Friday, January 29, 2010

An American Life Cut Short

It's been 13 years since a good friend of my two brothers died suddenly. I thought of his passing as I reflected tonight on Tyler's death, which happened two weeks ago. Same reason, same tragedy, same question: Why. Damn it. Why?

So with a sky full of stars and a beer in hand, I toast the memory of a good kid, Pawel Patel, who I wrote about for The Morning Call in a column that brought on a steady stream of tears as my angry fingers flew across the keyboard near midnight in the newsroom. People were on deadline; I blocked out the noise, the police scanner, the late-night production madness. I specifically remember writing in a staccato manner. Smacking letters. Short paragraphs. To the point. Matter of fact. But with purpose, with honesty. Death does that to you when have to write about it. There is no other way for me.

An American Life Cut Short

June 24, 1997

The Morning Call

In late May, the telephone rang. My mother's voice came, sounding grave.

"Pawel the Polish kid is really sick," she said. "It doesn't look good."

She was talking about her lanky, shy neighbor, the one who still carried a thick European accent eight years after moving to the States.

If Pawel Pytel had been on the line, he would've clarified one thing: He's not Polish. Born in Gdansk. Grew up in Poland. Speaks Polish.

But his blood runs Ukrainian.

Still, that's how most folks in my family's Whitehall Township neighborhood have known him and his younger brother, Jerry.

The Polish kids.

Pawel had collapsed during a Ukrainian festival in upstate New York and lay in a hospital.

Brain aneurism, the doctors said.

My mother was shaken.

"He's only 23."

The Polish kids immigrated to the United States in 1989 with their parents, sister and grandmother, Babscia, who today still wears a kerchief around her head, hot weather or not. They joined their aunt and uncle, crowding a tiny brick cape on 4th Street, about 150 steps from Grape Street in Fullerton.

Not enough room for eight, though.

So while the men built a massive addition that year, the boys quietly played soccer in the back yard.

Amazed, the neighbor kids watched as Pawel and Jerry spun the black and white sphere on their toes and lobbed the ball over their heads, as if it was second nature.

They were determined to blend in. But it was hard to ignore their plaid shirts, wide-legged pants, dark socks with sandals.

One couldn't miss their choppy, accent-laden forays into English.

"Play ball?" they'd ask my younger brothers.

Nah, the Reaman boys would reply. My brothers liked football, American football, not the European kind. Still, the kids tried to amaze everyone with their grace, although Pawel once launched the soccer ball into my parent's dining room window. Within weeks, however, the soccer ball vanished and the Polish kids started tossing pigskin in the alley.

In a few years, Jerry would be catching passes for the Whitehall High School Zephyrs. Pawel, sticking with tradition, would play defense for the soccer team.

Pawel wasn't as outgoing as his brother. But he had his own way of Americanizing.

He landed jobs at the local Acme and McDonald's, always shyly smiling when he was recognized, then shooting his clear-blue eyes toward the floor. He saved his money, waiting for the day he could afford an American car.

When it came, he bought a powder blue Mustang with an obnoxious exhaust. Pawel spent that summer peeling down the alley, annoying a few of his neighbors.

Three years ago, Pawel joined the Navy, earning enough to fulfill another American dream: a convertible, forest green Mustang. He came home on the weekends, slowly tooling through the alleys of the neighborhood, a one-man parade in all of his glory.

By now, the shy immigrant in clashing plaid shirt who struggled to speak English was now one of Uncle Sam's boys, interpreting Russian, Polish and Ukrainian on far-away missions.

He grew out of his shell, matured perhaps by the Navy's training and his sea-worthiness. He no longer cast his eyes to the ground when he said hello. He didn't awkwardly cower his 6-foot-5 frame behind Jerry, who teetered a few inches shorter.

Pawel was a man.

Through the years, he carried with him his family's strong work ethic and the belief that people should help people, no matter what.

I hadn't seen Pawel in at least six months, until I moved in March. I feared I didn't have enough hands to carry all of the furniture.

But my father had it covered.

"The Polish kids will be here," he assured me.

And, without my asking, they were. Like workhorses, Pawel, Jerry and one of their cousins --fresh to the States -- showed up in Pawel's new black Jeep, lugging chunks of furniture for six or so hours.

They barely spoke a word to me.

Afterward, they didn't ask for anything but a beer. With a little urging, they took pizza and sauntered into my cellar, away from the "adults." The Polish kids, now in their 20s, played with my kids' games and laughed. Within an hour, they waved goodbye and left.

On an April weekend, Pawel helped his uncles build a three-car garage. Afterward, he etched his name into the wet cement. His uncle Walter freaked, but relented.

So "Pawel 1997" remained as he headed back to his Willow Grove base.

Just a month later, Pawel, Jerry and a bunch of friends piled into the Jeep and headed to the Ukrainian festival. But the Polish kids wouldn't return home together.

In early June, the telephone rang. My father's voice came, sounding broken.

"Pawel's dead," he cried into the receiver, the words barely spilling from his mouth. "He died a few hours ago."

At his viewing a few days later, sailors flanked Pawel's casket. Ukrainian priests chanted, shaking incense into the air already thick with emotion.

His funeral procession spanned at least eight blocks, snarling traffic through Fullerton, West Catasauqua and Catasauqua, all the way to his resting place in Northampton -- 4,000 miles away from Poland.

Unlike his sister and brother, Pawel wasn't a U.S. citizen.

Pawel wanted be naturalized, but didn't have time, Jerry said.

It didn't matter.

Lying in his Navy uniform, Pawel's casket was draped by an American flag. A rifle squad fired a salute and a bugler cried out taps.

Pawel Pytel died an American.

Glimpses is an occasional feature about the experiences of people in the Lehigh Valley and the places and events that define life here.

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