Another Last Word

Phil Bauer and the November of Our Souls


I don’t remember meeting Phil Bauer. I think that is because I felt like I always knew him. 

He was always around: at board meetings, fundraisers, parties. Here we are serving food at a benefit, and there’s Phil making an entrance with his ubiquitous Caesar salad. There we were piling stacks of the Key Peninsula News into mailbags, and here’s Phil, in his 80s, hoisting them onto his shoulder to load into waiting vehicles. Here I am speaking at yet another community meeting and up pipes that sonorous voice, “Hey, Ted, that sounds like a crazy idea. When do we get started?”

Phil died in May at age 87 after 36 years on the KP and the last five with cancer, though you wouldn’t know it. (See his obituary here.)

I do remember the last time I saw him. It was a dinner party in early spring. As I was leaving, he shouted across the room at me, as he so often did at almost anyone, “Hey, stay out of the bars!”

I took this to imply an unsaid “without me!” 

Phil was born in 1936 and grew up on his grandfather’s farm in Iowa. At just 10 years old he was lifting hay into a loft with a mule and pulley. He also helped manage the nearly 1,000 head of cattle his grandfather kept. His family was poor, he told me once. “We ate a lot of fish and stuff like that,” because any food they produced of value was sold. He excelled at athletics and went on to play both football and basketball for the Cornhuskers at the University of Nebraska. 

He also joined the ROTC, mostly because of the $29 a month that helped pay his way. 

That got him into the Army in 1961, where he enlisted in ranger school in Fort Benning, Georgia, and nearly broke the record for completing its physical endurance test, casually loping over the finish line without knowing he was seconds away from setting a new time. He considered moving on to airborne training, but a friend encouraged him to go to flight school instead. That choice shaped the rest of his life.

In 1963, he was sent to Fort Rucker, Alabama, where he climbed into an airplane for the first time. “My dollar ride,” he called it. He went to Vietnam as a special forces pilot. He returned to the U.S. after his first tour, served as a flight instructor, and learned to fly helicopters. In 1966-67, then Capt. Bauer returned to Vietnam to fly Hueys. “Great ships, those Hueys,” he said to me once. “You know we covered bullet holes in the blades with duct tape and the damn things would still fly?”

He laughed when he said that, as if there weren't many more bullet holes in the choppers he flew. A soldier who'd flown in the back of those Hueys once told me that 50-caliber incoming fire "looked like green basketballs flying up out of the jungle at you."

On a stopover in Honolulu, while ferrying a de Havilland Caribou across the Pacific, Phil met his first wife Marty. They had four children together, Greg, Andrew, Dana and Daniel.

After two tours in Vietnam, Phil retired from active duty but stayed on with the Air National Guard. At the same time, he continued flying as a pilot for Western and later Delta Airlines for the next 32 years. He spent 24 years in the service of his country and retired from the Army as a major with the Bronze Star and 43 other decorations. 

Phil told me that as part of his guard duty, he would often fly Hueys out of McChord Air Force Base. One day, in 1987, he found himself over the Key Peninsula. His co-pilot happened to be selling a cabin there and pressed Phil to buy it. “It didn’t take much,” he said. “The view was spectacular,” flying down Case Inlet.

The modest house on the water — with a 20-foot-long quote from “Moby Dick” carved over the door — became a legendary monument to Phil’s passion for woodwork, remodeling and adventure. That included remarrying in 1988, this time to an old friend named Kathy. She and her daughter, Taylor, moved in and the family soon became ardent supporters of life here on the Key Peninsula.

“Call me Ishmael,” it starts, this huge thing over his front door. “I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world … Whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul … I account it high time to get to sea … If they but knew it, almost all men cherish very nearly the same feelings.”

Phil loved a physical challenge, maybe as a holdover from ranger school (which he enjoyed, he said, except for eating snakes). He hiked all over the Cascades and the Olympics. He canoed a large stretch of the Yukon River and paddled the length of the Mackenzie from where it issues from Great Slave Lake to its delta above the Arctic Circle. He had an abiding interest in mountains and mountain climbers, particularly the most adventurous and aggressive.

Phil never stopped moving. He was always off to visit one of his Vietnam buddies, a fellow airline pilot, one of his kids, or one of his college friends, all over the globe. Or he was on the way to the KP civic center to run a meeting or paint a wall. He might be headed to the Longbranch Improvement Club to help move tables and chairs, or off to The Blend to join his cronies for cribbage. More likely than not, he was headed to a friend or neighbor’s home to help with some chores. 

All because he flew over Case Inlet in 1987 and caught a glimpse of his future.

What will ours be like without him? 

I think this community attracts people like Phil for a reason. The best we can do is carry on as he would in all things. 

And “Stay out of the bars!”

Unless he’s with you.

Thanks to Kathy Bauer, Frank Garratt and Bruce Macdonald for their contributions to this remembrance.

Ted Olinger lives in Vaughn.