Remembering Miss Lombard

It was exactly one week ago, around 4 p.m. My hands were bleeding from multiple cuts; my feet were blistered and throbbing, because these were new hiking boots — they didn’t fit quite right. My entire body ached. It was hard to breathe.

Oh, yeah, I almost forgot: There was a hole in my pants, and you could see my underwear.

I could feel bits of Mount Potosi running down my leg.

The readout on the GPS tracker said we were up around 7,500 feet. I was at the top of the mountain, or damn near close to it.

After more than three hours of climbing rises and plowing through brambles and scraping against boulders, I finally could look up and see a patch of blue sky instead of craggy granite.

But I was stuck in the loose stuff, the shale. I was on all fours. Mount Potosi literally had brought me to my knees.

It was all Gable’s fault.

It must have been 1993, when off-road racing still was a big deal around Southern Nevada, when the off-road racing people asked if I wanted to ride along in the Mint 400 with one of the celebrity drivers, to get a feel for what it was really like.

They said they were going to put me with Lyn St. James, the second woman to race in the Indianapolis 500.

Instead, they put me with John Clark Gable.

Yup, that Clark Gable, the only son of.

In researching his story, you first had to come across his old man’s, and how the King of Hollywood was never the same after the love of his life, the beloved actress Carole Lombard, was killed in a plane crash on Mount Potosi on Jan. 16, 1942, about 15 minutes after taking off from Nellis Air Force Base.

This was a night after she had raised $2 million in war bonds in Indianapolis, not far from her hometown of Fort Wayne, Ind.

Lombard was 33 when the DC-3 smashed into Mount Potosi up around 7,800 feet. I first read about it on the wall at the Pioneer Saloon in Goodsprings, where in a room next to the bar they have Lombard and Gable’s pictures hanging in frames and their names in big letters. Only they left the “e” off Carole.

So that led to me becoming a devout admirer of Carole Lombard, the Screwball Queen of the Screen.

By now, I must have seen “My Man Godfrey” a dozen times on Turner Classic Movies. And along the way I have developed a fondness for Myrna Loy, too, because those “Thin Man” movies she made with William Powell, Lombard’s first husband, were brilliant.

And then last year a man named Robert Matzen wrote a book called “Fireball: Carole Lombard and the Mystery of Flight 3.”

What a great read.

The prologue was about Matzen scaling Mount Potosi, where shiny bits of aluminum fuselage and rusted out chunks of DC-3 too big to remove from the mountaintop remain on it to this day, scattered across cliffs and ravines.

Wrote Matzen: “It’s a place where 22 people departed this earth in one flaming second, and that hit me very hard.”

Matzen is an author; I write short stories. If he could climb the mountain to pay tribute to Lombard and the others, then so could I.

And so there I was on March 27, stuck in the shale on my hands and knees, wondering “How did I get up here?” and, more important, “How am I going to get down?”

The kids — my wife’s rock-climbing daughter and her extreme sports-and-adventure-loving husband — were above me.

They had made it to the blue sky.

They told me to take my time.

A crumpled bit of paper was sticking out of the big pocket in front of my khakis, the ones with the hole in back. It was Lombard’s picture — she was wearing a fur coat, and she looked absolutely stunning. I had put it there for inspiration, and also so when the helicopter pilots found me, it might explain things.

I took my time; I made it to the blue sky. I tucked lovely Carole Lombard’s picture back into my pocket and made sure the Velcro was fastened because it would be a long way down, too.

Turning right, I saw those ominous cliffs. The ones in the black-and-white photographs from 1942.

It was chilling, just as Robert Matzen wrote it would be.

The sun still was shining on the bits of aluminum fuselage that had been TWA Flight 3. The engines and landing gear were down there somewhere.

I did not care to go any farther, to hold them in my hands for tactile proof that a great tragedy had happened here, as others who have made it to the top have, before posting their pictures on Facebook.

“Miss Lombard?”

I kept hearing the voice of a former high school football star named Herbert Lyle Van Gordon, who in 1942 had lived in Goodsprings and was the first of the responders to make it up to the blue sky, and to see the grisly scene, and to instantly assess it.

He knew there was no way that Carole Lombard and the others (her mother and U.S. Army Air Corps personnel also were killed) could have survived such a devastating hit. But you still have to call out in a situation like that, before the tears well up in your eyes.

I walked away from where the kids were standing in the blue sky, just far enough away so they couldn’t see me having a moment.

I closed my eyes.

“Miss Lombard?”

As if on cue, the wind that had been nonexistent on the treacherous ascent began to rustle through trees. Normally, I love that sound.

Not today. Not up here. Not in this place.

In this place, it only sounded mournful.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.

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