James Kenneth Black was born in 1923 on a prairie homestead in Montana’s Petroleum County. When Jim was just 5, his mother allowed him to go to first grade at the Kelly Country school because there were two other boys in first grade that year.
She probably questioned her decision when Jim and one of the boys made bows and arrows from the willows by the creek and had a duel. They were both pretty good shots - the other boy was hit in the mouth, with the arrow continuing out below his chin, while Jim got an arrow in his left eye. Jim’s injury was bad, and the teacher had to walk him a mile home to tell his parents. His mother sat up with him for three nights nursing his wound to keep him from losing his eye. She saved the eye, but the scar left his vision blurred throughout his life.
When Jim was 10 his dad took a job as deputy sheriff and moved the family to the county seat of Winnett. Jim and his older brother, Jack, continued to roam the prairie and explore the rim rocks above the town. They excelled in school and sports.
When Jim was in seventh grade he went to a community dance at Winnett’s Aristo dancehall, where he asked a pretty little girl to dance. Frances Mae Armagost was in fifth grade, and lived 22 miles from Winnett at the oil camp in Cat Creek, where she attended grade school. When Frances started high school, she lived with a family in Winnett. Jim and Frances spent as much time together as they could throughout their school years, often playing music and singing. Frances played the piano and violin, and Jim played violin and harmonica.
When Jim graduated in 1940 he went to Billings Polytechnic College, while Frances still had two years of high school to complete. Early in Jim’s college career, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Jim’s brother, Jack, enlisted right away, but Jim finished that year of college and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps. The childhood eye injury kept him from becoming a military pilot – instead, he was sent to Chicago for training in a new technology called radar. While he was there, he asked Frances to come to see him before he was shipped to England.
Frances, then 18 years old, bought a train ticket from Roundup, Mont., to Chicago. When they finally saw each other, they decided to get married right then, instead of waiting until he came back from the war. However, when they applied for the license, they found they had to get permission for Jim to marry because he was only 20. After a call to the Petroleum County Courthouse and a conversation with Jim’s dad, permission was granted. The proper papers were sent by mail, but they were allowed to proceed with the wedding. They were the first couple to be married in the chapel of the Stevens Hotel, which had been turned into a barracks for the soldiers training in Chicago.
Frances waited two long years in Winnett for her new husband to return to Montana. Jim was assigned to the 544th Bombardment Squadron of the 384th Bombardment Group. He was stationed at Grafton Underwood Airfield in England, where his job was to install radar in B-17 bombers.
Jim and his brother both returned to Montana after the war. They opened a cabinet shop in Hamilton in the Bitterroot Valley and began their families, but the business couldn’t support two families, so Jim moved on to Hungry Horse, Mont., where he worked as a carpenter on a government dam. After that he worked in the oil fields as a “mud man.” He and Frances moved many times throughout Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota.
Later his company promoted him to sales, gave him a warehouse to manage in Williston, N.D., and for the next 54 years the family remained in Williston. They raised seven children, a girl and six boys, and have 29 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren.
Jim never got to be a pilot in the military, but later in life he did buy a plane for his business. His sons learned to fly so that they could take Jim up to co-pilot the plane.
Jim’s oldest son and his son-in-law served in the Army. His youngest son served as an F-16 pilot in the Air Force. One grandson served in the Army as a helicopter pilot until he was medically discharged, and two of his grandsons are presently serving as pilots in the Air Force.
Jim joined the American Legion while he was in the Army Reserves in Hamilton, Mont. He is a lifetime member.
In February, Jim and Frances finally returned to live in Montana. Jim turned 90 and Fran is 88. They moved to the eastern Montana Veterans Home in Glendive, where they celebrated 70 years of marriage March 13, 2013. They still play music together and often entertain the other residents.
Bonnie Black Phipps