DALLAS — Snowbird Bobby Zampetti had an unusual traveling companion on his return trip home from the Sunshine State last week.
Seatbelted in the back seat of the Dallas resident’s Ford truck was a nearly three-foot-long rare Baltic Sea shark for a road trip from West Palm Beach, Florida to Hazleton. The mounted shark was a wedding gift from former Hazleton resident and now Floridian Jan Lewandowski, also known as Jan Lewan “The Polka King,” to his daughter Amber.
“We spent one week together riding home,” Zampetti, a long-time friend of Lewan, said of the shark. “I had no way of knowing if it was legal to carry a non-buckled shark in the front seat, so I kept it buckled up.”
A shark tale
The one-of-a-kind present has more meaning for the father and daughter than representing a fish from the cold deep waters of the Baltic.
It’s a memory of a trip to Poland, Lewan’s home country when Amber was 7, Zampetti said.
“We went on a Baltic Sea tour,” Lewan, 77, said, noting afterward Amber saw the mounted shark in a gift shop and wanted it.
“It was not for sale,” Lewan said.
“I really pestered him for the shark,” Amber, now 25, recalls. “Somehow, he was able to get it.”
Lewan was able to convince the curator to sell him the rare underwater specimen.
The purchase was one challenge. Getting the fish from Poland to Hazleton posed another.
The shark represents a rare species, now considered threatened with extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The shark’s physiology prevented it from being boxed up for the flight home to Hazleton.
“The airline did not want to place the shark under the plane with the luggage,” Lewan said with a chuckle. “I bought an extra ticket for a seat for the shark.”
Zampetti also faced the same challenge when deciding how to transport the fish from Florida to Pennsylvania.
“I could not bubble wrap it,” he said.
Zampetti didn’t want to risk damaging the shark’s dorsal, pectoral, pelvic, anal and caudal fins.
So, the shark rode the 1,200 miles on the back seat of Zampetti’s truck and spent nights on the dresser in his tow-behind camper.
“I had to keep reminding myself it was dead,” Zampetti said.
The first night, Zampetti carried the shark into the camper and placed it on his dresser.
However, when in bed, he noticed the shark’s toothy open mouth facing him. Not liking the view, he got up and draped a bed sheet over the shark, he said, laughing.
“It scared the heck out of me,” he said.
Zampetti camped out every night of his week-long journey back to the Keystone state and cared for the shark’s well being the entire way.
At 5:20 p.m. on Thursday, July 5, he met Amber near Boscov’s in the Laurel Mall parking lot and handed the shark over to her with a few words from her father.
“Amber, your daddy wants me to give this to you as a sign of his love. Hopefully, you will display it in your home, and it will forever remind you of your trip to Poland,” Zampetti said on a recorded video of him giving her the shark. “We wish you the best. Best wishes, best luck and long live the shark.”
“I am excited to have it back,” Amber said. “I haven’t seen it since I was 7. It still looks the same.”
The shark now has a permanent spot in the home office Amber shares with her fiancé Mark Anthony Merino Jr.
“It is a place where both of our likes come together,” she said.
The couple is planning an October wedding.
The Baltic Sea shark has traveled almost 7,000 miles while under the ownership of the Lewan and his family.
After arriving from Poland, the shark had initially held a place in the Lewandowski Hazleton home but, when Lewan was arrested for a Ponzi scheme in the early 2000s, his son Daniel assumed custody of the fish and moved it to Florida.
Zampetti’s annual trek south with a camper created the perfect opportunity for “The Polka King” to return the shark to his daughter.
Lewan’s story of defecting to America from Poland in the 1970s his climb to success and failure that landed him in federal prison is portrayed in Netflix’s original film called “The Polka King” starring Jack Black.
Lewan was charged with conning people from 22 states out of about $5 million in a Ponzi scheme. He was incarcerated from 2004-2009.
Zampetti met Lewan in the early 1980s when he was a co-anchor for the Hazleton Cancer Telethon and the two have maintained a friendship for decades. Zampetti is even depicted in the movie.
“It was odd to see a Hollywood movie actor playing you,” Zampetti said.
Reach Eileen Godin at 570-991-6387 or on Twitter @TLNews.