“Thanks to the help of many people…a young boy-turned-young man, who will never grow old, has his wish that no one will ‘ruin the woods.’”
Gregory Alan Grening was born February 19, 1971 in Lewistown, Pennsylvania to Robert C. and Beverly Lantz Grening, only son and the younger brother to four sisters.
In October of 1972, before Greg’s second birthday, the family moved to Mexico in Juniata County. The house was rather plain but possessed redeeming features, including woods behind the house for exploring and enjoyment.
When Greg was about two or three, he had his own tree house just a few feet above ground at the edge of the woods. One afternoon, Greg had me pack a lunch for the two of us to eat in his tree house.
Thanks to his sisters, Greg knew how to print before ever going to kindergarten. He used this skill to write a note to our neighbor, John, who owned the woods. Unknown to us, Greg had overheard John telling my husband, Bob, that he was planning to sell lots from the woods for building houses. One day, John came over to show us a note he had found. The note read, “Deer John, Please don’t sell the woods. Love, Greg”. That was our first knowledge of just how much the woods meant to Greg. For one reason or another, the building lots were never sold.
One day John came to tell us that he had a buyer for one of his lots. Greg, then a young teen, was visibly upset, muttering, “They’re going to ruin the woods.” Luckily, we were later told the land wouldn’t pass a “perc” test.
While a senior in high school, Greg joined the Marines’ delayed entry program. On July 15, 1989 he left for Parris Island, SC. His training was completed at Twenty Nine Palms in California. While visiting him in California, Greg told me that he didn’t like California. He missed the mountains. When I said, “What is that behind you?” his reply was “A pile of lava. That’s not a mountain…there are no trees.”
When he came home on leave, he was glad to see the snow and again walk in the woods. The next plane took him to Okinawa on Palm Sunday, 1990.
He telephoned us on the night of August 10, 1990 to tell us, “We’ve been on alert all day, and I’ll be boarding the ship soon.” When I asked where he was going, he told me he wasn’t to say…“but, Mom, you know what’s been going on.” He went to Saudi Arabia on the USS Dubuque.
We got another call in the middle of the night. Greg’s 20th birthday was spent preparing for the ground war in what was known as Desert Storm. The next telephone call was from Kuwait City. They were there, breathing oil smoke, for six more weeks.
Greg was discharged from the U.S. Marine Corps on July 17, 1993. He adopted a dog, Baby; enrolled at Harrisburg Area Community College (HACC) to continue his education, and obtained a job loading trucks for UPS in Harrisburg. By that time, he had already proposed to his high-school sweetheart, Kimber Lee Wriglesworth.
One day that summer, I watched Greg walk across the back yard and head for the woods. He turned, came back and said, “Mom, do you want to come along?” My 22-year-old son was asking me to go for a walk with him; of course I went.
As we walked along the “upper trail,” Greg stopped, looked toward the low ridge there, and irritably said, “Who has been running four-wheelers here?” He said, “You shouldn’t allow them here. They’ll ruin the woods!” I told him I couldn’t keep them out because it was not my land. Greg said, “If I had the money, I’d buy it and keep them out.”
That fall, Greg was taking a full load of classes at HACC, loading UPS trucks in the evening, and making plans to be married. He was preparing himself for a good life.
On November 12, 1993, I got another late-night telephone call—but this time, it was not from our son, but about him. He had been in an accident and I was to come immediately to Lewistown Hospital. His father was in Johnstown with his invalid mother so I had to go alone. Upon arrival at the hospital, I was given the horrible, unbelievable news that my Greg was dead! Life as we had known it, was over; we had to go on without him.
During one of those trance-like days after Greg’s untimely death, again while looking out the kitchen window, I remarked to someone that since we had to bury our Greg, we should bury him in the woods.
As we endured the awfulness of Greg’s “viewing,” our neighbor John and his wife walked in with their daughters. I remembered that last afternoon in the woods with Greg and his words, “If I had the money, I’d buy it…” I knew what I had to do. I told John, “Please don’t sell the woods until we get Greg’s insurance money. We’ll buy it for him.” It took some convincing for Greg’s father to agree, but he did. What would you do with your son’s insurance money but fulfill his wish?
I started by contacting The Nature Conservancy; Greg was a member. They had done a study of the area and found no endangered species but suggested we contact the Mid-State Resource Conservation & Development Council, which was new at the time. Larry Schardt of the MSRCDC came and walked through the woods with us. He agreed that it should be preserved. We then were referred to the Juniata County Conservation District; Ann Harshbarger came and walked through the woods with us. She put us in touch with the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy. Carol Witzeman and Jerry Fitzpatrick came. A state forester came. A botanist came; she said the site should be preserved because of the large variety of plants. Our neighbor, John, died in the spring of 1994 and his widow did not want to sell for the price John and we had agreed upon. Finally, all was settled; the purchase was made and the deed was transferred.
On a beautiful sunny day late in June of 1996, a well-attended dedication was held. Greg’s Woods is finally the Gregory Alan Grening Forest Preserve. Thanks to the help of many people, especially those in the Central Pennsylvania Conservancy, a young boy turned young man, who will never grow old, has his wish that no one will “ruin the woods.”