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A miner's memorial: Neighbors near and friends from afar gather to honor longtime Blackfoot Valley man
A miner's memorial: Neighbors near and friends from afar gather to honor longtime Blackfoot Valley man

ELK CREEK - They came from over the mountain and Minnesota. They drove rental cars and four-wheel drives up the creek from Highway 200 or down from the Garnet Range.

Starting early Saturday they rolled into Denny O'Loughlin's mining camp of nearly 50 years, over the Kennedy Creek bridge and past the vintage 1960s model of a yellow Skidoo with one runner intact.

They parked their modern rigs in line with O'Loughlin's 1936 Flatbed Ford, his Caterpillar D8, his "hippy van" with a smokestack protruding from the roof, a white Wagoneer, a retired Navy bus, an old green Chevy Nova he'd touched up with spray paint, two old Fords named Skippin' Jesus and Leapin' Lena, and an old bread delivery truck that O'Loughlin still slept in sometimes before he died May 1 at age 89.

By late afternoon, when the VFW color guard arrived from Missoula, 85 people were gathered at the wide spot in a narrow canyon where O'Loughlin lived in a log cabin crammed with the detritus and keepsakes of nearly nine decades of living.

They were his closest relatives - the five daughters and a son of O'Loughlin's late sister, as well as their children. Children, said Darlene Vohnoutka, that her uncle patiently showed how to pan gold and how to fish with just a stick, hook and line.

"He could rig up anything and make it work," said Vohnoutka's sister, Eleanor Capesius.

Mostly they were friends and neighbors like Alan Watson, a research scientist at the University of Montana and the guy from just across the creek who plowed the road as far as O'Loughlin's cabin in winter and struggled to come up with a word for the decorated World War II paratrooper.

"I call him my hero, and I don't use that term lightly," Watson said.

"He lent us packrat traps and showed us how to use them. We wouldn't have been able to live in the wilderness without him," said Dave Curran, a filmmaker from five miles up the creek.

Curran cast O'Loughlin, then 84, as the gun-toting miner that he was in a feature film called "Knaptid - Four Days After the First Abduction."

Like most everybody who knew him well, Jim and Bonnie Rogers from Ovando called O'Loughlin "Two Guns."

That's because he could usually be seen with a gun on each hip. A hundred or so rifles and pistols were displayed on a flatbed trailer Saturday, and they were only a small part of his collection, friends said.

It was only a year ago, Jim Rogers said, that he climbed inside the bread truck with O'Loughlin to get out of a pouring rain.

The rain followed them in, through the bullet holes in the side and top of the truck.

"I said, 'Denny, where the hell did you get all these bullet holes?' " Rogers said. "He says, 'You can't live with a gun without having it go off once in awhile.' "

O'Loughlin's heartbroken and eccentric chauffer, caretaker and spiritual stepson for the past dozen years was the honorary host Saturday.

Jim Oliver, bead-bedecked and bearded, scoffed at the label "caretaker."

"He took care of me. He was my stepdad. Officially. In reality," said Oliver, who lives in a homemade wooden camper on a flatbed outside O'Loughlin's log cabin. "We didn't have anything on paper. It was all handed from higher sources."

Oliver greeted the guests and thanked them as they arrived.

"It's sad somebody has to die for this to happen," he said.

O'Loughlin befriended Natalie Simmons, a nurse from Missoula, 25 years ago when he helped her carry the moose she'd shot out of the mountains.

"Him and Jim would come to town to do their errands, and they were just slowpokes at everything," Simmons said. "So they'd drive up in the van with the smoke coming out and the neighbors would be, like, what's going on here?

"I would feed them dinner, and they'd spend the night. We'd have a couple drinks and maybe a shot or two, and then I'd get up and feed them breakfast in the morning, and he would tip me with a silver dollar. He always gave me a silver dollar."

O'Loughlin grew up on the Flathead Reservation, and he was a fur trapper and gold miner long before he joined the service at the outbreak of World War II. He became an Army paratrooper because not many others volunteered, and he never liked to be surrounded by people.

O'Loughlin made four combat jumps; in Sicily, Italy, Normandy and Holland, and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star, the latter for his jump into Normandy the night before D-Day, when he had a useless left hand and more than 150 pounds of ammunition and equipment.

After the war, O'Loughlin returned to Montana and spent years roaming the upper Rattlesnake near Missoula trapping and mining.

He moved to his mining claim on Elk Creek around 1960, and though he lived part-time in town in later years, never called any place else home.

"I always heard he had gold buried over there, buried over here," Watson said. "But I don't think he had very much gold. He made a living, but by God he lived every day talking about World War II and things that happened there."

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On his first combat jump, into Sicily in July of 1943, O'Loughlin lost his gun before landing behind enemy lines. He vowed after that to never again be caught without one.

"His wearing a gun around here has a lot to do with that jump," Watson said. "People don't understand, that's who he is. A lot of these people do. They've heard his stories, read his book, and the family certainly understands. That's why they're here to honor him.

"It's all those things about him, his experiences and how he lived through them. And he's still in shock that he lived through them. He never quite accepted them."

The honoring on Saturday included a nine-gun salute from three men from VFW Post 209 of Missoula. A bugler played "Taps" and the notes echoed through the canyon.

An American flag rested against an urn that contained most of O'Loughlin's ashes. A cupful was distributed by a number of those in attendance, who took turns spreading handfuls in a garden spot next to the cabin.

The rest will be scattered at a spot in the Mission Mountains that O'Loughlin loved and chose before he died.

O'Loughlin kept a diary nearly every day of his life, even during combat when such things were forbidden. In the mid-1970s, laid up by a leg injury, he spent a winter putting his notes from the war into memoir form.

The result was a 225-page book, a remarkable first-hand account published in 1977 and titled "Fierce Individualists: U.S. Paratroops in WW II."

It was well-named. O'Loughlin was a lifelong bachelor who loved whiskey, women and children; played a variety of stringed instruments; lived far from the rush of life; bristled at authority; embraced friends as loved ones, and fiercely guarded his right to live as he did.

Among the many signs O'Loughlin posted on and around his rustic cabin is one topped by a faded skull and crossbones.

"I may be in," it warns, "or out and not far away."

Near and on the cabin door are others.

"Max. capacity: 2,000 people," says one.

Another says: "Sweet clean air from east to west and room to go and come; I loved my fellow man the best when he was scattered gone."

Reporter Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@missoulian.com

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