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About a flaming hour

carlson CHRIS


Idaho has produced a number of officeholders and office-seekers who met untimely deaths, either in plane or auto crashes, or job accidents.

All had potential to grow and might have been quite successful. In two cases, that of Jim McClure’s and Cecil Andrus’, the deaths of their chief rivals cleared the way for them to become two of Idaho’s greatest office-holders, leaving one to wonder how the state’s political history might have changed.

In an odd quirk of fate, three of the *seven were from Kellogg: John Mattmiller, Vern Lannen and Jerry Blackbird. Mattmiller died in a plane crash while trying to land in the fog at the Kellogg airport in 1966. At the time he was the clear favorite to win the First District Republican Congressional nomination and would have probably won in November.

His death cleared the way for a Payette attorney named Jim McClure to win the primary and go on to a solid career that included 18 years in the Senate and chairmanship of the Energy and Natural Resources committee.

State Senator Vern Lannen, a big, gregarious logger who enjoyed working in north Idaho’s forests, died in a logging accident in 1986. He was appointed to fill the vacancy created in 1979 by the untimely death at the age of 34 of State Senator Jerry Blackbird.

Of the three from Shoshone County, Jerry Blackbird showed the most promise of achieving higher office. He was good, smart and charismatic. He was marked as a real comer when in his freshman session he authored and then shepherded through the Legislature a bill reforming log scaling to give the logger and the trucker a more fair share.

Needless to say, he defeated all the state’s major timber companies and their lobbbyists.

Several Boise observers saw the young Cecil Andrus in Jerry and thought he might easily win the Idaho governorship some day. Andrus has a saying about learning “through the school of hard knocks.” Jerry was certainly familiar with that.

Jerry is the subject of a loving yet unsparing and brutally honest memoir, One Flaming Hour, published this week by Ridenbaugh Press and written by his brother, Mike Blackbird, also a former Senator from Shoshone County (he succeeded Lannen and served three terms).

Jerry Blackbird was a true American hero. Over the course of 12 months in Vietnam he flew an incredible 1400 medivac emergency helicopter extraction missions. He won two Distinguish Flying Crosses and numerous other medals for valor and courage. Almost all his missions were “under fire’ especially in the landing zones.

He returned to an America that even in Kellogg was turning against the war and did not value his sacrifice. He started drinking heavily, his marriage failed, he couldn’t hold and keep jobs for long and candidly was well on the road to hell and self-destruction.

His letters home (which easily fill half the book) document his growing disgust with the war and the needless sacrifice of too many Marines and soldiers who gave their last full measure for a political war run by political generals and one of the most political presidents in American history, Lyndon Baines Johnson, who was obsessed with body counts.

One early sub-zero morning he was hitch-hiking on I-90 in Montana trying to get back to his job in a mine near Kellogg. He experienced what brother Mike calls his “road to Damascus” moment (Alluding to St. Paul being blinded by Jesus Christ who is asking the then named Saul why is he persecuting the Lord’s followers.)

His vision of the road to salvation led to public service, first as a member of the Kellogg School board and then as a freshman State Senator. “He who would save his life will lose it. And he who loses his life (In service to others) will save it,” it says in the Bible. Jerry Blackbird found redemption.

Finally, the ultimate irony arrives: after all those hazardous missions in Vietnam, while taking his employer, Dale Sverdsten and two others from another firm to evaluate a proposed timber sale, his helicopter crashes and all are killed.

Prior to his death he had ferried the helicopter from Pennsylvania back to Idaho. In some of the book’s finest writing Mike Blackbird envisions the flight path home and lyrically describes this country that Jerry and he and we all love.

The book at times sears the heart. It haunts one when done and will remain with you a long time.

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*The other four were: Lemhi county State Senator Charles Herndon, who died in a September 1966 plane crash in the Sawtooths after defeating Andrus in the August primary; Canyon county State Senator Terry Reilly, while running for Lt. Governor in 1986, along with his wife in a plane piloted by Congressional candidate Pete Busch; and, former Bannock county State Senator Bill Bergeson, who was running for the Senate in 1972. He died in a head-on car crash.

(Editor’s note: Senator Blackbird’s book makes its debut at the Old Depot Station in Kellogg at 5 p.m.(PDT), on September 12th. He will read from the book, answer questions and sign copies. The book is also available at selected area bookstores or can be ordered directly from Ridenbaugh Press by going to its website.)

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