Miracle Three: Getting from Here to There with Genealogy

It was during a search for an ancestral Webster when a more recent miracle occurred. It wasn’t a breath-stealing oracle like the other two I’ve shared — just a small reminder that sometimes we get a little help when we ask for it. It’s the last and longest entry of this series, written for people willing to seriously look for miracles; the best ones are sometimes hard to find, as this story illustrates.

To properly begin, I first should introduce someone special.

Gene Webster
At 77 years of age, my uncle is our family’s reigning patriarch. He comes from a long ancestral line of strict Bible Belt miners, dairy workers and field hands who believed that “children were born to be seen and not heard.” Backtalk or signs of weakness weren’t tolerated. Sons and daughters were expected to step up and contribute, and they quickly learned how to sew, build or mend most of what they needed.

That was the world that premature Gene first slid into in 1932. Weighing far less than five pounds, he wasn’t expected to live, and so no birth certificate was issued. This is no exaggeration of fact: He was so tiny that his mother carried him in a cigar box and covered him with cotton. As if the odds of his survival weren’t already skewed, Gene was born during the Great Depression into a family dependent on finding a day’s labor to earn its next meal. Yet he grew to be the tallest and strongest of the lot. (Our clan quips that our hereditary stubbornness trait is proven by, and carried in, “the Webster Gene.”)

When his dad — my grandfather — was blown to bits in a tank oversees during World War II, Gene prematurely became a man, too. He quit school at age 16 to get a job, and then, following in his father’s footsteps, he joined the military. His mother petitioned for a birth certificate so that he could enlist, and in return, he sent all of his money to her to help out.

More Challenges
During his 20+ years in the Air Force, Gene married, had a family, and rose to the level of Master Sergeant. Many of those years were spent in Viet Nam. He came under sniper fire his first day there, and to this day, most of his stories begin, “I remember, in Viet Nam….” It had a profound influence on his life. Finally, after a long tour of duty in Germany, he returned to the U.S. with his wife and four daughters, hoping to open a bakery in Bushnell, Illinois — a dream he’d had for a long time. His personalized license plates read “Doe Boy” after his favorite icon, the Pillsbury Dough Boy. But after he opened it, times got hard in the small town and discretionary donut money dried up. Gene shrugged his shoulders and readjusted; he spent the rest of his working years in the town’s main factory, making hammers for Sears.

Even though he’s a hardworking, resilient man, Gene almost lost himself to grief when Aunt Sherrill died a few years back. Right after her funeral, he reported seeing her standing inside their garage, which seemed to ease his heart some. But Gene is the kind of man who needs a special lady to accompany him fishing or shopping at auctions for little treasures, so it took a sweetheart to help him recover. He carves Jackie gifts out of wood, his extra special talent.

How I See Him Today
Gene still is a tall, good-looking guy with a military-style crew cut and the familiar mid-south drawl that I occasionally revert to when overly tired (or tipsy). Fully retired now, he enjoys riding around in the summer months on a motorized scooter that is outfitted with a basket and an American flag. From that perch, he waves or honks at any one of the 3,000 townsfolk he might pass. Recently, he converted his garage into a woodworking shop, where he teaches classes.

My uncle is one of a shrinking number of super special men in my life and it still brings a great measure of girlish happiness when, seeing me on his doorstep, he calls out, “Come on in here and give your Uncle Gene a kiss, Jody Girl!” And it was a great surprise and thrill — while autographing copies of my book, During, at a Barnes and Noble reception — to recognize my Uncle Gene walking in. In fact, it made me cry to see that he’d driven all the way to Madison with my cousins to show support. He was so proud, waiving a copy of the book and saying to the crowd, “Look, I’m on page 73!” That was actually a more special day for me than the day I learned the book would be published.

I hope you can imagine him now as I see him — a strong man who still gives a lot and asks for very little in return.

So when he does ask, I listen.

Always the ladies’ man — Uncle Gene with niece (my daughter Summer) and his sweetheart, Jackie.

Looking for Links
As a true Webster genealogist [I actually founded a genealogy company (www.glynnpatrick.com) with the largest private Webster database in the U.S.]. I try to sweet talk Gene into telling me stories about when he was a little boy. Does he remember his Irish great-grandmother?

Some visits, he feeds my incessant curiosity. Others, he shoos me away: “You’ll like this story better: Once this new recruit comes up to me in Saigon and —”

My mother was his sister. I have that “stubborn” gene, too. I wait him out and circle back.

I present blurred photos of long-dead kin, asking if he can place them in our family tree. He gives me his Air Force ring, complete with a story about how he got it in Viet Nam, and says he wants my USAF airman daughter to have it. I ask about a woman buried under a different name in a newly discovered family plot. His eyes go sad and distant…. This aunt tossed him through a screened front porch door after snatching him out of a house fire when he was two years old. The hem of her skirt caught on fire and she perished. He tells me a Vietnam story. A funny one, actually, and for once, I’m glad to change topics, too.

“When the heck is she going to get to the miracle?!” you ask.
Be patient. It’s sneaking up on us now.

I leave Gene alone with his memories … and turn to another inquiry.
I investigated, instead, a direct ancestor born long before his time. I had been hunting for five years to find Amos Webster’s 1847 grave, rumored to possibly be in a Fulton County, Illinois graveyard in a town that no longer existed. My next vacation from IB, I drove 326 miles to visit Lewistown’s City Hall to lay old platte maps over today’s maps to figure out where the ghost town might have been located. The court house deputy suspected I could be a terrorist and refused to let me bring in my backpack, laptop or cell phone into the records area. The lady at the counter gave me a piece of paper and a pencil and led me to original cemetery logs — and that’s how research still is done in many small towns.

I spent 16 hours over the next two days reading blurry hand-written ledgers of all of the cemeteries ever known to be in that vicinity. I didn’t know if the “A. Webster” buried in an isolated old cemetery “up past the T-junction, by what used to be Junction Mills” (said the ever-helpful deputy) was my Webster, but it was the only lead that surfaced.

After about an hour spent zig-zagging through the county, I finally came upon an abandoned little burial ground, off of an old gravel road high up a hill just above the Spoon River. I walked the entire grounds… no Websters. Then, walking back toward an old tree, the sun hit the back of a stone and I thought I read “Webster.” But that was impossible — all of the other stones faced the opposite direction. But there was Amos, buried by two of his known sons — the only three stones facing backwards among the 100 or so other worn stones. This meant he was either hanged as a horse thief, or the family was “special” in some other way….

I was so grateful to find the site that I photographed every single stone in the cemetery and posted them on findagrave.com, so that anyone searching out their ancestors at Freeman Cemetery would have half a chance of finding them. Realizing I was the only living relative likely to ever see our stones, I used a special soaping technique to bring up the almost illegible writing and photograph the three stones. Here’s what I saw just before I rinsed the (non-acid) foam from the stones:

Gene’s Request
The day after finding Amos’ grave, I went to Bushnell to celebrate with my Webster cousins’ families and my uncle. We met at a restaurant for dinner, where I showed them the picture posted above. Surprisingly, Gene got that sad, distant look on his face again.

“Wish you could find my grandpa’s grave like that,” he said. “Grandpa Clyde died when I was in Nam, and I think he’s not resting right until I visit him. I drove way over to Nebo, where he lived, but he’s not buried there. So I found the oldest man in town — a 90-year old, who said he did remember Grampa, ’cause Grampa called the auctions and the square dances all around the county. He recollects that he was buried in a town starts with an ‘E,’ maybe over somewhere in Pike County. Or maybe around Burlington, Iowa. We was real close, Grandpa and me. I sure wish you had a picture of that grave.”

“Find it, Jody,” Cousin Terri urged. “Before he starts seeing Grandpa Clyde in the garage, too. It really troubles Dad not to know where his Grandpa’s buried. If anybody can find it, you can.”

Great. Two requests in one day from people I love — people who rarely ask anyone for anything. I said I’d look again, but I held little hope. It would take another real miracle, I thought. I’d looked for Clyde on the Internet at least once a month for the last few years. I’d checked every genealogical site I knew, and every posted cemetery register. I’d called cemeteries by Nebo. That “E” lead was a dead end.

The Miracle
I spent most of that night — well past midnight and into the early morning hours — with a prayer and a computer mouse. I retraced my earlier hunts on findagrave.com and teafor2.com, continuing on to Pike County’s GenWeb tombstone project. There, I again searched 21 different towns with 200 different cemeteries.

At 8:00 sharp the next morning, after only a few hours sleep, I called my uncle. “What are you doing today?” I asked, dressing hurriedly even as I spoke to him, barely able to contain my excitement.

“What are you doing?” he countered.

“I can’t believe it myself, but I’m going up to Pike County, to Crescent Heights Cemetery in Pleasant Hill, to visit my great-grandfather’s grave. Somebody posted the grave just yesterday!”

“I can be there in 15 minutes, and we’ll look on the map and I’ll drive you there myself!” he cried.

Gene was the first to find the tombstone. There was Clyde, with his wife Effie — a woman he married at age 74, after being widowed. Gene got a little misty eyed, and I took his picture, kneeling there with a huge grin on his face.

My uncle had a private conversation with his grandfather before we put our pebbles on the stone, marking our visit, and kissed the cool granite in parting. We celebrated our find with a great tenderloin sandwich near Pittsfield, followed by a big hunk of peach pie and a steaming hot cup of good strong coffee. Then he took me on a wonderfully long, meandering trip that criss-crossed country roads. He pointed out shacks and fields, roads he’d ridden on bicycle, and porches he’d once sat on. There was my great-grandmother’s house in Rushville. Houses I’d never seen before. We rode from here to there, and he talked most of the way, interspersing stories of his childhood with his memories of Vietnam.

We had us one fine day, complete with a catfish dinner with his sweetheart after we got back to town.

I’m telling you true, most days don’t end any better than that one did.

I just looked for Clyde’s listing again tonight on GenWeb… and it’s not there with the others anymore. I don’t know what to make of that, really, except that the one night when I most needed it to be there, it was.