"There’s always hope."
My mom is an angel, and we still talk every day to this day. But my dad and I had a kinda’ difficult relationship when I was growing up. He was always pretty hard on us, kinder to other people than he was to me, I’ll put it that way. Us kids, we didn't always measure up it seemed. I mean, I loved my dad and everything, but we had some rough times. One thing my dad taught me how to do though, was fur trapping.
My dad and I would get up at 4 in the morning to trap and, if we had a good day, wouldn’t get done skinning until midnight. A lot of times Dad said that after a long day of trappin’ he’d get about halfway to the truck but then he’d have go find me and carry me out, ‘cause I’d already be sleeping.
We did a lot of beaver trapping. I’d put on my old snowsuit on and we’d go out for the day, catching 15 beavers or so at a time. We’d go to the ponds and set the traps along the bank. To get all the piss-and-vinegar out of us kids he’d have us pull all the beavers up. As kids, we’d drag the beaver out in the snow, clean them up and make their coats really shine. Beavers brought big money back in those days. My dad taught me trapping - just like his dad taught him - so when I grew up I’d have a way to make a living off the land.
I graduated from Pittsville High School in ’69. Our school mascot was a panther, and we had the Panther Den for all the young people to go, with the pinball machines and the pool. The stuff we did back then, we’d probably be put in jail for now. Squealing tires, drinking on the streets, you know.
But it was also the time of the Vietnam War, and of the draft. I volunteered every time they were looking for people to go; I figured maybe they’d think I was off my rocker and not take me if I volunteered enough! But I was born on the 20th of February, and my lottery number was 20. So I went in the service in August of ’70, when I was 20 years old.
When I got to Vietnam, they needed a radio man and so I volunteered for that too. My buddy said, ‘That was the worst thing you could have done. Who do you think they shoot first? The Commanding Officer and the radio man.’
You know what? I shoulda’ listened to my buddy.”
“I was new in Vietnam, only there about a month. The jungle was so thick, we’d go a hundred meters a day, set up camp, and then we’d always have to come back to our old base camps to get water. One night, they sent the squad back for water. Meanwhile I’m carrying a radio up to the Commanding Officer’s headquarters.
Suddenly I hear machine gun fire: ‘doo-doo-doo-doo.’ My sergeant was down a ways, writing a letter to his wife, sitting on the ammo can. They shot em’. They shot him right through.
I turned to try and see where they were coming from, and then ‘doo-doo-doo-doo.’ I was done. They shot the radio. Then they shot me.
I admit, I panicked. I was supposed be getting another radio, but all I could think of was my natural instincts: Go get the M-16. I was shot in the lower half - couldn’t walk or run. So I go crawling down the hillside, dragging myself with my arms. After a minute I realized I was going in a circle. I said to myself, ‘Why the hell am I going in a circle?’ Well, my foot was up near my head.
I had been shot from my knee to my hip - blew a hole in me 6” by 12”. It was a miracle it didn’t hit the big artery.
When things quieted down a bit, I yelled for the medic. It’s his first firefight, so he’s shaking like a leaf, sticks me with morphine and busts the needle off in my arm, so he has to give me another one. Then the firing started up again. I’m laying on my back and just spraying bullets, one clip after another. The jungle’s too thick to see. The medic told me to stop it and be still, but I said, ‘If I stay still, we’re dead.’
The medic knocked the gun out of my hand, and then everything just kinda’ stopped.
When I woke up after first being shot, the first thing I did was pray to die. I didn’t want to live. 14 of us were wounded that night, but there was no place for the medevac to land. We had to create our own Landing Zone. They threw C-4 in the tree tops and set em’ all off at the same time - blew the tops off the trees far enough for the helicopters to hover and lift us up.
I was transferred from the 91st to Da Nang and then to Camp Zama in Japan, and finally back to the states. I came back home in a full body cast.
I got shot September 9, 1971, at 5 o’clock. I didn’t get out of the hospital until April 25, 1972.”
Buck: “My physical recovery was a long road. I was in 7 or 8 hospitals in several different countries, for over 7 months. I was in traction for most of it. To heal my leg they had to go in and line up the fragments of my bones - go in the wound and line em’ up like chicken bones. Finally I recovered enough to get out of the hospital and I was discharged from my military service.
In May or June, my dad offered me a job piling pulpwood. My dad was always hard on me, but this time I think he knew that approach was good. I said, ‘Dad, you know I can hardly bend my knee. I can’t bend over.’ He just said, ‘You can try it.’ It was hard work; everything in my body was outta’ whack. I fell down a lot. But you know it was kind of like physical therapy for me. I slowly began to recover.
Eventually I got back to trapping in the fall and logging in the summer. Sometimes I’d also help out a friend of mine on his family’s farm. One day I saw his sisters, Connie and Karen, driving tractor and baling hay… but they weren’t wearing farm clothes - they were wearing bikinis.”
Karen: “It was the only way to get a tan.”
Buck: “That was the first time I had ever seen Karen ‘cause she’d been off at college, but then I started seeing her all over the place. My uncle would always say ‘You ain’t got a hair on your ass unless you ask her out.’ When I finally did ask her, she laughed at me.”
Karen: “He was a big jokester, I was like ‘Yeah, right.’ I didn’t think he was serious. But he kept at it, and eventually I realized he was serious, and I said sure. Our first date was at the Hideaway Supper Club in Wisconsin Rapids. Got home and sat under the yard light, just talking till 4 o'clock in the morning. Mother checking in from the window.”
Buck: “Over time, we just really hit it off good. She liked doing the things I did. We used to go through junkyards and stone piles, picking berries. She loved going with me on the trapline. We even liked getting our grandmas together. They’d play cards together so we’d bring my grandma over to her grandma’s house or vice versa. They'd have to out-do one another with their snacks. Started out as cheese and sausage plates but then became sandwiches and desserts and stuff. Then they’d play cards for money - just pennies, but always it’d have to be for money. We’d hang out with them til about 10 o'clock or so and then they would say, ‘Well you, you two young people shouldn't be with us old farts. You should be out 'sparking'.’ So we’d go.
Soon enough, we were married and had kids.”
“When Karen and I had kids I made a promise that I’d spend a lot of time with them, and I made sure I taught em’ all about trapping. They would take their bikes around to local creeks and set trap lines all on their own.
When they were young I also started my own logging company. Just a few years into my new business, a big Balsam fell smack down on me. Drove me four inches in the ground, split my hard hat in half. That was the end of the logging career. But I recovered; went back to trapping again. I even went trapping with Karen and the boys in my neck brace. After while I found an opportunity working outdoors in maintenance at Fort McCoy and did that for the rest of my career. I always enjoyed working outside.
About a month after I retired, I was spending some time with my mom and she noticed a big beige-colored mole on my forearm with a little black spot off to the side on it, and she said, ‘Well you better have that checked.’ I went to the VA and had them check that mole and one on my boot line. They only had time to take one off, so they took off the one from the boot line and said we’d watch the other one. Well guess what? We watched it turn into stage 2 melanoma.
I went to Madison through the VA there to start my cancer treatment. They decided to take out an inch deep and an inch wide through the elbow… a lot of tissue, a lot of muscle gone. We thought we had it taken care of.
Then one day, we were having a family reunion up at Powers Bluff. I felt a little bump; it was on a Wednesday. I didn’t think much of it, but by Saturday is was close to golf ball size. I called my doctor and he said the cancer was in transit. They took out that lump, but in less than a year, another one showed up, so they took that one out, too.”
Karen: “The melanoma kept showing up in lots of different ways. They took out a bunch of lymph nodes. Then he started getting purple lesions, like the size of an eraser, that would come along the line of where he just had surgery on his arm. It was time for chemo.”
Buck: “I did surgeries. I did chemo. I did radiation. Nothing was working. The treatments they had available for me through the VA were limited. The doctor recommended we go somewhere else.
I transferred to the UW Hospital with stage 4 melanoma. I had tried all the typical treatments and nothing had worked. My doctor, Dr. Albertini, said, ‘Why don’t you try a clinical trial?’ The trial was about trying to see if our own immune system can play a role in the cure for cancer.
My first thought was, ‘Well, if I am gonna’ die from this at least I want to be a tool for somebody.’ Even if the trial failed, they’d have an idea of what works for people and what doesn’t.
Plus, there’s always hope. So I said, ‘Okay, let’s try it.’
“I had stage 4 melanoma when I started my first clinical trial. I was pretty sick, and really tired. I’d get up in the morning, get dressed and then just lay back down. Days and months went by like that. The first clinical trial helped some, and they learned a lot, but it didn't cure me. In fact, things weren't looking good. They gave me 6 months. I started to get my things in order.
But then Dr. Albertini said there was another one he thought would work really well for me in Chicago. I thought, ‘Oh, big city, I dunno.’ But there was that hope, and I agreed to it. I said, ‘Okay Dr. Albertini, I’ll do it. You’re the boss.’ ‘Oh no,’ he said. ‘You’re the boss. Always. I will do whatever you say.’ He was like that, always on the up and up, clearly explaining everything and would never try to charm you into doing anything. He always said everything face to face, and never hesitated to reach out directly when he had news or a new idea.
One night he called me, around 10 o’clock at night, with news that he could get me into a clinic in Eau Claire instead of the one in Chicago — but I had to be there the next day.
Karen and I and got everything together, and the next morning we checked in. That same day I got my first intravenous treatment.
After the second round, I was taking a shower and I noticed one of the tumors looked like it was falling in on itself. Like it was collapsing down. I came out and gave the wife a thumbs up, and she was like, ‘Wait - what’s wrong? Something wrong? What’s wrong?’ I said, ‘I think it’s working.’ My chest and my breasts got all inflamed, but then the tumor was shrinking.
The standard treatments didn’t work for me. If I hadn’t done those clinical trials, I’d have been gone six years ago. I don’t think I would have made it to spring. Every day’s a gift now. If you’re still breathing, there’s still hope.”
Buck: “My experiences in Vietnam — I mean, you don’t wanna know the unspeakable things I saw there — left me with some PTSD.
I went on meds for it from the VA, but they left me feeling like a vegetable in la-la-land. I quit taking those meds. My therapist said the best treatment there is to get outside in my orchard… I’d been growing apples for years and it did do me good.
I was down at the Tomah VA one day after I had retired, thinking about that outdoors therapy, and I said to one of the nurses, ‘Would you be interested in bringing some vets out to fish in my pond?’ She was in recreational therapy, and said, ‘Boy, that’d be a good idea to get them out.’
So she helped me arrange things and vets started to come out here to my property to do some fishing. Some of my visitors are full-time residents of the VA, and some are there for maybe five months for rehabilitation. We had one guy here a couple of times who was in a wheelchair. He was fishin’ on on one of the lakes, cast a line in, his wheels were locked. He got a nice fish on the line, and I don’t know if he tried to stand up or what, but he tipped the wheelchair right over — straight into the water!
Some nurses ran over to help him up, and they got his wheelchair upright. He comes back out of the water and — you’d have to see it to believe it — he had his fishing pole in his hand, still winding. It was unreal.
We had another guy, Chuck, who couldn’t talk but had a machine that put words up on the screen. I asked him if he’d ever caught a walleye, and he said no. I usually don’t use live bait because the fish can choke on them, but I got a minnow for Chuck. He’s right by the dock and he got one on his line. All of a sudden, he catches his walleye, and he’s crying. It’s worth a million.
It’s therapy for me and them. Aside from my own PTSD, I was also undergoing cancer treatments when we started the program. When I wasn't sure if I was going be around much longer because of the cancer, I even arranged to have someone else keep doing this when I pass away.
Fortunately, I’m still here. I get to live another day. I get to hang out with the vets and go fishin’. I’ve been blessed. I’m thankful. Someone’s watching over me, I’ll tell you that.”
-Buck, Arpin WI
Buck's story is part of Love Wisconsin's storytelling partnership with Love Wisconsin sponsor, UW Health, focusing on stories of health, crisis, care, and resiliency. To learn more about the UW Carbone Cancer Center and to see a video featuring Buck, please visit: http://uwhealth.org/buckwi