Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Stalking 1917

Today I did something a little bit unusual. I stalked someone from 1917.
Let me explain.
About one year ago, maybe two, I discovered Family History Indexing. I set the goal then to index 10,000 names a year. As it turns out, that was a completely over the top goal, and I've never actually reached it. (Here's a little video for those of you who have no idea what indexing is.)

I try to index about 100 names a week, primarily on Sundays. Sometimes I make my goal, sometimes I don't. But the point is, I really enjoy indexing, and I'm becoming pretty good at it. (Sidenote for other indexers- I easily reach 100 a week by primarily focusing on ship manifests. You can do 20 names in 5 minutes with ship manifests.)
This week I worked on a batch of draft records from Virginia for WWI. When you do enough indexing you start to pick up on little trends in the batches. Sometimes you will get 20 people with the same last name. Or 20 people from the same zip code. Things like that. In this case, I had people from all around Virginia who had all registered for the draft on the same day in 1917, and all had the same name (first and last). (It was a fairly common or generic name.)
It was a fun surprise to pull up a name that was from my town of Roanoke. As I typed his information in I realized that I knew where his house was. Or at least, where I expected it to be. It was a funny feeling to suddenly know a detail that made this person human to me.
Something just jumped out at my about his record, and I decided it wasn't really stalking if I drove by his house, considering the guy was very likely deceased from old age by now. (He was 19 in 1917.) So I did the thing I've never considered before, and I wrote down his address so I could go find it.
Here's what I knew about him. He registered on his birthday in 1917. He listed his mother, Ida, as the "contact that would always know where to reach him." (The actual wording on the draft form. It doesn't say next of kin.) And he listed his father as his employer. I knew he had ruddy skin, blue eyes, and brown hair, and he was quite tall and skinny.
One thing that stood out to be in this batch of names was how many of them didn't know how to write their names. Or their handwriting was in the big block letters of a small child. The handwriting of the draftees was always markedly different from that of the person/secretary that filled out the form. This guy was included in that. He barely knew how to write out his own name.
It was just a draft form so I don't know if he served, where he served, or if he survived the war.

So tonight I took a little drive to go find his house. Or where his house used to be. It was on a well-known street in the historic part of town.
At first I was disappointed because it appeared that the house was gone, and a large industrial plant was there instead. But then I caught the name on the plant. It was his last name. He really was real!
I don't know this man. I'm not related to him. But for one brief moment I felt connected through history. I helped preserve his military record for posterity. He was a real person. A person who's family, at the very least, has made a significant impact on my community.
I doubt the opportunity (or desire) will ever come up again to really be able to research someone I've indexed. Normally it's all far too random for something like that to happen. But it doesn't matter. Each person, each name, was real. They did something and they mattered to someone.
If you haven't gotten in to indexing yet, I highly recommend it. You'll find yourself staying up to "finish one more batch." There's something strangely fun and even addicting about it. 

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