Broken & Contorted: Tree stand fall victim walks into reunions with wardens who helped him
Warden John Sinclair looked surprised and shocked when he shook the hand of John Beetham, who with perfect posture stood on his own and offered a strong, solid handshake with a big grin.
"Wardens never hear what happened. Never," Sinclair said more than once while John Beetham kept smiling as he knew he finally met one of the two Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources conservation wardens who had helped rescue him on the night of his horrific fall from a tree stand.
"I've been trying to find you for about a year-and-a-half," John Beetham said to Warden John Sinclair, never losing his smile. Never. For the record, Sinclair never lost his.
That reunion was in March 2018, about 16 months after Sinclair had stayed with Beetham waiting for the local ambulance summoned by Sinclair's partner that day - Warden Henry Bauman of Madison.
Bauman's reunion with Beetham came a few months later, and was punctuated by the same powerful impact of seeing a man who had been crumpled by a fall standing there—standing, strong, straight and on his own.
"I remembered what he looked like when I saw him last on that log in the woods," Bauman said of his thoughts as he approached to shake the hand of a smiling Beetham at his business in the Dane County community of Brooklyn. "It was very rewarding to see him, and his son, Willie."
Just as he did with Sinclair, Beetham gushed with praise and thanks for Bauman's help. But, what made this reunion different from the one in March was son Willie was there. And, the younger Beetham talked about that night with his dad in the woods. "This was the first time Willie talked about it in front of his father."
Willie said he heard his dad hit the ground from about 50 yards away. He knew enough to not move his father from his contorted landing. "Willie was very matter of fact about it, not emotional but it must have been horrifying."
Listening to Willie brought back a lot of memories for Bauman. "What I remember most about him that night was how calm (Willie) was."
Bauman also remembers the sounds. "To hear someone in that kind of pain, you know this is really serious. Seeing it and hearing it."
It was the closing minutes of the last day of the 2016 Wisconsin gun-deer season when Sinclair and Bauman were in their warden truck and heard the Dane County dispatcher relay a call for help for a hunter who tumbled from a tree stand.
"We're close. I know where this is," Bauman said, as he steered his truck off the highway into a darkening and muddy Dane County woodland, following the dispatcher's remarkably detailed directions provided by the victim's son.
Bauman says the visibility that night was nearly zero. "The deer season had ended. We were done—but then we heard the call on the radio, and I knew we were a couple of miles the way the crow flies," he said. "And I knew we'd be there quicker than anyone else."
The wardens went with Bauman's gut sense of direction into the back woods where there were no lights in the farm yards and only terrain landmarks that marked the path.
"There it is!"
A steady beam from a smart phone flashlight guided the wardens to Willie Beetham, who had been walking from his tree stand when he heard the undeniable and sickening thud of his father hitting the ground below his tree stand.
Willie came forward through the mist to meet the wardens—and that's when they heard and saw Beetham, bent and broken on the ground.
The plan upon the wardens' arrival was immediate. Willie Beetham would ride out of the woods to the road with Bauman and wait for the local medical responders while Sinclair would wait with Beetham.
"Willie! Willie! What's going on! Willie!" Beetham cried, the anguished words bouncing off the trees and into the rapidly falling night sky of rain.
"There's a blank spot in my head"
Sinclair approached to crouch near Beetham, whose body was draped over a log. Face up into the rain, Beetham's hips were high as his lower back was arched up and over the log. His legs were eerily still, and the pain was searing through Beetham's body like lightning.
Minutes before, Beetham was doing what he says he has done for 50 years. "This was the last minute of the last day of the season. I unloaded my gun and lowered it down by the line. Then I stood to come down - and I don't remember what happened. There's a blank spot in my head."
Beetham says he awoke on the ground, and thought: "Where am I? What happened? I tried to move but I had no feeling in my legs."
Then, he heard his son yelling for his father loudly and getting closer. "We have been hunting this same area for six years," Beetham said.
Sinclair crouched down to get closer to Beetham, so he could see the warden's face. Beetham thought Sinclair was his son and said: "Willie, what's going on?"
Warden John answered by telling John Beetham help was coming and keeping him as calm as possible in an unbelievable situation - made more unbelievable by a lack of blood. Sinclair did a cursory search of Beetham, searching for exposed injuries, open wounds - but there were none. There, in the cold November rain, the dark and the mud was a man in incredible pain, worrying about his son worrying about him, and Sinclair's calming voice reassuring the father that help was coming, and things would be fine.
Back at the road, Bauman radioed the need for emergency medical teams and where he and Willie Beetham were waiting. The first time the emergency medical technician crew drove right by Bauman and Willie. Bauman radioed the crew to turn around, the medical crew did and passed again.
"I knew they were going to have a problem because they visibility in the rain was so bad—even with my truck's emergency lights on," Warden Henry said.
But, the third time they were spotted. Bauman and Willie returned to Sinclair and Beetham with the local fire department and its emergency medical team, equipped with a basket that allowed Beetham to be loaded onto a transport litter.
Mission One was to get Beetham on a spine board. The emergency medical team worked fast and professionally as the wardens assisted. "It wasn't a case of just loading John and just carrying. Because of where he was in this thicket, we had to twist and turn the board sideways as Beetham cried out," Bauman said.
Another memory that sticks with Bauman from that night was Sinclair's demeanor. "John is a very empathetic person. This kind of event can shake you. But John just kept talking to Beetham as the EMTs did their best to get him out and to the hospital."
Soon the fire department members were able to load Beetham into the back of the fire truck—and then they were all off to the hospital in Madison. Except for the two wardens, who paused momentarily—and then headed for home assuming they would never hear if Beetham made it or not.
What they didn't know about Beetham is that he was a fighter.
Beetham had five compressed vertebrae and trauma to the back. He did not need surgery. Instead he spent weeks in a turtle shell device to brace his back to allow it to heal in place.
He also did accelerated intense physical therapy where he met two other men who had fallen from tree stands. One was a paraplegic and the other a quadriplegic. Sobering conversations that left Beetham wondering how he came out of it as he did—fully mobile, running his business with his son and moving with no hint of any injury.
"I just shook my head thinking I was lucky. I beat the odds for 50 years," he said.
It was also during this therapy stretch when he made a pact with himself to thank those who had helped him. He found the emergency medical technicians and had stopped in a couple of DNR offices looking for the wardens. Not only did he want to thank them, but he really wanted to know how they got to him so fast. The wardens had been in the right place at the right time, and had the knowledge and training to help.
During the March conversation with Sinclair, Beetham said as he recalled the moment when he first saw Sinclair. "I thought you were Willie. You look like Willie - you both have beards and dark hair."
Beetham stops for a second and said: "You were the first one. You could've kept going. You came."
Sinclair dropped his head and said all he did was talk to him, remaining quiet and calm, and urging him not to move. "I just kept telling you to stay calm, they were coming, and they would help you."
Beetham interrupted and said: "But those were the most important things—just reassuring me."
"How could we not help," Sinclair said to Beetham.
Bauman says the wardens are going to respond when they get the call to help. "We do have the outdoor skills and the training," he said. "This was a bad experience, but it was awesome to see Beetham setting up a business with his son and having a productive life. This also was a big reminder about the benefits of being a warden - and that is to help people."
Beetham, who says he "lives for hunting," went back to the same hunting area with his son in 2017. He has new tree stands with recommended safety lifelines, harnesses and vests. "I tell everyone I can about this."
At the end of Beetham's hour with Sinclair, the two shake hands again.
"It's a privilege to meet you, John Beetham," Sinclair said.
"You came," Beetham says again. "You were the first one."