Sunday, October 28, 2007

My Grandfather's House

Those of you who were reading this blog back in 1996 might recall that that was the year of the Great Ireland Experiment. I moved to Dublin to embark on a career as an international correspondent. I filed a bunch of spots for NPR, but ended up spending most of my meager income on Guinness. And the rest of my money, as the saying goes, was squandered.

Anyway, in November of that year, shortly before ending the GIE, I went to the village of Dunfanaghy, in northernmost County Donegal. I went in search of my roots. Dunfanaghy is where my paternal grandfather, Samuel Algeo, was born – and whence he emigrated in 1908.

On my first night there I went to a pub, where I ran into a fellow about my age named John Algeo. We got to talking and discovered that his grandfather and my grandfather were brothers – so we were second cousins. It was pretty amazing, though running into one of my blood relatives in a pub isn’t that much of a stretch.

John couldn’t have been a better host, and he spent the next day showing me the amazing scenery around Dunfanaghy, as well as his house (which my grandfather grew up in), and a few other things best not mentioned here.

So when Allyson and I went to Ireland this month, we checked in on John and found him just as hospitable as ever. Here we are standing in front of his house – the historic Algeo family home, so to speak (the satellite dishes were added after my grandfather left):



And here we are standing on the beach directly across the road from the house. (John says that when our grandfathers were growing up, there was no road to the house, and the family didn’t own any land connecting to a road, so they could only come and go at low tide, when there was enough beach to make the trip!)



Allyson and I had a great time in Dunfanaghy, though it’s changed a lot in the 11 years since I last visited. It’s become a suburb of Letterkenny, a booming city about 40 minutes south. Lots of houses are being built, and fancy-schmancy shops are opening up. My grandfather would barely recognize the place. But at least he’d be able to walk back to his old house at high tide.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Well, Allyson and I had a great vacation. We were very sad to see it end. I flew back to Washington today, while Allyson flew back to Bamako. I didn't have a chance to update the blog while we were in Ireland, but here are a few photos from the trip...

We really had a blast in Belfast (no pun intended). It's a great up-and-coming city with lots of interesting architecture and wonderful restaurants. Of course, it has great history, too. We hired a taxi to take a tour of the Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods at the heart of The Troubles. On the Falls Road in West Belfast, we stopped at the headquarters of Sinn Fein:



The windows are entirely bullet- and bomb-proof, which is not surprising. What was surprising, though, was the fact that there's a souvenir shop inside where you can buy all the Sinn Fein tchotchke your heart desires.

Travelling in the off season has its advantages: Here's Allyson waiting in line for a bus to one of the many - MANY - castles we visited:



Finally, for now, here's the wee cottage we rented in County Donegal:



That's all for now: I'm feeling pretty wiped out (and so request a special dispensation in case of any typos).

Thursday, October 11, 2007

I had another encounter with a Very Thorough Docent last week. It was at the Thrasher Carriage Museum in Frostburg, Maryland. James Thrasher, who made a fortune in something or other, collected horse-drawn carriages. When he died, he left the collection to Allegany County, which now houses the carriages in a refurbished train depot in Frostburg. It’s a pretty spectacular collection. It never occurred to me how many different kinds of carriages there were: mail wagons, milk wagons, delivery wagons, bus wagons, large family wagons, etc. (Also impressive was the fact that the carriages on the second floor of the museum were carried upstairs by hand.)

Anyway, my docent was Jay, a fifty-something guy with a scraggly gray beard, a baseball cap, and exactly the same plastic aviator frames I wore in eighth grade. Jay knew everything about every carriage in the place. He shared his knowledge with me in excruciating detail, carriage by carriage, complete with carriage jargon: “This one’s got the surrey with the fringe on top.” “This one’s got the elliptical springs instead of the buckboards.” Half the time I didn’t even know what the hell he was talking about, but I kept smiling and nodding.

And, like my Benjamin Harrison House docent back in Indianapolis, Jay didn’t want the moment to end. When I told him I had to get going, he asked me if I’d seen everything. I said I thought I had, but Jay said, “No, I don’t think you saw the Ladies’ Pony Phaeton.” So he showed it to me. And he told me all about it.

*****

Two days ago, here in New York, I went to the River Club. It’s a very exclusive private club on the eastside of midtown Manhattan. Harry and Bess ate there back in ’53. Rather naively, I walked in the front door and asked the guard, a green-uniformed Hispanic gentleman, if he had any pamphlets with some information about the club. Like it was my local Curves. He looked a little confused and said, “No, we don’t have nothin’ like that.” Clearly, the River Club is not hurting for members. Then I asked him if he could tell me a little bit about the club, and he said, “No, we’re not s’posed to talk to nobody ‘bout nothin’.” So all I got to see was the lobby, which was nice enough, with lots of plush carpeting and brass fixtures.

*****

I’m headed back to Philadelphia today. Tomorrow I fly to Ireland to meet Allyson. We’re spending two weeks there, mostly in a rented cottage in Donegal. I can’t wait!

Sunday, October 07, 2007

I'm back in my hometown, good ol' Perkasie, Pennsylvania, spending some time with my folks. Tomorrow I'm going down to Philadelphia to do some research. On Tuesday I'm going up to New York for a few days, then, on Friday, I'm flying to Ireland to meet Allyson (yay!).

Last night I went to my brother Howard's to watch the Phillies game. A grand time was had by all, in spite of the fact the Phllies lost.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

On their way east, Harry and Bess ate lunch at the Princess Restaurant in Frostburg, Maryland. A bronze plaque above the booth where they sat commemorates the historic event:

MR. & MRS. HARRY S. TRUMAN
ATE DINNER IN THIS BOOTH
FATHER’S DAY
SUNDAY, JUNE 21, 1953

Local legend has it that the Trumans were directed to the restaurant by the town doctor, Martin Rothstein. Doc, as he was universally known, was a Princess regular. As he was leaving the restaurant that Sunday afternoon, he spotted a car going the wrong way down a one-way street. Doc flagged the car down. When the driver rolled the window down, Doc saw that it was Harry Truman, who asked him to recommend a place to eat. Naturally Doc recommended the Princess.

Doc was Frostburg’s Moonlight Graham. In the early 1950s he charged $40 for delivering a baby – and that included nine months of follow-up care. House calls were just a part of the job.

Doc was also a very particular fellow. Every Thursday he had liver and onions for dinner at the Princess. But the liver had to be cooked just right: exactly two minutes per side. If it was cooked for just a few seconds more or less, Doc would know.

In the real world, Moonlight Grahams don’t walk into the cornfield and fade away. They end up in places like Room 111 of the Frostburg Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. That’s where I saw old Doc Rothstein this afternoon, his skin so translucent you could see the capillaries underneath. He was on his side in a bed, wearing a green gown that barely covered him. Across the hall a fellow traveler was watching Wheel of Fortune with the sound turned up so loud you could hear it before the elevator doors even opened.

I’d hoped Doc would brighten when I told him why I had come to see him, that his spirits would soar at recalling a sweet memory from long ago. But he was uncomfortable, tired, and sick. He told me the story. It took about two minutes. I think he was glad to see me go.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I borrowed my parents’ car for this trip: a 1995 Dodge Stratus. It had 97,458 miles on it when I started. Today, on I-70 east of Columbus, at mile marker 126, at 11:26 AM, it hit 100,000 miles.

I tried calling Dad on my cell phone to share the moment, but the number was busy. Mom and Dad don’t have call waiting. They don’t even have touch-tone service. You have to pay extra for touch-tone service. Dad says the phone company should pay *him* to switch to touch-tone. He’s right. Since rotary dialing takes longer than touch-tone dialing, it costs the phone company more money.

Anyway, I have a disposable camera, so I decided to take pictures of the odometer at 99,999 and 100,000 for posterity. But the camera ran out of film after the first picture. I hope it turns out.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Spent most of yesterday in Decatur, Illinois, where I finally found the motel where Harry and Bess stayed in 1953 – only it’s not a motel anymore, it’s a correctional facility. Officially it’s the Decatur Adult Transition Center – i.e., it’s where the work-release inmates stay. While it is technically possible for me to spend a night there, just like Harry and Bess did, my zeal for historical accuracy in re-creating their trip is not that strong.

I spent today in Indianapolis. I visited the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum, where a shuttle bus takes visitors around the 2.5-mile oval at about 30 miles an hour. In the time it takes the shuttle bus to complete one lap, an Indy car would pass it 19 times!

I also visited the Benjamin Harrison Home in downtown Indianapolis. Harrison, of course, was the president who rearranged the furniture in the White House between Grover Cleveland’s two terms. I showed up for the 10:30 tour. I was a few minutes early, and while I was waiting on the front porch, a mailman – mailwoman, actually – arrived with a handful of letters to deliver. I said, “Benjamin Harrison still gets mail?” She laughed.

My tour group consisted of me. The docent was a nice guy in his mid fifties, but he was new and very thorough. Very, very thorough. The tour lasted 90 minutes. Every detail of every room was described in great, well, detail. And when he was finished with a room, his eyes would scan it just to make sure he hadn’t missed anything. On the bright side, I learned a lot of interesting things about Benjamin Harrison:

--He was the president who converted the White House from gas to electric (probably so none of Grover Cleveland’s appliances would work when he moved back in).

--He was the last president with a full beard.

--After his first wife died (in the White House, by the way), he married his niece (his wife’s sister’s daughter), who was younger than his own daughter.

--He was a Civil War general and, even as president, he preferred to be called “General,” not “Mr. President.”

That’s all for now… Next stop, Cumberland, Maryland.