In his masterful novel, “A Tale of Two Cities,” Charles Dickens opened with one of the most famous lines in all of English Literature – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Well, for several retirees who convened on a picturesque autumn weekend in Victor, Montana, it was quite simply “the best of times.” Here, in a region once roamed by Lewis and Clark, several celebrated pensioners gathered to reunite with longtime friend and legendary engineer, Bud “Leadbottom” Molle.
Before I commence with a lighthearted narrative of the finest destination “surprise” party I’ve ever attended, I’m going to unveil a few of the characters that partook in this Bitterroot Valley affair to give you a sense of the co-workers Bud befriended, learned from and mentored. The old proverb “Tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are” never rang so true.
Although these names may appear foreign to some, trust me when I say they are chronicled in high regard within the dusty archives of the LAFD – these were truly some of the finest to ever swing an axe or crawl down a hallway. Firefighters like Murray Ames, Brian Baltad, Don Carter, Gary Cramer, Rod Felix, Tim Foor, Doug Graft, Denise Jones, Chris Kawai, Tom Kenyon, Al Luna, Selwyn Lloyd, Glen Miyagishima, Mike Monroy, John Nowell, Paul Nelson, Jim Rix, Steve Shelp, Doak Smith, Don Stuckey, and Don Witty. Oh, and lest we forget everyone’s favorite mechanic, Carol Highland.
And so it was that on September 23, 2022, a bevy of happy-go-lucky retirees staged unassuming and silent inside Victor Steakhouse and Lounge in Victor, MT. as Danielle Davis (Bud’s daughter and my party co-planner) accompanied her unsuspecting parents, Bud and Karen Molle. What ensued can only be described as a poignant, treasured moment.
Attentive and hushed as if rookies at our first line-up, nearly 40 of us watched as the guest of honor and his lovely wife moseyed on through the restaurant door. Then, at the most opportune moment, we harmoniously belted out in an impressive Pavarotti-like tenor, “SURPRISE!” As the restaurant erupted, Bud froze as if he had just stumbled upon a 7×7 bull. The look on Karen’s face was more of joyous bewilderment. The look on Danielle’s face was that of immense pride. The look on our faces was … “whew! Now that that’s over let’s belly up to the bar, sip a few cocktails and rekindle old friendships.”
To say these two Montanans were stunned at the sight of us is like saying Vin Scully was just another sportscaster. Bud must’ve been thinking: “What just happened? Why are they doing this? How on God’s good earth can a brown cow, eating green grass turn around and give us white milk?” Well, the answer is simple, Leadbottom, it’s because we love you. It’s because you brought friendship and value to our lives. It’s because we could count on you at the panel, on a roof and in the engine house.
When the jig was up one would have thought Leadbottom had just troubleshot a water-supply issue at a Greater in 9s district the way his facial expression changed from flummoxed to a joyful clarity. As he and Karen further surveyed the room and took in all the familiar faces, many of whom they hadn’t seen in years, their grasp of what was taking place grew. Shortly thereafter misty eyes were padded, hugs commenced and laughter ensued.
Aside from not seeing Bud in some time, many of us had also not seen one another in years – thus, the restoration of old friendships was a colossal benefit of this gathering as well. Then, at some point during dinner, another surprise befell Bud and Karen. They were informed their homestead would be the epicenter of a huge BBQ the following day attended by the same gaggle of longtime friends. Like it or not, Mr. & Mrs. Molle, this motley crew wasn’t going anywhere.
The next day these retirees, all of whom decades earlier safeguarded the fiery districts of FS10, FS14 and FS33, began arriving at the Molle ranch. A carry-over from the night before was inevitable as firefighting, huntin’ & fishin’ and family stories continued throughout the day. Some tales were spot-on while others were embellished for laughter and effect. Be that as it may, all the stories were golden. After all, “throwin’ a few back” and recalling the past is what retirees do best, right?
Prior to a delicious BBQ lunch, the most entertaining segment of this two-day affair occurred. Big John (Nowell) and his thundering voice took center stage and roasted Bud in a way that had anyone within earshot laughing wildly. He then proceeded to pay tribute to five of the greatest to ever walk the halls of FS10: Barny Nipp, Lane Kemper, Dicky Sorensen, John Peterson, and the incomparable Denny Silgen. A beautiful invocation was then voiced by Murray Ames, at which point the entire group proceeded to dine amidst the stunning backdrop of the Bitterroot and Sapphire Mountains. Bud would go on to say, “Everyone I love, is here.”
While this Montana shindig nourished our souls, its end was upon us much too soon. Following two days of swathing ourselves in a collective camaraderie and reminiscing about our parallel journeys, we dispersed as stealthy as we arrived. Although farewells are never easy, this one was particularly trying for Bud and Karen as they were profoundly grateful for all who had journeyed so far to reunite with a man we once called “Leadbottom.”
Lastly, for those still “suiting up” in the morning, know the bonds you cultivate while riding the “tailboard” spawn anew upon retirement. These lasting friendships are elements of our well-being and thus enrich lives as would an elixir passed down from the heavens. To that end, the Native American Bitterroot Valley Salish who have occupied Northern Montana for several millennia, haven’t an elixir or word for farewell or goodbye, instead, they warmly say “Nem heł wičtmn,” which means, “l will see you again.”
by Jerry Bedoya