Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Handshake for Roy

     Every Memorial Day in Pottstown usually begins with my early morning visit to the monument built by members of the Vietnam Veterans of America 565 in Memorial Park.
David Borzick places wreath.
     The memorial was built for all service personnel with names of the veterans etched into bricks that were cemented into a walkway. Special areas were laid out in tribute to local Vietnam vets who died in combat.
The military statue at Memorial Park.
     I approach the kneeling statue of a GI and reach to shake his outstretched hand. I clasp the cool bronzed fingers and say my hello to Roy. That is my father's name and one I feel fitting when paying my respects on the day to remember those who have served their country. It's also the spot I've chosen to also remember my mother Virginia on Memorial Day, as my parents are buried in a small country town in Ohio. I haven't been at their graves in over a year.
      I still get that lump in my throat and my eyes glisten in the morning sunshine. I owe them that. The feelings pass and I walk along the tree lines path looking down at all the names.
      From here it's off to the parade to begin another holiday working for The Mercury. I drive to the starting location and greet some of the veterans I've gotten to know over the years. U.S. Marine veteran Cal Books continues to line up the men and he walks along with the color guard. I congratulate Jack McQuaid for being the awarded 2012 Veteran of the Year.
    At 10 a.m. veterans and active duty military begin marching through Pottstown with colorful flags. U.S. Marine Corporal Bryan Walter of Phoenixville, still on active duty, had the honor of carrying the stars and stripes. Bands play and fire trucks and classic cars roll along High Street.
Holocaust survivor Severin Fayerman.
     Then it's back to Memorial Park for speeches and tributes during a solemn service with many people attending this year.
     An especially stirring talk came from Severin Fayerman who spoke on his survival as a prisoner of the Germans held in concentration camps during World War II at Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. The Polish immigrant spoke kindly about about the United States and how the military saved his life. He mentioned how lucky Americans are to live in a free country.
    Wreaths were placed for veterans of all wars, then a prayer followed by a 21-gun salute. The sound of 'Taps' could be heard throughout the park played by Boy Scout bugler Nate Fuerman.
     Back at the office I picked photos for the web and the next day's paper. I finish up my shift and drove home thinking of Fayerman. It is a blessing to live in this country despite the turmoil and uncertainty of a weakened economy. As he said we all have won the lottery just being born in this country. I'm going to try to remember his important words.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Memorial Day is more than hot dogs and picnics.

     U.S. Army veteran Tim Murray was walking with his young sons Alex and Matthew. But it wasn't a day at the park or a hike in the woods. Murray was at the Highland Memorial Park cemetery in Pottstown along with other volunteers helping place United States flags on 1,900 graves of veterans. I snapped some candid photos of dad and the boys as they went about their business.
     There was no whining by these youngsters. They took a real interest in doing their part a week before Memorial Day. The guys could have been anywhere on this day - playing baseball, fishing or simply wrestling around and laughing together in the warm soft grass.
     But on May 19th there was more serious duty at hand. One that could teach his boys a valuable lesson for their future.
U. S. Army veteran Tim Murray and his sons Matthew and Alex.
      After snapping the shot for the front page, I stopped the family and asked why it was so important to take part. He answered me saying he wants the boys to know what Memorial Day is really about. With an easy going presence, Murray quietly stated, "It's not about hot dogs and picnics. The holiday is about veterans who fought for their country. We are here to honor them by placing flags on their graves."
     Murray is active in the community with the American Legion, the V.F.W. and is also a Boy Scout leader for his son Alex's Cub Pack 244. He was in the U.S. Army from 2004-2008 with the 4th Infantry Division and spent seven and a half months deployed in Baghdad, Iraq.  
     Then, thinking for a moment he didn't realize the date was May 19 until we started talking. On the same day in 2006 a military truck he was riding in was blown up by an IED while fighting in Iraq. Luckily, he wasn't injured but it's a date he won't forget.
     Alex and Matthew stood quietly by his side as he spoke and listened to every word. He looked down and pointed to his youngest son Matthew saying he was too small to know that he had gone away with the Army. But his older boy Alex was four and he remembers when his dad left for war. He looked up at his father and silently shook his head yes.
     I didn't press the little boy for details, but you could tell he had some thoughts swimming in his head. Murray is one of the lucky ones who made it out of the fight alive and able to get back to life with his family.
     We shook hands and I watched as they continued on their walk of honor.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Post season sports brings out the best in players.

Boyertown Devyn Heidelbaugh.
     Post season sporting events always brings out the best in athletes wanting to continue the season. And although the names and faces have changed over the years, the hard work and intensity remains the same. This was my week to cover the late shift so I photographed most of the important playoff games and the spring weather couldn't be better.
     The first game was a District One lacrosse match between Downingtown East and Boyertown. The fast pace from goal to goal had me shooting photos in rapid-fire succession. I pop off a burst of six or seven frames as plays happen in front of me. With all the constant movement, lacrosse is by far one of the easiest to get great action photos and Boyertown was taking care of business in their first round game.
Boyertown Kaitlin Dehaven.
     Early in the first half Devyn Heidelbaugh made a rush to the goal with defenders trailing her. This told the story as the Bears were a step ahead of East most of the game. Gabby Genuario, Haley Wentzel, Rachel Engler and Amanda Smith each scored three goals for Boyertown winning 15-6 over Downingtown.
Perk Valley's Sara Sermarini.
      Sadly to say Boyertown lost their second round game ending their season in a game against Radnor. Many of the players don't want their season to end and it's tough for them to call it a day when the hard fought games are over.
      The following day, the PAC-10 held the girls softball semi-finals at Pine Forge A.A. Complex. In the first game of the double header Perkiomen Valley faced Spring-Ford. The teams have battled over the last two years with Spring-Ford coming out on top. This game was Perk Valley's from the first inning as they took an early one run lead.  Viking pitcher Erin Hamm was dialed in and threw a seven hit shutout over the Rams. Spring-Ford had their chances hitting the ball hard at times and loading the bases in the top of the first but were unable to plate any runners.
Perkiomen Valley pitcher (27) Erin Hamm.
     Meanwhile Perk Valley's speedy Sara Sermarini was able slap hit some balls and outrun the throws to first. She scored the first run with the team playing small ball with bunts and taking it a base at a time. The action isn't as easy to come by in softball with both pitchers including Spring-Ford's Williams throwing hard.
     But as a senior Hamm has become a focused and intense pitcher and in the final half of the seventh inning with two outs I stayed focused on her waiting for her reaction as the game ended. She didn't disappoint gritting her teeth and signaling the final out as she jumped into the air.
     It's not the end of the road for Spring-Ford Rams. Coach Tim Hughes will have his players regroup and begin district play.
Bears Jenna Marburger is out.
     Boyertown and Methacton matched up in the nightcap in the other semi-final game. There were many more opportunities for action shots as both teams had runners on the base paths giving me a chance for good photos. I couldn't stay for the end of the second game and getting some quality pictures early made it easier to meet our sports deadline. I had plays at first and several more at home plate as both teams took chances to score runs.
Methacton's  Sarah Rambo is out at the plate.
     Both Maddy Lowery for Methacton and Jenna Marburger for Boyertown pitched well giving up one run each through the four innings that I was there. There was more than enough action but not many runs produced.
     Softball is a game of dominating pitchers and some games the bases remain empty as strikeouts pile up. After I left, the score was tied through seven innings and the game went into extra frames. Methacton won it with two runs in the ninth inning taking the semi-final by a score of 3-2.
     On the following evening the PAC-10 held the boys baseball championship with Boyertown going against Spring-Ford at Bears Stadium. Both teams sported the same 13-5 regular season record. Both have great pitching and hitting and the match up would make a great final.
A.J. Bogucki.
     Pitching for Boyertown, A.J. Bogucki had a no hitter going through five innings and Spring-Ford Richie Michaud gave up only one run throwing for the Rams. But in the top of the sixth the Bears got their bats going scoring four runs ending Michaud night on the mound. Spring-Ford rallied back in the bottom scoring five times to tie the game.
Matt Purnell scores run.
     I watched the left field clock ticking closer to 9 p.m. and my need to get the sports department their photos. If the game went into extra innings there was a chance that I'd have to leave before the winning run crossed the plate. The Bears were able to push a run across in the top of the seventh inning to give them a 6-5 lead.
     In the final half of the seventh Bears coach Todd Moyer trotted Bogucki back out to try and finish the Rams off. After the shaky sixth inning Bogucki shut the Rams down in order. I stayed focused on him and I waited for his catcher Kyle Weller to meet on the mound to celebrate. That never happened as he was swarmed over by happy teammates piling on top of him. This was my lead shot for the sports page.
Bears celebrate PAC-10 title.
     Funny how I have an idea and anticipate what might happen and though pointing the camera in the right spot the whole photo changes with these players whooping it up. Another PAC-10 title for the Bears. I packed up and quickly ran back to my car to beat the traffic out of the parking lot to stay ahead of that always looming deadline.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Travel - The Grand Canyon National Park

Neon sign on Route 66.

     It's hard to pick just one place in the continental United States as a must see location. But if I were to recommend a 'you have to see this site in your life time', it would be the Grand Canyon National Park. There is no way to explain how overwhelming the view is from the south rim overlook. Not a picture that I have taken can give you the feeling or dimensions of its vastness or beauty. There are many wonderous places to travel in this country. Personally standing at the edge is a humbling experience and one that will put a person in their place. You realize how incredibly small and insignificant we are when looking at this breathtaking natural wonder of the world.
     We stayed at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel which is a block from Route 66 in Williams, Arizona. Staying there gave us a chance to visit the town and the historic road. I snapped photos of building facades and neon 66 signs. We also stopped in at the locally owned stores.

Passengers board train for the canyon.

     The hotel has a package deal where you can stay a day at the Grand Canyon Railway Hotel, travel by train the next morning for an overnight stay at one of the Grand Canyon Village hotels, then return to Williams the following afternoon for another night at the railway hotel.
     The railroad station for the Grand Canyon Railway is next door to the hotel and transports tourists by train to the south rim station at the canyon. It's a two hour and fifteen minute ride and travelers are serenaded by fiddlers and cowboys strumming on guitars. In the morning before boarding the train, bandits put on a gunfight to entertain the crowd. Deb and I have always enjoyed the chance to travel by rail. We try to take advantage when there's an opportunity to sit back in classically restored passenger cars.
     On arrival, we had a full day to hike and to tour several of the historic buildings and restaurants. Park rangers gave talks during the afternoon and my wife stopped to hear the history program. I listened for a while but got restless and wanted to explore on my own.

One of the many photos taken of the Grand Canyon.

     Naturally, I popped in to see the Kolb Studio located next to the Bright Angel Trail. In the early 20th century brothers Emery and Elsworth Kolb set up a photography studio on the edge of the canyon. There are displays of their work and also a small theater to watch the historic motion picture of the Colorado River trip they filmed in 1912 of them navigating rapids in the river. The pair were adventurous and seeing their work was time well spent.
     After hiking along the south rim, Deb and I climbed aboard a National Park Service shuttle bus to one of the overlooks and sat out near the edge to watch the sunset. Seeing the colors change to a deep orange with heavy shadows cutting along the eroding gorge and watching the sun fade behind the ridge line was a site to remember.

Sun setting on the canyon.

    We always kept a few feet between us and the wall wherever we sat or walked. During the late afternoon of the first day, rangers were a mile down in the canyon for a body recovery after a visitor fell from the rim. Safety is of the utmost importance and we were cautious.

      On the second day, we decided to skip the sunrise and slept in until about 8 a.m. in our room at the Maswik Lodge. We needed to get some extra rest for the activities ahead. For breakfast we chose the Bright Angel restaurant. By the time we arrived, many guests had already finished and we had the place to ourselves. We ordered a stack of pancakes and the staff pampered us as we were practically the only ones left to eat.

Bright Angel Trail.

     A day of hiking was on our schedule. We took advantage of all the time and started with a trek along the Bright Angel trail into the Grand Canyon. I found that many people had a fear of heights and were content to view from the top. We wanted to walk down the same trail that the mules and riders take to the bottom and were told to take carry enough water to stay hydrated for our hike.

      We walked down into the canyon for about an hour knowing it would take longer to climb back out. We also spent extra time exploring the canyon, sitting on sections of the switchbacks to enjoy the view. Overall we spent about three and a half hours on the trail. We had a quick bite to eat for lunch and then continued walking several more miles along the top of the rim.

Snapshot for the scrapbook at the edge of the South Rim.

     Two full days at the Grand Canyon was enough time for exploring and sightseeing without having to rush around. Back aboard the train sitting comfortably on the plush seat, I looked out of the window and saw a mule deer standing among the Ponderosa Pines. The engineer blew the whistle and we slowly chugged for Williams.

Wounded Marine Returns Home

     It was 4 a.m. in the morning when I awoke. I'm not a very good sleeper. The first thing I thought about as I looked around in the darkness from my bed was of injured U.S. Marine Corporal Grant Cantrell III whom I photographed the day before.
U.S. Marine Corporal Grant Cantrell.
     Cantrell had just arrived home to a hero's welcome by family, friends and his Marine Corps buddies. It was the first time he was returning to his home after being severely injured when the vehicle he was in drove over an IED which exploded in September 2011 while on deployment in Afghanistan with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Division.
     It was also the first night he would be sleeping in his own bed at his Chester County home after eight difficult months of surgeries and recovery from wounds on his feet, legs and a traumatic brain injury.
     I wondered if Cantrell was sitting up in bed thinking about his future now that he is forced to walk with the assistance of a cane. He has the support from many during the days, but in the quiet of the night he is alone with his thoughts.
Cantrell returns home.
     Cantrell is only twenty-two and for a young man, he has also endured the loss of his father due to cancer. He returns home as the man of the family to his mother Sandra and his sister Robyn.
     He left home as an eighteen year old boy. And the Corps has turned him into a Marine. He has been part of two deployments oversees, served his country but has suffered injuries that will complicate his life.
     During his return celebration, Cantrell smiled and cordially greeted everyone who stood in a long line to shake his hand wanting to show their gratitude for his duty. At times you could see him grit his teeth and take a minute as his wounds reminded him to take it easy.
     And though his feet were hurting, he carried on in true Marine Corps spirit, not wanting to change from his uniform shoes into more comfortable hospital issued ones until practically ordered by his gunnery sergeant.

Marine Cpl. Grant Cantrell with his mother Sandra.
   Seeing his old unit friends was his best medicine. There is a strength within their brotherhood that can't be taken away because of wounds inflicted by a foreign adversary. These men have bonded for life and many may have to return to a battlefield that won't include Cantrell.
     But even after suffering injuries he said that he wouldn't change his serving in the Marines. And the one thing Cantrell was determined to do on his return home was for his mother to see him walk again. Some tears were shed by his mom as they hugged each other.
     Her son was home and able to stand on his own two feet as a man. 'Welcome Home' Corporal Grant Cantrell III.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Hero's Welcome Featured on American Homecomings site.

     The "American Homecomings" website has been launched by Digital First Media. The year-long project features stories, photographs and video interviews of service personnel returning home after serving in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Warriors' Watch Riders.
Gary Anoushian Welcomed Home
      The company-wide series gives a first-hand look into the lives of Marines and soldiers as they begin to return to civilian life in the United States after tours of duties in the Middle East.
      Area organizations A Hero's Welcome and Warriors' Watch Riders is featured on the cover of the website in an article and photographs titled 'A Hero's Welcome: No one should come home without our thanks.' The story has interviews from the founders of both organizations and why they felt the strong drive to make sure the troops weren't forgotten once they were off the battlefields.
     It also reaches into the life of a mother who joined A Hero's Welcome after her Marine Corps son was led home by a line of motorcyclists and given hugs and handshakes by smiling strangers after completing a tour of duty in Iraq. Michele Rooney felt the need to give something back and it helped her get to know other mothers out there who also sent a son off to war.
     The deployments are never easy for these families and not all come home with flag-waving fanfare. Other heroes return in a flag draped casket and Warriors' Watch Riders are there to solemnly bring them home. They feel a responsibility to be there in all circumstances as Wayne Lutz founder of Warriors' Watch Rider and Sharon Hyland-Keyser founder of A Hero's Welcome both have stated they want someone there to shake the hand of every soldier coming home and say a word of thanks to make sure they know that they are remembered.
A Hero's Welcome homecoming for Marine Gary Anoushian.
     In the coming months many more stories will be written. Visit the site at as Digital First Media and The Mercury continue to publish stories. As Lutz so graciously states there will always be a reason to see these men and women home saying “I always tell them, when I’m dead and they’re old and gray, to pay it forward. You and I know that 40 years from now, there will be another war” — and more men and women laying their lives on the line who will need to be welcomed home.