For seven and one-half years, my dad was a surveyor for the United States Geological Survey. If you have driven on Route 95 anywhere in the East, or on the New York Thruway, or Route 80 through Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, you drove on roads he helped lay out.
And, for seven of those years, he traveled with my Mom and myself, and then, we added my younger brother. Just before I was born, my dad, traveling alone, spent 6 months in Wilkes-Barre, moving out each day to determine where interstate roads would meander through the mountains and valleys of our area.
From 1947 through 1954, moving together as a family, we lived in 24 towns and cities in 11 states. We lived in rental homes and apartments from Moncks Corner, South Carolina, to Willow Grove, Pennsylvania; and in between in Indiana, New York, Florida, Ohio, and five other states.
In Dyersburg, Tennessee, we survived one of the worst series of tornados on one day in U.S. history. Towards the end of the seven years, I was temporarily thought to have contracted polio and spent two weeks in a Boston hospital until they figured out it was just a dislocated hip (which any five-year old could have created by jumping off a low stone wall).
Small kids only knew what they were used to in those days, especially those with no access to the new medium of television. My brother, Gary and I were with our parents. I know we were happy. Moving was our life.
So many places in such a short time, and some with dramatic memories even for a child. But one place stands out for a few reasons.
Bath, New York, is 103 miles southeast of Buffalo. For five months, an eternity in our wandering, we lived in a house with a back lawn sweeping down to a lake. That fall, I was entering first grade. And my father made a decision which gave me both a story and a lesson which I have relied upon until today, 66 years later.
Bath was a town of 11,000 in the 1950’s; today it is about 12,000. But in 1953, Bath was moving into the modern age by opening a brand-new school in the center of town. When my dad enrolled me during an August visit to the school district’s administration office, he was informed that he had a choice of two schools: the sparkling new one, or the one room schoolhouse much closer to our home. I never asked my Dad why he chose the one room schoolhouse for me. Maybe it was because of the closeness to home; or maybe it was the adventure of it. Motivation aside, it was the best choice he could have made.
The one room schoolhouse was just that - a one-story building holding what today would be a very small classroom. When I started in September, there were 13 students in eight grades, and one teacher. I only spent seven weeks in that school but remember it better today than the many months and years I spent in other schools later.
The first impression was excitement, way beyond the normal excitement of a kid going to first grade. Why? Because, in the summer, the few older kids (6th, 7th and 8th grade students) under the leadership of the teacher, had built a life-size teepee in front of the school. And, on my first day, I was informed that, someday, I would be doing that, too because it was an annual event. Teepee up in August, taken down in June, and up again the next August. Not understanding fully that I would be long gone from Bath those five years later, I couldn’t wait to be a big kid who could build a teepee.
I also learned a life-long lesson, maybe the most important one I ever learned in elementary school, high school, and as a college undergraduate and graduate student. At the end of one school day, my dad walked into the schoolhouse. It was the only time in all my school years when he met directly with one of my teachers.
My teacher had asked my dad to come in to discuss one concern she had. A week before, all 13 of us went out to the lawn in front of the schoolhouse and were assigned the task of drawing anything. This six-year old had no artistic skill but, using a variety of crayons, I drew the country lane that went straight up the hill and then to the right (I remember it was most definitely to the right).
I sat with my dad while the teacher explained that the drawing contained a basic problem – the road crested and I had drawn it as if it continued into a sharp right turn. “Mr. Taylor, that road goes to the left up there. Take your son up there. He should always see where the road goes and not guess at it.”
My dad took me up the road that day and I could see for myself that it turned left. This is the lesson I learned from that teacher in Bath, New York: go see where the road goes; there is nothing like actual experience. My dad took her words seriously that day, and so did I. And I have tried to pass on to my children what may seem to many like a simple message: opinions without facts are pretty much useless. Go up the road beyond what you can easily see. It may surprise you; it will surely enlighten you.
I never did get to build that teepee. I also learned many years later that the schoolhouse was used just until the end of that year, so I would have been disappointed in any event, had I not moved on to Massachusetts, and then to Pennsylvania. But those seven weeks, and that crayon drawing of a simple road, have affected my life for the better and always bring a smile to my face. Which they are doing right now.
A SHOUT OUT TO GERALD STERN
Jogging along the narrow shoulder of a country road, I spot a forlorn heap of bristly ghost fur, lying distressingly still, eyes closed above its Cyrano nose, spindly front legs twitching like twigs in the wind.
A lukewarm Samaritan, I do not genuflect; in fact, I swerve to avoid the body, but I vow to return with purpose. And I do come back in my rust-bucket of a car, but with dread, along with a cardboard box and a flathead coal shovel, hoping to find nothing. But the opossum is just where I left him, motionless at the side of the road, forsaken and anonymous. Forcing myself to proceed, lamenting that I could be at home taking a warm, soothing shower, I slide the shovel with sacred precision under the opossum’s soft belly and, inch by inch, delicately pry it free of the packed gravel. Braced for the horror of spilled entrails and mashed limbs, I see only intact, undisturbed opossum anatomy. Suddenly animated, head now flopping and swiveling, my dumbstruck acquaintance looks like any good drunk who has tumbled from a barstool.
Back home, my fiancé, Lauren, a savant in the esoteric art of wildlife resurrection, divines that my opossum-in-a-box has been cold-cocked by a car and qualifies for concussion protocol, which consists of alone time in a spacious dog crate furnished with water, a dish of Kit ‘n Kaboodle, and an old throw rug on which to rest his rattled noggin, dream some opossum dreams and regain his equilibrium in a quiet, dark room. While our patient recovers his senses in a spare bedroom under Lauren’s watchful eye, our dogs snuffle at the door and the cats cast quizzical looks, as they so often do.
In less than 48 hours — needle teeth bared, hanging bat-like from the crate top — our guest requests a check-out time. Happy to oblige, we transfer the operation outside, raise the gate and watch him waddle toward the woods, all business, unencumbered by gratitude, off to do whatever opossums do when not being knocked unconscious.
FREE RANGE PARENTING-BIKE CRASH
One afternoon, my middle kid burst into the house.
“MOM! Mom mom mom … “
“I’m right here.”
“MOM! Cam wrecked his bike real bad, he’s hurt!”
In itself this did not frighten me. With 3 active boys, crashes are the rule rather than the exception. But he turned and ran out again without looking to see if I followed.
We raced out the door, down the hill, and along the gravel road at top speed.
About a quarter of a mile away stood my youngest, waving and pointing into the tangle of rocks and bushes that edges the road.
Now fear sparked in my chest. The rocks are huge and unforgiving, and I couldn’t see the bike or the oldest boy. Adrenaline surged, and the lifeguard’s first aid I’d learned long ago abruptly shoved every other thought out of my head.
I vaulted over the berm and stuck the landing, next to a ruined bicycle and my oldest, who was propped against a boulder covered in dust and blood.
"Mom, I’m sorry … my bike …"
His breathing was steady, his pupils were even and reactive, his speech was not slurred.
“I think I’m bleeding …"
His skin was warm and dry, his pulse was rapid but steady.
“We were just …"
His shirt was torn, tracked with blood from one wounded shoulder. Both knees and elbows were scraped and bleeding too. His limbs were straight, though, all his joints aligned.
“I had my helmet …"
His helmet, thank god, thank all that is good and holy, his helmet lay broken beside him. His skull was intact.
We helped him up, dragged the bicycle back to the road, and made our slow way home. After a long hot shower, we bandaged Cam’s injuries as bruises began to bloom beneath his skin.
Over lemonade I complimented all three of them.
“You guys handled that situation exactly right. Jeremy stayed with Cam while Bryce went to get help. That was very brave, I’m proud of you.”
“Well, yeah,” answered Jeremy, always honest, always blunt. “Somebody had to take apart that jump ramp and hide it before you got there.”
His brothers cringed, but I just laughed and laughed. What else could I do? Besides, I’d survived my own adventurous childhood. Maybe someday I’ll tell them the stories.
Analomink Lake, Stroud Twp, PA March 2020
Christmas was very special in my home, especially to me.
Mom and Daddy went all out and we always had to have the biggest tree that touched the ceiling which stood on a magical train platform.
Everything was set up in the living room which was off limits to us kids until Christmas day.
Santa' s helpers had one week to get everything ready. The platform had to be set up, all the little people, street lights, shops, ice skaters, snowmen and of course the trains. The tree was decorated with all our old treasured ornaments and of course the sparkly tinsel. Yes, it was truly magical.
I still believed in Santa that fateful year, but someone, who I won't say, told me that my Mom and Dad were the one's that did all the work and that there was no Santa! That news took away the magic and broke my heart.
So that year on Christmas Eve I decided to check for myself. I went downstairs and opened the door to the living room and I my heart sank, I saw Mom, Daddy and my brother bustling around in the forbidden room.
There is no Santa" I shouted!
Then just then as I turned around in a huff to leave I came face to face with Santa Clause! He told me to go to bed because he had work to do and little girls weren’t allowed to watch!
A couple years later someone told me that Santa that Christmas was really Mr. Finnegan, the local funeral director.
But it doesn’t matter what they say, I learned my lesson, I BELIEVE............
Mary Johnson Stroudsburg PA March 2020
A DAY AT THE AMUSEMENT PARK
Veronica Hanna was an unsung hero. Just 11 days after giving birth to her first son, she received a telegram informing her that her husband had bravely given his life for our country. I can’t begin to imagine the bravery that it must have taken to get through such a sorrowful period in her life. The year was 1944 and in a little more than a year World War II would come to an end. In time, she would re-marry and have two more children, five grandchildren and four great grandchildren. This is a story about an unsung hero and her oldest grandson.
From the time he was a small child, her grandson would wait impatiently in the second floor window watching for his Grandmom’s car to pull up. She would sometimes take him to church, out to eat, and often for sleep-overs at her house. The most memorable days, though, were when she would take him to Lakeview Amusement Park in Royersford Pennsylvania. It was an old rustic place, in operation since 1900; remnants of a time long past complete with a rickety Ferris wheel, bumper cars, kiddie rides and of course, a beautiful lake. Among all the wonderful memories of this place, there’s one that particularly stands out: One Sunday as they were walking by a kiddie boat ride, they saw that a little girl had fallen out of a boat and into the murky water. To the boy’s amazement, his Grandmom jumped right into the dirty water and plucked that little girl right out! Holy Cow! Many years later he would remember thinking, “Wow, my Grandmom saved that little girl’s life!” What’s more, is that to her it came as a matter of instinct, without any thought or expectation of thanks. That’s just what humble heroes do.
And so it went, as the boy became a man, his Grandmom was always an example to him. She was kind to animals, loved gardening and especially loved her family. She was very fond of music and, in fact, was one of the reasons that he became a musician. She had a genuine, loving quality about her that was undeniable yet understated. The most humble person you’d ever want to meet, she sacrificed much in her life so that others could be happy. It would be many years later that he realized just how much she had influenced his life. As she grew older, Veronica grew very strong in her faith. Every so often she would place a little prayer in her grandson’s pocket; often just a clipping from a newspaper or magazine, sometimes with a personal note written on the back. Many times these would turn up days later in the laundry providing constant reminders of her!
Lakeview Amusement Park is now long gone. Where there once were trees and a beautiful lake are now outlet stores and parking lots. Only fond memories of the old place remain these days. As it happens as one grows old, memories like these tend to fade like yellowed pages in an old book.
One day, many years after she had passed, one of those long lost clippings turned up in the man’s jewelry box. On one side was a simple four-line prayer and, to his surprise, on the other side, a hand written note that he had long ago forgotten about.
“Dear Tommy - I’ll always love you. Please say this prayer and God will always be with you and protect you, because he loves you. Love, Grandmom.”
This story is so dear to my heart because Veronica Hanna was my Grandmom, and I was the little boy at the amusement park so many years ago. I know that I am blessed to have found her hand-written note, always reminding me how much she loves me. Although I never got to tell her in this life, I’m writing this now to say…Thank you, Grandmom, for all those trips to the amusement park. You will always be my hero.
Thomas Kopystecki, Jr. - Bushkill, PA April 2020
ARE YOU HERE?
Feeling quite blue on Sunday morning, I put on my Sunday clothes and headed for church. I was really missing my father who had passed away five years ago. Dad was my best friend. He knew all my secrets, always had an answer to my problems. I always wished there was a phone line to Heaven. Does he watch over me? Does he feel my sadness, my happiness? Is he happy?
I sat down in the pew and listened to the prelude. It was Music Sunday. As the notes left the organ “Wind Beneath My Wings” filled the air bringing me to tears because I had sung this to my father for many years. It was our song. The last time I sang is was at his memorial service.
The next two songs “Amazing Grace” and “Bridge Over Troubled Water”, moved me in unexpected ways – It was just too much of a coincidence. I began to sob uncontrollably. I quickly exited the sanctuary, and collapsed to my knees in the narthex. A fellow congregation member followed me and wrapped her arms around me reminding me I am not alone.
I realized at that moment that Dad was here with me and that I am never alone. God’s grace allowed him to come to me and give me strength. I was at peace and realized once again that through God, all things are possible.
Jody Seiler Northampton, PA April 2020
BECOME THAT SOMEONE
According to Webster/Merriam (everyone always forgets Merriam for some reason), HOPE is to cherish or desire with anticipation. To want something to happen or be true. But my favorite part of their definition is a word that stands alone; TRUST. This is a story of hope and trust, at a time when we are surrounded by both. First, some background.
If you have ever been to Loretto, PA, you know there is not much in Loretto, PA. It is the home of a university named after St. Francis, and during the school year, the student population (2,100) nearly doubles that of the town itself (1,391). It is a small, out-of-the-way place. The athletic teams at SFU are called the Red Flash, and I spent parts of three summers as a goalkeeper instructor at the Red Flash Soccer Camps, as my good friend was the Head Coach/Asst AD at the time. It was during my first visit that I learned of the most famous Red Flash of all, Maurice Stokes.
Maurice “Mo” Stokes was from nearby Pittsburgh, PA, and was an outstanding college basketball player who was the 2nd pick overall in the 1955 NBA draft. He also is the only player ever to be named as the MVP of the then, very prestigious NIT tournament, as a member of the losing team. In his senior season, Mo averaged 27 points and 26 rebounds per game. He also played 3 seasons in the NBA, chosen as Rookie of the Year in his first year and an NBA All-Star in all 3 seasons. His career with the Cincinnati Royals (now Sacramento Kings), was cut short when he suffered a head injury in the final regular season game of 1958. Three days later, he became ill, suffered from seizures, and became permanently paralyzed by a brain injury known as post-traumatic encephalopathy. This is where the story of hope and trust begins.
Jack Twyman was a Royals teammate of Stokes. Later, Jack would admit they were not great friends prior to Mo’s injury. However, Twyman, who was a Cincinnati native, stepped up when Maurice needed a friend most and the two men are now forever linked in NBA history by the Twyman-Stokes award given each year for the league’s best teammate. Twyman became Stokes’ legal guardian and spent countless hours by his side through the painstaking rehab process. When asked why he decided to make such a remarkable commitment, Twyman said; “Maurice needed someone. I became that someone”.
For well over a decade, Twyman remained that “someone”. A friendship was formed like no other. Stokes entrusted Twyman with his life and Mo never gave up hope, thanks largely, to the support shown by his friend.
One moment in their time together is most poignant, especially in these times. Maurice, just months before his death at age 37, had a small victory after the hours of grueling therapy. He was able to regain a small degree of flexibility in his fingers. Although it took him a few hours, he completed a sentence on a typewriter. Twyman was there to read his friend’s simple question:
“Dear Jack, how can I ever thank you?”
Jack’s reply is a lesson for us all, this day, and for all the days to come:
“You may think I come here to cheer you up. But, really, it’s the other way around.”
Maurice Stokes is buried on the campus of St Francis University, in a Franciscan friar cemetery, not far from the location of the old gym where he rose to fame. 50 years after his death, his basketball skills are fondly remembered, but it is the relationship he formed with a teammate, in his darkest hours, that resonates so loudly, especially now, when the opportunity for hope-filled acts abound. (In my research for this story, upon my first visit to the SFU school website, a banner popped up; “Sewing Hope”. I clicked on it to see the Theatre Arts program is making masks from old costumes to donate to those in need). Sewing hope indeed.
St Francis University was founded in 1847 and is one of the oldest Catholic schools in the country. However, their motto is not an ancient Latin phrase or a classic line of teaching from the Franciscan order that helped form their traditional values, it is simply this: “Become that Someone”. A variation on a response given over 50 years ago by a friend helping a friend.
We all now have that opportunity to become that someone.
The story of Maurice Stokes and Jack Twyman reminds me of the power of hope and trust, and in giving, we shall receive.
Kevin Vrabel April 2020
Dad worked a lot; I mean a whole lot. Being an US Air Force Sergeant, and Medic, he was on call quite often. Dad was usually home on Sundays, but Saturdays were not guaranteed, nor expected. However, I remember the time when we were living in Albany Georgia, dad was stationed at Turner AFB. The home we rented was in an area carved out of Mr. Costen's farm, maybe 20 ranch houses in all. These homes had pecan trees in the yards; tomato, corn, peanut and watermelon fields surrounded us with just a dusty dirt road that led to the highway about a half mile away. It was Saturday morning and dad woke me up early asking if I wanted to go fishing. I excitedly got dressed, grabbed my gear and was anxious to go. Being a second grader, 6 or 7 years old, I asked if I could bring my best friend and neighbour. Dad said yes, but as I look back as a father, he was probably disappointed as he may have been expecting a father-son outing. I came to this realization 35 years later having arrived at a similar occasion. It's not a bad memory, but one that I’ve visited too often wishing it had been different. Fishing was fun, we used corn kernels as bait and caught several catfish which we threw back. Being from Philadelphia, us Northerners didn't eat catfish, but when those Georgia Southerners heard this, they viewed us with suspicion.
I suppose fishing was a way dad, Kevin, my younger brother and I could get away without the burden of little sisters tagging along. A year later, we were stationed at Harmon AFB in Newfoundland 1961 to '64; fishing is the best on this island. Dad would take us to Felix Cove where we would scramble down a path and out onto huge rocks and boulders that had fallen into the sound long ago. Just past the Cove is the Gulf of St Lawrence, the wind would get squeezed between the island and Labrador. This wind would push mighty waves against the rock around us, but we found a protected area. If things were too rough, dad would take us to the piers not far from the air base where you could drive your red and white Chevy station wagon up to waters' edge.
One day, it was a day too rough for Felix Cove, so we opted for the area by the piers, great flounder fishing here. Dad decided we would fish from the shoreline, so with the car 20 feet from the water, we parked and gathered our fishing equipment. Dad was going to give a good cast to get the bait out to deeper water, show us how it was done. Dad's hand was in a cast, he had done battle on the softball field weeks earlier. Note, use the hand with the glove to catch a line drive. Having baited the hook, attached the proper weights and found the perfect spot to cast the line, dad drew back his arm and with all the power he could deliver, he threw the rod, reel, bait, the whole shebang into the bay. Without hesitation, he turns to me and says Johnny, go in there and get that rod.
We never went swimming in Newfoundland, the water is always cold. No one swims on purpose in Newfoundland. If you're in the water, it's because you fell out of a boat. An island in the north Atlantic is the Polar opposite of an island off the coast of Georgia. I took my shoes off and ran into the water, reached around on the graveled bottom and came up without the rod. A little to your right says Dad and, like a Golden Retriever, I plunge again while being on the lookout for icebergs. I emerge victorious with rod in hand, teeth shattering but still a hero. Dad gets me to the car, has me take off my wet clothes and I wrap myself into a military issue, thick blue, itchy wool blanket that I'm sure was meant for horses, mean spirited horses. Dad started the car, put the heat on and then fished with Kevin for a while. I think he wanted my skin colour to return to something that resembled human before bringing me home to mom.
Pocono Lake, PA April 2020