Weeks ago, there was a fire at the College Park Motel in which two small children died. One recent Saturday, at the same motel, a suicidal man had to be taken by police to the hospital. Other times there were domestic disputes, a suspected kidnapping, other fires, broken windows and broken marriages.
To the naked eye, the motel is just an unpretentious looking collection of 16 small cabins and a big main house with four apartments. It is one of several motor courts that dot what was in another era the interstate traveler's main gateway to Washington U.S. Route 1.
Now, the motel seems sometimes to be a magnet for troubled people. Life there is often punctuated by tragedy, so much so that Peggy Wangner, who recently left her jobs as its resident manager had come to know "every cop in the county. It got to be where I'd walk in the courthouse door and they'd say, 'Hi, what's new this week?'"
She even began to keep a journal of the dramas that went on. Some excerpts:
"Jan. 20, 1976, 5:30 p.m. Mr. Mavhew called rescue squad for a lady in her room. Rescue squad took her from here at 5:30 p.m. She was drunk out of her mind.
"March 11, 1977. Found man dead. Truck driven 18 hours on road. Wanted to sleep. Beltsville Rescue Squad said maybe alcohol and pot . . . and he fell and cracked head open . . . Autopsy: death from acute alcoholism.
"April 7, 1977. No one answered in one cabin TV on, curtains down. Man face up, lying on the bed with blood on his hands and shot gun standing on the floor upright next to his bed . . . 1:40 p.m. . . . The sheets, bedspread, mattress, bed pad, blankets ans pillows were ruined with blood."
The motel's moderately priced rooms rent to students and professors from the nearby University of Maryland who sometimes pay by the week, miscellaneous transients and persons placed there by the county social services agency who need emergency housing. Some of the units have kitchens and more than one room, and sometimes they hold large families.
The county doesn't allow housekeeping units in new motels but, according to College Park code enforcement director Earl Harnest, "under a grandfather clause" old ones can still operate.
"Twenty-four hours a day, if we have room, we take 'em," Peggy Wangner said, one day several months ago when she was still running the motel. "To me, it would be an interesting job for a psychiatry major."
Her hair was in curlers as she greeted a visitor. on the front desk was a outdate sign, "Authorized Agent for D.C. Transit Sightseeing Tours." Behind, an old PBX switchboard lit up and rang from time to time.
The main building was first a residence, erected by a man named Beckwith more than 50 years ago. A woman named Price bought it in 1927, adding a front and then a rear porch, and finally, some cabins to cater to the tourists coming to Washington.
"There was a huge tree beside the road," remembered Beulah Keefauver, who with her husband Earl built their large brick home on the hill behind the motel in 1924. "Someone hit that tree one night. It killed him. That tree is long gone."
The motel changed owners in the intervening years, winding up by the mid-1970s in the possession of an Indian national living in Manassas and working for IBM. The man, Arti Pravinchandra K. Shah, would come around on weekends. Peggy Wangner was his manager.
It was her first such job, but she was no stranger to the business: Her mother is the resident manager of a Connecticut Avenue apartment house.
At first, Peggy Wangner, who is 44 and the mother of five grown children, had part-time help in her new job from her second husband Walter, a printer and Saturday night singer at a downtown Washington restaurant. After six months, however, he left.
"He felt the motel was taking up too much of my time," said Peggy Wangner. "He's a great guy. It just didn't work out."
On Dec. 21, 1975, the people in one cabin complained it was too cold. The thermostat was next door but no one inside answered the phone. Peggy Wangner opened the door with a passkey and found a woman apparently unconscious from what was later deemed a drug overdose.
"Walter couldn't arouse her, so I called the rescue squad," Peggy Wangner noted in her diary. "She was taken to Leland Memorial Hospital in critical condition, but she will live," she added later . "She spent 10 days in the hospital and then returned here."
Three months ago, there was a letter from the woman who now lives in the Midwest. She has held a job for almost two years now, as a secretary in an insurance office. "It makes me feel independent," she wrote.
The day the woman overdosed, Peggy Wangner had other problems "Mr. - is in Cabin - with two children and wife. I called social services since he and his wife were continually fighting and children terribly upset. Wife ran off with cab driver and kept coming back and fighting with husband. He owed (the motel) approximately $90. Social services came and put the children in a foster home and placed him in a state mental health center. Wife disappeared."
Dec. 19, 1975 was another one of those days that filled several pages of Peggy Wangner's journal.
It began around 8:30 a.m. when the man in Cabin - on a weekend pass, it turned out, from St. Elizabeths Hospital, phoned his counselor to say he planned to end his life. When the counselor arrived, the man, Peggy Wangner noted, "was breaking windows, etc. Walter went to the room and the man slashed both his wrists and started throwing things."
Police arrived at 11:40 a.m., the rescue squad 10 minutes later. The man was taken to Prince George's General Hospital, then transferred to D.C. General.
At 5 p.m., Peggy Wangner listed the damage: bloody mattress pad, bedspread, pillow cases, blanket, towels, broken wall mirror, etc. "No chance of recovering," she wrote. "He had no money."
Two hours later, Peggy Wangner's 16-year-old son "came running up to the office and asked me who was living on the porch . . . because some man is dumping about 25 dogs in crates in a room behind the wall."
It was a woman in her 60s. "It seems she had put these 25 dogs in with different vets and never paid the bill," Peggy Wangner noted, "so this vet dumped them on her doorstep. I telephoned her immediately and told her the animals had to be out by morning."
By noon the next day, the animals were still in her room, uncaged. Peggy Wangner called the police. At 12:15, a Hyattsville policeman talked to the woman and left.
"She proceeded to start taking two or three dogs at a time and walked up and down U.S. 1," the resident manager wrote. "She also took a lot of them in a taxi. She again deposited them with different vets. Last I heard, the Hyattsville Animal Hospital finally had to put six of the dogs to sleep and she was suing them for this."
Peggy Wangner left the motel late last year when it was sold by Shah to another Indian named Vijay Patel. Patel, 43, is a slight, soft-spoken man from a farming village north of Bombay who immigrated to this country in December, 1976.
He had been helping his sister and brother-in-law run another motel in Annapolis when the College Park opportunity came along. "We all like United States," he said. There is a lot of chance to develop. It is a nice place."
Patel and his family were badly shaken by the fire Feb. 9 that resulted in the deaths of two children. "My wife didn't sleep for three nights." Patel said, "We are very emotional people. We take it very seriously."
The children were alone at the time of the fire. Since then, Patel has posted a new office sign: "To re-emphasize our requirements to the guests with children, we insist that no children shall be left unattended in motel premises."
"God will help us, yes," said Vijay Patel. "That way I pray."
Peggy Wangner has a new job now, as resident manager of an apartment house in Foggy Bottom. She's trying to market her journal as a book and thinks its contents would also make a great television series.