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.

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