No, there are no clever machines that can take you out of your time and never will be, but they sure are fun to think about, and have been ever since H. G. Wells.
In real life, only imagination permits us to voyage forward into the future, but there are ways to visit the past, to plumb “the dark backward and abysm of time.” Literature, history and the personal subspecies of history, genealogy, all offer a peephole aft.
Fifteen years ago when my daughter was young and all of her grandparents gone, I set off to recapture her ancestry about which I knew nothing. It took several years, off and on, but turned up a tale that meandered farther back than I’d ever expected. It eventually turned into the little chronicle you see pictured adjacent – “Our American History.”
At length, however, the searcher reaches the end of available information and is left with a few tantalizing questions that will probably never be answered. I accept that, but I miss the thrill of the hunt. So once in a while, when a friend or acquaintance mentions their interest in their history, I pitch in.
Admittedly, it’s pretty nerdy fun, pursuing a trail that leads through census records, wills and land documents. It’s more like panning for gold than imitating Sherlock. Data mining, I suppose. A lot of sand and gravel, but every now and then something that glitters.
My latest foray involves Brian, a friend of my daughter, whose family lives in the same general area of North Carolina as my wife’s. Some of the names from his mother’s side of the family are the same as people she went to public school with. His father’s side is murkier.
When Brian’s father was a teen, his parents divorced. The mother remarried but remained a presence. The father, Jesse Hodge, was an absence. So, little is known about him, except that he was said to be an orphan. That can sometimes spell trouble if adoption records are sealed or names have been changed. But off I went, happy to be hunting again.
One thing genealogy often teaches us about is the hard lives of plain folks. Grandfather Jesse Hodge was born in 1913, first son and third child of his parents. A year later his father died. By the time he was seven his mother had remarried to an older man and he had a new step-sister. A year after that, in 1921, his mother died, leaving four children motherless. Did the stepfather care for them?
We don’t know. By the time of the 1930 census, the stepfather is not present. He, too, may have perished. One of Jesse’s older sisters is living with her aunt and grandmother, the other with another relative, but Jesse is 17 and does not appear in the records as the Great Depression deepens. Is he employed in a mill, as a farm hand, is he on the road or on the street? Unknown.
In 1940, he is 27 and living with the family of his father’s sister, as is his grandmother. He has just enlisted in the Army as a private. We learn he has a grammar school education and work experience in auto mechanics. He appears to be bound for duty in the Philippines, eighteen months before Pearl Harbor. A request for his service record might flesh out the story, but we do know he survived the war to be honorably discharged in 1945, after five years of service. He is 32, and that same year he and his wife have a son, Brian’s father.
A little over a decade later Jesse and his wife are divorced. She remarried. He didn’t. In 1970, at 57 years of age, he dies in a South Carolina VA hospital. His obituary tells us he worked in Gastonia’s famous “Firestone Mills until ill-health forced him to retire.”
Further back in Brian’s family we find more mill hands, farmers, a blacksmith, Joseph Williams, a Baptist preacher, who fought in the Revolutionary War, and several Civil War veterans – Cameron Overcash, Hedges Moody, Marcellus Mowery and Thomas Patrick Price. Through the magic of the internet, we even have a picture of the latter and his wife.
Price is a lank, bearded man with a wooden peg leg resembling Ahab’s. He lost his limb 19 September, 1864 in the Third Battle of Winchester, the decisive encounter of Sheridan’s Shenandoah Campaign. And small world, the woman alongside Price is Wency Henry, who just happens to be the sister of one of my wife’s Anson County relations, Sallie Henry Dean. Her husband Sidney Dean was also badly wounded in the war, in his case on the third day of Gettysburg.
Thanks to a few hours work and the existence of archived records and family histories shared on line, Brian has gone from a man with no past to a man with a crowd on ancestors reaching back to the 1740s. He has learned a bit about their wars, their religion, their occupations, their marriages and children, their tragedies and the whereabouts of their tombstones. Time Travel.