September 11: Remembering Jonas

Grave of Jonas Panik, Centre County Memorial Park

Note: All the yearbook entries are in italics and are the words that Jonas wrote in middle and high school. I did not correct any of the spelling errors in his writings – they’re his words and I would not have felt right changing them

It has been eighteen years.

Eighteen years. It feels like it happened just yesterday. I clearly remember the events of that terrible day. Growing up my parents would often say, “I remember where I was when JFK was killed.” I never understood what they meant until the events of September 11, 2001. The events of that day were permanently etched into my memory.

That morning started like any other day. I was working part-time at Pattee Library, located on the Penn State Main Campus, and was stationed at the Bigler Annex to process requests. We had a lot of them that morning and my coworker and I were busy gathering books and making photocopies. A couple minutes after the second plane hit the South Tower, the building’s janitor came in to tell us what happened. Like the rest of the nation, we sat in shock as we watched the stream of coverage and tried to comprehend what we were witnessing.

My coworker and I watched in horror as the events of the morning were played and replayed, I remember thinking about all those who had lost loved ones that morning – I did not know it at the moment, but the attacks were about to affect the community where I grew up. 

Late in the afternoon of that day my mother called. One of her coworkers, who was distantly related to Jonas, had received a phone call giving the terrible news she was about to share with me. The words she said still echo in my mind: “They can’t locate Jonas. He’s among the missing.” He was in the Pentagon when the hijacked plane slammed into it.

The next day, I received the phone call I had been dreading: Jonas was among those killed in the terrorist attacks.

I felt like a piece of me was ripped out. Though it had been years since I last talked to him, the memories from my school years instantly flooded my mind.

I was in sixth grade when I first met Jonas. By the second day of classes, he had introduced himself to everyone, “Hi, my name’s Jonas. I don’t think we’ve met.”

As I look back through my yearbooks, I found the message he scrawled in the back of my yearbook for sixth grade: “Good luck in all you do.”

We did not have classes together in seventh grade, but we had Mrs. Colyer’s Advanced English class in eighth grade. I remember reading a play one day about a nuclear accident and the survivor was sealed up in a bunker waiting for the radiation to clear. What the survivalist doesn’t realize is the city has been walled up and he is left alone in the bunker and radioactive container while the rest of the world went on.

I was given the part of the survivalist to read. In one scene the survivalist is lifting weights and he is supposed to be sucking in air and then talking as he’s doing his workout. I, never having lifted weights a day in my life, just could not comprehend why the man kept saying “ssssssshhhhhh” between phrases. So rather than making a noise of sucking in air, I kept saying “SHHHHHHH” over and over. At the end of class Jonas walked over and explained to me what the noise was supposed to be — me breathing in and not telling the class to be quiet. We both had a good laugh over it.

And then there were the pencils. My mother to this day is probably still wondering why I went through packs and packs of pencils that year. Every morning was pretty much the same. “I need to borrow a pencil, you have an extra?” Jonas always offered to return the pencil he borrowed, but after he had chewed on it most of the day, I definitely did not want the pencil back, so I told him I really did not need it. For some reason, most of those pencils ended their day stuck into the ceiling of one of the halls. The year ended with the following note: “To my main suplier (spelt wrong) of pencils and a good friend. Thanks.”

As we entered high school we had fewer classes together, but we would stop and talk in the halls. We had chemistry lab together our sophomore year and on one of the last days, he wanted to make sure that the safety shower in the lab room was working. Waiting until Mr. Williams, the chemistry teacher, was out of the room Jonas walked over to the shower and pulled the chain. Long story short: it worked. Those in the lab had a good laugh about it, though Mr. Williams was not at all pleased at the time.

Two events that happened during our senior year in high school will stay with me for the rest of my life. The first was he took a part in the school’s musical, Hello, Dolly! He played the head waiter who introduces Dolly when she enters the restaurant. Every time I’ve watched the play in recent years, or have listened to the soundtrack, the memory lingers  of Jonas playing the role.

The second thing I really remember about our senior year happened mere weeks before graduation. A group of us decided to play a game of basketball during one of our free periods. The game came to an abrupt end when I had collided with another player. Jonas had the ball and Jeremy came from one side to get the ball and I from the other. Jeremy and I hit heads right in front of Jonas. I ended up with thirteen stitches in my forehead. The accident had affected all of us and I believe my classmates felt worse about the accident than I did and a number of classmates mentioned the “Lucky 13” stitches as they wrote their final words and thoughts in my yearbook. Jonas added his words of wisdom – scribbled on the last page of my yearbook are these words: “It has been a long time. Never forget all of the fun times we had through middle and high school. Take it easy on the courts – we don’t want any more stitches. Good luck in the future. Jonas. Sorry about the stitches.”

We, like the rest of our classmates, drifted our separate ways. I often wish that I stayed in contact with him, but the memories I have are as strong now as they were when they happened so many years ago. I remember the last time I talked to him. He was home visiting family and we ran into each other at the local mall. We talked for a couple minutes before he said he had to get some things, but we would definitely have to get together and catch up the next time he was home. He stuck out his hand and again apologized for the stitches I had received during my senior year. “I am truly, truly sorry, man.”

We never did have that next conversation.

As I sit here writing this, I can still see him standing there, so full of life and energy. I can still hear his voice reading the entries from my yearbooks.

The tears are beginning form and one or two have already rolled slowly down my cheek. I close my eyes and rub the scar from that basketball game as I wish the world was as simple as it once was. Jonas was a great man who always seemed to bring out the best in those who were around him.

He will always be missed.

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