Cancer be damned — Hog Wild Geezers about to hit the open road
All of us arrive in this world with an expiration date.But, unlike a carton of cottage cheese or a jug of milk, we don't have the expiration date stamped on us. We live largely in the dark when it comes to our shelf life.
Three years ago in June, Medford resident Walt Smith, 64, was given his termination date.
"When that doctor told me I had eight months to live, the first thing I thought was that he must be talking about someone else," says the retired businessman. "I never had any symptoms. I was never tired."
He has renal cell carcinoma, a form of kidney cancer. There was a tumor on his left kidney; 20 cancerous growths the size of silver dollars on his lungs.
"It's tough to know when your expiration date is," he says. "Your mind doesn't accept the fact that in eight months, I'm gone. I'm out of here."
This, coming from someone who leaves Wednesday morning with fellow Medfordites Nick and Linda Moreau on their motorcycles, bound for Washington, D.C.
Their plan is to be in D.C. on Memorial Day weekend for the annual gathering of Rolling Thunder, the nonprofit group of motorcycle enthusiasts committed to focusing attention on the POW-MIA issue as well as helping all veterans.
While there, the Moreaus and Smith will pay their respects at Arlington National Cemetery, where Linda's brother, Mickey Allen Wilson, and father, Ira C. Wilson, are interred. Her brother was a UH-1H Huey helicopter pilot shot down near Quang Tri in what was then South Vietnam on Jan. 8, 1973. Her father retired from the Army as a sergeant major.
"My dad was buried in 2004 with full military honors — the horses that pulled his caisson pulled Ronald Reagan's," she says, noting that would have thrilled her father to no end. "He was buried with Mickey's teeth."
That would be the five teeth the Army recovered at the crash site 28 years after her brother was listed as missing in action.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should note that the Moreaus are longtime friends of mine. I tagged along with them on a trip to the crash site in Vietnam a decade ago. Better traveling companions you will never find.
Perhaps you've seen the movie "Wild Hogs," a funny flick about four over-the-hill guys taking a cross-country motorcycle jaunt. They joke about being the Hog Wild Geezers, although none fit the geezer description. Nick, 60, a Navy veteran, works for the U.S. Forest Service; Linda, 59, is an executive assistant at a local medical office.
The Moreaus will be riding on a bright red 2004 Honda motorcycle. Smith has a 2006 Yamaha Venture, painted black.
"I had never ridden a street bike until I bought this one in 2006," he says. "Right after I got it, I got sick. It sat in a covered trailer for a year and a half before I ever started it."
Yet this will be his third long motorcycle trip since being diagnosed with cancer. Two years ago he traveled to the Canadian Rockies, and he went there again last year. His wife, Sharon, has traveled with him on past trips but is unable to join him on this one because of work commitments.
After D.C., he and Nick will ride down to the Florida Keys. Linda is flying home over Memorial Day weekend to take their grandchildren on a Disney cruise.
"We're going to the Florida Keys, lay around, drink beer and eat crab," Nick quips.
"We don't know when we're coming home," Smith adds with a grin.
You no doubt noticed that his expiration date has expired, yet he hasn't.
Surgeons removed his cancerous kidney. He also took a form of interleuken (proteins produced by immune system cells) that stimulates the growth of T cells to fight the cancer by enhancing his immune system.
"The first time I went in the hospital in Portland, I got all 14 treatments," he says. "First time, it wasn't too bad. But as it went longer it got harder and harder."
While the interleuken was helping fight the cancer, it damaged his thyroid. He now takes pills to offset that damage.
"You never really get rid of it — it's a blood-borne cancer," he says. "But as long as I can keep my immune system up, I'm OK."
Smith is a 1962 graduate of Grants Pass High School, where he wrestled, taking third in state in the 148-pound class his senior year. He used to be a fishing guide on the lower Rogue River, and he was a motocross champ for his age bracket before the cancer.
In other words, he is as tough as his leather riding jacket.
"I just don't think about having cancer," he says. "It doesn't consume me at all. I've got stuff to do and I'm going to do it."
Like hitting the open road with the Hog Wild Geezers.
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at email@example.com.