The Wheelchair Games were a blast, and inspirational at the same time. Watching hundreds of paralyzed athletes compete and excel in events that any one of us would bomb in was awe-inspiring.
Some had been paralyzed after their military service in car accidents. Others were paralyzed or lost limbs in various wars. None of them had a bad attitude.
It was my job to help with media and write stories. While there was a sizeable public affairs staff, I became particularly close with Tomah Jim and Kathleen Pomorski, another public affairs officer from the Coatesville, Pa., VA hospital. If we weren’t hanging out together on the job, we were usually getting dinner or sharing a beer afterward, patting each other on the back, talking smack, and making fun of one another.
In my pocket was a commemorative coin we all received as a token of our service. I don’t collect many of these military-style coins, but this one was special to me. The front had the artwork and logo of the Wheelchair Games. The back had this year’s motto for Pittsburgh: “Where heroes become legend.”
I was, and remain, in awe of these amazing veterans, and the coin would be a constant reminder of their never-say-die grit and determination.
The trip back home was also nice since I could spend time with my Mom, who still lives in the same house we grew up. She came down for some of the games, and we were able to get lunch. Since the games officially wrapped up Aug. 6, we made plans to spend the day together and visit Kennywood the next day, a great amusement park about 30 minutes from our home. Everyone in Pittsburgh goes to Kennywood every year. With its mixture of old-time roller coaster greats like the Jack Rabbit, Racer and Thunderbolt, mixed with new behemoths like The Phantom’s Revenge, it’s a one-of-a-kind place. Many of my children’s first roller coast experiences -- just like mine -- happened right in that park.
Mom picked me up at the hotel, and we had breakfast at one of my favorite places -- Ritter’s Diner, with the same meal I’ve always had whenever I’m in town: well-done corned beef hash, two eggs, and well-done and crispy home fries with brown gravy. Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
Little did I know, as I ate my breakfast, that Devin had already been dead for more than nine hours.
On our way to Kennywood, we drove by a cemetery. My best childhood friend, John Garvey, is buried just inside the gates. He commit suicide in 1993, and I still think of him every week. It was John’s death that made me rethink suicide and the dogma surrounding it. I know some religions teach that someone who does such a thing goes to Hell. I can’t find that anywhere in the Bible. I can’t think anyone who does that is in a right mind, and think God judges them mercifully.
“How you doin’, John?” I said out loud as we passed the cemetery gates.
A minute later, we were rounding a fenced-in curve of the far side of the cemetery. This was the place, in 1985, where my brother’s best childhood friend, Vince Sharpe, along with Roman Lawniczak, died, after crashing their motorcycle.
“Thinking of you, Vince and Roman,” I said, as I often did in that area.
Why did my mother drive this route when there were others to choose from? Was Devin telling me something?
We got to Kennywood and I was worried about Mom. She is 72, and though she thinks otherwise, does not get around as well as she once did. She almost died a year earlier because of a gangrenous colon and three emergency surgeries, so it’s probably a bit of a modern-day medical miracle that she is still with us. She has changed quite a bit in the years since Dad died back in 1996, and I’m not sure she ever quite accepted the fact that her three children grew up and had the audacity to join the Air Force and move away from home.
The oldest, Ellen, lives in South Carolina with her husband, Stu, and two children, Caroline and Zoe. Steve, the middle one and four years older than me, lives in Virginia, with his daughter, Amber. Steve and I were born on the same day, four years apart -- one of us was 21 days early, and the other was 21 days late, Mom says. I’m not sure which one was which. I just know I ruined his fourth birthday party. We live in Kenosha, Wis. There’s me, my wife, Ruth, and the three kids: Devin, 21; Ashlie, 19; and Stephen, 15. We ended up here in 2001 after leaving Aviano, Italy, where I was stationed with the Air Force and got a job at Great Lakes in North Chicago.
From the day we arrived, my kids decided we weren’t going to leave again. They had a real neighborhood, with real sidewalks and real neighborhood friends. Wasn’t quite like that overseas. One year became five, I retired from the Air Force, worked at the Kenosha News, and then moved onto the VA.
After 10 years, Ruth and I were talking about leaving, and starting a new phase of our lives. I brought up the subject with Mom as we walked through the gates of Kennywood. She was disappointed to hear Pittsburgh wasn’t on our short list. We wanted to go some place hot, located near family, and had narrowed it down to South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia and San Antonio, Texas. Ruth and I have always loved San Antonio, since we were both stationed there with the Air Force years ago, but didn’t know each other back then. She has family there, and we love the area, the heat and the great housing prices.
I already applied for a job working public affairs for the Army’s Southern Regional Army Medical Command. Based on my background, I figured I had a pretty good shot. We start looking at houses online, and dreamed about our new San Antonio home, complete with a den and built-in pool in the backyard.
The world might change, and so does Kennywood, but it does not disappoint.
Some rides long loved and remembered as a child are gone, like the goofy Horrible Harold’s Haunted Hideaway, but the old standbys are still there. Mom and I first stopped at the Jack Rabbit. Years earlier, I took all three of my kids, Devin, Ashlie and Stephen, on the coaster.
Mom walks a bit slower, so we ambled next to the Log Jammer. I remember standing in line for what seemed like hours the year it first opened in 1975. It’s your standard, ride-in-a-plastic-cart-that-looks-like-logs-and-go-down-two-water-hills-and-get-splashed-in-the-face ride. Time and technology may have passed the Log Jammer by with faster, wetter rides, but it’s still a hoot going down that last hill, especially if someone in the front is carrying a little extra weight.
With all the bright, loud amusement park music, and joyful yelling and screaming that can only be found in a place like this, I never heard my cell phone ring.
We got a soda and found a park bench since Mom needed a break. We sat down to watch people go by, as I absentmindedly checked my cell phone and saw there was voicemail.
Listening to Mom with one ear, I punched in my four-digit code and heard my friend, Paul Kloiber’s voice with the other.
He sounded more stressed than usual.
“Gary, this is Paul Kloiber. I am so sorry. I just heard the news about Devin … ”
Oh no, I thought. Devin’s in trouble …
“I am so sorry. If there is anything I can do, anything at all …”
What did my son do???
“… if you guys need food or whatever just let me know …”
I felt blood drain from my face. My jaw opened.
“…Again, I’m so sorry. Call me if you need anything … ”
I swallowed while my brain tried to make sense of the call. Happy, amusement park music piped over loudspeakers. People walked by laughing.
I swallowed again, and looked at Mom, and formed words that didn’t want to come.
“I think Devin is dead.”
She blinked, the words startling her into silence.
“I just got a message from my friend, Paul. I think Devin is dead.”
It didn’t register with her right away.
“Honey, what do you mean?”
“He just called to say he was sorry about Devin, and he wanted to bring over food. I’ve got to call him back.”
Every image and every voice and sound blurred into one another. I looked all around for a quiet place, any place, to call Paul back, and spied a corner next to a food booth. It was still loud, but it’s all I had.
With fingers shaking, I went to the call history, hit the “missed calls” button, found Paul’s number, and hit “Dial.”
The phone rang once.
“Gary!” Paul shouted.
Everywhere music and noise and I could barely hear.
“Paul! I’m out of town in Pittsburgh! What’s going on? Is my son dead?!?”
“Oh my God!” he cried. “You don’t know! You don’t know! I’m so sorry!”
My heart thumped in my chest as his reaction confirmed what I suspected. I blinked and choked back the first set of tears while steeling myself for the rest of the conversation.
But everywhere, everywhere noise and music and laughter …
“Paul! What happened?”
He was sobbing. I collapsed against the wall of the food booth, trying to block out noise and sounds that wouldn’t stop.
“I am so sorry,” he kept saying over and over. “Devin was killed last night on his bike! I thought you knew! I wouldn’t have called you! I’m so sorry! I thought you knew!”
A couple tears filled my eyes, but I was too shocked to totally break down.
“He was riding his bike home from the Renaissance Faire,” Paul continued. “It’s been on Facebook, that’s why I thought you knew!”
“How could it be on Facebook?” I yelled.
“I don’t know! I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean for you to find out this way!”
“Paul, I have to go. I have to call the police.”
Mom walked over to me and our eyes met. I tried to unsuccessfully will away the painful knot in my chest and stop my hands from shaking.
“He was killed … I have to call the police …”
I tried walking to a slightly quieter place near one of the picnic areas, while pushing the numbers for the Kenosha Police Department. After four and a half years as a reporter, I knew the number by memory.
A dispatcher picked up, and I took a deep breath to regain some semblance of composure.”
“This is Gary Kunich. I just found out my son, Devin, was in an accident, and might be dead. Can you give me some information?”
Maybe, just maybe, I thought, it wasn’t true. There was an accident, but he wasn’t dead. He couldn’t be dead. It wasn’t real.
The dispatcher hesitated for a moment.
“You’ll have to call the Pleasant Prairie Police Department.”
It took a second to filter through my stunned brain, and turn into anger.
“My son might be dead and you can’t tell me?!?”
She hesitated again.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know, but there was a bad accident over there.”
She knew. She had to have known, but she couldn’t say. Her inability to say anything confirmed it all.
And still everywhere, there was laughter and shouts of excitement. I wanted to scream at the world to shut up! Did they not understand my son was dead?!? What the hell was wrong with them???
She gave me the Pleasant Prairie number and I made the next call and repeated myself.
“One moment sir, let me get you the detective,” this dispatcher said.
One more person, same question. “Is my son dead?”
“Yes sir,” the male detective said. “I’m afraid he is. I am sorry you had to find out this way. We have been trying to get in touch with you and your wife all day.”
I looked up at the sky, and all around me, trying to gather my thoughts and willed myself not to cry.
“Right now it looks like a horrible accident,” he said. “He was riding his bike north on Highway H at about 12:50 a.m. and was hit from behind. He was wearing dark clothes. The girl who hit him may have been on her cell phone.”
Why was Devin out so late? Why was he out so late?
Why was he dead?
He told me the medical examiner was trying to get in touch with me.
My phone battery was low, and I didn’t know how much time I had left before the phone shut off completely. I asked him to give my number to the examiner, and told him I’d be home in a half hour to recharge my phone.
Everywhere, everywhere there was still noise and music and laughter, and I felt sick.
Ruth had to know.
I called her cell. It went immediately to voicemail.
“Hi Ruth, this is Gary. Please call me as soon as you get this. I love you.”
She later said I sounded so sad on the phone. She thought my Mom had died or had a stroke at Kennywood.
I’ve got to get in touch with her.
I called our youngest son, Stephen. If he answered, I’d just ask him to put his Mom on the phone.
“Hello, you’ve reached the phone of Stephen. I’m sorry I can’t take your call right now,” his voicemail said.
“Steve, it’s Dad. Please have Mom call me as soon as possible. I love you.”
I called our next-door-neighbor, Maggie Edmark, who was on the camping trip. I had her number in my phone since she usually watches the dogs when we’re out of town.
I called our daughter, Ashlie, 19, who was working in Rheinlander as a camp counselor for the summer.
Thank God I got her voicemail, too. I was not thinking clearly. What would I tell her? Your brother is dead, and hey, how is camp? I can’t imagine how she might take that news.
I tried Ruth and Stephen again with no luck and frustration building up inside as we began walking toward the front of the park. My entire body and brain felt numb and tingly, like I was out of my own body, looking at it and the world around me. It felt cold and unreal.
My phone rang. It was an unfamiliar number. I numbly answered.
“Gary! This is Lou Denko! Ruth’s boss from Medix! I’m the deputy medical examiner now …”
His words came in a garbled mess that I couldn’t discern from the sounds that crushed in on me from all around.
“Who is this???”
He repeated himself.
When we first arrived in Kenosha, my wife wanted to immediately start nursing school, but there were no open slots available. She had been a medic in the Air Force for 12 years, and it was always her dream to become a nurse. With no openings available, she instead worked part-time at the Cracker Barrel, and then took a part-time job with Medix Ambulance, a private ambulance company that Lou owned.
“Lou!” I yelled, finally figuring out who was on the other end, all the while willing myself, unsuccessfully, not to be sick. “What happened?”
“Gary, I am so sorry you had to find out this way,” he said with genuine compassion.
This wasn’t just another case, another death for him. I could tell in his voice. He recognized Devin’s name, and knew he was our son.
“It really looks like a tragic accident, Gary.”
“Was she drunk?”
“No,” he replied. “No indication of drugs or alcohol. She may have been on her cell phone.”
This isn’t happening, I thought, but knew it really was. What am I going to tell Ruth? How am I going to tell Ruth?
Devin was dead.
Devin was dead.
Dear God in Heaven, my son was dead …
And everywhere, everywhere the crushing sound of music, laughter and noise continued all around me …