Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Pink Room

Some of my earliest and best memories when I was a little girl was listening to old time radio. That may have been my first exposure to history. All before the age of 9, I had stayed at my grandparents house in Duluth, Minnesota many times over. It was they who gave me my first handheld white and silver transistor radio, complete with a carrying strap back in the 1970's.
My Aunt's old pink decor room was my quarter of choice, while my mother's vacant room was purple. I loved the pink room. It had a tiny balcony on the 2nd floor, overlooking the small backyard and the apples trees, complete with bird feeders and bird baths. My grandfather had a love for birds and squirrels, chipmunks and the like, so the backyard was always filled with small animal activity. One year a young black bear even found his way up one of the apple trees, just to satisfy his hunger smack dab in the middle of the city. The Duluth News Tribune showed up to take a photo of that event, proof that my grandparents back yard could turn into a zoo at any given day.

Here is my Grandmother, sitting in her back yard, 100% Irish, and 150% not happy her photo was taken.
The pink room was always sunny and warm, and the chenille bedspread was a cozy escape at night to snuggle under with a flashlight while I searched the AM airwaves on that old transistor radio. The mystery theatre programs were always a welcome delight during the summer months. The windows would be slightly cracked open to let the heat escape as night fell. Lightning bugs could be spotted down below as I'd peak out the window, trying to catch a glimpse of the ship's lights as they floated across Lake Superior, echoing it's deep sounding horn to the Aerial Lift Bridge on Canal Park wanting the ok to come into port.

I'd turn that dial, ever so slowly, hidden under the chenille blanket with the flashlight shined on the radio. It was past my bedtime, and I didn't want to get caught, so I pressed the ear plug into the jack on the radio and stuck the one hearing end of it in my ear, while the other was alert for possible footsteps outside my door at any given moment. The sound of crackling static filled my head along with the sounds of commercials in the far off distance, baseball games being broadcast, even two programs intertwined into one, impossible to decipher. Until finally, it came in, after a few crackles of static and adjusting with my finger on the dial... clear as a bell I would hear the radio theatre mystery program. I'd turn on my side, the one with the plug in the ear, so it would stay put against the pillow while I listened, and I'd lift the covers and turn off the flashlight. Only the glow from the moon would enter the pink room now. It was all I needed to be transported back in time while my full attention was given to the latest nostalgic re-broadcast on the radio.

Sometimes, if the mystery was too creepy for my young mind, I'd often crawl back under the blanket with my teddy bear and flashlight. I'll bashfully admit, it was only about 5 years ago that I quit sleeping with a teddy bear, but it hasn't strayed too far as it's always on standby next to the bed. More often than not, I'd fall asleep toward the end of the broadcast and awake in the morning to the sun-filled pink room, earplug hung over the bedside. The smell of fresh brewed coffee percolating on my grandmother's stove wafting up the stairs, alerting my senses to breakfast. It is to them I can also attribute my present day coffee habit. I still have the tiny tea cup they gave me to sip my small portion of coffee they allowed me during breakfast with my eggs and toast and sausage. And then, my day would begin all over, exploring the backyard and the rest of the neighborhood, only waiting for night to fall in anticipation of another old radio mystery theatre broadcast.

Because October 30th marks the death of Jerome J. Collins in the Arctic, this link below will provide you with a nostalgic leap to the past thanks to Orson Welles' "Mercury Theatre On The Air" from 1938. He portrays George W. Melville, Chief Engineer on the Jeannette Arctic Expedition, based on the book by Cmmdr. Edward Ellsberg. Although mostly factual (especially the end of the broadcast where he reads off the diary entries), Jerome is portrayed in a very bad light which can only be attributed to the naval standpoint it was written with. As many of you know, Jerome was a civilian forced to sign on as a seaman, a fact which he was not aware of at the time he agreed to the Expedition. His purpose of meteorologist and journalist never allowed to fully be completed thanks to the 18 month arrest he was held under for a trivial charge. Nevertheless, this on air broadcast allows the mind to picture the events of the Expedition (with some exaggeration by Welles of course), and it gives you an idea of the toll it takes on a man in 1879 as he attempts to reach the North Pole.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Meet the Past

Back in 1884, I don't think that my GG Grandfather, Dr. Daniel F. Collins, would have thought for one moment that his future GG granddaughter would be having almost the exact same conversation with the present day Danenhower family that he had with Lt. Danenhower of the Jeannette Expedition. But today I did. And I felt like I was transported back in time.

Along this journey of research I have been on for almost 10 years, I have learned one thing, to expect the unexpected. In the past 3 years I almost defy the unexpected to surprise me with it's best shot. Today was the cream of the crop. I spoke with Geoff Wilson, the Grandson to Lt. John Wilson Danenhower of the Jeannette Expedition of 1879 who served on board with my GG Granduncle Jerome J. Collins.

It was a conversation that happened because I had stumbled across the Vallejo Naval & Historical Museum in California online. I contacted the director a few months ago, Jim Kern, on a whim mind you, to ask if they had any info about the Jeannette Arctic Expedition of 1879 because that is where she departed to the Pole from. I not only hit the motherload of info, but the unexpected happened. I was put in touch with the Grandson of one of the men who served aboard with Uncle Jerome.

Lt. Danenhower was a Navy man. Before he enlisted with the Jeannette Expedition, he had quite the impressive resume' of Naval service. For whatever reason, he signed up to go to the pole with DeLong, and during that time he became a good friend to Jerome J. Collins who was embedded at the NY Herald Correspondent aboard. Collins was also the Meteorologist and Scientific Officer. During that time in the Arctic, Collins was treated brashly, something Danenhower admitted to Collins' brothers Daniel and Bernard upon his return to the US in 1884 from Siberia. Lt. Danenhower basically admitted in a nutshell that if it were any other man who was mistreated as badly as Jerome was, they would have gone over the ship's side. Jerome put up with the mistreatment, but never fought back, nor did he try to save himself by disobeying DeLong's orders to stay with the party while on the Lena Delta and forage ahead. Collins died while under arrest and suspension, and I believe DeLong kept him close so as not to let Collins steal any glory that should rightfully belong to DeLong or the US Navy.

Speaking with Geoff Wilson was enlightening, and I think encouraging for the both of us. He had been working on writing his Grandfather's bio for quite a few years prior to today. Geoff was set back on his research and writing when his wife fell ill over a year ago, however he used the work "remission" today on the phone and I think he is now encouraged by not only his wife's good health, but with the fact I have told him the location of DeLong's Ice Journals so that he may continue on with Lt. Danenhower's bio. I was also intrigued to learn he possibly has a letter of introduction written by Jerome, and after I stated no original documents were handed on down to me or any other family members I know, he said I would be welcome to it should he locate the paper. I told Geoff I would send him copies of what I could, including photos of the Jeannette Expedition and so forth. We spoke for 1 hour exactly, and I could have talked with him for 2 more hours had he let me.

When we hung up, we promised to keep in touch, to check our research, and send on things we thought each other needed. I have been feeling a deep sense of satisfaction knowing that my family and Lt. Danenhower's family is still connected to this day. Actually it's more than that, it's something honorable I think. To know that two families intertwined by an Arctic tragedy over 125 years ago are still in touch today, well, it's that unexpected part of history that defies you and says to you, "checkmate". My move next is to finish writing Jerome's bio. I know Geoff will finish writing his Grandfather Lt. Danenhower's bio. What a tale we will have told, with two different perspectives, but with the same goal in mind, for our ancestors to reach the North Pole.