Written by Dan Miller
Lots of us dream of going to exotic places someday, but we don’t let ourselves go.
We come up with all kinds of reasons and excuses for why we can’t do something, or go somewhere, so we don’t do it. And that’s that. You go to your grave wondering what might have been.
But if you are reading this, it’s obviously not too late to change that. And the place to start might be to spend some time with John Kerecz of Lower Swatara Township — after which you might find yourself thinking, if this guy can do it, why can’t I?
Yeah right, you’re thinking, maybe if I was rich. But Kerecz says he’s never won the lottery and that he isn’t independently wealthy. He works for the state.
Yet within just the past two years he’s flown to outer space in a Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighter jet, and more recently hiked to the base camp of the tallest mountain on the planet.
Maybe it’s because when Kerecz puts his mind to something, he just does it. Some people read books about self-help and stress relief; Kerecz writes them. For more on that, go to Amazon.com and search for John Kerecz.
And at the end of the day, Kerecz will tell you two things: taking the trip of your dreams — and doing it more than once in your life — doesn’t have to be that hard. And you will probably find that the most satisfying part of any voyage lies in the journey getting there.
It is true that these big adventures often follow something traumatic that has happened in Kerecz’s life. After his father died in 2014, Kerecz decided he would realize his boyhood dream of going to outer space by going to Russia and hitching that ride on the MiG-29.
His father’s death had made Kerecz, then 52, start thinking of his own mortality.
Two years later, he found himself in a similar situation. His mother had just died, and on top of that Kerecz had to have his own hip replaced. Again faced with thoughts of his own mortality, he decided it was time to realize another dream — this one an adventure to the Far East that would combine training at the Shaolin Temple in China with visits to the temples of Tibet.
And if you are going to be in the neighborhood anyway, might as well stop by Mount Everest.
Citing what may be the first of Kerecz’s many rules of world traveling, he advised, “I’m real big that if you are going on a trip, go to other places while you are there, because you never know when you will get back.”
He went to China first, then to Tibet. The first sign that you have arrived in a place that is really different is when you get off the plane in Lhasa, the capital city, and feel the impact of the altitude change of being over 3,600 meters above sea level.
He visited temples and palaces on the Tibetan side, including the palace that the dalai lama lived in before he was exiled to India.
The buses filled with tourists are a big source of income for the region. Outsiders come hoping to be inspired by holy men who have forsaken anything having to do with the civilized world.
Well, almost anything.
“You’d be in places where they had no plumbing and they were living in tents but they would have cellphones and wifi,” Kerecz said. “The monks are on their cellphones and their wifi and their iPads. There is a monastery near the base camp on the Tibetan where (a monk) only had a flip phone. Our tour guide said the monks who get paid more have better technology. That was kind of disappointing to me.”
It reminded Kerecz of a scene he saw in the new “Doctor Strange” movie not long after returning home from his exotic journey. A man is given a word that he thinks is his mantra that he is to meditate on to attain enlightenment.
“They said ‘No, it’s your wifi password. We’re not savages,’” he said.
The night before hiking to the base camp of Mount Everest was spent in a tent with a bunch of other people.
“They are burning yak dung to keep warm,” Kerecz said. “They use yaks for everything — they eat them, make clothes out of them, burn their dung for heat, insulate their homes.”
Outside, diesel-burning vehicles add to the pungent odor and make breathing even harder in the oxygen-deprived thin air.
Among a traveling party of 20 people, only Kerecz — the 55-year-old with a hip replacement — and a 125-pound Bulgarian guy who couldn’t walk right because of a birth defect get up in the morning to hike to the base camp.
Some of the others in the group were taking shots of oxygen to cope with the thin air, others were taking medication. Kerecz and the other guy bought some of the medication in Lhasa but they never used it.
Starting out they were already at about 4,800 meters above sea level. It would take them about an hour and 45 minutes to hike another 400 meters — about 1,300 feet — to get to the base camp.
“We didn’t always feel the best” during the climb, Kerecz said. “You are breathing really deep and you are really expanding. It reminded me of when you are in grade school and they make you do sports you haven’t done before, and you are like dying.”
Once they had the base camp in sight adrenalin kicked in and they picked up speed. The reward is the view of the peak of Mount Everest, and the “sense of accomplishment” one gets from being that close to the tallest mountain in the world.
But as with a lot of things, standing there seemed “anti-climactic,” Kerecz said. “You know what they say, it’s the journey not the destination.”
Perhaps it was more satisfying just to know that he could do it.
“You feel as you are getting older and things start getting replaced that you are losing part of yourself, and you worry about what you can do anymore — what might be next? What if something happens and I am stuck in a wheelchair for the rest of my life or paralyzed?”
As for the more practical stuff, the most expensive part of the trip was the airfare. Otherwise, eight whole days of lodging and food in Tibet came to no more than about $1,000.
The U.S. dollar is high right now relative to other currencies in the world, which helps. Traveling alone, Kerecz also cut his costs when stopping off at cities like Cairo, Athens, Istanbul and Rome by basically living off of the airport.
“When I went to the different countries I just got on and off the airplane and slept in the airports,” which worked pretty well up to a point. “We got chased by some police in China, I forget what city it was. There was a bunch of us sleeping in the airport. They told us to go down a couple levels. They were military guys with rifles.”
One of Kerecz’s favorite photos from his recent travels is one that shows him walking around Seoul, South Korea, with his shoes untied.
“I stopped tying them because I kept taking them on and off in the airport. I said, ‘Screw it, I’m tired of it.’”
It wasn’t the money but his physical discomfort that would probably dissuade Kerecz from ever going back to Tibet again. After returning he found out that he had sprained his abdominal wall sometime during the hike, which led to “a touch of pneumonia” that was a memory he’d just as soon forget.
Besides going to outer space and China and Tibet, Kerecz over the years has scratched several other trips off his bucket list — including the Grand Canyon, going cross-country on his motorcycle, and hanging out underwater with sharks. He’s never gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel, and doesn’t sound like he plans to.
But there’s more on the list to get to. Next up could be a trip to the ancient ruins in Peru at Machu Picchu. South America is one part of the planet he has not explored.
Machu Picchu should be “a little mild” compared to some of the places he’s been to. The trip will probably also be more expensive, as he’s planning to take someone else along.
But it’s a pretty safe bet that Kerecz won’t let money — or anything else for that matter — stop him from realizing yet another dream trip of a lifetime.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 January 2017 12:51
Written by Dan Miller
It was an unusually hot day in May 2015. The late afternoon sun was blinding, and the sweat was pouring down Mayor John Hoerner’s face as he pushed a broom to sweep the stones and debris off the sidewalks of downtown Highspire, alongside a group of young people from the Harrisburg Rugby Club.
Hoerner had made this happen, like he made so many other things happen in Highspire.
The club wanted to do something to repay the town for allowing the club to play in Memorial Park. Hoerner came up with the idea of having the club come out to help beautify the sidewalks and streets of the town he loved.
But he didn’t just set it up. He was there, sweating and working as hard as everybody else.
Hoerner was the type of small-town mayor who seemed to be everywhere, all the time.
In fact, the borough itself doesn’t know all the things that Hoerner was doing on a routine basis.
“There is a lot of stuff he did that I think we don’t know about,” said John McHale, the Highspire Borough Manager who is also the town police chief.
Now, the town’s going to find out the hard way. Hoerner died unexpectedly at age 62 overnight Dec. 23 into Christmas Eve.
A lifelong Highspire resident, Hoerner was first elected mayor in 2005 after serving on borough council for six years. He was re-elected in 2009 and in 2013, and would have come up for re-election again in 2017.
Hoerner took care of the big things that Highspire mayors before him had always done, such as putting together the annual veterans observances at Memorial Park.
Mayors under the borough code are responsible for the police department.
“He wanted to know what was happening, and if there were any major (police) events he asked to be called” to them, McHale said.
Hoerner would show up, not in the sense of trying to take over, but just trying to make sure that the chief and the police had what they needed to do their job.
Once during a major flooding event, Hoerner directed traffic for 24 hours straight at the corner of 2nd and Broad streets, McHale said.
He knew that all of the town’s regular fire police would be busy with flood-related emergencies all over Highspire, so he took it upon himself to get trained in directing traffic, McHale said.
That was one example of Hoerner seeing something that needed done, and doing it.
Another time, a resident came to a borough council meeting asking if something could be done to help some elderly folks who could no longer shovel the sidewalk by themselves.
“His (Hoerner’s) answer was ‘I will have the men’s organization from the church next door take care of the snow,’” McHale said. “We all kind of knew that meant that he was going to take care of the snow.”
Hoerner loved to recognize people and businesses who had done good things for the town. The town has two awards that are presented annually; one the Citizen of the Year and the other the Business of the Year.
The awards were started before Hoerner became mayor, but Hoerner did much to continue the tradition.
In 2008 it was the Champions Sports Bar’s turn to be recognized as Business of the Year. Champions supported Hoerner on projects and concerns that were near and dear to him, such as the condition of Memorial Park located next to Champions along Route 230.
In 2008 Champions donated $6,500 toward helping maintain the park, followed by another donation of $6,000 in 2009. All the money was raised through a golf tournament that Champions held for the town each year. Hoerner never missed an opportunity to promote the event, said Tyler Schmidt, the owner of Champions.
“He would stand up on Hole 10 at Sunset Golf Course and greet every golfer before they hit their ball,” Schmidt said.
Hoerner lived near Champions. He and his wife Brenda often ate dinner at the sports bar, Schmidt said.
“He was a great guy, a fantastic guy,” Schmidt said of Hoerner. “He was a big part of the borough — like the backbone of the borough. He will be greatly missed.”
Hoerner made it a practice to attend meetings of other nearby municipalities, such as Steelton Borough Council.
He also regularly attended Steelton-Highspire School Board meetings. Hoerner was a Steel-High grad, as were his children.
But in early 2014, when a group of Highspire residents started a petition seeking to withdraw from the Steelton-Highspire district to send their children to Middletown Area School District schools, Hoerner was willing to sign on to represent the group as spokesman.
“I’m worried about Highspire and our children. If we can do something, we need to,” Hoerner said at the time. “We’ll always be Rollers, but there are times that you have to look at what’s best for our children in Highspire, for a better education.”
Last Updated on Wednesday, 04 January 2017 12:45
Written by Dan Miller
Fifty service dogs and their handlers were part of a special training event that was held for service dogs at Harrisburg International Airport on Saturday, Dec. 3.
The service dogs — all with Susquehanna Service Dogs — were run through all the activities that go with taking a flight at HIA; including going through security, riding the long-term shuttle, practicing going up and down stairs and using the elevator, and going out on the runway and boarding a Dash-8 aircraft that was provided by Piedmont Airlines.
Piedmont is a subsidiary of American Airlines that provides service at HIA.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 03 January 2017 11:23
Written by Dan Miller
Exelon Generation and the employees of Three Mile Island Generating Station contributed more than $425,000 to dozens of nonprofit organizations in central Pennsylvania.
The contributions came from employee giving and from Exelon Generation through its charitable giving program. The largest part of the total contribution was from Three Mile Island employees who donated $235,000 to area United Way agencies and direct donations to nonprofit organizations. As part of the program, Exelon matches contributions by 50 percent and donates those funds to the local United Way.
“Exelon and the people at Three Mile Island continue to up their game when it comes to helping people in our region,” Judy Oxenford, mayor of Royalton and director of the Royalton/Middletown Senior Center, said in a TMI press release. “They have been a valued resource in helping non-profits serve the needs of thousands of our neighbors.”
Royalton Senior Center received $5,000 on Dec. 14.
Other 2016 donations include $3,500 to the Middletown Public Library, $500 to Middletown Care-A-Van, $10,000 to the Lower Dauphin Communities That Care, $1,000 to God’s Kitchen, $1,000 to Middletown Volunteer Fire Company, and $40,000 to the Londonderry Volunteer Fire Company
Not only did TMI employees donate money to charities, but they donated their time by being involved in such efforts as scouting, coaching, judging science fairs and building homes through Habitat for Humanity.
“Our mission at Three Mile Island is to safely produce zero-emissions electricity, while at the same time work to make our communities a better place to live,” said Ed Callan, TMI site vice president. “We take great pride in giving back to our communities.”
Other organizations that benefitted include the Salvation Army and the Central Pa. Food Bank.
Last Updated on Thursday, 29 December 2016 18:03
If you are interested in having a crimewatch group in your neighborhood in Middletown, another meeting on this topic will be held at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 19, in the Rescue Fire Hall at 600 S. Union St.
The meeting is the third and last — at least for now — in a series of community meetings on crime in Middletown that have been set up by Councilor Dawn Knull and borough Police Chief John Bey, who is leaving his post at the end of the month.
All of the meetings are being attended by David Botero, who sets up and works with crimewatch-type groups throughout the city of Harrisburg as community relations coordinator for the Harrisburg Bureau of Police.
Botero is expected to be at the Jan. 19 meeting. Each of the meetings have also been attended by several Middletown police officers.
Last Updated on Thursday, 29 December 2016 17:50