« Father would have loved to have been there. » The last home of Arnold Helding, a WWII fighter pilot

I am the author of The Legend of Little Eagle, a novel inspired by a true story: the heroic action of a USAAF fighter pilot named LeRoy Lutz in June 1944 in France. This book can be found on Amazon and other stores, and it was found by LeRoy’s nephew Jerry Lutz of Nebraska and Arnold Helding’s daughter Linda Helding of Montana. Lutz had encountered technical problems with his own plane on the day previous to his last mission and had taken off with Helding’s Lucky Lady to go strifing german targets in the Champagne region. They both belonged to the 436th Fighter Squadron based in Wattisham, England.

T0 my surprise, both Jerry and Linda happened to contact me and we all exchanged emails and messages on Facebook. Recently, Linda asked me: Did I ever tell you how I scattered my dad’s ashes ? I answered: No, but I’m curious. So she wrote the following account on FB.

Recently someone asked me where my folks were buried. I realized that I hadn’t told some of the stories about scattering the ashes of Father, Mom, Brother Carl, and Camas, his son.

For many years Dad and Carl, Joe Woodworth, Andy Anderson, Fred Moore, John and Bob Helding, and others hunted elk and sheep in the Bitterroot Mountains south of Missoula. It was their secret hunting spot as they were successful year after year. Missoula was a small place in the 50s and 60s – most local hunters knew one another; very few other hunters knew where they went. One time my brother told me my dad had one goal in mind and it wasn’t about me. He wanted to find out where this hunting spot was – I was never supposed to blab. Of course, I thought my brother was being a jerk and didn’t believe him. I’m sitting next to this guy at the movies when he slipped his arm around me and pulled me close, whispering in my ear, “Say – where does your brother get all those elk?” More unbelievably, my mother was never told where her husband and son were going hunting. She was expected to wave good-bye as they drove off in the dark of early morning and not know when they would return.

When Carl and Camas died, Dad took his share of their ashes by airplane and scattered them over this favored hunting spot. That was in 1982. Dad started telling me then that he wanted to be scattered on the same mountain. Mom died in 2005. She never requested any burial ideas. Father and I scattered her on her racetrack and in the Jocko River. A friend of mine was the pyrotech who did the fireworks show for the 4th of July in Missoula. He put some of mom’s ashes in a can and blew her out over the fairgrounds, where she had raced her horses.

Father lived another two years. Over the years he and I hiked into his hunting area many times and he made me promise I would scatter his ashes there. As he rounded his ninetieth birthday he became adamant on the subject. It is safe to say that for dad, airplanes, hunting and fishing were his great passions. After he died I found a little journal in which he had calculated that he had actually flown 40 airplanes, starting at Hale Field in Missoula in the late 1930s, flying fighters in WWII and checking out and flying small planes over the following forty years or so. One of my fond memories is of the time he flew the two of us into Schafer’s meadow in the Bob Marshall to go fishing.

Arnold Helding and his P-38 fighter plane

Father died the weekend hunting season opened in October of 2007. My husband had recently died and I was left with the chores death leaves to the living. I hadn’t developed a plan for scattering dad’s ashes. In his desk I found the bulk of Mother’s ashes and more of Carl and Camas. I gathered up the remains of my family and just put them all together in my desk. I spent the next couple of years selling items on Craigslist, one of which was a dog run.

Two men from Stevensville showed up with a truck and the three of us began dismantling the pen. They were chatting away about flying and comparing notes on their airplanes. They belonged to a flying club of older planes, vintage planes from the 1950s to 1970s. I asked them if they ever flew in the Bitterroot Mountains – oh, all the time they said. On the spot I offered them a trade: the pen for a flight so I could scatter dad’s ashes.

I showed up at the airport hangar with my bag of ashes. I had decided that mom belonged with dad and her son and grandson, so they were all mixed together. I was greeted by pilot Don Whitehair and his neat little plane: it was like a Cessna 180 if I remember correctly. I had a photograph of the ridge where dad had scattered my brother’s ashes so off we went in search of the same place – the right side of the ridge that is Watchtower Peak. It was a lovely sunny day with no wind – perfect for mountain flying.

As we approached the peak I got out the photograph. Don turned us facing down the canyon. We both got pretty excited when we saw the same ridge as the one in the photograph right in front of us. Don turned the plane in a big arc and prepped me for my role in the scattering. I was riding in the jumpseat behind him. He opened his door and instructed me to put the bag outside as far as I could reach. He said to punch a hole in the bottom of the bag so the heavy air currents created by the plane wouldn’t blow the ashes back into the plane. He laughed as he said a lot of people don’t realize how many ashes end up in a vacuum cleaner.

I did all this and as I watched, the ashes went out behind us in a wonderful rooster tail that extended beyond the plane, suspended for a magical moment before it dissipated and slowly disappeared, as they drifted.

We flew on in the mountains. Don didn’t say much but he was smiling. Eventually we landed not back in Stevensville but on a wilderness landing strip. The hearty little plane taxied to stop in front of a log structure. People were standing around on the porch waving. Other small airplanes began arriving and landing. It was Don’s vintage airplane club. They were all there as a surprise. The owners of the wilderness guest ranch served us breakfast before we all flew back to Stevensville and I drove home.

It was one of those times when you say – Father would have loved to have been there. A religious person would say that he was.

By the way, I want my ashes scattered in the Graywolf mountain area of the Mission Mountains. Just saying.https://www.facebook.com/linda.helding/posts/10157668354066639