It was about 8:30 Saturday morning. At a time many might still be wiping the sleep from their eyes, I stood straddling my bike in front of the fire company station on East Poplar Street, a quiet byway in West Nanticoke. Mark Pelak slowly pedaled by.
“I didn’t see anyone behind me,” Mark said, just a touch of concern in his voice. He continued a few yards to the corner of Route 29 where he stopped, looking and waiting.
We were part of a group of 40 to 50 cyclists out on a Saturday morning ride, a tradition of a Wilkes-Barre bike shop in its ninth year.
From April to September the ride heads out for 20 to 35 miles or more, usually finishing by 10 a.m. The group often breaks up into sections, some going faster and longer though even the slowest pace is pretty quick by layman standards. The separate groups spread out - by design, because of traffic stops, flat tires, and conversation and such. It’s an energetic and congenial collection of people, a group I joined a few years back because Mark – our next-door neighbor - was forever encouraging.
“You should join us” he asked again and again until I did, riding now as often as I can.
Mark and his wife Anne ride more often; Mark would ride most every Saturday. He loved the rides.
Early on those mornings we would scurry to get our gear together on either side of the hedge that separates our yards. We’d leave from our neighborhood – sometimes other riders convene at the Pelaks - and ride to the bike shop in Wilkes-Barre and then head where the morning takes us.
Eight days ago we found ourselves mid-morning in West Nanticoke. Mark’s level of enthusiasm is matched only by his concern for others, so we waited for riders to catch up. I spotted a line of cyclists parallel to us headed south on U.S. 11. I yelled to Mark, pointed to the approaching group. He gave me the thumbs up, and he started the climb up the highway that runs along Harvey’s Creek.
We rode uphill and up some more before turning off into the pastoral quiet of Zbick and Shadyrill roads, places that surrender more beauty because we were in the pace of bicycles on a slight incline. The line became a cluster and as we meandered, familiar faces and voices – Mark’s among us - shared stories and laughter. The pretty road gave way to a descent and we headed toward home.
The next day - a week ago this morning - Mark was out on another group ride on another pretty road in another corner of the place we call home when he died.
Mark was 65, but he rode bicycles for a good distance several times a week and his death came as a world-shaking surprise to his co-workers, the close cycling community, his neighbors and family.
Frankly, the specific medical reasons of how he died are not as important to me as the emptiness he leaves behind.
I’ve known Mark for 27 years - since I met my wife. Mark was a lawyer who worked for more than 30 years as a workman’s compensation judge. He enjoyed hunting, ham radio, traveling and his family.
He was thoughtful and concerned for others. Habitat For Humanity sponsors a 30-mile bike ride through the Back Mountain each May. When Mark realized a certain comfort facility was lacking at the rest area, he sponsored the Pelak potty.
Personally, I will miss him because he was our good neighbor next door. Good, by the way, isn’t necessarily quiet. When the Pelak’s beagle Archie howled, Mark would answer with a howl. Sometimes Mark would howl to get Archie to howl. Hear that enough and it becomes endearing.
Mark often did garden work wearing a pith helmet. He and my wife Carole had a running joke about pruning the long run of privet hedge that separates our driveways. Mark and I would often see each other coming and going to work, taking the recycling to the curb on Sunday nights, the garbage Friday mornings. We’d rake leaves at the same time, shovel snow at the same time.
All these things, the mundane tasks of life - the care of a home, the going to work, the helping of others, - are the fabric of a neighborhood and a community. Mark was just one person, but he brought others together. Mark’s enthusiasm and concern spread through interconnected lives in his work, his friends and family, through a cycling community that embraces the love of exercise and the outdoors.
Just a few years ago on a Christmas morning my neighbor was on the street in front of our homes, exuberant with a new toy, a single speed bike. He rode it up the street and down the street, back and forth and around the block. He was simply happy.
If he left us too soon, he left behind a good example. Do good work, take care of your family and get out there and embrace life.
Ride on, Mark. Ride on.