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A bucket of love
Community sees what Ben DuVal couldn't
 

By Kehn Gibson Klamath Courier Editor Published 10 Nov. 2004
Photos by Pat Ratliff

   NEWELL - Standing in the fading light outside his family's homestead, Ben DuVal pauses for a moment, leaning against the crutches that have become a part of his life.

   "You know, I have a silver bucket in there," he says, nodding towards the house. "It's from the town of Malin, and it's filled with cards, letters, checks, what ever the townsfolk thought I would need. 'Bucket of love' is painted on the outside."
 


Ben DuVal loads hay with his new squeeze

   A strange combination of strength and humility cross the young DuVal's face as he looks to the south, where he and his wife Erika hope to plant 87 acres of alfalfa next year.

   "I can never thank them all," he says.

Wild Man
  
The grandson of homesteader Gaylord DuVal, Ben Duval is 24 years old. Four years ago, he was returning from a party in Klamath Falls when he flew over a railroad junction on Yost Road just north of Tulelake and into a stand of trees.

   "I don't remember much about that," Ben said. "I was pretty well gone."

    The crash left DuVal without a truck, and a serious scar scripting his left cheek.

   "He has used up three of his lives," Erika says. "That was the first."

    A year later, Ben was working in his shop when an explosion left him with second- and third-degree burns across his body.


Erika DuVal
 "That was No. 2," Erika said. "I grew up here all my life, and I never thought I left, you know, an impression on anybody," Ben said. "I was just running around, being me."

    He left an impression on Erika, who before she began teaching at Henley High School had a job as a pump jockey at Merrilee's Shell station in Merrill.

   "He started coming in pretty often," Erika says, her green eyes smiling. "He bought a lot of $5 gas."

   "Well, that's all I needed at the time," Ben says, flushing slightly. "Nowadays that won't even get me home".

    The couple married in December 2002. Erika began teaching at Henley, while Ben kept working for farmer Laurence Bagg of Malin

Lookout

   A married man for 11 months, on Nov. 14, 2003 Ben drove Erika's 1989 Dodge flatbed to MacArthur to get it smog tested for relicensing. At 4:30 that afternoon, he called Erika to let her know he was coming home.

   It was a cold afternoon, a gray sky spitting rain that threatened to turn to snow as Ben, traveling less than 55 miles per hour, approached a slight bend on the road known locally as Lookout Cutoff Road.

   The ice-slickened road grabbed the Dodge, flinging it into the trees on the high side of the bend.

   "I remember getting bounced around pretty good," Ben said, then paused. "It is very hard for me to think of that night".

   The truck came to rest about 100 feet into the forest, the front end facing the highway. The trees had pummeled the truck, breaking out the windshield and crushing the driver's side door.

   That impact had mangled Ben's left leg. He also suffered a broken back in the crash, though at the time the back pain worried him far less than the bleeding.

   "I knew I was hurt pretty good," Ben said. "I thought I might bleed out, but after a while the bleeding slowed down."

   Ben remembers being conscious for some time after the crash, and feeling a mighty thirst take hold. It had started to snow, and he quenched his thirst by sweeping the gathering snow from the dashboard and eating it.

   "I could see cars driving by on the road, and even thought of crawling out the passenger door," Ben said. "I'm lucky I didn't, because with a broken back I would have never made it."

   Ben found a pile of coats behind the seat, placed there by Erika so she could take her class out to cut Christmas boughs. Dragging them over his body, Ben worked to stay warm.

   "I was okay, a little wet maybe," Ben said. "I was worried to death about Erika."

   As darkness fell, the snow quietly coated the white-colored Dodge.

A wife's strength

   By 6 p.m., Erika was worried that Ben had not returned. By 9.p.m., she and Ben's father, Randy, had left the house to go looking for Ben.

   They drove all the way to MacArthur, Erika said. Finding no sign, the two retraced their path and drove slowly home. It was snowing in the hills, the 90 miles of road filled with dark and foreboding. Randy DuVal said he was concerned, but not as much as Erika was that night.

   "You know, I've raised three boys, and you learn not to get too excited too early," Randy said. "She was pretty concerned, but I kept figuring he would show up."

   Erika had a premonition during the search.

   "At that very bend I remember telling myself that some rancher would probably find him," Erika said, her eyes shading what the premonition suggested about the condition the rancher might find Ben in. "I knew he had been in a wreck, but I convinced myself that Ben was out screwing around."

   When asked why, the fire in Erika flashed her strength.

   "Because that kept him alive, in spite of what I knew had happened," Erika said. "Besides, thinking that got me a few hours of sleep out of the deal."

   In the morning, Erika called Randy again, as the two planned to renew their search. Their plans were interrupted by a call from Mrs. Maddox.

Two strangers meet

  
Matt Maddox has managed the Quail Valley Ranch for years. Among his duties are looking for strays on the ranch's 5,000 acres, and that job had Maddox driving along Lookout Cutoff Road early that morning.

   Noticing on his first pass through the slight bend that gravel had been tossed onto the road, Maddox made a mental note to check the area more closely on his return trip.

   "We were out a few cows, and they tend to drift in to the fences along that stretch when the weather turns bad," Maddox told the Klamath Courier. "I didn't know what the gravel meant. It might have been nothing, it might have been a cow hit by a car during the night. A man has to check."

   Pulling over at the bend, Maddox began looking around and spotted a crumpled white Dodge sitting upright a ways back into the trees.

   "My first thought was I was glad I didn't ride it in there," Maddox said. "I was thinking I hoped the guy they had hauled out of there was okay when I saw this hand wave at me through the open windshield."

   Getting over his shock, Maddox said he hiked to the truck to find Ben not only conscious, but solidly so.

   "I couldn't believe he was so coherent," Maddox said. "He wanted me to call his wife, but I told him that I'd better call 911 first."

   In the twenty minutes it took for an ambulance to arrive from Fall River, one of Maddox's buckaroos arrived and asked the ranch manager what he was doing.

   "I told him I was helping that guy down in the truck," Maddox said. "He looked around for a few minutes then asked me, 'What truck?' "

   Ben had spent nearly 14 hours in the Dodge.

   After calling 911, Maddox called his wife at Quail Valley Ranch, and told her to call Erika at the number Ben had given him. At about 8 a.m., Erika got the call.

A community responds

   It began even before Ben was admitted to the U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

   Calls of support came in waves. Family and friends regularly fed the small cattle herd Ben and Erika had started. Feed bills disappeared, and Erika found herself being told not to worry about things like telephone and power bills.

   Erika kept by Ben's side, learning the complicated procedures practiced by the nurses and doctors, not to do them herself but to understand what her husband was dealing with.

   The massive damage to Ben's leg was not the issue, it was the infection that raged in him that continually threatened to kill him. Finally, Erika made the decision to allow doctors to amputate Ben's left leg.

   "I made the decision and didn't think twice about it," Erika said, her fire returning. "Ben and I had talked about it, so I knew he had processed the possibility."

   Once the decision had been made, the speed of Ben's recovery was "amazing," Erika said.

   Ben came home to the Basin Feb. 6.

   The communities they grew up in matched the spirit of Ben and Erika. A wedding reception planned for Dec. 18, more than a month after the crash, became a fundraiser for the young couple, as caterer Norman Small donated the food and every attendee paid for their meal. The last day of business for Papa T's in Malin before the venerable restaurant changed hands was spent with customers standing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder. Every dime earned that day went towards the couple's mounting medical bills.

   And the bills are a mountain. To date, the total is more than $3.5 million, and the bills are still arriving.

   Erika said the staff at U.C. Davis took a center role in negotiating with insurance companies, and Ben said the numbers on the bottom of the bills are so big he cannot allow himself to worry.

   When spring hit the Basin this year, Laurence and Sarah Bagg bought a tractor. A new John Deere, it arrived in May and was outfitted with an expensive accessory equipping the tractor with hand controls.

   "We wanted Ben to be able to do what ever he felt capable of doing," said Sarah Bagg. "It was a good thing for both - Ben could do what he wanted, and we could keep Ben as an employee."

   "It felt so good to get out there and work," Ben said. "It is all I have ever wanted to do, and it felt good to get back to it."

   A local implement dealer backed Ben on the purchase of a hay squeeze this September, allowing Ben to start a business. Currently, Ben is picking up work with his long time employer, the Baggs.

   "I hope people will call Ben to load their trucks," Sarah Bagg said. "He is good, and he is fast."

   Bagg said a lot of people are watching the DuVals with pride.

   "There are very few young couples who want to farm, and Ben and Erika want to do just that," Bagg said. "Ben's accident really brought Tulelake, Malin and Merrill together in many ways."

Meant for each other

   Ben and Erika have put a down payment on the DuVal family homestead, and the hopes and dreams of a young farming couple are being manifested in the Tule Lake Basin.

   Erika said she has never thought of leaving Ben.

   "We had goals and plans that, in my mind, we still hadn't accomplished," Erika said, her fire flashing. "The thought never crossed my mind, not for a second."

   "Basically I'm fine, I just lost a leg," Ben said. "You just can't give up, because if you do you are done."

   When asked how the experience has changed him, Ben goes silent.

   "Do you want to say it, or shall I use girly words?" Erika asks him. He nods.

   "He is more compassionate," Erika says. "He understands people's situations, and he looks for ways to help."

   "I'm a lot more open minded," Ben says. "I have a new awareness of people, an understanding of what it means when bad things happen. I've been there. This community helped me do that."

   The couple lock eyes for as moment, not sure how to continue.

Ben DuVal

    "So many people did so many things to help us," Ben said. "We tried to thank them all, but we couldn't. Some things were done without us knowing who the people were, and we will probably never know."

   ."People tell me its good for them to see me out working and doing things," Ben continues. "I thank God I'm here."

   A powerful moment passes in the DuVal dining room as Ben looks at his wife."She is a strong girl," he says softly. "She is why I didn't give up."

   Ben continues a regular regimen of physical therapy, and wanted to make special note of Luke Klaja of Klamath Falls. "He understands what my body can do, what I want to do, and what I'm capable of," Ben said.
 

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