Nick Berg's Undying Spirit
In a Pennsylvania Town, Friends Recall the Pranks & the Promise
By Michael Powell and Michelle Garcia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, May 14, 2004; Page C01
WEST CHESTER, Pa., May 13
The kid known as Berg shows up, in their memory's eye, with his impish smile and his tuft of dirty blond hair atop an otherwise shaved scalp and that brilliant mind, which bounced about like a pinball. Even now his friends smile.
"I remember this freshman comes walking out to the first band practice with his sousaphone and all of his philosophies and funny voices and right there, you knew he was something else," says Luke Lorenz, who was a high school junior at the time. "We went away for two weeks of practice and that first night Berg takes some scrap of aluminum foil and a Walkman and constructs an alarm system for our cabin.
"If you triggered it, a taped voice started yelling: GET OUT OF HERE! GET OUT OF HERE!"
This was Bergology, aka the Science of Berg. Now Nick Berg is dead and all that's gone forever. He was beheaded by black-cloaked guerrillas in Iraq for the crime of being, what? An American? A Jew? An idealist naive enough to wander into an American occupation zone gone ominous? His friends, drawn back to their leafy home town west of Philadelphia by news of his death, can't make sense of such a life extinguished.
"He was funny, outgoing, dramatic, compassionate, intuitive, brilliant." Lorenz, who at first had not wanted to talk because he was exhausted and because it's so painful, cannot stop himself now. "You throw a whole bunch of those adjectives in a blender and you know what you come up with? Berg."
It's a strange business, to reconstruct a person's life from fragments of memory and photos and videotapes and deep sorrow. But Berg seems to come striding whole out of memory. He's the kid who built a practice transmission tower in his suburban back yard -- rising at least 35 feet high above the oaks and sycamores. The teenager who would ride his bike a hundred miles on a whim. Who cooked spaghetti dinners and drove his friends to the junior prom.
He was a good enough student to get into Cornell University and restless enough to drop out a year short of graduation. He was the young man who climbed cliffs and read deeply in history and mythology and, of late, in Judaism and Islam. He was the talk of his friends, who took a fierce pride in the course he charted.
What's up with Berg?
Did you hear from Berg?
Oh, man, let me tell you about Berg.
"Nick was an explorer," says Peter Lu, a slight, close-shaven high school chum now in his fourth year as a physics PhD student at Harvard. "He went where no one else did. If there was a path, you could bet Berg wouldn't be on it."
The Berg family's home in West Chester sits on a long and winding drive, the tree boughs heavy with leaves, the azaleas in full hallucinogenic blooms of red, pink and magenta. On the block, children's bikes are discarded on porches and basketball hoops sit at curbside and American flags float soft on spring breezes. You can identify the house by the camp of television trucks and sound-booms, and the piles of flowers by the door.
Taped to the mailbox is a photo of a stocky, buff kid in a cut-off T-shirt, running shorts and glasses. His smile is broad.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company
"Nick was an explorer," says Peter Lu, a high school friend. "He went where no one else did. If there was a path, you could bet Berg wouldn't be on it."
(Jim Graham For The Washington Post)
Video: The Post's Michael Powell discusses the life of Nicholas Berg.