Sunday, June 19, 2016

Dad's decision

A member of my extended family recently asked, via Facebook, if anyone in the Wehrle clan could explain why my father, Charles, gave up a career as a secondary education English teacher to enter the ministry, eventually to become a Moravian minister.

Good question.

I'll try my best to answer it. All I can do is replay snippets of conversations that I heard, or remembered from more than 50 years ago, as I spin this tale. I invite my brothers to join in and add anything further that they might know.

By the late 1950s, Dad had already shown a predilection for professional antsyness. He'd resigned his position as a teacher at Fountain High High School (near Bethlehem, PA) to join the American Red Cross.

Dad in his church office, probably working on a sermon...
 He'd been a teacher for nearly 10 years, so I can't really explain why he chose to go in such a different direction. A clue might be that his mother, Charlotte, served as a volunteer in the American Red Cross' Gray Lady Service in a local hospital in Allentown, PA, so maybe that was a factor.

That was an exciting time for me. It meant a weekend visit to Washington, DC, as Dad took care of some clerical business while at the same time giving me a real dose of American history. I was about 8 or 9 years old and saw all the sights — the White House, the Capitol, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial. It was great stuff.

Dad shortly thereafter got stationed to Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, NH. More history. John Paul Jones lived in that town for a while. New England foliage. The ocean. B-52s and F-100s. Woo hoo.

But all that lasted less than a year. Dad was afraid he'd eventually end up being stationed in some remote outpost, like Guam, where he wouldn't be able to bring his family (as the story goes). So he quit and went back to teaching high school — this time, in East Hartford, CT.

We stayed two years. Somewhere in this span, Dad was wrestling with another decision he was about to make — whether or not to enter the ministry.

I have it in the back of my mind somewhere that Dad had often considered the ministry during his life up to this point. Plus, I think Charlotte might have been a factor in that, too. Dad was her only child, and the ministry would be so ... so ... well, so virtuous (as if teaching was not).

I do remember him telling me that he "heard a calling" to become a minister, which made me wonder if he actually heard voices. I never investigated that with him and I'm really not sure he actually heard anything. But I think it's more likely that he felt something.

I don't know if there was anything that pushed him into his ultimate decision — I wasn't privy to his conversations with Charlotte, or with Mom, or with God, that might have led to his decision (Kim remembers hearing from somewhere that Nana actually wanted him to be a doctor) — but it was back to Bethlehem for three years of seminary at Moravian College.

After receiving his Divinity degree  — he loved to impress us with his limited knowledge of Hebrew — he was assigned his first church. This one was in Coopersburg, PA, just south of Allentown. It was a neat little church whose congregation was sharply divided about the direction the church should take.

Ah, yes. Church politics. I'm not sure that was a course offered in seminary, but I think the experience had Dad thoroughly disillusioned. So after a year or so, it was back to teaching high school English at Palisades in Bucks County, PA.

So we moved again, this time to a place called Perkasie, about an hour out of Philadelphia. That is, until Dad heard the calling yet again. I wasn't kidding about his professional antsyness.

By this time, I'm in college and not at home very much. I remember moving yet again, this time to Center Valley, PA, although I don't know why. It was the last time I lived with my folks before I moved to North Carolina. That was 40 years ago.

In the meantime, Dad reentered the ministry (hotly pursued by his church demons, I guess), first taking a Moravian church in Dover, OH, for several years, and then following that with a church in Sister Bay, WI, not far from Green Bay. This somewhat explains why I am a closet Packers fan.

Dad seemed happiest in Wisconsin. As far as I know, he loved his church, he loved his congregation, and he loved his location. He played golf whenever seasonal, and then used snow skis to get from here to there in the heavy winters.

I'd love to say that Dad could have lived out his life in Wisconsin, but not the way I had in mind. One day he called us to say he had prostate cancer that somehow got into his bones. It was lethal. He died when he was only 58 years old. He is buried in the church cemetery there.

So the rest of MY life with him is through memories. Based on what I knew of him, he was a great teacher, full of life and personality. He was a great counselor through his work with the Red Cross, dealing with military personnel incarcerated in the Portsmouth Naval Prison or perhaps struggling with PTSD. He was a great pastor, not just delivering meaningful sermons, but dropping everything to visit someone in need of his services.

He was a pretty good friend, too, still offering guidance and counseling to his three sons, of whom he was quite proud. He told me that one time.

And so, today, I simply say thanks, Dad. Thanks for the life you lived.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Blowing Rock rocks

We were off to see the Wizard, but I ended up buying underwear instead.

OK, I see that I've gotten your attention.

Here was the plan:

A few weeks ago, Kim heard about an event at Beech Mountain's The Land of Oz, a popular amusement park where she had once visited as a young girl before it closed for good in 1980 after just 10 years. Each Friday this June, the park — still in need of serious renovation but now serving as something of a Nostalgia Land for generations of Ozzies — is going to open for its "Journey with Dorothy" program, where you get a one-hour guided tour through the surviving park, on the Yellow Brick Road, by Dorothy her own self. (see here).

Hmmm. Kim and I had gone several years ago in October when the park opened for one weekend in the fall in something of a mass free for all (it wasn't free — there was an admission) that was still kind of cool. So we thought we'd go to the Journey event. All we had to do was reserve our tickets online on the Monday before the Friday we were planning to attend.


At 9 a.m. sharp, when tickets went on sale, I jumped on my laptop, typed in the URL, and got ... a 404 server file message. That usually means the server is down, or busy, or something. Kim also tried it at work, and got nowhere as well.

Here is the new location for Art in the Park. Kim and I go early...
 After two hours of trying, we finally got to the page we wanted — only to find that tickets were already sold out.


We found out a day later, through some news story, that apparently 200,000 people tried to get their share of the 360 tickets that were available.

Good grief.

The good news was that we had reserved a motel room in nearby Blowing Rock for that weekend, because Art in the Park was also going on. We like Art in the Park. We've gone for one weekend there every year for probably 20 years or more. The town is quaint, the food is good, and in summer the temperatures are usually 10 degrees cooler there than in Lexington.

The line for ice cream was lengthy...
 Like this past weekend.

As we arrived in Blowing Rock on Friday, we stopped at the Shops on the Parkway, a usual detour for us.

That's where I upgraded my personal undergarment wardrobe. Not quite Oz, but still purposeful. And on sale.

Saturday's Art in the Park moved its location this year. In the past, it was actually behind the park, on the top floor of a parking deck. This year, the vendors were located on both sides of the road leading to the parking deck, which makes sense. Cars can actually park on the deck now, freeing up parking space on what's usually a very congested Main Street.

The low-humidity weather was spectacular — so spectacular, in fact, that we forgot about Oz — and consequently Blowing Rock was slammed by day trippers (well, there was also a horse show going on nearby). A good indicator of weekend attendance is Kilwin's, an ice cream and chocolate shop that becomes the town's focal point. A line of ice cream enthusiasts stretched out the door and down the sidewalk. Business was good. Most take their cones and cups to the park across the street, sit on the benches under the shade trees, and watch people try to parallel park their cars on Main Street. Some drivers, it turns out, are better than others.

It was one of our better weekends on the mountain — even without Dorothy.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Muhammad Ali

The best sparring I ever saw from Muhammad Ali came during his televised (staged?) bouts with legendary announcer Howard Cosell.

Or so it seemed.

Bear with me now. I'm hearkening back to the increasingly turbulent mid-1960s. I'm still a teenager, and Ali — who had just changed his name from Cassius Clay —was becoming something none of us had ever seen before. Especially in boxing.

I was never a fan of boxing. Watching two men pummel each other is not my idea of fun. The Sweet Science? Really? Boxing is not something I wanted to do in my free time after school, like play stickball or toss a football around. I wasn't into throwing right hooks at the heads of my friends.

And yet, when ABC's The Wide World of Sports aired a boxing match with Ali, I didn't want to miss it.

Part of that was because of the relationship between Ali and Cosell, which at first glance almost always appeared confrontational. I'm not so sure it wasn't intentional, and well thought out — if not actually choreographed — in advance.

Doesn't matter.

What really caught my attention came in 1967. I was 16 years old and the war in Vietnam was getting closer and closer to my doorstep. It seemed like a war that would never go away, and I was getting old enough to fight in it.

Then Ali, at the height of his prowess as an undefeated heavyweight champion, refused induction after being drafted into the U.S. Army, citing conscientious objector status based on the foundation of his Muslim beliefs.

This was different. An athlete making a stand. A serious stand. He was convicted of draft evasion, and while he never served jail time as his conviction was being appealed, he was stripped of his title and had his boxing license revoked.

We'll show him. How dare he.

Only he showed us. I kind of admired his stance, wondering what I was going to do if I was ever drafted. These days, I wonder if Ali didn't actually give impetus to the antiwar movement that was rising in the country. Civil rights legislation had just been passed. Kent State was still three years away. Crazy times, and Ali was the lightning rod in the thick of it.

Five years later, his conviction was reversed by unanimous Supreme Court decision (is that even possible now?) and Ali's social currency seemed to increase in value. He returned to boxing and gave us the Rumble in the Jungle and the Thrilla in Manilla.

Then came retirement. Then came Parkinson's. Then came inconic status.

He was many things to many people, mostly as an inspiration, but also as a focal point. I had other sports heroes: Mickey Mantle, Joe Namath and Bart Starr come to mind. But Ali was different, and somehow deeper.

And I think we're all the better for who he was and the times in which he lived.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

Uncle Eugene

I knew my uncle Eugene Kessler mostly as a distant memory. He was one of my Mom's two older brothers (Donald was the oldest in a brood of five brothers and sisters), and what I remember most about Eugene almost 60 years later was that he was a kind, soft-spoken man, married to a kind, soft-spoken woman, Adelaide. They had two young daughters, Charmayne and Deb, who always made me nervous because girls were a totally different species to me at that age.

It seemed we only got together for holidays or family outings, which was not often. I do have memories of all my aunts and uncles, and their families, trying to cram into Nana and Grandpa Kessler's impossibly undersized home for those rare get-togethers.

Uncle Eugene
As I got older ("older" being a relative term here. I'm talking elementary school age) and developed an interest in history, Mom would tell us the story of Eugene's service in World War II.

It was a "wow" story, the kind if you tell it often enough it turns into family lore. As Mom told it, Eugene enlisted in the Army, despite the fact that he was deaf in one (left?) ear, and that he faked his way through the physical to get in. (Faked? Well, maybe. This is 1944 and frontline manpower is at a premium after three years of horrendous world war. Military doctors might look the other way when an enlistee walks through the door. Deaf in one ear? Never mind. As long as you've got a trigger finger, soldier, step over here.)

As the story goes, Eugene (who ended up in Company C of the 377th regiment of the 95th "Victory" Division in Gen. George Patton's famed Third Army), became either a platoon or company runner, relaying messages between units when radio signals otherwise might be compromised.

 Mom said there was one time when Eugene was running a message between units and he felt a tug on his left pant leg, but thought nothing of it — until he reached into his pocket for his cigarette lighter. Apparently, the pocket had been shot away by a sniper and the lighter, a gift from Adelaide, was gone.

Eugene never heard the shot because it came from his left side.


And for years, that was basically the only thing I knew about Eugene's war service. It seemed like it was enough. I mean, geez, I had an uncle who served in World War II. Wow.

But recently, thanks to Facebook, there's been something of a family renaissance. My youngest brother, Scott, has more or less become the family genealogist and his research about our uncle has been remarkable. Add to that the memories of Eugene's daughters and families, and a new picture comes into focus.

Like the battle for Metz. This was a brutal little slog that not many people know about. D-Day and Omaha Beach, or perhaps the Battle of the Bulge, draw tons of attention. But Metz, located in northeastern France near the frontier with the German border, was a nasty set-piece struggle of house-to-house fighting. It was a style of combat in which the desperate Germans had become deadly proficient, and which the U.S. Army had to learn on the fly.

The newly arrived 95th, in fact, would become known as "The Iron Men Of Metz," so named by the Germans who opposed them.

One day, Company C was in the process of taking Fort Bellecroix, one of the ancient outlying fortifications surrounding Metz, when suddenly, two huge explosions rocked the area. Apparently, the Germans had wired the place for destruction. Casualties were enormous as the company lost 17 men, with 59 wounded.

Eugene somehow survived the blast. His granddaughter, Brandy, wrote on Facebook that she understood that he took cover from the falling rocks and masonry under a vehicle. But he might also have paid a price. Brandy suggests that her grandfather may have suffered from a form of survivor's guilt, since many of his buddies were probably lost or injured in the blasts, and yet he lived. Scott, a nurse by profession, surmises that Eugene may have come home from the war with post traumatic stress disorder, which explains to me why I knew my uncle as a "kind, soft-spoken" man. My God, the horrors he must have seen — and kept to himself.

Until a month ago, I never heard this story before. It's more than family lore now.

It's heroic.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Tyro's Corporal Parnell

Doug Parnell saw things that no farm boy from Tyro should ever expect to see.

He saw villages and towns laid waste. He saw friends die. He saw the unspeakable horror of a Nazi concentration camp. He saw war.

A few days ago, Parnell, at a remarkably spry 94 years old, told an audience of about 50 mesmerized listeners crammed into the West Davidson Public Library of his experience in World War II.

Parnell was a corporal in the 36th Armored Infantry Regiment, which was a unit in the famed 3rd Armored "Spearhead" Division.

Drafted late in 1943 — his two older brothers were already serving in the Pacific theater — Parnell finished his basic training and then embarked for Europe on Christmas Eve in 1944. He was deployed two weeks later with the 36th in early January of 1945, just in time for the final stages of the Battle of the Bulge — to this day the largest battle ever fought by the U.S. Army.

Doug Parnell points out where his unit served during World War II.*
Although the war was winding down, there were still battles to be fought against a dangerous, fanatical and tenacious enemy.

As a corporal, Parnell was essentially a squad leader and spent much of his duty on night patrols.

"I guess I was tenderhearted," said Parnell. "Instead of sending these young kids out, I took it on myself when on patrol to go myself as much as I could.

"I knew they were kids and knew more about it than they did," said Parnell. "I knew I'd taken my chances getting myself killed. I was 22 years old and they were calling me "Dad."

He came close to death a few times.

Parnell relates one story when he came under fire, perhaps from a sniper, while climbing an embankment. He hit the dirt, as trained, and lay there. For three-and-a-half hours. Without moving.

"One of the hardest things to do is to lay still for hours and hours," said Parnell. "It finally got dark and I was able to crawl out of there and get back to my outfit."

He also recalls coming under artillery fire and finding relative safety in a foxhole. When the barrage stopped, he found his uniform was bloodstained with body parts. It wasn't his blood. Another soldier beside him had perished as they ran for cover.

One day, while on patrol, Parnell and his squad came across the edge of a town that had been bombed a couple days previously.

"We came up to an electrified fence," said Parnell. There were six or seven people, almost naked, standing behind the fence. I opened the gate, went in and checked for Germans. I went in and jumped over dead bodies. Some (living) people were laying in the mud, begging me to help them, but I couldn't. I didn't know if they were Jews, or Germans, or just prisoners, or what.

"Later, MPs came up and they were able to help them," said Parnell. "But I don't know whatever happened to those people. We were never schooled what to do with them, so I just turned them out until the MPs came up."

What Parnell and his squad came upon was likely a subcamp of the Dora-Mittlebau concentration complex (a part of Buchenwald) outside of Nordhausen. The camp housed slave labor that was forced primarily to work on the Nazis' V-1 and V-2 rocket programs. The 3rd Armored Division liberated the camp on April 11, 1945, a full month before Germany ultimately surrendered.

Parnell, who now stays busy caning chairs with an artful eye in his garage, said the war changed him. How could it not? Death was everywhere.

"I'll tell you how shocking it was," said Parnell. "The first week after I was home, my daddy died. And it didn't mean any more to me than if a dog was laying there because I'd seen so much killing, so many dead people.

"Me and my daddy was as good of friends as a man and son could be," said Parnell. "He was such a good father.

"(After the war) It took a long time for me to get the feeling that I could help somebody," said Parnell, who "confiscated" a tattered Nazi window banner as a war souvenir. "You felt shy to everybody because you couldn't trust them. You couldn't trust the Germans and you sort of got stuck on it.

"But it finally wore off and I feel like I'm the same old man I used to be. Thank the Lord."


And thank you, Doug Parnell, for your service. Thank you for being there, to see things no man should see.

* Dispatch photo by Donnie Roberts

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Living quarters

It's hard for us to believe, but we've been living in our current house for 13 years.

Even our neighbors are surprised by this. You've been here how long?

It seems like it was just yesterday when we were transporting stuff from our house on the south end of town and hauling it to our present location. It's less than five miles between the two as the blue jay flies.

Maybe it's because we lived on Woodsway Drive for 21 years. It was home. We'd put a lot of work into it, did a lot of repairs and landscaping, and turned it into our own little piece of heaven.

Then, almost by accident and without actively searching for a new place to live, we found our current house. So we traded in a 40-year-old rancher for a nearly 100-year-old cottage.

For some mysterious reason that I can't quite explain, our cottage still feels kind of new to us. This, despite the fact, that we've put a lot of work into it, we've done a lot of repairs and landscaping, and have turned it into our own little piece of heaven.

The cottage does have its appealing quirks: We have an outbuilding, where we can store our lawn and garden things; we have a front-to-back driveway, the only house on the block that can connect the street we live on with the alley behind us; and we have a wonderful rose arbor.

Our roses add a nice welcoming touch to our house.
I'm not sure what kind of roses are blooming on the arbor. They're salmon in color and don't have much of a scent. but there are six or seven blooms on the vine and they're absolutely gorgeous. That's especially true when held in contrast with our Peace Yellow paint scheme.

We've been training this arbor for years, and sometimes it actually listens to us.

We trimmed it back last fall because it was getting a little unruly, but with the mild and moist spring, it's been on something of a growth spurt. The arbor climbs one pillar of our house and is reaching effortlessly toward the pillar on the other side of our front steps. It'll get there soon enough, I suspect.

We love watching the gold finches chow down.
 Kim will occasionally feed it rose food, whatever that is, but mostly I've been throwing banana peels at it. It seems that bananas might be a good source of potassium or whatever it is that roses like and it may be another reason why our arbor appears to be thriving.

We've also tried to turn our backyard into a bird sanctuary with a stand of feeders. I've always been a sucker for birdwatching — a trait inherited from my mom, I think — so one feeder attracts sparrows, hatches and thrashers while the other feeder, filled with thistle, beckons gold finches.

Kim also has a hummingbird feeder hanging from our kitchen window and it's great fun to see those little fellows flitting around. My cat and myself are greatly entertained by these guys.

The finches, I've found, can be very particular. If you let their feeder run out of food, they might disappear for weeks before they return.

Well, when you think about it, Kim and I go to different restaurants all the time.

To be truthful, the cottage actually felt like home the day we moved into it, even though there was a lingering veneer of newness to it all these years.

But it's also home, and home is where the heart is.

Saturday, May 7, 2016


I'm going to take a stab in the dark here and suggest that the above photo, snapped in July 1950, was never intended to be caught on the World Wide Web.

It's a picture of my parents, Charles and Carol, on their wedding day.

They'd just gotten married. Dad is wearing his ring.

They don't look old enough to get married, yet Mom had just turned 22 and Dad had just turned 21. I love this photo — I think they were in the back seat of their 1946 Plymouth — precisely because it's such an intimate moment. I guess it could have been posed, but they look pretty involved with this eyes-shut kiss. I kinda want to shuffle my feet, mumble "Whoa," and look away for a moment.

But I can't.

I am mesmerized. That picture is my future. It is also my past.

And it tells me that this young couple is about to create a family built on a promise of love. I like that. Sixty-five years later, it still gives me a feeling of contentment. And a model to follow in my own married life, even to this moment.

With Mother's Day upon us, this picture gives me pause to reflect. As the youngest of five children herself, Mom was already the recipient of some serious and time-tested child rearing. A legacy of Kessler family values were already instilled in her and were ready to be passed on.

I'm here to say that I think she did that admirably. I learned the difference between right and wrong (I've managed to stay out of jail to this point). I acquired a measure of patience (she served time, after all, as a minister's wife). She gave me a sense of humor that could, at times, be subtle (she did, after all, live with Dad). She loved to read. She loved her pets. She loved music and could sing with a beautifully harmonizing alto voice (I sing with a one-note scale, but I can listen to music with the best of them). She had a talent for painting pictures. She was a great cook. She enjoyed and appreciated her friends.

Interestingly enough, Dad, the minister, had written down something for his wife years ago. It was on one of the blank opening pages of a Ryrie Study Bible, which I assume was a gift to her. All he had written was "Proverbs, 31:10. I have. Thank you. Love, Charlie."

The passage was meant for his wife, about his wife. But the sentiment is also something a child might express for its mother.

And the passage?

"An excellent wife (woman), who can find? For her worth is far above jewels."

Thanks, Mom.