned it around, drilled holes and put it back so we didn't need a new one," Dworak says. "When my vacuum stopped working, I was going to get a new one, but Cole said, 'What for?' Then he changed the brushes. Last summer, he was up in his attic fixing the air conditioner. I was worried sick!"
"Every day, he'll get up with something to fix," Gary Kugel says.
"And he's a good cook, too," Reid says.
"His wife never cooked," Gary Kugel says. "So I guess he had to be."
"Breakfast is his thing," Dworak says. "Coffee and eggs."
"Bread," Reid offers. "He makes great bread."
"He does toast in the oven instead of a toaster," Dworak says.
"But he doesn't like pies or cakes," Reid adds. "Not too big on desserts."
"He does like meatloaf, though," Dworak says. "He makes that once in a while."
Cole's self-reliance was born on the farm, where he learned to do without, make do and do it himself. Even today, he hates to open his wallet for anything.
"Oh, and he's tighter than a drum," Reid says. "He's got quite a bit of money now, and gosh, he sure holds on to it."
"He never thought he'd have so much," says Gary Kugel. "Now he says he doesn't know what to spend it on."
"He's always had a little money," says Clara Lemons, a longtime family friend. "But if anyone in his family needed help, they knew they could always go to him."
"That's true," Reid concurs. "If you're in trouble, he'll help you out. He will do that. He's always been that way."
But you'll never hear Cole talk about that. Although he and Mildred were quite generous with their time and money, especially for women's and children's groups, he's always been modest.
"He's never one to pat himself on the back," Nelson Kugel says. "He gets a chuckle out of the things he does, sometimes, but that's about it."
But get him in the right mood, and he can talk for hours.
"Wherever he goes, he strikes up a conversation," Gary Kugel says. "He has that old farmer ethic about visiting. We went to Walgreen's once, and he started talking to this fellow while the prescription was filled. When they left, they were old friends."
"He's very social," Dworak agrees. "Very entertaining. A real nice guy to visit with. People just show up at his house. Sometimes he'll get on the phone and call all over."
"He's got a very dry sense of humor," Nelson Kugel says. "You have to listen closely to make sure he's joking."
"I asked him once how many broken bones he's had, and he says, 'If I remember correctly, maybe my little finger,'" Rempel recalls.
"He likes to say 'Yonder,'" Dworak says. "'Over yonder.' 'Out yonder.' 'Up yonder.' 'Down yonder.' I've heard other people use it, but not the way Cole does."
"Cole is not put-on," says Shirley Richardson, a friend of thirty years. "He's just a good fella."
"A good, solid citizen," says Clara Lemons.
"Just a neat old guy," says Nelson Kugel.
"A really good sort of guy," says Reid.
"Just like a dad to me," Dworak says. "I love him a lot."
In 1986, as Mildred prepared invitations for the couple's fiftieth-wedding-anniversary celebration, she suffered a seizure that "left her to where she couldn't write," Cole recalls. Doctors later determined that she'd had the first of what would become a string of mild strokes. Over the next fifteen years, her health slowly deteriorated. "She'd have one of these things, and after four or five days, she'd overcome it pretty good," Cole says. "But then she'd have another one, and that would knock her down a little more, and afterward, she wouldn't be quite as good as she was before."
Cole, who suffered from only minor ailments well into his eighties and nineties, cared for Mildred the best he could. He drove her to and from doctor's appointments. He helped her navigate around their home. He made her eggs, toast and coffee. He tidied the house, maintained the yard, kept her company.
"It was difficult talking him into getting more help," Nancy Dworak recalls. "He didn't want to give up and put her in the nursing home. But it began to wear on him. You could see it begin to affect him."
Cole eventually hired in-home nurses and took Mildred to a care center for part of the morning. But in late 2000, Mildred suffered a massive stroke. After that, she required 24-hour care and, eventually, hospitalization. Cole visited her every day, often twice a day.
"He was completely devoted," Dworak says. "He'd do anything for her."
Cole's friends and family rallied around him. When he turned 99, newspapers wrote articles about his exploits. The Colorado Legislature recognized his contributions. President George W. Bush wrote him a birthday letter. The 2001 Guinness Book of World Records proclaimed him the "World's Oldest Qualified Pilot."
Cole enjoyed the attention. "I didn't think I was that old," he'd joke. But privately, he thought about selling his plane, a white Cessna Skylane 182 with mustard and brown striping that he'd bought from the factory in 1976. It was his sixth plane, and it had taken him and Mildred to many more places than the previous five. He'd kept it in mint condition, too, even replacing the engine himself after it had logged 1,527 air hours.
Lynn Ferguson, a Longmont veterinarian and grandson of Cole's old Flying Farmers buddy Lee Hagemeister, had had his eye on Cole's plane for a while. He'd made offers from time to time, but Mildred had always said no.
"She did not want him to sell that plane," Dworak recalls. "She wouldn't let him do it. She always thought she'd be well enough to fly again."
By late last spring, that was no longer a possibility. Mildred was critically ill, and without his navigator beside him, Cole lost much of his enthusiasm for flying. He'd suffered a setback of his own, too: minor retinal damage in his right eye that blurred his vision.
"I bought that plane to go places," Cole says. "For the both of us to go places. When she got sick, it took all the fun out of it. I was only going to the airport to crank it up and fly around the field. I just didn't care about going out by myself. I decided that I didn't need it anymore."
When Ferguson renewed his offer in May, Cole invited him out to the hangar that he'd helped build 54 years earlier. "Let's see if it starts," he said, wiping dust from the windshield of the Cessna.
When the engine roared, Cole opened the passenger door. "Get in," he told Ferguson.
The clouds were so thick that "you could barely see the sky," Ferguson recalls.
But Cole told him, "It's all right. Let's go."
And they did. The 99-year-old pilot took off, steering the plane east to circle his farm, his favorite short trip, then returned to the Longmont airport. As the Cessna rumbled roughly along the runway, Cole jabbed Ferguson with his elbow.
"Takes a really good pilot to bounce it twice," he said.
After guiding the plane back into the hangar using a winch apparatus he'd made from an old washing machine engine and mechanical sheep-sheerer gear box, Cole surveyed the Cessna once more. "I've never busted one of these things up yet," he said. "I don't want to start now. So maybe it's a good time for me to give it up."
Several weeks later, on June 8, 2001, Mildred passed away. She was 97.
After Mildred's funeral, Cole returned to the red-brick-and-shingle home they'd built decades before on a hill in west Longmont and did what he always did: persevered.
"She lived a pretty good lifespan," he says of his wife, and says little more.
In September, Cole slipped and fell while unloading a fifty-pound sack of birdseed from his car, breaking his right hip. Following surgery that replaced the bone with titanium, he moved temporarily into an assisted-living complex.
He decided not to take his pilot's medical exam and every-two-year flight review. Without them, he could no longer fly solo or be the pilot in charge of a plane.
In retrospect, Cole believes he could have passed both tests, even with his injured hip and blurred vision. In fact, he later passed his driver's license exam "with flying colors." But he simply didn't have the heart to think about flying.
"At my age," he remembers thinking, "I probably don't have any business going up anymore."
Such thinking worried his family and friends. So after Cole returned home from the care center, they hired assistants to help him around the house. They telephoned regularly. They popped over to say hello.
And as he had done so many times before, Cole surprised them. Each day, he'd scribble an itinerary and tick off the items one by one: Plow the snow, pay the bills, visit buddies with the Flying Farmers, visit buddies with the UFOs (United Flying Octogenarians), change the oil in his cars, cook meatloaf, drive to his farm and watch the wheat.
"It's just plain old determination," Gary Kugel says.
"He's the Energizer Bunny," Dworak agrees.
But Cole says it's even simpler than that. Throughout his life, he's been an optimist. Even during the Dust Bowl and the Depression, and through the deaths of his parents, his siblings (Paul passed away in 1991) and many friends, he's always been able to look ahead.
"I just don't look back on those things," Cole says. "That's just part of living. There are still things down the road that I want to do."
Including flying, as it turned out.
When he sold Ferguson his Cessna, Cole made him agree to one special term: Ferguson had to let him pilot the plane once more on his hundredth birthday. Under Federal Aviation Administration regulations, that's perfectly fine. Since he did not take his medical exam last fall, the FAA no longer recognizes Cole as a licensed pilot -- but his airman's certificate lasts a lifetime, according to Roland Herwig, FAA spokesman. As long as he's accompanied by a qualified pilot who has passed the required reviews, Cole can still handle the controls.
Which is just what he intended to do on his big day.
As his birthday approached, Cole paid a visit to the hangar and waited as the door rolled back and revealed a newly painted plane that Cole did not recognize at first as his old Skylane. He poked his head inside a cockpit as compact and stylish as an English sports car and ran a callused hand along the glossy wing.
"Good-lookin' plane," he said then. "Sure do miss it."
Wearing his Flying Farmers jacket, he walked around the aircraft, tapped the asphalt with his engraved A&M cane, and glanced toward the clouds.
"Weather permitting," he said, "I want to fly."
On the morning Cole ushered in his second century, he gazed out the window at patches of ice and fog. His birthday flight would have to wait.
His guests would not, however. By 9 a.m. on March 14, they'd collected outside his door. They'd traveled from as far away as Canada, lured by invitations that read: "No presents, please. Just bring yourself and we'll have a good time." And, as the home slowly filled from wall to wall, they wasted no time doing just that.
"Next year, we'll have to have the party at the Playboy Mansion!"
"Gee, Cole. Aren't you tired of hearing 'Happy Birthday' yet?"
"Did you know he was born before 'Happy Birthday' was written?"
"Cole must be old. There are nothing but old people here."
"What do you mean? Cole's the only one who doesn't make us feel old."
All day long, the visitors came. They ate sheet cake decorated with an airplane. They gathered around to look at the latest volume of the Guinness Book of World Records, which lists Cole on page 56, between the Oldest Windsurfer and the Oldest Adoptee, as the Oldest Qualified Pilot -- no matter what the FAA may have to say about that. And they formed lines in front of the birthday boy, who reclined in an easy chair smooching cheeks, patting backs, shaking hands and posing shamelessly.
"Never dreamed of a birthday like this," he said, squinting through the flash of another camera. "Going color-blind, though."
The next day is milder, and Cole is ready for takeoff. Twenty minutes into the flight, after he's circled his farm, he steers his old plane toward Longmont and then lands at the airport he helped build, as smoothly as a mallard in a lily pond.
"Well," he tells a group of spectators. "Brought it back. Didn't break it up, either."
His niece, Kay Sachs, plants a kiss on his cheek.
"Hey," she says. "Good job."
His nephew, Bryan Kugel, offers his own critique.
"You flew outta here as straight as a beaver on takeoff and didn't wobble a bit," he says. "And then you set it down better than a lot of other guys out here. Tail wind didn't bother you a bit. Haven't lost your touch."
Lynn Ferguson, who kept his birthday promise by sitting next to Cole through the flight, reports that Cole was calm and confident during their short trip. When Warren Rempel flew by them a few times in a vintage World War II plane, performing a congratulatory roll, Cole didn't flinch. "He did great," Ferguson says. "He told me, 'I want my plane back.'"
"Oh," Cole chuckles. "I just might take it back. I feel right at home in this seat. But I'll pay you for the paint job."
When someone suggests a 101st birthday flight, though, Cole laughs it off. For now, this is enough. For now, he is content.
For thirty glorious minutes, he was an Oklahoma farm boy again, soaring above the pasture with the wind and the clouds and going places, just like a bird.
Get the Weekly Newsletter
Our weekly feature stories, movie reviews, calendar picks and more - minus the newsprint and sent directly to your inbox.