Every Breath a Gift: a Memoir – Death & New Life

Larry Pearce

View of typical winter scene from Forwardstown front window

Chapter 3D, Section iii – Death & New Life (1992-2002)

In this section, I will report on not only several deaths of kin from the last generation but also career and family changes in our home, which at the time, seemed like saying goodbye to what’s familiar, not unlike death. As the winter scene above soon changed to spring and new life, from such cold negatives can come the warm positives, most often when we prevail and have faith. If the early 1980s brought great advances in the physical residence of our home in Forwardstown, a new barn, back porch, and pool as reported in the last installment, the early 90s brought meaningful progress to the fiscal residents of our home. I dropped my insurance sales certification and moved my Securities and Exchange Commission license (SEC) from the New York Life Insurance Company to a smaller, local broker in the sales and service of mutual funds. But more gratifying was the acceptance of teaching positions at two area institutions: one of our state’s first area community colleges, Penn Highlands Community College, and the time-honored school on the Pennsylvania Mainline, Mt. Aloysius College. Later in the decade, in my 40s, I began further studies at my alma mater, Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) for what I thought would be a Ph.D. to further my qualifications for professorship. More about all of those events in Chapter 4, “My Life’s Work.” While all of that was going on, I moved from regular supply organist at the large and historic First Presbyterian Church in Johnstown to Music Director at the much smaller Second Presbyterian in the city, and finally to Music Director at the larger still and newer Mt. Calvary Lutheran Church in the suburbs of Richland Township. More about these changes in Chapter 5, “Missions and Ministries.”

1977 Johnstown Flood

As you may have noticed, I’m bringing together memories that may not all be from the same decade, but they fit together as a subject so I merge them when they have some connection to the time period. For example, the deadly 9/11 attacks happened at the end of the 10-year span that we’re in, and it deeply impacted not just the whole world but my little world. The Johnstown Flood of 1977 of Section i, while regional, caught the attention of the whole world. These events caused death but resulted in hope and determination. The Quecreek Mine Rescue of 2002 celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and thus fits into this decade, and unlike the other events, commemorates the miraculous saving of lives. How did these happenings affect me and my family here in Forwardstown? Let’s take them in order and see. First, I had been manager of Johnstown’s WJAC Radio for five and a half years and had fallen into a comfortable schedule of wakening up before 7:00, showering, dressing, eating breakfast, and driving the 10 miles north on Somerset Pike to the station, after I kissed my wife and wished her a good day, of course. The morning of July 21, the phone rang just after 5:00 and it was our morning announcer, Frank Dell, in a dither saying, “Larry, I can’t get into work.” At first I thought he was ill and wanted me to get a replacement, which is standard procedure for a manager, but he continued, “The roads are all flooded.” He didn’t seem to know any more, so I told him I’d get back to him when I knew more. After I hung up I called one of our part-timers who lived just across the road from the station and asked him to fill-in. We had had some rain that night, but I wondered how the storm could have been so bad as to flood the valley between Frank’s house on the hill in Richland and the Westmont area where the station was. I was soon to find out. As I drove to within a mile of our building, the police had a detour in place, afraid the hillside below the station was going to collapse. I followed the signs and eventually  pulled into the our parking lot where I saw more emergency vehicles and personnel. As knowledge of the true scope of the disaster unfolded in the days to come, we learned that WJAC Radio and TV were the only stations broadcasting because of the location of our studio and towers. We became the command center for the whole region, hosting the governor, the mayor, and many officials and law enforcement. All this is to say that between Johnstown and Forwardstown, a distance of just 10 miles, it was as if there was a wall, along which the storm dumped a foot of rain overnight, killing 84 people, and forcing its way into the history books.

Temporary memorial at Flight 93 site, Shanksville

By now you know most of the details of the 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, but let me tell you my first hand account of uncertainty. That was a beautiful, crisp fall Tuesday morning that I was expecting to meet my English students at the new Mt. Aloysius library for a research  orientation. When I arrived around 9:00, instead of a room full of students, I saw the librarians huddled around a TV in disbelief. I joined them and learned that the students had been notified to stay home. As the horrible events in New York unfolded, I too was told to head back home. However, the four-lane Rt. 219 I usually took, was blocked just north of the Johnstown airport. I later learned that there was a possibility of the military using it as an extra landing strip if the attacks warranted. I took a detour home and remember two phone calls that day: one from brother “Butch,” a long-haul trucker who was in the area and wanted to spend the day with us watching the events unfold, which he did; and the other from  daughter Annie from Canada, where she and a colleague had been at a conference but were unable to fly back to her place in Atlanta. They had rented a car and were driving to Somerset County. We had a houseful that week, but little did any of us know then what the crash of that jet liner, just 30 minutes to the east of us, would mean to the U.S. and the world. Forty-four people were killed in what became known simply as “Flight 93” in nearby Shanksville. Over the years, our home has been a stopping off place for family and friends from all over the country. We’ve given more than just a few tours of that old strip mine just down the road. Susan’s best friend and a cousin live very close to the site.

Quecreek Mine rescue capsule, 2002

The following summer our little part of the world gained even more media coverage, but this time there was a happy ending. Part of the Somerset County economy is coal mining, both strip and deep. Similar to the Jerome story of an earlier chapter, these operations are usually homes to small towns and villages where the workers have lived with their families. Both the deep mine and village of Quecreek are stuck together at the end of a valley that is named for a stream, the Quemahoning, the Delaware Indian word for “Pine tree lick.” You know the story of the nine miners who were trapped after cutting into an underground wall and accidentally releasing millions of gallons of water, trapping them for a week. The whole country followed the slow, painful progress the rescuers made in reaching them, with holes drilled, communications established, and food lowered. As with the Johnstown Flood, our governor took charge of the media and families, only his command station was the old wooden fire hall down the road in the village of Sipesville. I remember following every detail every day. At the end, it was an early Sunday morning in the middle of the night. I had showered for church the next day and laid down to sleep with the radio on, but there was no sleep in me, knowing that just 15 minutes south along our Somerset Pike the cage-like apparatus was about to pull the last man to safety. The whole country, and I’m sure the world, rejoiced at that moment. Susan and I drive through Sipesville and Quecreek every Friday morning as we deliver Meals on Wheels in northern Somerset County. We think of that ordeal and thank God for the outcome. The farmer whose land was used for the rescue shaft attends our church, and we have encountered the men who were rescued.

Fortunately, most of the Pearce family lives haven’t been as dramatic as these three events. By God’s Grace, life goes on, thus the title of our Memoir, “Every Breath a Gift.” Wife Susan continued to take on more private music students at home, teaching voice and piano, while scheduling student recitals and performing solos at the end of the 20th century. With the kids growing and leaving home, she also became more active in the community. More about that below. Annie and Matthew, our off-spring, were off to college, traveling, and working various jobs to help pay for their education and meet the requirements of their financial aid. More about all of that ahead also.

Casa Nova Bar & Restaurant

If all of the above represents positive vibs for the Pearce family, our little hamlet of Forwardstown has been shaken to the core negatively at least three times since we’ve lived here, literally in one case. What is it about the number “3”? First, there were the tremors from the underground Grove Three Mine I talked about earlier. Most recently, in 2006 was our community movement to stop the State Department of Transportation from cutting down the century-old sycamore trees. We’ll cover that in the next installment. But, the situation that received the most attention and media coverage were the demonstrations around the Casa Nova Bar and Restaurant in 1995. Remember that this 70+ year old establishment was once the site of the old mule barn in the mid-19th century iron ore days mentioned at the beginning of Chapter 3. Now, after the death of the barkeeper and owner, a couple from Mt. Pleasant bought it and upgraded their menu to include full and rather elaborate meals. Our community supported this change. But, for some reason, within months and despite the patronage of local residents, the bar began to cater almost exclusively to gay persons. Please don’t forget that this was an era when ones sexuality was kept secret. The clientele might have remained safe in their secrecy but for the actions of a local fundamental Baptist who paraded in front of the establishment with his followers carrying signs and shouting in protest day and night. Soon the media from around the country was covering the controversy. At the height of the melee buses were bringing additional gays in from Pittsburgh to take the side of the bar. After earlier vandalism and threats, the State Police were called in to protect both sides. At some point, I asked the preacher and his followers, many of whom were my neighbors, to move the protests off the roadway and onto my property, the front pastureland, for their safety. They complied and would gather around their newly erected American flag pole and a bonfire. We could hear their chants into the night in the worst of weather, year-round.

After our driveway was lined with dog poop, put there by the bar patrons, my wife and I complained to the police, who in turn interviewed us. Again, while we didn’t express our views openly, we had simply offered our field for the safety of the protestors. In addition, the state and local governments gave warnings to the owners of the establishment concerning waste water being discharged into the pristine Ben’s Creek, via my property I might add. The simple solution would have been to install the proper treatment and release tanks between the building and the stream. As it was, the original gravel-lined receiving pit just could not hold the sewage. After what seemed like many months, the bar was sold, the clientele left, the protests stopped, and we had peace in the Forwardstown neighborhood once again. The new owner, son of a reputable local building contractor, immediately installed the required sanitation system and re-opened as a special events venue: Christmas parties, wedding showers and receptions, reunions, and the like. The name was changed to “Beca House,” a reference to Psalm 84:6 in the Bible. Years later, when all of that became too much, the family sold to a military father and son from Washington, D.C. who combined the building’s use with that of the local scout camp atop the mountain, and changed the name once again to “Outdoor Odyssey,”  where camping and leadership opportunities are offered to young people, police and military groups, and private companies, and the like. After two years off during the Pandemic, the organization is set to re-open this summer.

Hilda Krause Miller,
the painter

Another one of the major events that shook our household was the unexpected death of Susan’s mother Hilda in 1997.  She had been quite active over the years. I have had the privilege of posting both her autobiography as well as transcriptions of letters exchanged with her husband Richard during World War II here on E-gen.  She became ill with what was later diagnosed as crytococcal meningitis and had to be hospitalized in Somerset during the fall of ’97. Our families had made a trip to Denver to be with daughter Annie, who was on a work project with Georgia Tech. We toured many of the natural wonders in the part of the country. One theory for her illness was that the environment of the West somehow affected her rare condition called sarcoidosis, leading to the fatal outcome.   Falling into a coma, she was transferred to Memorial Hospital in Johnstown where she died a week later. As with the passing of my parents over the following decade, her death left a giant hole in our hearts and lives.

Susan, Lucille, & Community Concert Association Rep in Scranton

One of the relationships that got my wife Susan through this loss was her studies with Johnstown voice teacher Lucille, a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music and community leader. Susan was encouraged to hold recitals for herself and her students and become active in the Johnstown Music League.  She sang in the Johnstown Symphony Chorale and acted in stage presentations of “Kiss Me Kate” and “Brigadoon.” In addition to becoming a paid section leader with the First Presbyterian Church choir in Johnstown, she was elected President of the area Community Concert Association.  Before accepting the position of Choral Director for Bishop McCort Catholic High School in Johnstown, she worked in marketing and as a teacher of piano and voice at Williams’ Music Gallery, downtown.  Unfortunately, her professional and community activities came to an end with her early retirement when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. More about how that all affected us in a later chapter.

In Chapter 5 we’ll look at Susan’s and my second trip overseas since visiting our son in Germany during his Junior Year Abroad in 1990. This voyage was what was considered a mission trip, which will also be covered in the Chapter 5, a three week stay near London, England, for Wycliffe Bible Translators in 1996. With those extended stays we grew fond of journeys to various parts of Europe. Susan and I have traveled to 20 countries in Europe and North America and as many states. More about those adventures in Chapter 6, “Activities in Retirement.”

I remember, just before leaving for the ’96 trip to England, my dad handed me a small, white box containing relics from our past: a lock of baby hair, a pair of shoes I wore as an infant, some Pearce family papers like old deeds and letters of financial holdings. But what proved to be the most meaningful item was a four-page document, hand-typed on 8 1/2 X 11-inch velum entitled “The Pearce-Austen Original Family Narrative.” In it was the story of my dad’s great-grandparents before their wedding in 1813, their sailing to America with members of both families in 1820, and settling together just north of Pittsburgh. With that inspiring information, I took a weekend during the Wycliffe trip to visit the place where I thought they had lived, just north of London, and talked with both persons to whom I may be related and a British historian. I later learned that while I may be related, my actual close ancestors had come from another county and village. But the visits were warm and informative, and I accepted an offer from the scholar to research my narrative. I’ve provided links here for what we learned. All this is to say that when I returned home I began the preliminaries for a family history website called E-gen: an Electronic Genealogy. Those were the earliest days of the internet, and most of my communication was by e-mail. The only way to get on the internet then was through a special converter box attached to the cable TV service, which had just reached our remote region of the Somerset Pike from Johnstown. By the end of the decade covered in this installment, I had contracted with a domain management company to maintain that website. That concept has been growing ever since and was the inspiration for this Memoir. I’ve heard from family and genealogists all over the world in the last 20-plus years, and I believe my work is just beginning.

Larry’s painful house scrubbing injury

In the introduction to this installment I mentioned job changes for Susan and me. Improvements were made to our house as well: a paint job and new roof. Remember that in the first part of “Forward to Forwardstown” I described the work that went into our new home when it was built in 1975. In sharing with others the actual label for the style, I usually have to check my browser for whether it’s a split-entry or split-level. Calling it a “bi-level” is accurate, but probably the most correct is the term “split-level raised ranch.” Anyway, I’m open to other opinions. If you recall, we chose to finish the exterior with 12-inch vinyl siding above the basement brick. The deciding factor was cost, even though we knew the main floor would have to be painted sometime in the first 25 years. In the waning years of the decade we’re covering that fact was evident with the fading yellow color and occasional peeling, especially on the sides the sun hit. Susan loves to paint. Not so much me, but we collaborated on the best cleaning agent, primer, and finish paint. Those were the days when I never thought about the risk in climbing a ladder to the main floor, 8 – 20 feet off the cement in front of the garage. Setting up the light-weight aluminum ladder was the easy part. Susan was only too happy to see me climb when she knew she didn’t have to, but to her credit, she stood at the bottom of the ladder to support it – and catch me if I fell. So, with brushes, rags, and cleaning agent diluted in in a one-gallon plastic bucket, we began. I had re-painted the barn the year before using an old wooden extension ladder and, wearing tennis shoes, I ended up with a good case of plantar fasciitis that last for weeks. That’s where the rungs of the ladder case undue stress on the arches of the feet. This time I used a modern ladder with flat rungs and I wore heavier work boots. Nevertheless, and though wearing plastic gloves, the cleaning solution ran down my hands, severely irritating my wrists and lower arms. Fortunately, my daughter’s boyfriend, a former medic in the national guard, was able to treat it at a picnic we had the weekend following the house scrubbing and I recovered. After applying the solution and briskly scrubbing and wiping, a generous stream of water from the hose got rid of all that was left. Lifting a hose full of 8-pounds per gallon of cold liquid while squeezing the nozzle was a job in and of itself. An interesting thing to me was the instruction to “clean and rinse from the bottom up.” What difference would that make, you ask? I learned that the dirt slid off the siding more cleanly when the surface is free of debris. Starting from the top caused the solution to create lines down the dirty surface below, which are difficult, if not impossible, to remove. Now you know, for the next time you scrub siding!

So, the mold, mildew, smoking from our wood burner, and various insect markings were removed and we were ready to prime and paint. We used paint rollers to apply and brushes to smooth and reach where the siding overlapped. In all of this, Susan worked from the ground around the back of the house, usually while I rested in a lawn chair and watched. Then, while she rested at the base of the ladder, I did the high parts. We managed to finish is about four days, one for each side of the house. The white trim and doors, front and garage, took another day. The black vinyl shutters were quickly re-screwed into the siding beside the windows. We were then ready to show off our bright yellow, newly-painted home.

Back porch picnic with a new roof and fresh paint

Along with a paint job those years came the necessity to re-roof. We had thought only rich people could afford longer lasting metal roofs back in 1975, so we went with asphalt shingles. And to think that I had a metal roof installed last year. I’ll explain why in the final installment of this chapter. These three-tab shingles in easy-to-haul and carry, one-third square packs come in a variety of colors for the do-it-yourselfer at any area home store. Common practice says that if the original roof is in fair shape, no breakage or curling, one may re-roof right over it. I felt that this saved much time, money, and effort and made a better, more solid job. Looking back, I believe that the two most challenging aspects of the job were: 1. carrying the packs up the ladder to where they were to be applied; and 2. working on the old asphalt in 80+ degree temperatures. Let me elaborate. First, most professional roofers have a young, muscular male lift the packs up the incline and place them where they are to go ahead of their actual installation. Working from the ground to the rear of the house, I generally used the time between hammering to haul – and rest. Second, generally the warmer the weather, the better the stick of the tar strip on the new shingle to the old. But, with the temps being so warm, and to save bending over with my back to the sun and possibly causing the new cover to come apart, I chose to plop my ass on the old roof and bend forward, nailing the new shingles below. It worked well, EXCEPT that I had what I call “ass burns.” Again, I took frequent breaks and sat on a rug toward the end. The most difficult part was “cutting in” the channels between the porch roof that ran 90-degrees from the main roof. Instead of overlapping the shingles, as many professionals would have done, I ran a metal “gutter” down the channel. Another challenge was sealing the areas around roof vents and the chimney. I believe that is all worked well.

One not-so-good memory I have of installing the roof was when my dad, nearly 80-years old, somewhat unexpectedly showed up to help. As this rather well-worn man came off the top of the ladder to greet me with a half-pack of shingles slung over his shoulder, I shamefully shouted in shock something to the affect, “You get down off this roof. You’re not in shape to do this work.” I believe this all came out of love and concern for his safety, but now as I think back, he had done many such jobs in his lifetime, and I, though over a quarter-century younger and a white collar guy, probably shouldn’t have been up there either. Dad finished helping from the ground, unwrapping packs and cutting shingle shapes for me. I will always appreciate his help.

Father Ralph & Mother Ruth celebrate another birthday

Several additional life-changing events happened around the same time in the early to mid-2000s: Completion of my second graduate degree, a study in Rhetoric and Linguistics at IUP; the death of my father, Ralph Hill Pearce just before his 85th birthday; and the loss of my mother, Ruth, and my brother Carl “Butch”  within the next three-and-a-half years, causing us even more grief. But, as the old saying goes, “We turned lemons into lemonade.” We survived and continued to prosper. There’ll be good news to report in the sections ahead. Our Forwardstown family has always loved the winter, and the picture below suggests that often, despite the discouraging view out our front window that opened this piece, obscured by snow, we would just take off to a local hillside with our toboggan for an afternoon of fun. Did I mention the picnic lunch with friends?

The Pearce family along Somerset Pike on their way tobogganing

While our kids completed their university degrees and left home for good to take on careers, their dad found plenty to do on the ranch in Forwardstown. I’ll share some stories involving my new best friends: my tools and my farm equipment. Actually Susan remains my bestest friend, but you get the idea. Please read on.

Move to: Chapter 3Div – Back on Our Own Again (2002-2012)

Return to: Table of Contents

Last revised 4/22/22