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Longtime pals Terry Pembroke, Parker Shelton fighting cancer together

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For more on the Komets, follow Blake Sebring on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blakesebring and at his blog www.tailingthekomets.com.

For nearly half a century, they've taken on all comers

Tuesday, September 25, 2012 - 6:15 pm

A woman was traveling through the bottom of Texas five years ago when she came across the Post Oak Inn, a stereotypical roadhouse as far away from nowhere that the nearest middle can't be found. While she was sitting with relatives, two men sauntered toward the bar.

"There was an aura around these two," the woman later wrote. "Hell, they were old, but with a presence about them that actually drew people to them. I couldn't resist the urge to find out why, and if they were locals with a reputation. Big shock!!!!! No one knew them until they walked through the door."

Another man at the bar bought a round, saying the men reminded him of Captain Woodrow Call and Gus McCrae from "Lonesome Dove," the western TV miniseries based on Larry McMurtry's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about former Texas Rangers.

The TV miniseries ends with Woodrow Call riding from North Dakota to take his friend's body back to Texas for burial. The real-life endings for Terry Pembroke, 68, and Parker Shelton, 72, won't be so poignant as both are fighting tough against cancer when they'd rather be going back-to-back to face a horde of attacking Indians. They'd still be heavy underdogs, but at least they'd know how to fight back.

Both started somewhere else before they came to Fort Wayne in the mid-1960s, both looking to be somewhere else but always finding reasons to come back. Part of that was their bond with each other.

"The adventures of these two are endless," wrote the blogger they met in Texas. "The interesting thing is that the stories span four decades and all areas of professional sports, from rodeo to cage fighting. ... These two have participated in, or associated with those who have played pro sports worldwide... Their story covers the (gamut). Fun, sadness, the completely ridiculous and back to fun.''

When Parker Shelton came to Fort Wayne in 1965, he settled in to teach martial arts, eventually owning four area dojos. The Pineville, Ky., native fought professionally, including in Europe and Asia, to earn a worldwide reputation. (Imagine MMA matches without the pay-per-views but a stronger code and a bigger mythology around the fighters.) Though at 6-foot, 200 pounds he was often out-sized, the relentless Parker achieved the highest levels of judo and karate.

Of course he met Pembroke in a bar.

The Komets defenseman figured his career was on the way down after he'd been sent through the New York Rangers farm system to Fort Wayne in 1964. He was 5-foot-11, 180 pounds of rawhide that had been rained on and then left in the sun to dry. Pembroke's early background was almost as unique, leaving home in Ontario to play hockey at age 15 as a way to get away from the family horse business. He could never get far enough away, though.

"My friend says, 'You gotta meet this guy. You and him will get along,'" Shelton recalled. "He introduced us and it was one of the shortest conversations I ever had with a guy, but within two or three months we were best of buds. Pembroke is real to the bottom."

Maybe it was because they were the alpha bulls who recognized each other and thus always understood what the other guy was thinking and feeling. When no one else would dare, they became the two people in the world who could give each other crap. While at times they may have had trouble talking with others, they could carry on entire conversations using only body language. They didn't need to talk much, often spending entire days together in silence.

"People hanging out with us would get upset because we didn't talk," Pembroke said. "I'd say, 'We're famous for not talking to each other.' We weren't mad, there just wasn't anything to say."

Pembroke always hated having roommates, often paying extra for single rooms or having the requirement written into his Komets contract, but he got along with Shelton, partly because of the lack of jabbering. When they did get mad, they could go a long time in silence. Shelton remembers once traveling three days with Pembroke never saying or hearing a word. They'd sit in the truck, drive 800 miles, get out, unload the horses and feed them, have dinner and a few drinks and then go to bed without saying anything.

The strange thing is Pembroke only saw Shelton fight once, on TV, and Shelton watched Pembroke play hockey only once or twice. They appreciate each other's primary sport, but neither really understands it. Their initial bond was horses. Pembroke owned a small ranch on Fritz Road, and Shelton would often come out to ride.

"One morning I showed up and Pembroke had torn a kidney loose from the lining," Shelton said. "He came out and grabbed a saddle and I grabbed a saddle. My back was so screwed up I threw the stupid thing over the horse and fell back and sat down. He tried pushing his saddle up, and when the pain hit him he fell back and the saddle landed on top of him. He and I are sitting on the ground looking at each other and laughing our butts off.

"I say, 'Pembroke, we are way too old for this,' and he looks at me and says, 'Yeah, you're right.'"

And they laughed some more, wincing in pain.

Shelton retired from fighting and Pembroke from hockey in 1978. Both got involved in cutting-horse riding competitions, building new reputations. Fellow competitors were intrigued because they were jocks who'd already had another life. They also already had a million stories and continually were the center of more.

"The thing I admired the most about him is we walked into a thousand beer joints and restaurants, and by the time we left, he'd be on a first-name basis with every waitress, bartender and everybody else in the place," Pembroke said. "They didn't know him at all before that, but he just had that way. I would walk in that same bar, and while they were all loving on Shelton, I'd have the biggest redneck idiot at the end of the bar figuring out how he was going to hit me. It was inevitable. I'd say, 'Oh, God, here we go again.'"

Shelton was always saving Pembroke's backside, but Pembroke also knew when he had to dive back into the pile to pull his buddy out before he totally lost his cool and really hurt someone.

"One time this guy was bound and determined to find out just how tough Shelton was and wanted to challenge him," Pembroke said. "I finally one night go so tired of listening to him that I told him the story. Parker Shelton came out of Harlan County, Ky., and at 12 years old he crossed the river to Cincinnati and every day since he's trained a minimum of four or five hours a day on how to kill people. He has gone to Korea and Japan and taken all comers for a living. Here you are with a cigarette in your mouth and bulging biceps and you want to challenge him in the parking lot? Are you really that stupid?"

Some were. Both swear they never wanted trouble, it just sometimes seemed to find them and they knew what to do with it.

When Pembroke moved to Texas in 1980, there were often times when the pair would go months without talking. Every once in a while, one would call the other and ask, "You breathing?"

"OK, see ya."

In 2000, Shelton caught a staph infection, and, as he said, "I spent nine months trying to die."

Pembroke hauled his motor home and trailer with a couple horses and a couple longhorns to Fort Wayne, parked it beside the garage and served as Shelton's daytime healthcare provider while Parker's wife, Jan, worked. Whenever Pembroke wasn't working the animals, he'd be cleaning Shelton's pick line and feeding him.

When cancer claimed Jan on Dec. 14, 2007, Fort Wayne was in the midst of a terrible snow storm that stalled traffic everywhere, with accumulations so deep there was talk of canceling the wake. Somehow Pembroke walked through the front door wearing his cowboy hat, poncho and boots like he'd just snuck over from next door instead of south Texas.

"Everybody looked at this cowboy and was surprised, but I wasn't," Shelton said. "I still don't know how he got here."

Several times after the funeral, Shelton would take off driving as his way to heal. About half the time he'd end up in Texas, which is when the female blogger came across them one night in the roadhouse. When it was time for Shelton to leave, Pembroke swears all his friends wanted to ship him north instead.

Now both are struggling – Shelton with Stage IV lung cancer and Pembroke with what started as melanoma, turned into colon cancer and now has spread. He fought it off twice, despite each time being told to expect only months to live, but a third battle is still undecided and he's getting tired.

Neither likes too much that anyone else knows their business, but word got out. They'd prefer to battle individually, but they'll accept support from each other.

It doesn't help that in a way they are going through this together, but each would trade his own health if it would somehow help the other. They aren't giving up, either.

They don't know how.

"I'm sure if we both live through this it will be the biggest bond we've ever had," Shelton said. "We came into this life, we did what we wanted to do and yet we're both going out in a very drastic way. It ain't like we got shot or run over by a car, or he got speared by a hockey stick or I got blasted to the head. I hate that he's going through the same thing I'm going through.

"If we're both going down, I guess we go down, but it isn't what I'm looking for or I want. I've made my peace with myself and God and put my life in His hands."

Though they often talk or text, it's very unlikely Shelton and Pembroke will be able to see each other again. In a way, they don't need to.

"There are thousands of people who would have traded for a year of our lives," Pembroke said. "We've been able to do exactly what we wanted, but the bottom line is everybody has to go. Neither he nor I would trade our lives, and there isn't anything anybody can say that's going to make a difference.

"We knew we were going to die when we all got here so you can't be mad. The reason people die angry is for all the stuff they didn't do when they could have. We don't have that affliction. It was a hell of a ride."

Anything they ever needed to say has already been conveyed with a nod or a shrug, though they wouldn't mind tipping their hats to each other one last time.