Saturday, March 31, 2018

Searching for an old friend – Howard W. Smith

When our mother passed away in 2005, my sister and I found boxes of things in the attic that had belonged to our father, Austin Saunders, who died in 1971. Since we'd moved soon after his death, the boxes were like a time capsule of Daddy's life. I found a cache of letters from a friend of his, Howard, who'd gone into the Air Force and moved across the country to Washington and Alaska in the 1950s. He called Austin "Leftie." The last letter was a card from Florida.

The one-sided conversation, both humorous and personal, made me wonder what happened to the other letters, the ones Daddy wrote. Could they still exist? I only remember snippets of my father, and would love to read his own words, as fiancé and newlywed, starting out his young life. And wouldn't Howard's children or grandchildren enjoy reading his letters from before they were born?

This month I decided to put my genealogical skills to the test and find out more about Daddy's friend, Howard W. Smith. But – SMITH, mind you! I hoped the middle initial might help. I checked Daddy's alma mater, High Point High School in Guilford County, but found no Howard Smiths within a few years. There were a couple of potential boys in Ancestry about the same age: one growing up in Davidson County and one in Forsyth County. I wonder how they met?

Since publicly available censuses stop at 1940 and online death certificates have different availabilities in different states, finding modern people can sometimes be harder than finding ancestors. Without a newspaper search account that includes other states (even accounts vary about how much they include), I struck out looking for an obituary. I did find one lead, however. Ancestry led me to Find A Grave, with a veteran's gravesite in Michigan. A Howard W. Smith, who served in the Air Force during the Korean era, died in 2005. The stone includes his wife's name, with no death date. She must still be alive.

A few years back, I used Spokeo to find a living relative. I signed up for a free trial and tried possible names for Howard's family. Many of them led to the same address – data and landline phones which could be out of date. I jotted down names (children?) and possible phone numbers. I checked Michigan's GIS for that county and found out the house is still owned by Howard and his wife, more than a decade after his death. Details about the house made me think his wife is alive, but perhaps not in good health.

Nervously, on a Sunday afternoon, I dialed the phone numbers. When I asked for potential children's names, the first man said, "Wrong number" and hung up on me. I didn't get the chance to mention the wife's name. Another number turned out wrong, though more polite. For the last two, I left messages on generic machines, hope dwindling that I'd ever get a response.

What next? I should send a snail-mail letter to that old homeplace address, though I don't really expect a reply. What would you do?

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