NEWCASTLE — The last clothes Wyatt Pillen would ever wear lay neatly on his bed. At the foot was an embroidered Future Farmers of America jacket. Next to it a T-shirt from a junior firefighter program. Near his pillow was an orange high school basketball jersey he would never get the chance to wear on the court.
His parents had to pick something for his burial.
“He loved all of those things,” said his mom, Susan Pillen.
Wyatt, 15, died Monday morning near Newcastle when his truck rolled one-and-a-half times.
As Wyatt’s parents planned his funeral, Susan’s sister sat with her son in a hospital in Scottsbluff, Neb. He had been thrown from the truck’s passenger seat.
Vincent Oedekoven, 15, was more like Wyatt’s twin than cousin. Either one would have given his life for the other.
Ironically, when Vincent lay with bruised lungs and a broken neck in the hospital, the doctors found a mass in his brain at the base of his skull. Left undiscovered it could have altered his life, his personality and his body forever. Doctors found the mass because of the wreck.
A best friend and cousin’s death may have, in some way, helped the life of the other.
“I believe if he knew this meant his cousin’s life would be saved, he would do it again,” said Wyatt’s father Rick Pillen.
Vincent and Wyatt left Newcastle on Sunday morning to work at a ranch south of town. Wyatt accepted a job there helping an elderly rancher with cows, fencing and even some housekeeping chores. He fantasized about owning his own land one day. He and Vincent planned to either take over Vincent’s dad’s ranch or buy their own.
When Wyatt went to work, Vincent would often go, too.
The teens spent most of the day fixing fence, hopping in and out of the truck to work on every 10-foot section, Rick said.
They probably didn’t think about putting their seat belts back on as they drove home.
Wyatt was driving about 70 mph when he came over a hill.
The highway curved, and he veered too close to the side. The truck’s wheels fell into the dirt shoulder. Wyatt overcorrected onto the pavement, and then overcorrected again. The truck rolled. Both boys were thrown.
They went to the hospital in Newcastle before Wyatt was flown to Denver and Vincent to Scottsbluff. Separating the boys was one of the hardest things that day, said Vincent’s mom Pam Carr. They wouldn’t have wanted to be apart.
Vincent moved to Newcastle with his mom when he was 4. He was nine months older than Wyatt. Their friendship seemed a given.
As children, they made a brand that they called P and O: P for Pillen and O for Oedekoven. Everything they owned — and some things they didn’t own — had their brand. They created P and O Trucking and P and O Ranching.
They twisted metal wire into the sign, heated it up and branded their plastic toys. Every plastic cow, pig and truck had a mark.
As they grew up their plans became closer to realities. But like many teens, new projects distracted from half-finished ones.
First there was the wood-splitting business. Wyatt and Vincent collected truckloads of dead timber and drove it to Wyatt’s house outside of Newcastle.
“They split it all up, and it’s ready to sell. They just wouldn’t take the step to sell it,” Rick said.
“Because they were working on that when they got the turkey idea,” said Susan. “We have a hillside back here where they wanted to build a turkey farm. All they did was get a Bobcat and tear up the hillside for eight hours.”
And buy 20 turkey chicks, which are now 18 adult turkeys scattered in the Pillens' backyard.
The turkey operation led to a renovation of their grandmother’s 1980s camper. About two weeks ago, the boys spent three days tearing it down to a flatbed trailer. The camper leaked so badly it needed a new roof, which they planned to make in metal class at school. It would have been their hunting camper in the fall and fishing hut in the summer.
“I told Rick, 'He has left all of these projects so you remain close to him as you clean up all the messes,'” Susan said.
In September, they joined a firefighter explorers program with the Newcastle Volunteer Fire Department. The program trains high school students to understand firefighting skills. Explorers go on calls, refill oxygen bottles or help with fire hose.
They just finished their formal training.
Wyatt and Vincent took firefighting seriously. A couple of weeks ago, they voted to put Wyatt’s older brother Nate, 16, on probation for skipping a meeting to go on a date.
“When (Wyatt) really believed in something he gave 100 percent,” Susan said.
Wyatt’s parents didn’t worry about the dangers of firefighting. He was a big kid — 6 feet tall, 200 pounds and solid.
He preached safety, often reminding people to buckle up. That’s why the crash hurts so much.
Rodeo was the one thing Wyatt did apart from Vincent. Wyatt wrestled steers as a chute dogger. He went to the National Junior High Finals Rodeo in June as the Wyoming state champion.
A gold buckle he won rested on his bed Thursday morning next to his firefighting ball cap. His brown dress cowboy boots sat on his bedside table, a cowboy hat flopped on the top. His black work boots, the ones he was wearing during the crash, were on the floor, toes tucked under the bed.
Number plates from the national competition hung on a bulletin board next to a middle school football championship shirt.
Rick held up his son’s orange basketball jersey with Pillen and the number 25 printed on the back. This would have been his first high school season, and the first time he and Vincent could play on the same team.
He folded the shirt and carefully placed it back on his son’s bed. He choked back tears.
“I just wish he’d had a little bit more time.”