Missing Merhl

Every day, he greeted the passing world from his front porch. And when Merhl Haines disappeared, the Braddock Mountain valley lost some of its charm.

February 17, 2000|By LARRY BINGHAM | LARRY BINGHAM,SUN STAFF

MIDDLETOWN -- When the old man wasn't on his porch, the entire valley knew something was wrong.

Dawn Rosenthal certainly did. She sat at the intersection waiting for the light to change and wondered if he was OK. For as long as she had lived in town, he sat on his porch and waved.

He was there in the mornings when she took the kids to Frederick for swim team. He was there in the evenings when the commuters from Washington and Baltimore came home. In warm weather, it seemed he was there all day.

Everybody who came over Braddock Mountain drove past him. The gray porch with peeling paint was 50 feet from the road, and the old man knew who was running late for work and whether a school bus was behind schedule and who had forgotten something and turned around. He even watched in winter, when he stood at the window, pulled back the curtain and waved.

Then one day, he disappeared.

Dawn's children asked, "Where's the wave guy?" Dawn's next-door neighbor Sherry Rodeheaver worried about him, too. He was one of the first people she encountered when she moved to the valley, an hour west of Baltimore.

"I thought it was so quaint and Norman Rockwell," Sherry says. "It typifies for me what you see in small-town America, and the fact he can sit out there day after day and be perfectly content watching life go by, I think it's terrific."

Like others who didn't know him, she wondered: Was the pick-up truck beside the house his? Was the woman who swept the porch his wife? When it was dark, and lights were on inside, what was he doing?

And now, where was he?

When the old man came into Frederick Memorial Hospital, where Sherry works as a nurse, she didn't recognize him at first. Then the woman came to visit him, and Sherry met Ruth and Merhl Haines.

They didn't talk much about themselves. He was a retired carpenter, she was a seamstress. They raised four children in their house on Alternate Route 40, and they had been married for 58 years.

The nurses nicknamed him "Merhl the Pearl" because he was a rare patient; they referred to him as a "frequent flier." He came several times after blacking out, a result of diabetes, and he came for a quadruple heart bypass in 1992.

The hospital sent him home on a cane, and when he returned to the porch, he sat in a chair instead of his usual perch at the top of the stairs. He had rubbed so many shirts thin from leaning against the brick pillar that his children knew what to get him for Christmas.

From his porch, Merhl could see the road drop down the mountain into the valley. He could look over the rolling fields and one-lane bridges and see clear to South Mountain on the other side. Only once did he live somewhere else, and that was the year he moved to Gaithersburg to be closer to work.

What he came back to was red barns and silver silos, Victorian houses and blue mountains, charms that had drawn others to the valley. Merhl had seen Middletown's population double to 2,400 in the past 30 years.

The newcomers worked somewhere else and the old-timers didn't recognize the high school football roster anymore. But everybody knew about the man who waved.

They knew him at Gladhill Furniture Company and Main's ice cream parlor, at Long's Electrical Appliances and Thompson Funeral Home and at the old Model Garage, where he took every sky-blue Buick he ever owned.

And they knew him at the barbershop on Main Street. Since 1966, nobody but Larry Bussard cut his hair. He came in every three weeks, sat on the wooden bench or on the orange couch if the bench was crowded, and waited for the straight razor. He paid $7 and left smelling of talcum powder.

The barber waved at him as he topped the mountain. Some people tapped their horns. So many honked that the woman who runs the antiques store across the road didn't look up anymore. Sometimes, a horn woke him when he'd fallen asleep.

Then one day, the old man disappeared again.

By then, Merhl was confused and forgetful, and the black-outs were more frequent. Ruth took care of him as long as she could -- feeding him, bathing him, giving him daily insulin shots -- but last October, she had problems of her own.

Ruth had a mild heart attack on the night before her 76th birthday, and she was in no shape to care for him any longer, so the family moved Merhl to a nursing home outside the valley. It was the first time Ruth and Merhl were apart.

The hospital released her on the day before Thanksgiving. One of the last times they brought Merhl home, they rolled his wheelchair onto the porch. For a few minutes he seemed to know where he was. He watched the world go by. And he waved.

Then he disappeared for good.

The idea to put empty chairs on the porch and drape a black scarf across them came from Kenny, the youngest of the four children. He set two chairs side by side.

When Dawn Rosenthal drove over the mountain, she knew what the chairs meant. "By the time I got to the bottom of the hill I was blubbering."

The news spread quickly. Merhl had died. Ruth had gone with him.

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