East Falls Historical Society Oral History Interview
Interviewee: Robert (Bob) Dagney, 3340 Tilden Street, Philadelphia, PA 19129
Interviewers: Ellen Sheehan and Lyda Doyle
Transcriber: Ellen Sheehan
Date of Interview: September 28, 2019
So, Bob, you filled out your forms here and we are going to ask you some things about growing up in East Falls. Your family has been here for some time. Could you tell us where you grew up?
I grew up at 3347 Conrad St. on the corner of Conrad and Bowman Street. That was the Casey family house. The Caseys were my father’s family. The Dagneys came to East Falls in 1915, my grandfather Edward Dagney married Ella (Ellen) Casey.
Your parents have been here since 1915?
Well, my grandparents. My father was born in 1919 and my mother in 1922. My grandfather Edward Dagney married Ella Casey in 1915. The Casey were here before that, they came in 1880. They first came to Swamppoodle around 21st & Lehigh. William Casey married Katherine McCarty from Bowman St. When they got married the Caseys moved up here to Bowman St. The McCarthys were pioneers in East Falls. They came from County Sligo, Ireland in 1844. They lived in the poor house in West Philadelphia.
Blockley Yes, They came in December, 1844, with their 6 children. A baby, a toddler, a four year old, six year old and two older ones. The baby was James and the toddler was Patrick. They were the two who fought in the Civil War in the Calvary. They survived the trip (from Ireland) and then went to the Poorhouse. As far as I can understand you had to work for your room and board and you could keep some of the money. So they saved and after a while they were able to buy the house on Stanton Street, which was called James Street back then. They were one of the twenty founding families of St. Bridget’s.
So what year would that be?
1853, the year St. Bridget’s was founded. Then the two boys went into the Civil War in 1862.
Edward McCarty married the granddaughter of my second great grandfather Michael McCarty. He was the brother of the two Civil War veterans and the brother of Patrick
Tell me about the founding of St. Bridget’s.
It is really hard to find out how it happened. I went down to the archdioceses and the archives in Philadelphia and the only thing I could find out down there was the land was brought for $200.00. I believe, can’t say for sure, but the people who founded the church built the first church. The foundation of the church, I don’t know who else would have done it. They didn’t have money to pay anybody. They were farmers from Ireland so when they came here all they could do was labor. They didn’t have any skills so they had to work low paying jobs. They worked in the factories and mills in East Falls and Manayunk.
Do you know where they worked?
Well my grandmother Ella Gallagher worked at Dobson Mills. Her husband worked at the mills in Manayunk. Now the Caseys, I’m not sure. On the census they just had jobs – laborers, so they just had jobs not sure where. They always lived 10-12 people in a house. There were people there who weren’t even related to them. In the 1860 census, my grandmother, Ella McCarty was now a widow. Her eight kids lived there and there were four kids with different names living there too. I never found out who those kids were.
Some of those houses were three stories?
Yes, three stories with a back yard. They could grow food back there, carrots, etc., so I don’t know any more about the details of St. Bridget’s other than that. In my book I tried to figure out the best I could.
What is the title of your book?
“Salvation.” I traced them from Sligo to Liverpool to New York. They landed there in 1844. There wasn’t anything in the public record until 1850 when they were at Blockley. I know they were at Blockley in 1850. I presume they went to Blockley right away because they were two adults and six kids, where were they going to go? I have a feeling that that is where they went. On the passenger’s list their destination was Philadelphia. Why they went to New York instead of right to Philadelphia, I don’t know. No way to know for sure or how they got to Philadelphia.
My ancestors came by train.
That’s what I presume. I figure the train station was near the docks. I did find a reference in a book by Charles Dickens that he came from New York by train. It took seven hours and the trains had to go onto ferries. To find out where the trains stations were in Philadelphia wasn’t easy. There were only 2 or 3 and they were all downtown.
There was no church or school here so do you know where they went and what they did?
The church they went to was St. Stephen’s. I don’t know why they didn’t go to St. John’s in Manayunk. That was formed in 1853 or so. St. Stephen’s was in Hunting Park/Nicetown area so maybe they could get a trolley over there. They probably walked a lot. They asked the pastor over there about their own parish. I know the pastor over there in 1865 was Fr. Cullen. He was the Civil War pastor.
So where were you born?
3347 Conrad St.
No, Roxborough Memorial Hospital. I think my parents were born at home.
Where did your father work?
He worked there all his life?
Did your mother work?
Well, she took care of us until my brother and I were out of grade school. Then she went to work at a variety of low paying jobs. My mother didn’t graduate from high school so she didn’t have the skills so she worked low paying jobs like the bank. I was thinking about this, she worked at Fidelity Bank with your mother (Lyda). My mother went to mass with your mother before they went to work at St. John’s down town. I remember my mother telling me that.
What year were you born?
1946. I was the quintessential “baby boomer.” My father came home from Germany in July, 1945.
So he was in the war. Did he talk about that?
He didn’t talk about that. He had a heart defect and they made him a 4F. After D Day with all of those casualties they drafted him. Now, they didn’t think he would be drafted so they got married. Then after they got married he got drafted. He wound up in Germany but was only there for four months. My uncle, Ed, his brother, got drafted in 1940. He didn’t like the Army so he went into what was then the “Army Air Force.” They made him a navigator and he flew 35 missions over France in a B17.
And he came home?
He came home and he came home and was involved in a train crash. He survived but the other guys died in the crash. His wife, my Aunt Peg, they were engaged for three years while he was overseas. They communicated for three years while he was over there. He wrote on letter that said “Pray for me” the whole page. He was a navigator but on one of the flights the pilot and copilot were shot and he had to take over the plane and land it in England.
Your father came home in 1945.
Yes, in July. I was conceived in August and born nine months later in May. The quintessential baby boomer.
You went to school at St. Bridget’s? What do you remember about school?
(Sound of generator from neighbor’s porch)
I always had nuns as teachers. The first three years were in the Old School. We had sixty kids in our class. I was always behaved in school. A few paddle marks on my hands that was all. It was a group paddle. I went to Roman Catholic High School. I had a good experience at Roman. I got paddled once – a group paddle.
Did you play sports when you were growing up?
Oh sure, nothing organized. I played at Dobson Field. Before the expressway was built, Dobson’s was a big field. Every kid in the neighborhood played on the Police Athletic League. They had 3 or 4 games going at a time. It was crowded down there. It was a lot of fun, we had a good time. I was a good baseball player. Tom was a good player (Tom Doyle) I loved basketball. There were basketball courts all over the place. There were lots of outdoor courts and then when McDevitt’s was built there were indoor courts.
Did you use the Bathey for swimming?
Yes, I have a distinct memory of walking down to the Bathey. I was 6 or 7 years old. As boys we had a lot of freedom back then. We would walk down by Dobson’s and there use to be a road that led to the Bathey.
I remember walking down Krail and then Crawford to the Bathey.
We used to swim in the river sometimes.
What about Gustine Lake?
No. Gustine was only about 3 feet deep.
Did you ice skate on Gustine?
I tried it once but my ankles were too weak.
What other places in East Falls did you frequent? The library?
Oh, my father was a great reader. I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich when I was 14 years old. My father had a helmet, a luger pistol, and other artifacts from the war. He gave them away.
What about your relative A. J. Chadwick. Did you know him?
He was estranged from us. His sister married Joseph Gallagher who was a strict Methodist and we were Catholics. In those days this was taken seriously and she converted to Catholicism. I knew one of the Chadwicks who became a Navy Seal. So we didn’t have much connection with them.
How did the railroads figure in?
We only lived a block from the railroad tracks. When they built the expressway they dug up all that ground. One day I wanted to go down and play basketball at Dobson’s. I was about 12. You couldn’t go down Indian Queen Lane because they had that big hole so you had to go around. I decided I wasn’t going to do that. I was going to climb on the RR fence and jump down and go that way. I got up there and put my feet between the spikes and one of the spikes when I jumped, it went up my pant leg and I wound up hanging upside down from the fence. It was the only time in my whole life I called out “Help.” So this guy came by and got a big kick out of this kid hanging upside down like that. He lifted me up and got me off the fence. I was carrying my basketball. It fell down and bounced on the RR tracks and fell into the big hole. To top it off it went into a big puddle. I actually went back up on the fence and jumped off a second time, waded in the pool, got my basketball and went off and played ball. Boys will do this kind of stuff. They are different from girls.
What did you do after high school?
I went to LaSalle College. My father wanted me to major in Finance. I didn’t like that so majored in Political Science. It was easier than History. I went there 4 years and graduated in June, 1968. I was a Fort Bragg 6 weeks later. I got drafted. Actually, I volunteered for the draft. I knew I was going to get drafted and you couldn’t so anything while you were waiting to get drafted. I wanted to get it over with so I volunteered and went to Fort Bragg.
Talk about an eye opener. I was a tough guy but that just blew me away. It was brutal. I wrote about it in my book. My experience at Boot Camp. When you got drafted it was for two years. If you enlisted it was three years. I didn’t want three years. I didn’t realize at the time it was for combat in arms. They put me into the Artillery. That was a terrible experience I can tell you that much. It wound up, my brother was hospitalized. He was in bad shape so I got two weeks leave. My mother asked for another week so I got another week and then went back. While I was home, the original battalion I was with went to Vietnam. This was 1968 a very bad time to go.
So I was sent to Germany. It was bad – it was cold. They were shooting off guns. I wasn’t looking forward to it at all. I wound up in Italy. The Army in their wisdom trained me in Artillery and howitzers. Then they send me to Italy and I had to shoot Rockets. They had nuclear rockets in Italy to use against the Soviets. While I was at the Headquarters, the Sargent said, “I see you were in College. Do you know how to type.” “Sure, I know how to type.” I had no idea how to type. It amazed me that they never sent me back. I took all day just to type one letter. You can’t have white out – it has to be perfect. We had carbon paper and I couldn’t keep it straight. I got to the end of the page and you had to measure it so you know where to stop. It was a disaster.
They kept me there and gave me a job driving the Sargent around these missile bases around Italy. I had never driven a “stick.” We didn’t have a car till I was 16. I didn’t know how to drive a stick but I was driving on these narrow Italian roads. The Sargent was scared to death so he said “Get over” and he drove me around. I sat in back looking at the countryside while he drove calling me a stupid so and so. I didn’t do this stuff on purpose, it was just the way it was. You can change your MOS status from Artillery to Clerk. So they made me that.
Because you were a college grad.
Yes, then, I was totally useless. Then they sent me to do more of what I wasn’t trained to do. I was trained to fire Howizters. The Army was so screwed up. The whole organization is a mess. It was so ridiculous. So, anyway, I get a phone call that my brother, Dave, was sick mentally. But he wanted to enlist. My father thought the military would be good for him. Some people thought the military would be good for you and all this kind of stuff but they don’t realize how bad it is. My father was thinking of the Second World Was but they weren’t treated like they treated us. I called my brother Dave and said “No, No” because he had attempted suicide twice. I said, “Dave, boot camp is not a place for somebody who has attempted suicide two times. He wouldn’t listen to me. The sergeant I went to I told him I need to go home. I need to talk to my brother and stop him from going down there. So I get back to the unit and they said “You’re going to Vietnam.” I said “I don’t want to go.” ‘Well you signed up to go.” Just get rid of that request. Just ignore it. Just throw it out. But no, I had to go. What is this bizarre world? They gave me ten days to get to California from Italy.
That’s how you were going to Vietnam?
Yes, later on I came home from Vietnam for an emergency and I went back from McGuire in New Jersey. The first time I went I went out from San Francisco. I took a flight out from Oakland to Fr. Stewart, Washington. I was on the flight going out there to Washington State when they announced we landed on the moon – it was July, 1969. “Can I go to the Moon” everybody was so happy – I didn’t care about the moon. I was worried about where I had to go – I didn’t care about the moon. It was a week of combat training, not jungle training.
It is near Lacey, Washington.
Yes, we were fighting mock battles with troops on their way home from Vietnam. They were just waiting to go home. They were jumping out of trees behind me and I thought “How am I going to get through this,” you know. So I got over there and they put me to work as a clerk. I was worried because I was listed as a clerk and Artillery. I was afraid they would put me in Artillery. We were poorly trained, I can tell you that much. They never put us on a helicopter. If you go over there for artillery they put you on a helicopter. I was scared to death to go on a helicopter, to be honest with you. At least get me used to it because I never had to do it.
There was an Intelligence Unit out there and the worst duty I had was guard duty on the perimeter. There were machine guns out there and everything like that. Nothing happened while I was there. It wasn’t always safe there they had been attached. There were Vietcong there outside the wire. But at the bunker it was pretty scary out there at night. Sometimes you could see the bombing out front, helicopters shooting, or snipers out there shooting, but nothing happened.
I was there for six months and I requested to go home on emergency leave because my brother was bad again. So they gave it to me, so I went home. It was so weird going home. It was 100 degrees over there and back here it was wintertime. Let me know if I am talking too much because I could go on and on.
This is good – it is your memory of wartime.
I have thought about it so many times. I came home for an emergency to do family therapy. It was awful. It was ridiculous. My brother tried suicide three times and they are talking about all this ridiculous stuff. After a couple of times, two or three times, I said I’m not doing this anymore. My father thanked me afterward because he wanted to stop too but he was afraid to.
Then I got the orders to go back to Vietnam. I was home for 30 days when I got the orders to go back. I was at Fort Dix and I was waiting in line to get on the bus to go to Ft. McGuire when I heard my name announced on the loudspeaker “Specialist Dagney, report to the board room right now. “ So I go there and they say, “You’re not going.” I said, “What!” They said you’re not going, you’re staying here.” “I’m staying here?” Yes, we have and order from Senator Schweitzer that you are to go home. My mother had contacted him, my little mom, had called his office and said “Would you please stop him from going over there he needs to be home.” So he put a halt on my orders. I had to go down to the Pentagon to plead my case. Well, of course, my case was not going to work because I had quit the therapy. If I had stayed in the therapy it might have worked but it never occurred to me that I couldn’t go home. “You were in therapy and you quit!” Oh sh.. Nonetheless I was really angry because I want to stay home. I was really comfortable.
At that point I was at war with the Army, I was. That’s a war you can’t win. You can’t win a war with the Army. I came home and then I had to go back to Fort. Dix to leave while I was waiting they put you on what they call a holding company. This holding company – the guys in there were the biggest bunch of crooks, the worst of the worst were in this holding company because they were all trying to get out of going to Vietnam. They were troublemakers. I was there for about a month with these guys and I went AWOL twice when I was down there. Fort Dix was an open base. I could just walk out get on a bus and go home. I got caught once and got punished. They gave me a job cutting up ID cards. When you get discharged you have to give up your cards, you weren’t allowed to keep them. So I was there cutting them up. In fact, I came across Jimmy McFarland’s card, he had just gotten out.
I got friendly with the clerk there and he said your orders are coming down either Friday or Monday. I said can you make it Monday? He said yes, why. I said I’m going home. He said, but if you’re not back here Monday… I said “I’ll be back on Monday. “ So I came back on Sunday night. I was upstairs in bed at 5 o’clock in the morning and I heard him say, “Where’s Dagney? He’s supposed to be on KP this week.” Well I was supposed to be going to Vietnam, what is he talking about KP duty? So I went out. One of the Sergeants said where you are going. I said I’m going for a walk. A walk? What are you doing? I went over to the snack bar for breakfast and to get my orders. He gives me the orders. I go back to the barracks to sign out. The guy there looks at the orders and says, “Your Dagney?” “Yes.” He says, “The Sargent really wants to see you.” “For what?” “To go to KP. You know you were AWOL.”
So I walked in and the Sargent was the nastiest looking person you would ever want to see. “We know you were AWOL. That’s Article 15. And we know you were AWOL this weekend.” “What? I was there.” “What do you mean you were there?” “You didn’t see me – I was there!” He is cursing, so pissed off with me, really angry. “This time you’re going to the Stockade.” “No, I’m not!” “What do you mean you’re not going?” “I’m going to Vietnam.” “So I showed him my orders.” “Get the f… out of here and if I ever see you again I will tear you apart.” He was in a fury. They give you all your records because you’re traveling. I saw where they fined me a month’s pay. I threw it in the trash can – “I’m not paying that.” And I didn’t and they never found out that I didn’t. After it was over it hit me – what did I do? Was I crazy? I must have been nuts. He could have put me in the stockade, beat the s… out of me, but he didn’t. I don’t know why he didn’t. He was so mad at me he just put me out. There the kinds of things. I wasn’t in combat but these kinds of things.
Did you go back to Vietnam?
Yes, I went back to Vietnam for four months, I guess. While I was there we had a Master Sargent. He was awful and he kept threatening to send me to place called Nui Ba Den. It was the most dangerous place in Vietnam on the Cambodian border. They called it Black Virgin Mountain where the Army had artillery on the top, infantry on the bottom and Vietcong in the middle. They could not get rid of them. They bombed and bombed. They did everything they could but they would go into caves. They tried to destroy that place. They wanted to send me there. This one guy I worked with his name was Raul. He told me that’s a warning. You better stop. We just laughed. We didn’t take it seriously. No big deal. You had to get your rifle out to walk around the base on guard duty. So you get your rifle out and there was a whole box of grenades. Years later I thought about that. They make you sign the rifles out but there is a whole box of grenades. Nobody ever counts. I never counted them. Amazing! That’s how screwed up the Army was. It’s amazing how screwed up they were. Finally, I wound up getting an early out. I was supposed to go in June 1970. Because Nixon got us out in May, 1970.
Did you see combat?
No. I didn’t see combat. I was a Perimeter Guard. You could see the Infantry would be out there right in front of us. Once in a while you could see them shooting at somebody. You could feel the mountain shaking. In the pouring rain you couldn’t see a thing – it was just pouring rain. They would shoot up a flare. All that would do was to make the rain lighter. You were supposed to know when the bunker next to you was going to shoot off a flare because it scared the hell out of you. (Imitates flare noise) “Oh what was that?” Why didn’t you tell us you were going to do that? Then we started laughing. I was hysterical like the three stooges!
So you did leave Vietnam then?
Yes, I went out with another guy. We smoked marijuana. Everyone did. You needed a release from the tension. It was rampant over there. (Noise from generator next door.)
I was as calm and composed as I have ever been in my life. I could have sat there as calm as can be. We smoked all the way home. By the time I got there we almost missed our flight back. We got off at Okinawa.
When you came home from Vietnam, were you employed then?
Not for three months. We had money because we were paid but there was nothing to spend it on over there. So we lived off the money we had saved. I went back home and finally got a job at the State Building, trying to get jobs for people collecting unemployment compensation. I quit there and went to Ireland.
What year was this?
The first year I went was 1972. I went over there with Mike Daily from Indian Queen Lane. We were in Dublin in a pub when we got connected with these young people. They told us about a place in Ballykellings. We could go down there and stay for free. It was a farm, a flophouse, an Irish “safe” house was what it was. We didn’t know that. The guy who owned it was McMurphy. He used to talk about IRA. That place was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. It was right near the bay. You walk 50 yards to the bay and the mountains. So I thought this was great – it was really beautiful.
I went back there in the summer of 1973. I wanted to go back. My mother said, “Why are you going back there?” “I don’t know but for some reason I have to go back there. I have to do something there but I don’t know what it is.” Surprising my mother said “OK, you’ve got to do this.”
I went back and stayed there for about four months but I was running out of money. While I was there I met James McCann. James McCann was a drug dealer and gun runner for the Irish Republican Army. He had escaped from the Crumlin Road Jail in Belfast in 1991. So he was a wanted man. He was the IRAs main gun supplier. This was an IRA safe house. Everyone who came to that place they wound up staying there. So there were ten or twelve people there all the time. He found out I was low on money and trying to figure out what to do. So he said do you want to go home? I wasn’t ready to go home. Well, how would you like to make a few thousand bucks? Well he wanted me to go to Belfast. Go through the lines there and deliver the information and then come back.
This sounds worse than Vietnam.
It was. I was in more trouble there than anywhere. I thought about doing it. Actually I went up there in 1992. I went there on a bus. Soldiers got on the bus with arms. Fortunately, I had a romantic relationship with a woman, Madelaine. I told her what was going on. She said, “You’re not going to do it.” She said they are probably using these arms against civilians. Do you want to be a part of that?” I said “No, but what am I going to do?’ She said, “Go home!” I said, “Alright.” But I had to go and tell McCann that I wasn’t going to do it. When I got there he said, “We’re going now.” I said, “No.” “What do you mean?” “I don’t want to.” He was angry. I guess because of what I went through in the Army, I wasn’t afraid of him. I just wasn’t. If he tried to do anything to me there were all kinds of bottles around there, I would just break a bottle on him. He stormed off. “When are you leaving anyway,” he asked. “I’ll leave when I’m ready” – so I stayed another week. So his brother was there and said where are you going. I said, “Dublin.” So his brother said “Well get up, we’re going.”
I guess from growing up, being in the Army, I guess I had a poker face. I got right up and said, “Let’s go.” We got into this little car. It was the most harrowing ride. About 250 miles to Dublin. We are riding on these roads and he’s talking the whole time. At least we didn’t stop on any deserted beach. Anyway, we get to Dublin and he said “Where are you going to stay?” “I don’t know.” “Well I have a cousin here, you can stay with my cousin.” I had to go along with everything he said. I couldn’t say no. I had to do what he said. There was a young guy there about 20 years old. I slept on his couch. The next morning I said I would pay him. He said no. I said “Well I’m going to take off.”” Where are you going? I’ll come with you.” ‘No.” This guy was going to keep an eye on me.
Now, I was in fantastic physical condition. So I said let’s go. I had a back pack and I walked and walked and walked until finally he said “I can’t go anymore.” He sat down on a bench. I found a bed and breakfast. The next morning I didn’t know where to go. Madelaine had said “Why don’t you come to London. You could work on the docks there.” So I really loved Madelaine. When I was in Ballykellings there was a guy there who said you could go to France and pick grapes. So I was trying to figure out where to go.
I was walking in downtown Dublin when a car pulls up and a guy gets out. His name was Paddy. I don’t remember his last name. This guy was a bank robber. He was. He gets out of the car and starts shaking my hand, “Hey, how are you doing?” like we are old buddies. He said “What are you doing now?” In that instant, I made up my mind. “I’m going to France to pick grapes.” If I had said I was going to London, he would put me in that car and made sure I went. So now I had to go to France. It was ridiculous. I couldn’t speak French. What did I get myself into? I found out you had to go down to Rosslare to get the ferry to LaHarve. I thought what am I going to do when I get to LaHarve?
All of a sudden a calming sensation came over me. I see this guy on the ferry wearing an Army jungle fatigue shirt so I said “”Where did you get the shirt?” “I got it in Dublin.” “Oh sure, they sell them there” I said “Where are you going?” “I going to pick grapes.” “Do you speak French?” “A little bit.” “Do you mind if I come along with you?” He said “Sure.” I was so glad because when you get off the boat a LaHarve it is this huge place. We managed to get a train to Paris, a train to Lyon, and we went to the employment house. If you want to pick grapes you go there. So I picked grapes there for several weeks until I had enough money to go home.
I came to New York and found the best way to get home was by limo. It cost $25.00. The limo was better than a plane or train. I knew that from before. He left me off at City Line Avenue. That’s as far as he would take me for the money I gave him. I called my father. The dime I put in the phone (in those days,) it was the last coin I had. Totally broke, my hair was down to my shoulders, I had a long beard and my hands were stained with grape stains, my shoes were falling apart – my father said “Jeez, what happened to my son?” I never told my father what happened there. My mother found out years later.
We are going to stop here – we only do an hour at a time.