Rotary Club of Phillipsburg

Miracles of a Childhood Friendship Are Unforgettable-by Joe Gurneak


I’ve always been the kind of person who feels obligated to repay a favor or act of kindness toward me or my family. However, in reflection, I still owe my friend, Bernie, and I will never be able to repay him.

In September of 1955, I was just 10 years old. My family moved from Perth Amboy, NJ, to a small town a short distance away called Fords. It was a big adjustment for me to leave my group of playmates, but I quickly became best friends with Bernie who lived up the street from our new home. Bernie was my age and we were in the fifth-grade class. His father was killed during World War II. He lived with his mother, a younger brother, sister and grandparents. I enjoyed being over his house, as his family made me feel right at home. I guess, in a strange way, I envied Bernie because he never received a "licking" from his dad.

A short distance from where we lived was an area called Cutter’s Woods. Coming from the "city," I found the woods a great source of fun and fascination. Bernie and I spent many afternoons playing there. We especially liked fishing for sunfish and bass. Near where we played was a very old house. A elderly lady lived there with umpteen cats. We decided she must be a witch and steered clear of going near the place.


Now, this one particular afternoon, I spotted something very unusual. Along the path, leaning against a tree, was a kind of staff. It was about five feet long and about as thick as a man’s arm. It was either a small tree or a very straight limb. Someone had shaven off the bark and placed it in a way so it would have to be seen. I ran up and took it with us on our journey a little deeper into the woods.

As the afternoon wore on, I knew it was time for me to be getting home. My father got home from work at 4:45 every afternoon and we ate dinner at 5 o’clock sharp. I was expected to be home at 5:00, not 5:01 or risk some type of retribution. This afternoon I figured I was running a little late, so I decided to take a short cut across the back of the old lady’s property which led directly to a dirt road to the street. Bernie said he was staying for a little while longer, as we were trying to catch some sunfish. I remembered to take the staff with me because it seemed like a "treasure" I wanted to keep.

As I ran through the property, I stepped on a large piece of metal sheeting. It gave way and I fell into a well. The staff acted like a support across the top with me hanging there below. I knew my life was in jeopardy. I could not swim. If I fell into the well I would drown. But there was no way I could maneuver myself from the danger. I screamed as loud as I could, knowing full well I could only hang there for a few minutes. Shortly, good old Bernie was there. He quickly pulled me to safety, saving my life. "Thanks, buddy," I said. We both laughed over the event.

I don’t remember telling my parents about the incident that afternoon, but I do remember getting a strong reprimand for being late. I guess it was probably years later that I fully realized how close I was to death and the fact that two miracles had saved my life that September afternoon - the staff and Bernie.

We remained friends as we grew up, but after high school our paths went different ways. Bernie became an officer in the United States Navy and eventually settled in Australia. I hadn’t seen him since graduation day in 1963. Recently I ran into his brother, who I hadn’t seen in about 25 years. He told me Bernie had gone swimming one afternoon near his home in Australia about a year ago and had drowned. How sad. Not that I’m the world’s greatest swimmer today, but I certainly would have tried to repay the great favor of long ago.

I guess there is no staff long enough to stretch the ocean. Good-bye, dear friend. Thank you for my gift of life. Know that I will always keep you in my prayers.

"We were lads in the spring of life

Our friendship deep and true

Happy hours spent in joy

In whatever we would do

To return for just an hour

Our friendship again to hold

As the young lads that we were

I would pay with gold!"

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