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thedrifter
02-01-06, 10:46 AM
The Captain at 90: still shooting straight
The long life of Marine, shooting teacher and flier Ben Hurtig
by JEFF CORDES
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This story appeared in the Mountain Express in 2002. Mr. Hurtig died Friday, Jan. 27, 2006, at the age of 93, in his home in Ketchum, Idaho.)

He spent 20 years in the U.S. Marines and about 25 years running the Sun Valley Gun Club. Add those numbers together and you've got half the long, productive life of Ketchum's Ben Hurtig, who turned 90 Monday.

If you ask Hurtig what he was in the Marines, he'll say, "Rifleman." If you ask him what he did, he'll say, "Shoot." He's been shooting guns since he picked up a .410 gauge single-shot when he was 12 years old.

Shooting guns and shooting the breeze have been the biggest joys of Hurtig's life, although his 40-year love affair with flying airplanes and his enduring 30-year marriage to Peggy Hurtig are right up there.

He's a little gimpy on knees that have been arthritic since his youth, but Hurtig's physical health is good and his mental faculties are sharp. Ask him when's the last time he shot a round of skeet at the gun club and he'll quickly check his watch.

"About 10:30," he'll say.

His friend Bernie Curry said last week, "I was with him. He shot 20 out of 25—and that's with a .410!" An expert's shotgun, the .410 gauge is the hardest with which to kill clay pigeons because the shells are diminutive and the patterns thin.

"Yeah, I had a lapse at one of the stations and missed four," Ben admitted with a laugh. "You get to talking, you know. At competitions, they don't talk to each other at all."

Few people know more about the secrets of shooting skeet and trap and the keys to long life than Ben Hurtig, known to many just as "Captain," his rank when he left the Marines and the license plate on his station wagon.

To Hurtig, it boils down to one thing.

"One reason why I'm doing as well as I am is I've never been in a hurry," he said. "If you hurry with a car, an airplane or a gun, you're in trouble."

His love of flying has helped keep Hurtig mentally alert and always learning new things. At 90, he can still pass his flight physical. He has logged at least 100 hours a year in an airplane the last 10 years, including 100 hours in 11 months last year.

For the past seven years, Hurtig has belonged to a loosely organized 300-member national group called the "UFOs," or the United Flying Octogenarians. There are four in Idaho, including Hurtig and local residents Pete Johnson and Bud Purdy.

Sometimes, he flies alone in his Super Cub, but most times these days, Hurtig flies with his friend Ron Brady. He has been flying about once a week this summer. Hurtig said, "I get a lot of credit for flying more than I do. Every little Super Cub that goes by, they say, 'There goes Ben!'"

He added, "Flying has saved me. It's something you have to be sharp at—You can't make many mistakes."

In his book "Fly Idaho! A Guide to Adventure in the Idaho Backcountry," author Galen Hanselman dedicated the book to Hurtig. Hanselman said Hurtig taught him responsibility and appreciation of firearms and hunting. And Hanselman always liked an entry from Hurtig's logbook:

It said, "Good judgment comes from experience: and experience comes from bad judgment."

His friends certainly had good judgment in celebrating Hurtig's 90th birthday Monday at Sun Valley Gun Club. There, Bernie Curry got about 100 people together to shoot a little and trade a few of the old stories.

Curry said, "Ben is always jovial and always has a twinkle in his eye. And he always has a story. He's fun to be around—a nice fellow."

From Liberty Lake to Sun Valley

From 1910-1926, Ben Hurtig's father ran a summer resort on Liberty Lake, which is on the Washington side near the Idaho border, between Spokane and Coeur d'Alene.

There must have been something in the fresh summer air because there were four Hurtig kids, all still living.

Although his father died at 72 and his mother at the age of 62, Ben's oldest sister is 91 and his younger sister is 89, living in Spokane. His brother is 88 and living near Seattle.

"That's my kid brother," Ben jokes.

He delivered the Spokesman-Review newspaper as a teenager, riding a Shetland pony on his route. "I remember that's when Lindbergh made his flight," said Hurtig.

Ben wasn't in a hurry to enlist in the Marines. He wasn't in a hurry to get out. He wasn't in a hurry to leave Sun Valley after arriving in 1956.

After going to high school in the Spokane Valley and spending a year at Washington State University, Hurtig moved to Seattle and worked at whatever he could find. He ended up on a tugboat and in a tire shop. Times were tough. It was the early 1930s.

"When I got out of high school, it was tough to find a job, and when you found one you didn't get much money," he said.

He enlisted in the U.S. Marines in 1936, and spent three-and-a-half years in China, including about 14 months with a Marine detachment aboard a heavy cruiser that was the flagship of the Asiatic fleet. At that time, the Japanese were invading China. No one knew the worst was yet to come.

"I went on Midway in January 1941 and came off in August 1942," Hurtig said. "Before the war started, Midway was good duty. Oh, it was tough for about 20 minutes. Then those guys sank all the Japanese carriers and we were sitting pretty."

Hurtig made officer by the time he got off Midway. He made the landing on Okinawa on the first day of April 1945. By the end of World War II, he was chief warrant officer, then he spent a year in Korea during the Korean War and made captain in 1952.

Of his 20 years of service, he was 11 1/2 years in the Pacific and 9 years in the States. His last three years were spent at Camp Pendleton in California, where Hurtig was base range officer—rifle ranges, artillery ranges, pistol ranges.

"I had a good lieutenant. He knew what it was all about and ran the thing. I checked in at 8 a.m. and checked out at 8:03," Hurtig joked.

Two of Hurtig's proudest possessions are U.S. Marine gold medals for "Distinguished Pistol Shot," and "Distinguished Marksman."

They were earned in peacetime duty while he was on the Marine rifle team. That's when Hurtig started shooting competitively. "I've never really been a match winner, but I've done a lot of shooting and won a lot of shoots. I've enjoyed it," he said.

His first visit to Sun Valley was in 1949, for one of the Independence Day handicap trap shoots the Union Pacific-owned resort once hosted. Sun Valley didn't have a formal gun club. The gathering place was a big, old tent with 14 trap stations on the Fairways Rd. side of the resort.

"We used to shoot toward the No. 11 tee on the golf course. Used to sprinkle the golfers a lot," he laughed.

Around 1950, Sun Valley butted together the old Proctor and Dollar mountain cabins and made a clubhouse for the trap range. Fifteen years later, after Bill Janss bought Sun Valley, they split the cabins apart again, to move them over the bridge and reinstall them at the gun club's present location up Trail Creek.

Fred Etchen Sr., a coach of the 1924 U.S. Olympic shooting team, was running the gun club in the 1950s, on lease from Union Pacific. He also owned Etchen Log Cabins in Ketchum, now the Ketchum Korral.

One of Hurtig's shooting friends was Rudy Etchen, Fred's son. When Hurtig left the Marines in 1956, he headed straight for the Ketchum hills and took a job running the Etchen Log Cabins. Hurtig ran the motel for a year. The Etchens sold it in 1957.

Hurtig went to work for Sun Valley, working in the Lodge Ski Room in the winter and helping with the gun club in the summer. He credits Fred Etchen Sr. for teaching him how to pass along the fundamentals of shooting and gun safety to the resort's visitors and eventually to local kids.

In the early 1960s, Hurtig took over the operation of the gun club.

"One of the first things I did was invite every kid in the valley to come up to the gun club, in the two weeks after school ended. I'd furnish ammunition, targets and guns. I might have been a little stiff about it, but I always stressed gun safety," said Hurtig.

He was a tough instructor. Hurtig said, "You never point a gun at anything or anybody you don't want to shoot. You never swing the muzzle past anybody. We learned that in the Marine Corps.

"You've got to drill it into them. I'd tell 'em—the road goes back to Ketchum the same way it comes up here. If you don't want to do it my way, then leave. I sent a couple of kids home bawling, then they'd be back the next day."

Working winters in the Lodge Ski Room was something new for Hurtig, who loved the camaraderie with the cast of characters in the Lodge and Sun Valley Inn.

"They were some fun guys to work with," he said, thinking of Ski Room buddies Glen Mueller and Tommy Mallane and many others.

Bernie Curry said, "Ben was one of the first people I met when I came to Sun Valley in 1960. He worked in the Lodge Ski Room. Back then, you couldn't get a drink on Sunday, but the Ski Room ended up with a lot of the liquor the guests would leave behind when they left. You could always get a drink there."

Bartender Whiskey Chamberlain, a hunting buddy, enticed Hurtig to do a little skiing on Baldy. "I was never real good, but we always had a little brandy with us," said Hurtig.

Once, after new Sun Valley owner Bill Janss issued an edict discouraging the use of alcohol by employees, Hurtig and two buddies were skiing down the Bowls. They passed around some brandy to loosen up their legs.

"Next thing we knew, Bill Janss skied up behind us and stopped. There was nothing else to do—we figured he was going to can us anyway—so we passed him the brandy. Then we skied away. We never heard any more about it," Hurtig said.

Slack was deep in those days, so there wasn't a lot of work in the fall and spring. In 1959, Hurtig got a job guiding elk hunters and fishermen at Shepp Ranch on the Salmon River, 10 miles downriver from Mackay Bar. Hurtig's high school friend named Paul Filer operated Shepp Ranch.

Hurtig did the guiding for 12 years. That's when he started flying.

"It took about 10 hours to drive, and about an hour and 45 minutes to fly," said Hurtig. "I had a $2,400 Jeepster that I couldn't turn around in a six-acre field. I sold it, bought an old pickup for $300 and a plane for $1,750 and still had enough money to learn how to fly."

Lawrence Johnson taught Hurtig how to fly.

Hurtig has piloted the same Super Cub since 1968, replacing an engine. He and his wife Peggy Helms Hastings Hurtig flew a Cherokee 6 after they were married July 12, 1972. They would fly together into the backcountry and count elk, or fly to trapshooting contests on the circuit in Arizona after they retired from operating the gun club in 1982.

"I bought that Cherokee 6 from Don Atkinson and later sold it back to him," Hurtig said.

Young at heart

You've really missed something if you've never had a shotgun in your hand, with Ben Hurtig roaming along the trap range in teaching mode.

Patient, always alert, he has barked encouragement to generations.

n "Make your mind up and you'll hit it."

n "If you're thinking right, nothing can bother you.

n "One thing everyone has to do is swing. The bird is moving. The gun is moving. Don't stop, follow through.

n "There's an old saying—if a gun fits you, marry it, whether it costs $50 or $5,000."

He's had nine hunting dogs including Misty, buried under a neat pile of rocks in the yard of the Ketchum home that Ben and Peggy have enjoyed for 30 years. One of his dogs was a mean one—putting the fear of God into Ernest Hemingway.

But a man who has lived 90 years must have his share of humility. Hurtig passes time reading the Bible interpretations of Dr. J. Vernon McGee, the Texan who had a radio ministry and once ran the Church of the Open Door in Los Angeles, Calif.

"I'm just an overpaid trap boy," Hurtig once said. "I'm getting paid for pursuing a hobby. It's an enjoyable way to meet a lot of people."

Ketchum and Sun Valley have changed a lot in his 46 years living here. These days, the trend among wealthier residents is to view the resort as a retirement community, with little room or patience for kids.

That's not the style of Ben Hurtig, who cuts the cake each November as the town's oldest living Marine at the traditional U.S. Marine birthday celebration held in the Pioneer Saloon.

He and Peggy live the closest of anybody, right across the Big Wood River from the newly named Guy Coles Skate Park. They can literally sit on their porch and see the kids playing, just as they enjoy watching the noisy, happy swimmers in the Ketchum swimming hole and the New Year's Day Polar Bear Club.

There is no equivocation when you ask young-at-heart Ben Hurtig what he thinks about the Guy Coles Skate Park. He's a good neighbor.

Unhurried but firm, he said, "It's one of the best things the city has ever done. The kids have a great time there."

(Editor's note: This story was originally published in the July 31, 2002, edition of the Idaho Mountain Express).

Ellie