Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Marking Unseen, Silent Burdens... By Ronald Rabenold

Dylan Krum
~ 1995-2010 ~
We mark the good and the bad with anniversaries.  I remember my one childhood friend and how his fiance died when we were in college.  Even after he was married, he would dine with her family each year on her birthday.  His marriage didn't last.  A death not only lingers within those still living, it sometimes quietly travels forward, onto generations unknown.
Tristan Wentz
~ 1997-2010 ~

Unfortunately, most communities seem to experience tragic deaths in unforeseen patterns. Here in Lehighton, we recently lost two young men to cancer. Dylan Krum was in ninth grade. Tristan Wentz was in seventh.  Both were happy and intelligent souls who left too soon. We also lost Cody Wentz, 19 and Rueben Koch, 24 this month.  They were all students of mine. 

Occasionally we lose someone in our river.  Some are life travelers too weary to keep themselves from harm. The most recent river death, Jay Kershner, happened October 15th. His body was recovered downstream October 30th, below the Bowmanstown bridge, about 2 miles away.

Jay Kershner
~ 1967-2010 ~

I remember Jay back in high school here in Lehighton. Things weren’t stacked well for him. At some point he received the moniker “Shakey” Jay from those of us who loosely monitored the slow burn of his demise. He tried football, he tried laughing with us, but he was always up against it, it always seemed no matter how hard he tried, he just couldn't fit in. His record with the police included disorderly conducts and incidents of public drunkenness. Jay was 43.

I wish I had been nicer to Jay.

These deaths have sent me on a personal exploration:  Why do some deaths, both personal or distant, pull me in? Why do they bother me and linger on in my thoughts? Why write a blog post about them?  Is it some sort of vigilance born out of my own fear or am I just a poignancy junkie?

The Rabenold gravesite at Lehighton Cemetery - Leroy's gave is out of frame to the left of Aquilla.  Charles and Susan are rear left.
As a young boy, I enjoyed my grandmother’s stories of deaths that still rang with emotional depth for her. She was born in 1889. Her stories were from another age, but were told with emotional freshness that captivated me.

Leroy Splidle Rabenold was born in 1907. He was the son of my dad’s oldest and unwed aunt, Aquilla I. Rabenold. He may have been working at Zale’s Silk Mill in the dip of the kettle of old Mauch Chunk or according to my dad, the mill in the Packerton dip. A shuttle broke free of the loom and struck him on the head. He was fourteen, and as the story goes, had quit school and was only working there one week.
Zales Silk Mill on the East Side of Jim Thorpe today.
Another story of my Mamie, always accompanied with a heavy sing-songed-sigh, was the death of Jennie Rex. She was killed by a train at Glen Onoko, in Mauch Chunk. The area is so named for the supposed native woman who plunged to her death over a broken heart.

Mamie told Jennie's story with the emotion of someone who was there, though she would only have been twelve at the time. Jennie was sixteen and was said to be “quite handsome.” She and her friends were crossing the trestle that carried multiple lines. They crossed one set and avoided a southbound train that was steaming along. In all the hiss and rumbling rattle, they didn’t notice the northbound train in the next set.

The double tracks at the Glen Onoko train station.

It was said that Jennie’s friends had enough wherewithal to jump into the neutral space between the two lines unharmed. However, Jennie’s fright froze her.  Her body was torn beyond a recognizable form.

The bystanders, perhaps her friends, loaded her remains onto a train. According to the papers, “her death caused a gloom to pervade the entire valley.” Her parents were sent to pick up her remains at the Jersey Central Rail Station in Lehighton.

Jennie had lived with her parents Nathan and Alvena Rex.  Alvena was a sister to my great grandmother Susan Mosser Rabenold. The Rex’s lived on the farm next to the Maple Tree Inn (now the Maple Tree Tennis Club) of the Mahoning Valley.

The Maple Tree Inn today.  The former home of Nathan and Alvena Rex, just east of the Gombert farm.

Myrtle Rabenold was my grandfather's sister and 'Mertie' was sent to live with the Rex's after Jennie's death.  But this remedy, may have only compounded their pain.  She died seven years later. She was eleven. Her grave lies along with Jennie's and their parents in Mahoning Valley’s St. John’s Cemetery.

Over 100 gather to celebrate Andrew Gombert's 25th Anniversary.  That's Andrew on the step with raised arm.

The Gombert farm house as it looks today, just west of Lehighton.

Next door to the Rex's, Jonathan and Annie Gombert received my grandfather Zach Rabenold when he was around sixteen.  He and some of his siblings were "farmed-out" due to family need.  He was sent to make his way in the world and also to help keep an eye out for his sister Mertie.

Jonathan Gombert was a one-armed Civil War Veteran wounded at Antietam, Maryland.  When Zach came to live with him, Gombert had recently been elected as county sheriff.  It was said that Zach was an orderly at the Carbon County Prison (today known as "The Old Jail").  At the farm, Zach was a general farm-hand and learned how to run a tack shop.

Years later, Zach's death was said to have saved my father's life.  Zach died in 1950 when my Dad was a 20-year-old Marine fighting in Korea.  While on leave from duty to be with his mother, the First Provisional Marine Brigade was wiped-out at the Chosin Reservoir.  My Dad later returned to find the remnants of his unit, the living transformed into shells of men with "thousand yard stares."

Gombert's son, Andrew, took over the farm shortly after Zach began living there.  He and his wife Annie celebrated their Silver Wedding Anniversary there in 1909.  It was a grand occasion with over 100 family members gathered on a snowny lawn and along the gingerbread porch to pose for a picture.  Perhaps Zach was there among them. 

It was shortly after this day, when Andrew met his end. He was out tedding the hay, no small task when feeding 70 head of milking cows.  Whether it was too much of his wine (as he was known to be fond of drinking) or a snake that startled the team (as some have said) that caused Andrew to fall off the rear plank is unknown.  That evening, the horses returned to their barn with the rig and Andrew still in tow.  His mangled body was found among the metal tines. He was 43.

The Gombert farm and fields as they look today.

Deaths have a tendency to demarcate the lives of survivors and hang like an unseen fog into future generations. 

In 1985, four Lehighton men, well into their twenty's, after a determined effort of beer consumption, decided it time to drive their car over the old Lehigh Valley Railroad trestle in Weissport.  They didn't go alone.  Upon the hood rode the recently graduated young girl most people knew who had an eye for thrills and pushing limits.  All four men killed were found inside the car.  Marsha Felegy wasn't found right away, creating speculation and conspiracies of a cover-up and a staged death.  She was found days later miles downstream.  She was seventeen.
The Lehighton skyline with the LVRR trestle on the left, over the Lehigh River.

One of those men, Kevin Moyer*, had already given his name to a child before his demise.  Kevin Moyer II never seemed comfortable within the conventions others take for gospel.  Today he sits in prison for starting a fire in a couch "for the fun of it."  Two toddlers died in that fire.  At first he passed himself off as the hero, saying he retrieved one from the flames.  Soon the facts pointed his way and two years later he was sentenced to life in jail. He was a high-school student of mine and as I recall, he had thought it funny to melt things with a lighter one day in class.    (*This name has been changed.)

And just the other day, on cafeteria duty, I sat myself down near a few of the more boisterous youngsters in the eighth grade when I saw Kevin Moyer III.  My mind couldn't help but turn on some of these deaths and wonder. 

And I wondered about the burdens we all unknowingly carry.     


  1. Ron,

    Thanks so much for this fine piece of journalism. Each of these people, and all those in cemeteries, carried their stories away with them, and they are lost for all time, unless someone writes them. We so need stoytellers today to preserve the humanity of who we are, to help lend depth, if not answers, to our mortality.