Milestones once marked the spot on a trail for overland travelers, Wyoming is full of them. Register Cliff, Split Rock, and the Medicine Wheel, they’re all markers for people moving across our state on their way to somewhere else. That’s one of the better descriptors for life in the Cowboy State, “on the way to somewhere else.”
But for those of us who call this dry, inhospitable wilderness home, it’s much different. This is where we choose to be.
Milestones over the last few years have taken on a new meaning for me. In the constant urge to soften our existence, the term has replaced the venerable deadline for writers, publishers, and photographers. A milestone is now the mark of a completed project or at least one that is delivered on time for further review.
The other definition of a milestone is one of achievement. I’m writing about that type of milestone today.
On May 20, 1981, my world made an abrupt change. I was a 24-year-old teacher and coach at Niobrara County High School. For those that don’t recognize the old “NCHS” outside of Natrona County, that means teaching at Lusk High School and coaching the Tigers in football, basketball, and track.
I had just taken my first track team to the state meet the previous weekend at Kelly Walsh High School, taking a few pictures with my antiquated 35MM Pentax camera in the process. This was long before digital photography became commonplace, and the only place in Lusk to process film was the local Safeway grocery store.
I dropped the film off early Monday morning, then went to work as a handyman with a fellow coach.
After rebuilding a front porch on Wednesday afternoon, I stopped by Safeway to pick up my processed film on the way home. There at the counter was a vision, a tall, short-haired blond checker in those incredibly attractive orange Safeway smocks.
I bantered a little about the state meet but didn’t catch her name. On the way home I spotted a couple of my football players hanging out at the local hamburger stand and pulled in.
“Who is the new blond checker at Safeway?” I asked.
The boys grinned, and said, “Susan Hahn, her sister Barb just graduated.”
That was all the lead I needed.
I waited until around 7 p.m. and called her parent’s house, asking for her. She lived just 150 yards west of my cramped single-bedroom apartment, but I didn’t know that.
I was smooth as silk, “You don’t know me but…” was my opening line. I remember finishing the sentence, as “but you’d like to.” Sue doesn’t remember it that way.
She was on her way to Denver the following morning for a family emergency, but I cajoled her into taking a walk.
A late afternoon thunderstorm had just passed through and the streets were wet. The streetlights came on early with the heavy clouds creating a perfect backdrop for a walk. You can cover the entire tiny town of Lusk in about 25 minutes, so we made a couple of trips around the edge, marked by the high school to the west and the elementary school to the east.
She left for Denver the next morning, turning 22 on Friday.
I did a little more research and discovered she was a Lutheran. My scouts were outstanding.
I hadn’t darkened the door of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church since arriving in Lusk the day before football practice started back in early August.
I took a seat behind Sue and her family.
On the way out, the minister, Beauford Anderson, shook my hand and wouldn’t let go. He pulled me in a little and said, “Funny what brings a guy to church.”
The old preacher knew why I was there.
Sue and I stood outside the church for a few minutes and decided to have a Sunday afternoon picnic at Ft . Robinson in nearby Crawford, Nebraska.
Ft. Robinson was the final home of Custer’s 7th Cavalry before his ego got him into a little trouble with Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in the summer of 1876.
We shopped together at Safeway cautiously asking each other if we liked the chips, drinks, lunch meat, etc… we were packing for the picnic.
A 75-minute drive had us at Ft. Robinson State Park. The picnic was awesome, and I don’t remember a single thing we ate.
I dazzled her with my knowledge of Western American History, (ok, maybe not dazzled) and we headed back to Lusk around 5 p.m.
We stopped on the way on an overlook just east of the Wyoming/Nebraska line, and we were engaged. That’s right, engaged, four days after we met.
She had signed her first teaching contract in a second-grade classroom in Greybull, and I was entering my second year at Lusk. I couldn’t talk her out of breaking her contract, and I knew what was waiting for me that fall. I coached my first state championship team on Halloween that year, with Sue in attendance after flying down from Greybull with some friends of the Lusk head coach.
The wedding wasn’t until June 1982, that was 40 years ago. That’s where the milestone comes in. Four decades, a lifetime in many ways.
That hot afternoon the wives of my friends were in attendance along with family members on both sides. The guys were all golfing at the Lusk Invitational Tournament that afternoon and weren’t about to be distracted by a wedding, even the wedding of one of their knuckle-dragging fellow coaches.
The night before, my best man, my brother-in-law Matt, along with my cousin mark and my college roommate Frank celebrated a little late into the morning.
I was in good shape, but I remember helping Matt steady himself as the sweat dripped off his nose in the hot Lusk church.
An angel floated down the aisle of the church and we were married. That afternoon we set off for Arkansas, and a wedding gift of a fully stocked, resort cabin on a lake. My Aunt Sugar’s cabin was better than the first two homes we lived in together.
Now 40 years have passed. The dynamic has changed with a son, a daughter, a son-in-law, a daughter-in-law, two granddaughters, and another on the way, but the surprise of discovering that Safeway checker 41 years ago remains prominent in my mind.