Ben Breitenbach: a survival story

Written on September 23rd, 2017

As I step into Ben Breitenbach’s house, the first word that comes to mind is quaint. I am greeted by an elderly beagle and the smell of comfort as he opens the door to welcome me in.

Ben has the look of a man who — despite his 80-year-old age — has managed to stay in shape. His lean frame stands tall, but when he walks me to the living room I see it: a slight shoulder hunch, an almost imperceptible limp, a stiffness that seems to seep from his bones.

He settles on the couch with me after joking that he won’t be able to get back up, and I start to record our conversation. What strikes me most about Ben is his honesty; he relates every layer of his experience in matter-of-fact terms, recognizing his own mistakes with a maturity clearly brought on by years of life. He is funny, and stubborn, and all too grandfatherly — I find myself leaning into his personality as I seek out his story.

At the same time, I find myself shaking my head at his brazen bluntness and the generational chasm that stretches between us. In the hour that we talk, I can feel how we both grow.

For the past few years, Ben has been taking a few days at the end of each spring to go hunting in a place he’s never been before. His face lights up as he talks about the tradition; I can tell he enjoys spending time in nature.

This past year he got a permit for the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest in Taylor County, WI. He scouted out the area a few weeks before heading up with his van and camper to enjoy the hunt; the plan was to stay there for a full seven days unless he caught a turkey early.

He told no one exactly where he was going — it was all a big secret. No one expected to hear from him until he arrived home. As he charmingly described the lack of cellphone service in the forest: “my phone didn’t have an antennae”.

After a few days of camping, he set out one morning to hunt. He describes the funny bicycle setup he has to me with a grin on his face, detailing the camouflage-painted child’s buggy he attaches to the back of the old frame to hold his things.

He recalls biking about a half mile before coming upon a large downward slope. From his earlier scouting he remembered that the road went down, curved to the right, and then meandered back uphill. Wanting to get a good head start on the next incline, he pedaled hard — until he wiped out.

“It gets kind of vague at this point, I’m not sure exactly what happened,” he tells me. He thinks maybe he hit a rock or a rut in the dirt road at first, but then he looks at me and admits “I think I just wasn’t paying attention. Maybe I did hit a rock or whatever, but the bottom line is I fell.”

I cringe as I imagine the scene: this 80-year-old man hurtling onto the ground on a desolate dirt road. As if he’s reading my mind Ben continues, saying “when they tell you that head wounds bleed a lot, they’re right.”

He had a bump on his head from which blood was pouring onto his camouflage cap and face mask. His first thought was that he had to get going because he knew as soon as the initial shock wore off he’d be feeling immense pain.

He got himself up somehow and made his way back the half-mile to his campsite. When he arrived he went straight to his camp kitchen and took an entire bottle of iBuprofen — sixteen or eighteen pills, he says he can’t remember — with a bottle of water.

I stare at him in disbelief. He chuckles a bit at my surprise: “the pain was coming pretty good.”

He pushes right past my awkwardness about the magnitude of his acetaminophen dosage and tells how he quickly broke camp and got into his car. He drove for miles before his cellphone “got an antennae” just on the border of Lincoln County.

At this point, Ben had made up his mind to go directly to the emergency room in Merrill — but he had also decided that he didn’t need help getting there. He’d been taking care of himself for a long time; old habits die hard.

He called up some of his friends who have farms in the area and asked them to meet him at his hunting shack to help remove his trailer from his van, since the pain was too much for him to do it alone.

When they arrived he could see them looking at him strangely — and rightfully so, considering he had been in such a hurry that he didn’t bother to wipe any blood off of his face or his clothes.

He could hear them whispering about how “we can’t let Ben drive”… so the second the trailer was off of his van, this stubborn old man rolled up his windows and locked his doors, shouting to his friends to simply close the gate behind him.

They really didn’t have a choice; they let him go.

Somehow, despite the pain and the medication and the overwhelming shock of experiencing such a trauma, Ben made it to the emergency room. He said he doesn’t remember much after this point because they pumped him with so many IVs; the next thing he knew he was in Marshfield’s intensive care unit.

He stayed there with critical injuries for five days — what would have been the remainder of the trip, had things gone differently.

He gestures around the room, indicating his life as a whole. “The rest is like this now,” he says. “Therapy and wait.” He seems to smile a little sadly as he moves a stiff shoulder, then brightens when he remembers I am here to listen.

“That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.”

He is done with his tale, just like that. He accepts my follow up questions and we briefly talk about our families before heading our separate ways; he waves as I pull out of his driveway, the promise of sharing his story heavy in my palm when I return the gesture.

Ben had seven broken ribs, four of which were shattered in more than one place. His collarbone and two bones surrounding it were broken. He was concussed and badly swollen. He is still in intensive therapy — he is still in serious pain.

Ben didn’t tell anyone where he was going, he had no means of communication, and he was reckless with his safety. He made me promise to emphasize those things when I wrote his story; he wanted the world to know how important precautionary measures are.

He didn’t shy away from the shame of his more questionable actions but rather promoted them as something others can learn from. I still smile thinking about the way he embraced his mistakes — it is something I want to embody.

I haven’t seen Ben since, but I know he will still go hunting this year. I know he will sit out on his back porch with his wife and two dogs when he gets home. And most importantly, I know that — despite his lapses in judgment, despite his trials — he is someone who truly has the will to survive.