Friday, November 6, 2015

A Road I've Taken

            On some occasional rambles through my blog earlier this year, I came upon a path that had been calling me for quite some time. And so I’ve been away from these pages for the past few months, consumed with a historical novel that I’m writing.
            The working title is Tobarmaire (Mary’s Well). The story is set in a fictionalized blend of Dowra, my wife’s native village in County Cavan, and the old village of Tobar nearby that had preceded it. It takes place in 1845-46 during the Great Famine (An Gorta Mor—The Great Hunger—as it’s known in Irish), when the potato blight ravaged the land.
            Tobarmaire tells the story of Michael Corrigan, a fiery young man brimming with resentment as his family and neighbors, evicted from their cottages for non-payment of rent, face starvation.     I've been thinking and reading and writing about this story for quite some time. It began, for me, on a summer evening in Ireland in 1981, when Nan McGovern, my mother-in-law, brought me up Gubaveeny Mountain near her home in County Cavan to meet an old man who lived alone in a cottage. He was known in the region as a “shanachie” (pronounced “shanakey”), a sort of local historian who was said to have “a head full of knowledge about the history of the place.”
            During ancient times, Gaelic clans lived in particular areas of rural Ireland. Evidence of that survives today when so many families in a region have the same surnames. And so, for example, to distinguish one family from another of the same name, a man and his own family would be known locally by his first name, then his father’s first name, then his grandfather’s first name, followed by the family surname. He would be known locally as Charley Thomas Ned McGuire, and his family (if he had one), as the Charley Thomas Ned McGuires, or more simply as the Charley Thomas Neds.
            Charley Thomas Ned—Charley to his face—heard our car approaching and met us at the door of his stone cottage. Stooped, with a gray stubble and rheumy eyes, he greeted us through a mostly toothless grin in the dusty voice of his eighty-five years. “You’re very welcome,” he said to Nan, and turning to me, nodded. We sat before his open hearth, his only source of light. Many of the older folks on the mountain never had the electric hooked up when it came to the region in the 1950s—afraid of it, or just never seeing the need. The light of the hearth, for Charley Thomas Ned, was enough.
            He recalled for us the history of the region as it had been passed down to him in the oral tradition in the years before tape recorders or television, and he regaled us with tales of a local hero who roamed the area nearly 250 years ago. Dick Supple (pronounced “Souple”) Corrigan was a “rapparee,” a highwayman who ran with a gang that robbed from the rich and gave to the poor. Through many daring exploits, Supple Corrigan bedeviled the English who oppressed the native Irish in the region in the late 18th century. He is remembered in legend and song in the northwest of Ireland to this day. 
            As the late summer dusk descended on the mountain, the turf fire in the hearth glowed brighter and Nan and I rose to leave. We thanked Charley Thomas Ned for his hospitality and his stories, and the old man replied in a lyrical echo of ages past: “Sure, and wouldn’t ye be happy of the visit if ye was sitting here all the week long with nary a Christian soul to cross yer doorstep?”
            In Tobarmaire, my protagonist, Michael Corrigan, is the great-grandson of Supple Corrigan. Through a series of encounters, he seeks to settle some scores with the English during the famine of the 1840s, some seventy years after Supple had done the same.
            So this is where I’ve been of late, consumed with the past in the present. I’ll be back with some more blog posts from time to time—I’ve just recorded a post at the radio station, which I’ll link to these pages soon. But if I’m away from the blog for a stretch of time, I’m probably just wandering the lanes of my imagination, thinking, researching, or writing about the characters and happenings of Tobarmaire.

Speechless in the Battle

“I have no voice,” he said, barely audible. I was driving my friend John Palencsar to SUNY New Paltz so he could teach his history classes at the college. John is battling cancer of the vocal chords and   had just had a radiation treatment that morning. His speech reduced to a raspy whisper, he told me what frustrated him most: “I have no voice.” Later, in his class, he would repeat those words into a microphone that merely amplified his gravelly message to his attentive students.
            “I think it might serve as a metaphor, too,” he told them. His class by now was rapt, leaning forward, intrigued by what “Professor P.” was saying. “I never felt this before,” he continued. “I always had a voice.” He looked around the room and smiled. The class smiled back and nodded.
            “Maybe some of you have felt this way all along,” he said. “Women . . . and minorities . . . and gays. Maybe you’ve known for a long time what it means to not have a voice. Maybe those of you who are shy or lonely know. Those who are different in any way—to feel that you don’t have a voice.” The students were riveted now by the power of his metaphor.
            Having seized upon a “teachable moment,” Professor P. related the point to the aim of his lesson—that Thomas Jefferson alone was able to articulate a voice for those colonists who objected to a king denying them a say in the conduct of their own affairs. That in the phrasing of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson had given vent to their frustrations and their passions. He had given them a voice.
            After weeks and weeks of radiation and chemotherapy, John’s prognosis is good. His doctors are hopeful that he will not need surgery to remove his larynx and guardedly optimistic that as his vocal chords heal from the barrage of radiation, he will, in time, recover his voice.
            I think of those who, metaphorically, have much less hope, of those who need not to “recover” their voice, but to “discover” it for the first time. How empowering that moment would be. When the poor pursue means to climb out of their penury, they have found a voice. When minorities refuse to accept that the color of their skin should hold them back they have found a voice. When women or gays or trans people insist that their gender or sexual orientation be respected in their fight for pay equity or civil rights, they have found their voice. Whenever any who feel disenfranchised in any way declare, “Enough! We’ve had enough! We’re not going to take it anymore!” they have found a voice.
            It is one thing to declare one’s passion, to have a voice, but quite another to attain one’s demands. As Professor P. would attest, the American Revolution dragged on from 1775 to 1783. But by conveying the frustrations and desires of the colonists in the Declaration of Independence in 1776, Jefferson gave expression to their hopes and their dreams. He inspired them to fight against the odds. As with all who feel unrepresented or ignored, however, the journey started with discovering their voice.


Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Walk to Remember

   Rich Albero has a long history as a generous soul. When we taught high school together in New York for twenty-five years, he would occasionally show up to school in the morning looking a bit rumpled and haggard, perhaps even unshaven. Some would make assumptions based on this appearance. He’d had a rough night, they’d think, or he didn’t care about how he looked. Both conclusions were right, but not for the reasons assumed.
            I knew that, in fact, Rich had arrived at school having volunteered to help supervise a homeless shelter in his hometown overnight. If he seemed less concerned with his own appearance, it was because he was more concerned with providing a warm meal and a safe bed for others in need. At school, he kept his work at the shelter to himself and asked me not to mention it to anyone. That selfless volunteer spirit spoke to who Rich was.
            It came as no surprise to me, then, when Rich began to talk last year about wanting to walk more than 1,200 miles from Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, Florida, to Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. That grand plan spoke of who he still is.
            Rich Albero is sixty-five years old now, retired several years from high school teaching and just this past year from teaching math at St. Petersburg College, not far from his home in Dunedin, Florida. Having travelled around the world as a young seaman in the U.S. Merchant Marine, Rich was later to take other trips of note with his nephew Gary Albero—a memorable excursion to the Grand Canyon, for example, or a drive up to Boston to cheer his beloved Yankees as they battled the Red Sox at Fenway.
            But now, his grandest of journeys, this trek from Tampa to the Bronx is a tribute to Gary, who died in the World Trade Center towers on 9/11. True to Rich and Gary’s generous spirits, the walk is also raising donations to the Wounded Warrior Project.
            The Yankees organization has been very supportive of his walk. In the first week of March, Rich started his journey from home plate at Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, where in the midst of spring training the Yankees gave him an enthusiastic send-off. “See you in New York,” manager Joe Girardi said with a hug.
            With some help from a few sponsors—ionic sportwater, Brooks shoes, Tilley hats, Wyndham Hotels, and Wish You Were Here Productions, among others—Rich is now well past the half-way point of his journey. Calling on a small cadre of close friends or family as his support drivers, he recently made his way north through the Carolinas one step at a time. Now, in early May, with more than 800 miles behind him, he has reached the rolling hills of Richmond, Virginia.
            As he approaches Washington, D.C., I’m to join Rich as his support driver for a week. He’ll rise before dawn, do his morning exercises, then wake me for breakfast. Next, I’ll drive him to where he had ended the previous day’s walk, and he’ll resume his journey, aiming for another twenty miles that day. Around noon, Rich will call to tell me his location. Along with an afternoon’s supply of sportwater, I’ll bring his lunch and a bucket of ice water to soak his feet mid-day. Following that, he’ll resume his walk until late afternoon or early evening, when I’ll pick him up and drive him to our next hotel. After a hearty dinner, it’ll be early to bed and up again before dawn.
            Rich hopes to reach New York City by Memorial Day weekend. There he will lay a commemorative wreath beneath Gary’s name at Ground Zero. He will end his walk with a ceremony at home plate before a game at Yankee Stadium, a fitting conclusion to a selfless journey by a sixty-five-year-old Yankee fan who walked more than 1,200 miles from spring training to a home game in the Bronx to honor his nephew and our wounded warriors.

Follow Rich Albero’s progress and donate if you can at

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Going Home to a Place I'd Never Known

                 When I was a child, my father would regale my sisters and brothers and me with countless family stories of his youth and young manhood in the Bronx in the 1920s and ‘30s. But we knew little if anything of the life his own grandparents had left behind in Germany. Who were they? Where in Germany did they come from? What did they work at? Care about? What were their dreams? Why did they leave all they had ever known to come to this new land with its strange customs and language? And what became of them as they lived out the remainder of their lives in Massachusetts? It was all a mystery to us. 
                  His own father, Arthur Conrad Kersting, my paternal grandfather, had emigrated from Germany in 1880 as an infant in the arms of his mother and grew up in the only land he had ever known, as an American. In 1898, he served in the Spanish-American War, then in 1906 would wed Elizabeth O’Donnell in New York City. By the time my father was born in 1916, the Kerstings had fully assimilated as Americans for two generations.   
                  Through the burning curiosity of my sister Liz and that of our cousin Eddie, whose passion for family history I share, a family tree began to emerge. Resources such as and immigration and census records began to provide a sense of who our people had been.
                  We had always heard that our paternal great-grandparents had “come from” Hamburg, in northern Germany. That turned out to be true—in a literal sense. Genealogical records would reveal that before they emigrated from the port of Hamburg, they had lived in the village of Ottensen, which is now part of greater Hamburg. But Johann Conrad Kersting, our paternal great-grandfather, had been born in Wiedenbrück, Germany, about 175 miles away, in 1848—exactly one hundred years before I was born in the Bronx. He would wed Leonore Baer in her hometown of Ottensen in 1876. Johann Conrad immigrated to New York City in May of 1880, some months after my grandfather was born. Leonore and the infant followed a few months later.
                In May of 2014, my wife, Rita, and I traveled to Weidenbrück in search of the place where so many generations of my ancestors had lived. But after 134 years, no one was home anymore. Before we left on our journey, I had tracked down on the Internet ten or so Kerstings in the Weidenbrück phone book. At our hotel in town, we connected with Renate Loebich, a local guide who confirmed for us that Kersting was indeed a local name in Weidenbrück. As our research had indicated, this is where the Kerstings had come from. With a promise to be in touch, Renate began to call the phone numbers I had shown her.
                  In the meantime, Rita and I began to scan the gravestones in the local cemetery. An abundance of Kersting headstones suggested that we were in the right place. Yet, while some of the given names were familiar, none of the dates coincided with our genealogical research. A visit to the cemetery office explained why. After a grave is unattended for thirty years, we were told, the plot reverts to the state, which routinely resells the gravesite. And so, 134 years later, the graves of our ancestors were as elusive as the stories of their lives. Local church and burial records from that long ago, it turns out, are stored in the state archives in the nearby town of Paderborn. We would save that research for another trip, another time.
                  A call from Renate assured us that all was not so bleak, however. She had contacted Anton Kersting, a retired local farmer who was eager to meet us. A few miles outside town we came to his farm, mostly fruit orchards and several acres of meadows now. Anton and his wife Karola met us at the door of their house, which has been in his family for three hundred years. As they spoke no English and my German was dusty at best, Renate translated. Despite the language barrier, they were warm and welcoming, as was evident in their eyes and their smiles.                  
                  To our dismay, though, we learned that Anton knew little more about his family history than we did ours. He had lost several uncles in the trenches of World War I, but beyond that—or perhaps somewhat because of it—his parents had spoken little of the past. Yet, in our search for common ancestral ground we discovered that our families shared our Catholic faith and several given names over the generations. We also shared some striking physical resemblances: height, body type, and several facial features. We departed with an invitation to return someday and hopes of doing so with my sister and some of my brothers. We were assured of a hearty welcome.  
                  Standing outside his door, Anton told us of a memory during World War II when he was a boy of five or six and allied planes were dropping bombs on a nearby farm owned by an SS general. Aside from that target, however, Wiedenbrück was spared destruction by the allied bombs, unlike the industrial sites in Germany. (As a port city, for example, 95% of Hamburg was  destroyed by allied bombings.) 
Today, many of the timber-framed houses and shops, some dating to the Middle Ages, survive in Wiedenbrück much as they were when my ancestors walked the streets of the town two centuries ago. The building next door to our hotel was in the midst of a renovation, though. “That used to be a cigar factory,” Renate told us, striking yet another genealogical chord. We had learned a while back from U.S. census records that Johan Conrad was listed as a cigar maker when he emigrated from Germany in 1880. This former cigar factory in the center of Wiedenbrück was likely where he had learned his trade as a young man. 
                  Built in 1505, the Roman Catholic church of St. Aegidius in the center of town, was where generations of our Kersting ancestors would have worshipped. For me the most striking feature of this historic church was not its medieval stone tower, not the bullet holes from the Thirty Years War, not its impressive gothic arches, nor its elaborately etched stone pulpit. Not its carved wooden statues, its well-preserved confessionals, not even its magnificent stained glass windows nor its historic wooden doors. I was drawn instead to the stone baptismal font atop a small pedestal of carved arches and biblical scenes. This is the font where generation after generation of Kerstings were Christened as infants, just as their descendants are today in “the new world.” 
                  In hopes of finding a connection, I had come to the town where generations of my ancestors had lived out their hopes and dreams. I had arrived with a vague notion of what I might find. Having walked the same streets my ancestors had trod, eaten local traditional food, and sampled the warm hospitality—the Gemütlichkeit—of the townspeople today, I came away with a distinct sense of the place, both present and past. As the language my ancestors had left behind now echoed in my mind, I found, in the end, that you can go home again, even after 134 years.