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Life's deepest dig

  • DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Bob Perrin has assembled artifacts and created a showcase display to start what will become the Coaldale Historical Society.
    DONALD R. SERFASS/TIMES NEWS Bob Perrin has assembled artifacts and created a showcase display to start what will become the Coaldale Historical Society.
Published July 12. 2013 05:05PM

In one unexpected moment, Bob Perrin's direction in life changed.

Incredibly, it happened as he took a bite of pizza.

No, it wasn't a conscious decision; instead, it was a startling medical crisis that took place over Christmas vacation.

"It was December 23, 2003, and I was in Frackville Mall eating pizza when it happened," says the Coaldale resident.

Within a split second, Perrin's eyes rolled back in his head and he lost awareness.

At that point, Perrin, now 48, had suffered a midbrain aneurysm.

"I have no memory of it," he says, although he recalls "waking up and calling my mother."

He also remembers the feeling of "a sharp ice pick in my eye."

Perrin was airlifted in a medical helicopter and spent 18 days at Lehigh Valley Hospital Center, 13 days in the intensive care unit, where he was in a coma.

Actually, he nearly died. It was touch and go.

"On Christmas Eve, I stopped breathing," he notes.

Fortunately, doctors were able to deal with the setback. Perrin was intubated, or supplied with oxygen through a tube. Tests showed a precarious situation inside his head, where blood had amassed.

"They found the blood was on the venous side of the brain," says Perrin.

Doctors drilled six holes in his skull to relieve pressure, determining that Perrin might've been victim of a malformation of blood vessels, perhaps a condition that had existed since birth.

"The only reason I survived is because the blood had no where to go," he says.

Over weeks and months, Perrin began a slow recovery.

But things would never be the same.

Before the aneurysm, he was well on his way to a baccalaureate degree in nursing and had amassed a variety of life experience.

He served in the U.S. Army National Guard and also in the U. S. Navy, where he was deployed in South America in law enforcement operations.

Back in the states, his goal was to continue to help others through a career in the field of medicine.

"I was in my fourth year of college, studying nursing at Cedar Crest," he says.

But the person who wanted to take care of patients was now a patient himself.

Dealing with a sensitive disability, he knew that recovery meant he'd need to adjust his goals and refocus his interests.

Friends invited him to join the pleasant hobby of bottle collecting and privy digging.

Perrin jumped into the pastime head-first and has never looked back.

Over the past nine years, he has dug over 1,000 outhouses and has become an expert in old bottles. He has donated many of his finds to benefit local historical societies.

He also cultivated a strong passion for local history.

This summer, he sowed seeds for creation of a Coaldale Historical Society, setting up a display in the Panther Valley Library building in space donated by the Lansford Historical Society.

"It's a way for me to put things on display and it's safe," he says. He has hopes to set up a museum in Coaldale.

In some ways, Perrin sees the Panther Valley through the eyes of an outsider because he spent his early years in Brooklyn. He jokingly calls himself "the Brooklyn Coal Cracker." But make no mistake, his family roots are local.

"My father was the most decorated sailor in Coaldale," he says.

Today, Perrin immerses himself in volunteerism and local history. He's become a font of knowledge and gives talks about the bottling industry and early life in the coal regions.

With his laid back personality and affable manner, Perrin has won support and admiration of longtime historians of our region. Not long ago, he provided assistance to Ken Smulligan, president, Tamaqua Save Our Station, who refers to Perrin's depth of knowledge as "amazing."

Another says his dedication is unquestionable.

"He's devoted to preserving the history of Coaldale and the Panther Valley area," says Dale Freudenberger, president, Tamaqua Historical Society. "He values the history and culture of the area and its people.

Yet another historian says Perrin's devotion is apparent.

"You only have to talk with Bob a few minutes to sense the passion he has for our local history," says Bill Harleman, president, Lansford Historical Society. "He becomes animated when telling about his latest dig and what he found. Best of all, he wants to share what he knows and what he finds, not just hide it away in his basement."

After the unexpected aneurysm setback and a period of uncertainty, Perrin has found renewed happiness and new direction.

Sure, life has thrown him a curve of sorts.

He wanted to help others by working in the medical field. Instead, he helps people to understand their collective past and the life of their ancestors, and he's become an ambassador for the culture of the coal regions.

Along the way, he's also learned one of life's most valuable lessons.

"You have to live every day to your fullest," Perrin says.

Because you never know what might happen in one split second.

It might happen when you're taking a bite of pizza. It can happen any moment at all.

The experience of life is an ever-changing adventure. It sometimes prompts us to dig deep in search of the treasures within ourselves that ultimately define our existence.

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