Sunday, May 27, 2012

Story goes out of control

For the first time in my 30-plus-year professional career as a journalist, I became the interviewed instead of the interviewer.

It certainly was something different.

When I came home the other day, there was a message on my answering machine to call Chad Smith of The Pocono Record. He wanted to do a follow-up story to the one he wrote several weeks ago (see here) about a pawn broker in northeastern Pennsylvania, Paul Mastronardi, who'd come into possession of some Civil War artifacts — including the discharge papers — of a certain Private Albert Clewell. Mr. Mastronardi, instead of selling the items for profit, felt compelled to find a descendant of Clewell and graciously give them to the family.


Turns out I am a direct descendant of William and Sylvester Clewell, brothers who fought for the 153rd Pennsylvania in the 11th Corps and survived the war. They are my great uncles on my mother's side, soldiers who fought in the Civil War just two generations removed from the very air I breath.

Double wow. Wow, wow.

I'm not so sure about Albert, though. We might be related, we might not be. I think there's a good chance we are, because all three of those Clewells were born in Nazareth, PA, in Northampton County, which is the county where the 153rd Pennsylvania was recruited. The trouble is, I haven't found a direct family link to Albert — yet.

Anyway, Smith's story about the pawn broker looking for the Clewell descendant was picked up by the Associated Press and apparently appeared in several newspapers and Civil War blogs across the northeast. I know it appeared in the Pittsburgh paper.

Somehow, the story found its way to Lexington. It found me. I use the avatar name "PvtClewell" on a couple of Civil War forums in which I participate, so that's how I came to be found.

But uh-oh. I smell smoke.

After I contacted Mr. Mastronardi, who was delighted to hear from me, Smith left his message for me to call him back for the follow-up. So I called him, got interviewed for about 15 minutes (definitely a weird feeling for me), and this is the story that appeared: see here.

That story, too, was picked up by the Associated Press and taken to who knows where. Why not? It's a feel-good, happy ending story. In the piece, I found out Mr. Mastronardi still wants to give me the stuff, even though my connections to Albert are thin, at best. That wasn't really discussed in my phone call with him. Not only does he want to give the artifacts to me, we're going to meet in Gettysburg when I go up next month for the Civil War Institute. (Gettysburg, by the way, is where the Clewells fought). According to the story, I'm supposed to give Mr. Mastronardi a tour of the battlefield, specifically in the footsteps of the Clewells.

Mr. Mastronardi and I didn't talk about that, either. This is all very nice, but suddenly the story feels like it's getting bigger than I can handle.

A day later, I get an email from Dispatch editor Chad Killebrew, telling me that I'm famous. The Dispatch had gotten a Google alert about the story (via the key word "Lexington", I presume), and now The Dispatch was running the story. You may have seen it.

So now I feel like I'm trying to stomp out little fires before they can grow into bigger ones.

But it might be too late. A day later, there's a message on my phone to contact WFMY Channel 2. Yikes. Television. Now I'm furiously hopping around putting out fires seemingly growing larger and larger around my ankles, looking for buckets of water, or something. Anything.

I don't have the artifacts yet. They are still 600 miles away in a safe in a pawn shop in Pennsylvania. I may not get them at all. I told this to the television reporter, who seemed to understand. She told me to contact her if, indeed, I do come into possession of the mementos.

The only thing I am really disappointed about is that in my interview with Smith, I was quoted only twice. One of the things I told him was that I planned to show the stuff to my Civil War Round Table if I ever came in possession of them. The boys would be interested in them, I said, even if they were Yankee items. Ha ha.

But that never got printed. So ended my brief career as a nationally known comedian.

Oh, well. At least he spelled Wehrle right.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Your memories at auction

The one thing in this world that my wife didn't want to do — the one thing that was anathema to her very soul, to her very being as a resident of the planet and a member in good standing of the human race — was to put her parents' life up for auction.

Well, not their literal lives. Mom died more than two years ago, and dad passed away in November. But their stuff remained. A 2,800-square foot house full of stuff, plus a once-popular news stand full of even more stuff.

And yet, an auction was the only reasonable choice she had to liquidate the contents and the real estate, in a single day, if possible. Especially in this, one of the worst economies in my memory. We elected to go with Al Futrell of Al's Auction and Realty in Welcome to help us through this.

For several months after dad died, Kim would go to the house, tearfully sort through clothes and other items, trying to determine what she and her brother, Greg, would keep. That was difficult enough, but we also knew what was coming — an auction.

I once heard Kim say that auctions are so sad. "The entire life of that person is strewn across their front yard going up for bid," she said to me. "Strangers are walking through your house. It's horrible. I don't ever want to go through that." And yet, here we were. Knowing how Kim felt about auctions, I feared the worst.

Because her folks had so much stuff, we held the auction over two days: on Friday, we liquidated the contents of the house, followed by the news stand on Saturday.

Friday's auction drew a nice crowd.
Friday broke fresh and clear with mild temperatures after nearly a week of rain, and that was lucky because it drew a large crowd. But here was her family's stuff, in the front yard. Strangers were walking through the house. And, indeed, there were moments when Kim had to go off by herself, to a place in her head where even I couldn't comfort her, and assimilate the process.

Even some of her childhood memories went on the table: a Charmin' Chatty Around the World doll, several Barbie dolls, a Schwinn bicycle from the 1960s. Then there were even more personal items: her mother's cookbooks and kitchenware, bringing back a flood of memories of Christmas and Thanksgivings, of family gathered around the table.

But now even the table was gone.

The auction took six hours to complete. The highest numbered bidder card I saw was 117, so that was good. Even though the house was sold for under tax value, we were fairly pleased. After all, it took Kim and me three years to sell our house before our latest move. You take what you can get. Kim hugged the buyers — ironically, old neighbors of hers — and through her tears asked them to take care of the house. It was as heartwrenching a moment as ever I've seen.

Saturday's auction at the news stand drew a smaller crowd.
 On Saturday, there were fewer bidders at the news stand, even though it's a Main Street property. We couldn't figure out why this happened because the weather was great. This auction took three hours to complete, and the highest numbered bidder card I saw was 33. Go figure.

Anyway, the prized item was a Coca-Cola box that dad had restored and it went for a reasonable sum, but most of the other stuff were virtual giveaways. The news stand itself, like the house, went for less than tax value — considerably less, and didn't meet the reserve — but after negotiations it did sell for slightly higher than the last pre-auction offer we'd gotten.

Kim often said how much she hated the news stand because it took so much of her father's time away from the family (along with his regular fulltime job at R.J. Reynolds in Winston-Salem), and yet, she seemed more upset on Saturday than she was on Friday. "It was still a big part of my life," she tried to explain to me. "It gave us the life we had growing up."

Could we have gone a different way? We might have generated more money by taking the consignment route, or putting items on Craig's list (even though money never did seem to be the overriding issue here). But there are no guarantees there, either, and they can take time to resolve. Here, at auction and in the blink of an eye we unloaded ourselves of two significant burdens: of two property taxes, of two utility bills, of two maintenance demands on our time and energy.

Interesting thing, though. Kim and her brother dutifully unloaded all the physical stuff. The one priceless thing they kept, the one thing that can never be auctioned off, are the memories. They still have those.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Back to the future

Something interesting happened to me earlier this week that has an outside shot of putting me in possession of a few Civil War artifacts from a distant relative.

But first, a little background info:

Occasionally, I participate in a couple of online Civil War forums because I enjoy the discussions. My username is "PvtClewell", the name of a descendant on my mother's side who was in Company A of the 153rd Pennsylvania Regiment for a nine-month enlistment in the 11th Corps of the Union Army. I chose his name because I thought it would be a nice way to honor him. After all, he volunteered for duty when he was 18 years old and he participated in two battles before he was mustered out: Chancellorsville and Gettybsurg.

Oh my God.

Here's how I can draw my lineage to Private William Clewell:

My mother's sister, Bea (Aunt Bea, if you must) married Ed Clewell back in the 1930s. Bea is still alive and kicking at age 98, but when she married Ed, he was nearly 20 years older than she. Ed, in fact, died in 1985 at the age of 89. Longevity seems to be everywhere in my family, except for my own parents. Dad died when he was only 58, and mom was 62 — I hope I didn't just jinx myself. (See here for a picture of William, Catherine and their children.  Uncle Ed, I think, is the young boy on the right on the front row).

Anyway, Ed was the second youngest child out of seven children from the marriage of William and Catherine Clewell. Yes, that William — he is my great uncle.

William's older brother, by 10 years, was Sylvester Clewell. He, too, enlisted in the Union Army and fought in Co. A of the 153rd PA with his brother. Sooo, I actually have two great uncles who fought in the Civil War. 

Think about that for a moment. The Civil War was 150 years ago, but through luck and circumstance, I can go back just two generations to find a connection to that remarkable history. It seems that 150 years can be a very long time ago, or it can be just the blink of an eye.

I don't know that much about Sly — he did get married to Ann Maria Bauer, but that's about all I have discovered about him at this point in my research.

On the other hand, William was a musician who ended up playing the tuba in the regimental band. I don't know yet if regimental musicians actually fought, but I can't imagine that William picked up his tuba instead of a rifle when Stonewall Jackson outflanked the 11th Corps at Chancellorsville. Or that he blew his horn while running through the streets of Gettysburg when Jubal Early chased the 11th Corps off Blocher's Knoll two months later.

Both Clewells survived the war. William went on to become a saddler in peacetime and raised a passel of kids with Catherine.

Fast forward to now.

Catherine Hoffmann, my next door neighbor and curator of the Davidson County Museum, passed on an email to me she received earlier this week, giving me the salutation that "This should knock your socks off." It seems somebody remembered "PvtClewell" from the Civil War forums he read and connected that with a story about a pawn broker in northeastern Pennsylvania who had come into possession of a Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) kepi, a GAR medallion and the discharge papers of an Albert A. Clewell. The pawn broker also learned about "PvtClewell" and felt moved to reunite the mementos he had with the family, if he could. (See the story, with photos, here).


But here's where the story gets a little dicey. Suddenly, we have another Clewell in the picture — Albert.

I don't know who Albert is. Indeed, he is one of three Clewells in Co. A, but I know he is not the brother of William and Sylvester, and thus, not an immediate relative. Since the 153rd was recruited out of Northampton County, I feel reasonably certain that Albert is somehow related. But if indeed he is, I don't know how. I called my cousin, Joann (Bea's daughter, who is 77 and sharp as a tack), but she doesn't remember any family history that included an Albert.

It seems that in the Clewell genealogy, Albert gets short shrift. I do know he is buried in Easton, PA, which is the seat for Northampton County. He was born in Nazareth, PA (as were Sylvester and William) and he enlisted when he was 17 years old. Geez, what is it with Clewells anyway? He, too, survived the war and married Amelia. But that's all I know. It seems that's about all the Clewell's know about this Clewell. A great cousin, maybe?

I did get in touch with the pawn broker, who was as excited as he could be to finally find a Clewell relative, or at least, to find "PvtClewell." He's even thinking about having another newspaper story done about this connection. (In fact, this story seems to have been published all across the northeast, even reaching the Pittsburgh paper). I get the feeling, at this point, that he is willing to let me have the mementos even though I am a little shaky on the connection with Albert.

It's still exciting, though.

If I should come into possession of these items, this is what I'll do: First, I'll hold a show-and-tell with them at the Davidson County Civil War Round Table, of which I am a member. The boys would be impressed, even if they are Yankee artifacts. Then I think I'll let Catherine take them on loan for about a year to display them at the Davidson County Museum. And finally, I'd donate them to the Northampton County Historical Society for perpetual posterity, since I think they are actually a part of the public domain.

Plus, it would be another great way to honor the Clewells.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Contemplating an historic district

History is a parcel of time that first appears a nanosecond after its moment, then remains with us forever, either in memory or in fact, or both. History can be as ephemeral as a whisper or as foreboding as a textbook.

And yet, enigmatically, it's still possible to lose history.

That's the puzzle confronting a neighborhood in Lexington as it ponders whether or not to become the city's pilot historic district.

Basically, the district — delineated mostly by West Center Street to West 3rd Avenue east to west, and South State Street to South Payne Street north to south, encompassing 156 primary properties on approximately 55 acres — is at a crossroads. As one of the oldest neighborhoods in the city, it can remain a "renovated" neighborhood (as it is now), protected as such by government mandated "minimal" zoning ordinances, or it can become an historic district that receives protection for the continuity of its heritage.

It cannot be both.

I get the feeling that nearly all of the folks living in the proposed district want the same thing: a great neighborhood that offers beauty, comfort, camaraderie and, well, history.

Where these folks might differ amongst themselves is how to get there. A draft of the Lexington Historic Preservation Commission guidelines (see here, click on 2012 Draft Design Guildelines in navigation bar) on maintaining historic property may put off some residents who "don't want to be told" by what they see an an obtrusive added layer of government how to tend to their houses, what materials they can use in repairs and renovation (i.e., Is vinyl appropriate?) and are the costs of such projects prohibitive? A "renovated" neighborhood, to some, just might be enough.

An historic district, by contrast, appears to be more preservation-centric: preservation of architecture and craftsmanship, preservation of mood, preservation of property value and aesthetics. These are some of the quality of life talking points that zoning can never address.

This bungalow in the proposed historic district will be 100 years old soon.
I live on West 2nd Avenue in a house that in eight years will be 100 years old. I'm also a history guy. I like keeping alive the touchstones of our past. I contribute when I can, for example, to the preservation of Civil War battlefields.

Why? Why is preserving this proposed historic district important to me?

For one, historic preservation tells us who we are and what we would like from our neighbors and from ourselves. For another, it tells us where we've been, of the values held by our forebears and of their hopes and dreams for the community.

The way I see it, nothing worthwhile gets accomplished without hopes and dreams. And together, who we are and where we've been gives us our character and our identity.

It could be, in the end and for whatever reason, that the neighborhood rejects the historic district designation.

I don't know how it will go. There are, no doubt, many more meetings and discussions ahead of us.

And as I think about it, even if the proposal is finally accepted, the historic district designation might truly be for our future generations. Pilot projects are almost always difficult to launch because of uncertainty and sometimes because of misinformation. But future generations that elect to live in historic districts usually do so because they know what to expect and the stewardship that is expected of them.

I hope this doesn't become a missed opportunity that we pass on to those future generations. That, too, would say something about our character.