If you live long enough, and you keep your eyes open, the circle of life and the bonds that hold that circle together will eventually converge. There are times the journey is painful, even unbearable, but if you keep moving forward, fighting for those small inches of minor victories, do the right thing enough times, you can make some sense of this adventure we call our lives. This past weekend I took a trip back in time to a place I had left behind 38 years ago. I was going back via a different route this trip, as I sped along 78 West headed for the Wind Creek Hotel and Casino in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. I had booked a room one exit away from my tomorrow’s destination of Allentown.
In the morning there would be the annual golf outing sponsored by the Muhlenberg College Athletic Association and I needed a good night’s rest before reuniting with my old friends and fraternity brothers in the area we had come of age together. As I sat alone at my table in Emeril’s Chop House it was easy to see I was among the remnants of the once mighty Bethlehem Steel and Ship Building company. Ironically Bethlehem Steel had played a big part in my personal destiny. Upon graduation from Muhlenberg College in 1982 I tried desperately to get a teaching job in the Allentown School District, but because Bethlehem Steel had started the slow process of going out of business, the bordering city of Allentown was feeling an economic depression as a result. Enrollment in the local school districts were decreasing dramatically and their was a freeze on hiring new teachers forcing me to return home to New York. In the middle of the city of Bethlehem these once proud buildings of industry were now occupied as a casino hotel. It was easy to see the beams of steel that used to represent power and the bonds of iron. The waitress came by “would you like another cosmo sir,” without turning my head I gave a slight nod and continued to stare into the past.
The rain was pounding down the morning of the tournament making it hard to be excited about playing golf. But, it had been too long and I had come to far to turn around now. Most of my life I had been absent from a past that had helped shape me into everything I am today. Walter O’Brien was one of the first people I met at Muhlenberg in the fall of 1978. I hadn’t had any contact with Walt since the day of my wedding in 1989. He reached out to me this spring and said something simple “Rich, would like to play in a golf tournament with some of the TKE guys from our class?” He had been one of the few people in my younger days who made the effort and found a way to understand me as I went through my childish angry young man act through my late teens and 20’s. The clouds were lifting as I pulled my car into the Brookside Country Club on the outskirts of Allentown.
Approximately 125 Muhlenberg alumni were mulling around putting their rain gear away and Bermuda shorts on. So many seasons and years had pasted since I had seen any of my college mates, yet even hiding behind masks, the faces and the names were coming back to me. I stood on the registration line with Brian Clark a TKE frat brother, a Jersey guy who is in the banking business. I turned around and there was Ron Romano, who had been in education and history classes with me at Muhlenberg. I learned he was a retired educator who spent 35 years teaching history and being a school administrator. Under my breath I mumbled “I should have stayed in education.” By 10:00 am Walter had located me and off we drove to the 13th hole to play some golf and catch up on a nearly 40 year gap in time.
Eight brothers on the edge of 60, all who graduated in 1982 or 1983 gathered on the 13th tee of Brookside Country Club as the sun was now shining brightly on us. For me it was the first time in 35 years I had seen any of them in person. I couldn’t help but think back of the perception they had of me back in those days at the ‘berg. I started my fraternity career by having the dubious distinction of being ranked the worst pledge the TKE chapter had ever seen. I was looked at by my own brothers as a loner, arrogant, aloof, abrasive, and mostly a contrarian.
They were right, and certainly didn’t want to spend too much mind to a selfish brother who was never going to commit to the team. I was watching my brothers in the bond interact as if it was just another day because they have stayed in touch socially over the years. I had to smile understanding sometimes the choices we make in our youth aren’t always the wisest. All of a sudden all of that crap in my head didn’t matter anymore, we were brothers who had bonded at the most vulnerable times in our lives and now 38 years later we all out on the golf course laughing, reminiscing and finding out about each others families. I went to this outing determined to listen and not do to much talking. It was apparent before I hit my first golf shot that I was going to fail miserably at that goal.
Ken Rubin who was the president of our fraternity class was there beardless and looking unusally relaxed from the way I remembered him. “Hey Siegs, you look great, good to see you,” said the man who back then I thought was so different from me. “You too Kenny, you know looks can be deceiving,” I laughed. We stood there together and watched Kerry Wentling lash his drive over 300 yards. “Oh shit, I am definitely going to embarrass myelf now with my horrible golf swing and weak hip,” I thought to myself. Ken sensing my anxiety put his arm on my shoulder, “come on man its time to stop being so competitive.” Yeah, I said with a wink, I wish that was possible. It was difficult not to start looking around and see how your peers had come through the years. Of course seeing my old bud Mitch Seidman brought out the worse in me. In college Mitch possessed a head of flaming red curly hair that now had all disappeared. “Hey Mitch, you haven’t changed one bit, still complaining and making plans you’ll never follow through on.” Of course me picking on him the whole day prompted him to say after the game was over. “Siegs, you’re the one who hasn’t changed, you’re still a huge asshole.”
We laughed and gave each other a brotherly hug. After we were done and eating dinner on a beautiful fall evening in the Lehigh Valley I asked the group of the eight of us to vote on who has aged the most gracefully. To my disappointment I didn’t get a single vote, it came out a tie between Doug Henke and Steve Kowalski.
After the awards were handed out and people had said their goodbyes, four of us ended up in the men’s grill sharing a libation. Four people who randomly ended up going to the same college and joining the same fraternity some 40 years ago. The conversation was about family and a mutual respect of where we all came from and how we ended up that Friday afternoon at this table at the Brookside Country Club. Walter O’brien was still partners in the same accounting firm that he started his career at in 1982. He is married to our classmate Dr. Linda Jaye and they raised three children who are now in their 20’s. Ken Rubin just sold his law practice and was what he called “totally retired”. He was spending his days auditing history classes at Princeton University, sampling wines, traveling the world and spending quality time with his college sweetheart Lisa and their two sons. He said he owed most of his success to his accountant Walter. Kerry Wentling is on second marraiage after having two kids with his first wife. We laughed about all the decisions we had made in our lives that got us back to this day. We talked about what we had lost and what we had gained, about our own parents, our mistakes and our accomplishments. For me time seemed to stand still, at the Brookside Country Club. These three brothers in the bond were the same guys I remembered from all those years ago. We drank a toast to the past, we drank a toast to where we ended up, and we drank a toast to old friends finding each other again. We pledged to see more of each other, we hugged and walked into the Pennsylvania night with lots of moisture in our eyes.
That night I drove back to Bethlehem to my hotel. I was alone once again eating at Emeril’s. I thought about Jay Mattola, Kemble Matter, Ken Moyer, the people who helped me find my way to Allentown Pennsylvania back in 1978. I thought about that lost 18 year kid driving his convertible with all his possessions blowing in the breeze heading to his future. I was an immature pampered boy from a small town, unprepared to take on the challenges of creating a new life far away from New Paltz. At that time I couldn’t figure out the opportunity that was in front of me and that my four years at Muhlenberg was where I would get the lessons that would carry me to the present. Looking back I didn’t make it easy on myself. I was fortunate that the brothers of the TKE fraternity found a way to accept a confused, reluctant and sometimes belligerent 19 year old freshman into their house. I continued to stare out at old steel manufacturing plant that had bonded the cities of Bethlehem, Easton, and Allentown together for all those years, not unlike the bonds of a fraternity. Certainly I harbor regret for my apathetic performance as a TKE brother all those years ago. Today none of it mattered, I was a brother in the bond and I felt strong.