Mike Tharp: Brothers who never met

December 10, 2011 

It pays to read the Sun-Star.

This month it paid off in a magical, mysterious and even mystical way for a couple of Mercedians.

A wet newspaper led to an Oprah moment.

Don Glass, retired Air Force senior master sergeant and a 20-year veteran of Foster Farms after he left the Strategic Air Command at Castle, picked up his Sun-Star from the driveway in early October.

Wet. Hell. He went into his house near the old air base and spread out the pages to dry. One of the pages fell open to the obituaries. As people in their later years often do, he scanned them.

"Russell." The maiden name of Jean Glass jumped out at him. He once had a baby sitter named Russell when he grew up back East. Then he read "Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania." Damn, that's got to be her, he thought. He thought of himself as a boy, sitting on her lap while she sang songs to him.

So a few days later, he called Joyce Hall, one of the daughters of the lady in the obit. He thought that lady, who died Sept. 29, might have been his baby sitter in the early 1930s in her hometown of Jersey Shore. Joyce, who's lived in Merced since 1992, asked some questions, then made a few calls to cousins back East.

She learned Don Glass is an uncle she never knew she had. An uncle from her father's side of the family, a branch she never knew existed. Don is her dad Jerry Glass' half-brother.

Neither Joyce nor Don knew the other was on the earth, let alone a few miles away from each other for the past 20 years.

Don and his half-brother were born seven months apart in 1932.

Let's just say their papa, to quote the Temptations, was a rolling stone. "There wasn't much else to do back then," Don shrugs.

Neither son was ever close to their father. Neither knew him as adults. They had stepfathers they loved. And neither knew the other brother was around -- until this fall when Don read the Sun-Star.

When Joyce got the call from Don, she noticed the caller ID. "Any chance you're related to my dad?" she asked.

"I don't think so," said Don, who then checked with his brother in Florida and a sister still in Pennsylvania. They filled him in.

"Holy mackerel!" he said.

Soon afterward, he called Joyce again. "I think you're my uncle," she told him on the phone.

"I'll be darned," he said.

They arranged to meet. Three Sundays ago she took him to see her dad, suffering from the early stages of dementia. The coincidences began falling like mah-jongg tiles. Both Don and Jerry had enlisted in the Air Force. Both did their basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio. Jerry played trombone in the base band. Don spent some evenings listening to their music. The brothers had been in the same service club, both in military uniforms, unaware of the ties that bound them.

When they met for the first time in Merced, it was the Air Force that resonated most clearly for Jerry. He remembered Lackland. He recalled playing the trombone. "It was, 'Oh, I know him!' and 'I remember that!' and 'Oh, God!' " Don smiles at the memories.

When they were both boys in Pennsylvania, neither family owned a refrigerator -- they had an ice box. Neither family had electricity -- they lit kerosene lamps.

Don made a career in the military, signing up at 17. He was stationed all over the world, most of it for short hitches on temporary duty. What did he do in the service? "Everything they told me," he says. Gunner. Electronics. Avionics.

Jerry stayed in four years, all stateside. Then he worked as a letter carrier for the Postal Service for 25 years. In 1999, Joyce brought her parents to Merced from Southern California. Her mom was active in the United Methodist Church and painted, drew and sent handmade cards to family and friends. Joyce works for the county.

Over lunch earlier this week, their affection for each other was clear. She laughed at Don's stories about landing in the pokey when he was based in Louisiana -- "never my fault," he insisted. He paid close attention to her remarks about her family.

"He had no idea there was another family," Joyce says of her father.

"Nor did I," adds Don.

Uncle and niece already swap emails. They eat at Carrow's. "I certainly see us staying in contact," she says. "I called him 'Uncle Don' in the first email."

"God, that sounds funny," he says. "I haven't heard 'Uncle Don' in a long, long time."

Thanks to a rain-soaked Sun-Star newspaper, now he'll be hearing it for a long, long time.

(A footnote: Don now has a new newspaper carrier. This woman wraps his Sun-Star tightly in plastic so it's always dry. But he's mighty glad he got that one wet copy.)

Executive Editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2456 or mtharp@mercedsunstar.com

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