December in the Northeast means a decent possibility of snow – and travel problems for Christmas. Franchise and I were antsy as we monitored the forecast the past week. We planned to travel to Ohio on Friday night for three days of Christmas with my family. But a storm was expected in town on Friday, and the storm projections went from “a bit of snow” to “it could dump a foot of snow plus ice.”
On Thursday morning, they updated the forecast. This would be a decent storm. We’d be driving straight through the storm to get home on Friday night. Or we’d be driving across roads with as much as a foot of ice and snow that may or may not be plowed. I spent my lunch hour looking at weather projections and maps. We talked at 3:30 that afternoon – we’d leave town that night (pack quickly…) and drive south where the weather should be limited to rain.
I’d never had much success trying to outflank a weather pattern before. I’ve failed to outrun snow storms in the past. I’ve driven along the Texas countryside trying to get to a cross road and out of a tornado’s path. Last year, we were forced to land in Toledo and stuck overnight in Detroit while trying to get home after Christmas. But we pack and leave by 7 p.m.
We were most of the way to Harrisburg when we called Roger to ask about the forecast for Pittsburgh. Either we’d turn west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike or stay south and head for Hagerstown, Maryland depending on whether Pittsburgh would have freezing rain that night. The weather looked clear until 1 a.m. and would be just rain by 10 a.m. – easy set-up for crashing in a hotel room. We turned west on I-76 and set our sights on New Stanton – a place Franchise selected.
The road was pretty clear, the weather held, although I was tired and we pulled off one exit early – about 20 miles shy of our intended destination. I noticed the name of the county on the way in. A long time ago, a branch of my mom’s family lived in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. Most of the family moved out after about 20 years. Only a few brothers stayed behind. I didn’t have any graves to search for and doubted there would be much paper record because the family left about 200 years ago.
We found the hotel and crashed for the night. Neither of us had heard of our jobs being closed the next day so we’d have to wake early to learn about the cancellations through text message or call off for the day. Franchise’s phone alarm sounded at 6:15 a.m. Within a few minutes, she received her cancellation text and rolled back over. I wasn’t cancelled so I spent a few minutes surfing the web on my Blackberry – learning a bit about the county’s history. That’s when I heard the buzzing – a quiet alarm sounding from the hallway. I rolled over to look at the alarm clock – dark. I flipped the bed lamp switch – nothing.Franchise slept blissfully in the bed – completely unaware. But I sat there thinking about my situation.I had never expected to find myself in Westmoreland County with no powern while rain poured outside while I tried to outsmart the seasonal weather.
Power was still out when Franchise woke so we considered our options. Donuts in the lobby and a dark bathroom. I grabbed my phone and Franchise’s GPS to Google and map the county historical society. Then I proposed an option to Franchise. We drive 20 miles to the historical society. Enjoy light, power, running water. I’d search their records for 30 minutes to see if they have anything pertaining to my family – anything that might encourage or dissuade me from visiting again. Then we’d get back on the road. Sometimes, when an opportunity is presented, you can’t let it go – particularly if it’s something you really enjoy doing.
Franchise didn’t sign up to leave Thursday night. She didn’t want to scamper out of Scranton wondering whether she would need to call in a sub for the next day. She didn’t want to be in a powerless hotel in Southwestern Pennsylvania. And she certainly didn’t want to spend the day in the archives somewhere while I did research. I could see the thoughts form in her head: Can’t he go anywhere without having to do genealogy research? She was gracious though. If there’s power, OK, she said. We checked the front desk. The hotel expected to be without power for the next 20 hours. The county seat had power. We packed the car and left.
Sure, I remembered the family name that resided in the area for 20-25 years. Bennetts. William, the patriarch, fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill and Yorktown. Isaac, his youngest son, is my direct ancestor. No clue on the dates or years they lived there or who was born, died, and married where. Totally unprepared and not expecting to parachute in to do anything with this family – particularly in a county where they resided for only a portion of their movement through the fledgling United States.
I walked into the Westmoreland County Historical Society with my laptop – full of all the family history scans I’ve collected – my brains for the day because I haven’t looked at this family in at least a year. The staff was nice – really helpful in digging up books and talking about the history of the area. I found a copy of a land deed from April 6, 1795 and a couple of mentions of the families that remained behind. Franchise read To Kill a Mockingbird. We stuck around about 90 minutes before hitting up the hotdog eatery on the corner and heading to Ohio.
The trip’s started with a lot of potential for a great story. Franchise and I have already decided that the Christmases since the wedding have been particularly adventuresome. We’re not done yet, but we made the best of a surprise situation.