Many, many years before he died Oct. 16 after being struck by a car on a foggy Santa Rosa morning, long after his life went astray and he started down a hard road, ages before he died alone at 57, his liver failing from cirrhosis, Joseph Von Merta was a boy who loved to swim.
He'd swim in San Francisco at a pool near Mission Dolores that cost a nickel to enter, and at the YMCA on Golden Gate Avenue. And he'd swim in the Russian River in Sonoma County, said Carol Veeninga of Petaluma, recalling her youngest brother's favorite spots.
The family lived in the Glen Park neighborhood of the city and Von Merta went to Glen Park Elementary School. He was a boy who kept to himself, whose parents separated when he was 3 and whose father died soon after.
"He was just a quiet, neat kid," said Veeninga. "But very much into self."
One of 13 siblings, Von Merta enjoyed tinkering with cars when he got a bit older. He liked basketball.
But things went wrong. He was brain-damaged at age 12 after sniffing glue, said Veeninga, who last spoke to her brother about 35 years ago.
"He had just gone off the wall," she said.
Von Merta spent time in a psychiatric ward and after being released was made a ward of the state and sent to a Catholic care home and school near Cloverdale, where he was on the basketball team.
His mother, for reasons that through the years have become foggy, pulled him out when he was 16, Veeninga said, and "he more or less drifted from then."
Veeninga, a registered nurse, searched for him and heard he was at a Santa Rosa homeless shelter. She left him notes to say she loved him.
"But he wanted his own life. He didn't want to be a burden on anybody; he didn't want anyone running his life," she said.
"I respected that. The deal between us was he knew where I was, and I was there if he needed me," she said.
He showed up once, around 1978. It was dinner time. Veeninga opened the door to find him there. Down the street waited a car with two men in it.
"We didn't even have a chance to visit," Veeninga said. "He had a bag that he wanted me to hold. I asked him what was in it. He said, &‘Jewelry,' and I said, &‘No, I can't do this.
"And he said, &‘OK,' just &‘OK.' He took the bag, went down the stairs, got in the car and I never saw him again."
She saw his name once, though, before seeing it with such finality again last week.
In a bitterly cold winter at the end of the 1980s, authorities in Santa Rosa were trying to direct homeless people from their outdoor haunts to shelters. He was quoted in a news story, explaining why he didn't want to go.
"The closest that I can remember," she said, "was something to the effect that he didn't want to go to a shelter because he didn't feel it was a safe place; he didn't want to be indoors. It was very short."
She showed the article to family members as proof he was alive. But he never again appeared in her life.
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