The Buckle of Danny True
by Warren Masten
Warren Masten says about the following essay:
I am departing a little bit from the fishy phrases and sending you this piece concerning the heroic efforts of certain folks who battled Hodgkin's Disease.
I was privileged to work with Dick and Jan Molen on a video slide show for their speaking tour. I never met Danny True but spoke with his father over the phone.
I held "the buckle" the day before Dick and Jan left to attempt Everest and wrote this piece in their absence. I also put together video footage about their climb which included a touching moment as they wept during the burial of the buckle.
It matters not whether they achieved their ultimate goals of reaching the base camp and summit. What matters here is that the attempt was made and the promise was kept.
As man is created from the dust of the Earth, so, also, are the metals smelted from its stone. And just as these metals are forged into their given design, the life experiences of each man molds his spirit.
The buckle was owned by a young Oklahoma cowboy named Danny True. It was an oval of beaten silver. Within its circumference a balanced design of patterns surround the stylized figure of a steer's head. The individual designs were separated by an inlay of broken blue stone that matched the color of Danny's eyes. There seemed to be a strong and rugged spirit represented in the design.
Danny competed in the rodeo circuit and through years of busting out of shoots, became friends to many nationally and lesser know competitors. Annually he would hold his own rodeo on his ranch, "True Ranch," in Broken Arrow right after "Rooster Day." And after the rodeo, there was always the western dance in his barn. His spirit was strong, but not in such a manner that he didn't have an easy way with people. Perhaps he wore that buckle as a banner of his spirit. A spirit that would be put to its greatest test well before he would want it to.
The aches and pains of working the ranch he loved so well and the beating he gave his body as he rodeo'd were, understandably, part of every day life....part of getting from here to there. Perhaps it was these aches and pains that allowed the innocent swelling of certain lymph glands in his body to go unnoticed for too long a time. Perhaps it was the stress and heartbreak of seeing his young family start to fall apart that added fuel to the unseen wildfire that was beginning to consume his body in the form of Hodgkin's disease. He had to be helped onto the meanest bronc at his last rodeo because he was so weak. When it came to the point that he couldn't sit a saddle anymore, it may have already been too late. His father, Max True, saw this happening to his son and without hesitation swept him off to the best doctors available.
It was after seeing the specialist at Stanford and receiving yet another bleak prognosis, that Max and Danny met Dick and Jan Molen at their home in Monterey. Max had heard about Dick's battle with the same disease that, now, ravaged his son. He had also heard of Jan's courageous confrontation with Hodgkin's disease on a different level. Her first husband had died of the disease and, like a nightmare returning, Dick had contracted it after they were married. Both had had the strength and courage to face up to the beast that lay before them and fight it....Dick with a spirit and will to live and Jan with the same spirit and will to support her husband on his long and difficult journey.
Dick spent that evening with Danny and told him his story...how his life had always been an athletic one...how, in his younger days, he had been a line backer for the San Diego Chargers and even now kept a keen interest in competitive sports.
He told of the crushing blow he felt when he learned he had Hodgkin's disease. He promised himself and Jan that he would beat it...even when radiation treatment left him tearfully gasping on the track, unable even to complete a 440. He pressed on, starting a program of weight training at Wiley's Gym in Seaside. He lost his hair and his taste buds as treatment continued, but he kept running longer and longer distances until he could run from Salinas to Monterey nonstop. Jan was by his side all the way. When she couldn't keep up with his physical pace, she was the rock he could lean on when he faltered. Their friends as well as Dick's doctors were inspired by how these two took this obstacle by the throat and started beating it into submission. And Danny listened.
When he was told he had beaten the disease, Dick and Jan celebrated with a trip to Europe. It was when standing before the heroic statue of Michelangelo's "David" that Dick realized that he wanted to keep his physical and mental health at a level that matched that of the craven stone. He and Jan would adopt the words of Theodore Roosevelt when he wrote:
Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, then to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in that gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
Their life's work would be to take this message and their story to those who would be inspired by it. And Danny understood.
Dick ran the Boston Marathon and a bit later he and Jan were the first to ever run a marathon atop the Great Wall of China. This inspired President Reagan to write them a congratulatory letter extolling their feat. But it didn't end there.
They decided that if they attempted to climb the highest mountain on each of the seven continents they would have an even stronger message. Some of these peaks are a challenge for much younger people. Perhaps they would not be able to conquer them all, but at least they would face the challenge and give it their best shot with no regrets about the outcome. This is a strong statement about life in general, and Danny grasped hold of it.
With an oath that he would beat his sickness, Danny left the Molen's home with a rekindled spirit and a goal to ride for. He would, someday down the line, wear that buckle again.
Dick and Jan went on to their mountains: Africa's Kilimanjaro and Australia's Kosciusko in 1986 and European Russia's Elbrus in 1987.
Danny and Max continued to work on the difficult maze of recovery. Danny would not make it. Try as he might, he died at his beloved ranch on April 29, 1987. His funeral was held at his old rodeo arena. Those folks he rode with came from all over the United States at attend this service held for the boy who had shown so much spirit. A line of cars four miles long followed Danny's casket from the arena to the cemetery. And there he was returned to the dust of the earth.
Max wrote Dick and Jan about his son's passing and thanked them so for giving Danny such a lift at that difficult time. The letter was, later, followed by a small package. It contained Danny's precious buckle. Max asked Dick and Jan if they would leave Danny's buckle on Mt. Everest. He wrote them that Danny would have liked that.
Jan has since written a book about her trials in supporting Dick through his battle with Hodgkin's disease. The dedication reads:
"I dedicate this book to our good friend Danny True who died of Hodgkin's disease in 1987. While Danny was alive he was a man who 'dared to do mighty things'. My husband Dick and I will bury his rodeo belt buckle somewhere on Mt. Everest in his memory and honor."
But first, in 1991, before the opportunity to climb Everest arrived, Dick managed to make it to the top of Mt. Aconcagua on the continent of South America, an extremely difficult climb.
Then came Chomolungma, "goddess mother of the world" awaiting with her myriad of ice spires, glacial crevasses and dark abysses stretched below towering, stony heights. Jan would be one of the oldest women to attempt reaching the base camp. The porters in Africa had called her "Strong Mama," being the oldest person in the climb reaching the top of Kilimanjaro six years earlier. Six years...a test of time and spirit. Dick would try to set an age record also. And with him, as he struggled upwards towards the snow-swept summit, went a promise and a precious cargo...an oval of beaten silver once owned by a young Oklahoma cowboy named Danny True. Somewhere upon the mountain that bit of metal has been returned to the mother stone.