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Dan Herbeck: A bucket-list trip from Buffalo to my birthplace

Buffalo is my home, and my hometown. I've spent almost my entire 64 years in and around our fine city. Everywhere I go, I tell people what a wonderful, underrated place it is.

But as long as I can remember, there has been another city with a special meaning for me. A place that I knew very little about, because it sits 1,253 miles southwest of Buffalo. A place called Mineral Wells, Texas.

Mineral Wells, which is less than an hour outside Fort Worth, Texas, is my birthplace. Until our visit there earlier this year, I had not seen Mineral Wells since I was 3 months old.

Both my parents – the late Harry and Mary Lou Herbeck – were lifelong Buffalonians. Thanks to the U.S. Army, they happened to be living in Mineral Wells when I became their firstborn son on Oct. 31, 1954.

My dad served with honor in a civil engineering unit in the Korean War. He told me he spent the war building roads and bridges in Korea for American troops – and on rare occasions, getting shot at by snipers, who fortunately never hit him.

In early 1954, months after the war's end, the Army sent him to Camp Wolters in Mineral Wells to finish his military service. My mom headed down there from Buffalo to be with him.

They were very happy to be back together again, and about nine months later, I joined them.

When I was 3 months old, we all headed back to Buffalo, where we moved into a little apartment on Genesee Street. We'd later move to Amherst.

All my adult life, I've wondered about Mineral Wells. But I never thought seriously about visiting there until after my dad died in 2003 and my mother in 2011. I no longer had my parents around to tell me snippets about Mineral Wells. As I got into my 60s, I began to feel a very strong desire to see my birthplace for myself. It became a bucket list item for me.

(Dan Herbeck/Buffalo News)

My kind-hearted wife, Joyce, agreed to accompany me. Earlier this year, we decided we would make the journey in May. During our time down there, we would also visit Fort Worth and Dallas.

Before we left, I did some Internet research on Mineral Wells. The little city has quite a history. Founded in the 1880s, it became widely known for its "crazy water" – mineral water that supposedly improved mental health. People traveled from all over America to drink, bathe and swim in the famous Mineral Wells water. The luxurious Baker Hotel opened in 1929 and became one of the state's top tourist attractions, hosting famous actors, athletes and politicians.

I checked the city's Wikipedia listing and found a list of "notable people" who were born in Mineral Wells.

I was astonished to find myself listed first, on a roster that included two former NFL football players, a female astronaut, a country singer and an heiress to the Walmart fortune. How I landed first on that list, I have no idea, but you can check it for yourself.

"There's going to be a ticker tape parade when I arrive down there," I joked with a couple of friends.

There was no parade, but my bride and I got a very nice welcome from Ryan Roach and Ryan Oliver from the Mineral Wells Chamber of Commerce when we arrived on May 4. I had emailed them that I would be coming down and writing a story on my visit for The Buffalo News.

Oliver took us around the city, which currently has about 16,000 people, and we had a great lunch at a friendly diner called the Brazos Market & Bistro.

Attractions include a Vietnam War museum. (Photo courtesy of Mineral Wells Area Chamber of Commerce & Visitors Bureau)

Mineral Wells still has some nice tourist attractions – some cool restored buildings, a lush botanical park called Clark Gardens with an amazing outdoor miniature train display, a Vietnam War museum, and the sprawling Mineral Wells Lake State Park and Trailway. People still stop at the Crazy Water shop to buy bottles of the famous mineral water. There's also a fossil park where kids can dig up shark teeth and other fossils that date back some 300 million years ago, when the region was covered by a shallow ocean.

"That's before I was born here," I pointed out to Oliver.

But sadly, there are sections of Mineral Wells that have seen much better days. The Nazareth Hospital, where I was born, closed in 1965. There are hopes for restoration of the Baker Hotel – by far the largest and most visible building in town – but that has been closed since the 1970s. The apartment house on NW First Street where I spent my first few months looks like it has been abandoned for many years.

And Camp Wolters, where my dad served out his last days in the military? That closed, too, back in 1973. There's now an industrial park there.

Joyce and I drove to nearby Weatherford in an attempt to visit St. Stephen's, the little Catholic church where I was baptized on Nov. 14, 1954. It looked charming from the outside, but was closed. The building is now a "satellite church" for a much larger and newer St. Stephen's Church. I called the church office and asked – is there anyone who could open it for me, just for a few minutes?

The church secretary was sympathetic, but said the little satellite church wouldn’t be open again for four days.

We were leaving town the next morning. "Keep asking," my wife whispered to me.

"Isn't there someone who can help me?" I persisted. "I was baptized there 63 years ago, haven't been back since. I'll probably never get down here again."

"I'll try to find someone," she said. "There's one man who might help  …"

About 45 minutes later, my cellphone rang, and a very fine man named Lawrence Bierschenk, an 83-year-old church volunteer and retired mechanic, was on the other end.

"I hear you want to see the inside of our little church," he said. "I'll meet you there in about 20 minutes."

St. Stephen's, a little Catholic church, is now a satellite site for a newer St. Stephen's Church in Mineral Wells, Texas. (Dan Herbeck/Buffalo News)

We drove back to the church and Bierschenk was waiting there for us, a gentle, welcoming smile on his face. He told us with great pride how he and other volunteers recently restored the lovely little church, which was built in 1902.

Bierschenk showed me the white marble baptismal font, which is used to hold the holy water poured over the heads of infants during their baptisms.

"Was that here in 1954?" I asked.

"It's been here since 1902," he said. "This is where you were baptized."

(Dan Herbeck/Buffalo News)

I dropped to my knees in that church, a few feet from the spot where I was baptized, and prayed. I pictured my parents in their early 20s, nervously walking up to the altar and presenting their little boy to a priest.

I sobbed as I imagined those two wonderful, sorely missed people, standing right in front of me, smiling and hugging their little Danny. Months later, I still have that image in my mind.

This is why we traveled to Mineral Wells – for that one beautiful moment. It was worth it.

Before we left, I hugged Bierschenk and told him I would remember his kind gesture for the rest of my life.

"That guy … He looks like Clarence," my wife said as we drove away. "The little angel from 'It's A Wonderful Life.' "

She was right. I smiled, and had to fight off a few more tears.

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