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News of Otsego County

the troubles

McREYNOLDS: Our family secrets still feel haunting

Be Afraid, But Do It Anyway

Our family secrets still feel haunting

Erna Morgan McReynolds, raised in Gilbertsville, is retired managing director/financial adviser at Morgan Stanley’s Oneonta Office, and an inductee in the Barron’s magazine National Adviser Hall of Fame.  She lives in Franklin.

Nature or nurture is a question I keep asking myself. Why have I always been afraid? Did I learn fear?

Why did my parents keep to themselves? Kept us close to them?

No overnights with other kids. Or other kids sleeping at our house.

Maybe not just because our house wasn’t as nice as the other kids?

My family lived secrets. Were Mom and Dad just shy? Or were they really afraid? That they would be shunned by neighbors? That they couldn’t measure up? That they might jeopardize the life they wanted to build for their girls’ futures?

Dad had told us why he emigrated from Northern Ireland. But was this the real story?

I had believed his story. It shaped my life. With four daughters on a farm my Dad needed sons. In the 50s and 60s, probably, a man needed at least one son.

McREYNOLDS:…But I Wasn’t Afraid Of ‘The Troubles’
LETTER from ERNA MORGAN McREYNOLDS

…But I Wasn’t Afraid

Of ‘The Troubles’

Erna Morgan McReynolds, raised in Gilbertsville, is retired managing director/financial adviser at Morgan Stanley’s Oneonta Office, and an inductee in the Barron’s magazine National Adviser Hall of Fame.  She lives in Franklin.

You already know that I have been afraid to do almost everything I ever did, but that never stopped me. But then there were the times when I should have been afraid but wasn’t.

Why did I think I could head off around the world at 21? Emigrate to New Zealand from a small Upstate dairy farm?

From New Zealand there was no easy way to call home if I was in trouble or just homesick. With the primitive system there I had to book calls to the U.S. far in advance. At Halloween I reserved my slot for Christmas Day.

And of course there was no Internet back then. Just handwritten letters on onion skin paper to make them lighter and cheaper to mail. Even an air mail letter could take weeks to get to my family.

There were no credit cards in case of emergency either. I hadn’t even dreamed of seeing ATMs.

So where was my fear when it should have seized me?

Car bombs, like this one depicted in the Irish Times 50 years ago, were common during “The Troubles,” when Erna Morgan McReynolds visited Belfast.

I had booked and paid for my 13,000-mile ticket which would let me see a lot of the world. I could get on and off planes, change airlines and visit as many countries as I wanted as long as I didn’t exceed those 13,000 miles.

I put on nylons, dress, gloves and my sturdy walking shoes. One had to“dress” for airplane travel in those days.

My foreign travel began with a drive from Upstate to the JFK airport. Without a look backward, I boarded a 727 and flew from that iconic TWA terminal.

First stop was Ireland to meet my Dad’s brother — my Uncle Tony, my cousins, Dad’s friends.

Dad left Northern Ireland in 1926. He had never returned. I would be the first to visit his family since 1926!

After my TWA dinner, which was served on china even in steerage, I took a brief nap. I opened my bleary eyes at Shannon Airport in Ireland. Shannon was a world apart then, with donkeys hauling goods and people through

Western Ireland. No tractors. Few cars.

But my uncle and two of my cousins were there to greet me. Their hours-long journey to fetch me took almost as long as my trip from JFK.

In my ignorance, my Upstate travel agent had booked me to the right island but the wrong side of it. The McReynolds lived near Belfast. Hours away from Shannon and often on single-track roads flanked by hedgerows.

My cousin Tommy, who could tell a tale about almost anything, told me those hedges housed the “wee people,” who built fires there and roasted mushrooms.

I have to admit I stared hard into those hedges. I wondered when one of the wee ones would spring out in front of our car.

This cousin never stopped spinning fairy stories. But he had some real stories to tell too. A tough Belfast city bus driver, Tommy had been held up at gun point more than once “in The Troubles.”

My Dad had left half a century before. He assured us that it was a time of “The Troubles” back then. Nothing to worry about.

But there had been plenty to worry about then and when I arrived too.

After our visit to my cousin Iris in a border town in the Irish Republic, we had to go through a checkpoint to get into Ulster.

Soldiers dressed in camouflage wielding machine guns; sand bags to deflect bombs; questioning by sentries before we could pass through.

That was unnerving but with Dad’s reassurances I knew this was just normal life.

A few days later when my cousins and Uncle were giving me a tour of a nearby city, a policeman was stopping the line of traffic in front of us. As we neared the road block suddenly my cousin wheeled the car around and started tearing away.

But before we went more than a few yards, an explosion rocked our little Mini, our eardrums felt like they would break and black smoke plumed in the air. Sirens blared. Children on their lunchtime recess ran about screaming. Parents arrived shouting, looking for their children in the mayhem.

Maybe I should have been afraid? But I took my Dad’s advice and didn’t worry. I stayed in Northern Ireland for my 10 days. We were frisked as we went into Belfast department stores. Stopped at roadblocks. Walked past young soldiers in camouflage. But I still had 9,000 miles to go.

Next stop London.

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