Returning back to Pennsylvania, and specifically to the Lehigh Valley, signaled a coming of age for me, although I could not know it at the time.
We returned to Bethlehem, Pa., (of which Fountain Hill was basically a bedroom community) so that dad could attend Moravian Theological Seminary in preparation for a career in the ministry. Basically, this move meant we had come back home. Back to grandparents. Back to living in rickety old row homes. Back to Pennsylvania Dutch accents.
I was in the seventh grade and approaching my teenage years in 1963. My attempts to keep Kid Heaven alive were interrupted by injections of real life.
We actually lived on the campus of Moravian College, in a row home on Otis Place, in the thick of all that academia that somehow failed to rub off on me. Instead, I sawed off broom handles and peeled off the fuzzy cover of old tennis balls to reveal the perfectly pink rubber innards and replenish our supply of stick ball equipment.
Skateboarding was all the rage and in its infancy then, so I sawed a 2 x 4 to size (apparently I was dangerous with a handsaw) and attached the wheels of my dime-store roller skates to it, and became Tony Hawk before there was a Tony Hawk. No helmets, no knee pads, no elbow pads — I was scabbed and scarred all over, but it didn't matter.
Then, one Friday afternoon in November, just before school was to let out, the P.A. system asked us to pray for the president, who'd been shot in Dallas. It was shocking news, even for a 12-year-old. By the time I ran home from the early dismissal, Walter Cronkite told me the president was dead.
I became a news junkie — and a television junkie — from that day forward. It was all so unbelievable, with the most incredible yet to come — Jack Ruby shooting presumed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald on live national TV.
Furthermore, the image of John-John saluting his dead father still haunts me. What the heck was happening?
There were no answers. There were the Beatles instead. Less than three months later, after amazing global hype, the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. Our family gathered around the black-and-white television set and snickered when the boys finally came on. Hair over their foreheads. Hair over their ears. Girls in the audience screaming breathlessly. We laughed. Clearly, this was a fad that wasn't going to last. What the heck was happening?
There was one more thing, and it had to manifest itself over the course of several decades to provide meaning.
But a year or so later, I met a high school student — he was five years older than me — who played American Legion baseball on the field across the street from us on the Moravian campus. His name was Jerry Zerfass. I was that pesky kid who hung around the field, picking up helmets and bats and doing other go-fer duties for the team until I got tired of it. But Jerry was nice to me and he quickly became my favorite player, and I rooted for him.
I knew him only for the summer. A few years later I remember asking somebody about him and was told he enlisted in the army and he thought Jerry was killed in Vietnam. I didn't give it much thought except to say "How sad" to myself. Over the years, his name even morphed to "Gary" in my mind.
But the other night I did this: I googled "Names on Vietnam Memorial" and got several alphabetical lists. I clicked on "Z" on one of them and searched for "Zerfass," not quite sure how to spell the name and not really expecting to find it.
But I did find it. And he was killed in Vietnam, on Jan. 16, 1967, one of the first of more than 58,000 deaths. It was no longer speculation (here). It was real. When I saw that, nearly 50 years later, I wept like a child.
I found another story (here) that gave details. He was shot in the chest by a sniper. When asked by another wounded friend if he was going to die, Jerry said, "Hell, no, I'm not going to die." And those were his last words. He was 20.
What the heck was happening?