My father is know for his detailed, exact navigational directions. Ask him how to get somewhere you will be treated to painstaking verbal descriptions and a draftsman-quality map sketched on the nearest scrap of paper he can find. Before your eyes he will solve the puzzle, all thousand pieces, and send you on your way. Well, not exactly. There is usually a piece or two missing, that render the puzzle incomplete and unsolvable. These omissions are not on purpose, at least I don’t believe they are.
The death of one of my aunts prompted my brother to relate his memory of another funeral to me, my paternal great grandfather’s. My brother attended this event with my father. He relayed all the details he could remember including the pesky gnats that plagued all in attendance. His story piqued my curiosity regarding the genealogy of our family so I asked my Dad about the funeral to hear how his perspective of this vignette of our family history would compare to my brother’s perspective. The details were similar.
As we spoke on the telephone, I asked dad where the cemetery was located and if he knew how to get there. He began describing how to find the church. He directed me to Wrightsville, Georgia and told me to follow state route 15 north towards Tennille and at some point (near Harrison) there will an intersection with a road leading to the west – he couldn't remember the name of the road. Turn left on this road and the church is about a mile down on the right with the cemetery is across the street.
As he told me these directions I followed along on Google maps, using my mouse to “drive” along with my cursor. I switched to the hybrid view which overlays the street names onto the satellite image. I spotted what appeared to be a church and, across the street, a cemetery. From above a cemetery is often an open area populated with white and gray blots surrounded by a fence.
Dad said it was Methodist church but he could not remember the name of the church. I was surprised because if I had to guess the denomination of a rural Georgia church, Baptist would have been my top three choices. According to Google maps, the name of the road was Hart's Ford Road. I searched the Internet for “Washington county Georgia churches”. No surprise, Google returned a list of Washington county churches with their street addresses. I scanned the list. Bingo! I found one with a street address of Hart's Ford Road. I entered this address in Google Maps and voila' Bethany Baptist Church appeared as a thumbtack metaphor on the map in the exact location of the church (and cemetery) on the satellite image. It was a Baptist church not a Methodist church.
I called dad again and as soon as I mentioned the name Bethany, he said “That's it.”. It’s amazing to me that I can find the graves of my grandparents sitting in my basement using a computer, the Internet, and a few clues. I was confident I’d found the correct location.
For some time now I've been plotting a trip to the church to confirm my genealogical link to the rural Georgia Baptist church. Each month I attempted to carve out some time to make the trip and each time something always interfered with my plans. I knew I was right about this church but the fact I couldn’t confirm it was nagging me.
A dental appointment provided the opportunity to bring my plan to fruition. My appointment was on a Friday morning at 9 o’clock. At 10:30am I had an appointment with the personnel office for a records review. I finished up at 11:30am so I headed to one of my favorite BBQ places in Warner Robins: When Pigs Fly, located just outside the main gate (and, of course, across the railroad tracks) to have a Big Daddy (pork sandwich), fries, and sweet tea. Twenty minutes and $6.89 later I was on the road again. Armed with printed copies of my Google maps and the memory of a verbal set of driving directions from dad, I was on my way.
My Google search estimated my driving journey from Robins AFB to the church would take me about two hours. I was to cross middle Georgia on State route 96 to Interstate 16, then head south to Dublin, Georgia. From Dublin I would wind my way north along State route 15 turning left on Hart's Ford Road. A country drive is one of life’s simple pleasures and one I relish. This drive was all that with an dash of mystery for spice.
As I drove, my confidence in success wavered as I remembered all the directions I had received from dad in the past. How many times had he taken the time to draw me a detailed map to someplace only to find out later he left out, or had not remembered, the one detail that would enable me to find my destination? I would find myself in an obscure part of Atlanta on a Friday at 4:30pm – many miles (and hours) from home. I used to get so frustrated. I'd have to pull over to a pay phone and call dad at the office: 523-6582, and push him to an “ah ha” moment as he would recall the missing piece of information. So as I drove, my confidence waned and I fought off thoughts of possibly having been unwittingly misdirected again.
Finally I spotted the sign indicating “Hart's Ford Road” and at just the place the map had indicated. As I turned left onto the two-lane country road my stomach tightened as I knew the answer to my questions were only a mile away. The road was a lonely one with no indication of anything, just a road sign and a road. Less than a mile down the road a church came into view on the right and a cemetery on the left. I was giddy as a kid on Christmas. Although I had seen photographs of the church and aerial views it remained as unknown as a stranger knocking on your front door during a thunderstorm.
I turned off of Hart’s Ford Road onto Vickers Road and then immediately into a parking area. The gravel crunching and popping under my tires I rolled to a stop facing the low brick fence surrounding the cemetery. I could easily see the all the headstones circumscribed by the fence but the Vickers headstone stood out. On the fence another reference to the Vickers family, a marble slab embedded in the brick fence post which read:
In memory of Dr. Thomas Vickers 1864-1948
I didn't yet know whether my great-grandparents were buried in this cemetery but questions occurred to me: Did this Dr. Vickers – a man with a road, a cemetery, and tombstone in his honor – known my family? Was he their doctor? I may never know.
I got out of the car slowly, quietly, and respectfully. I felt like I was being watched. There was a green Ford Focus parked at the church so I assumed that is where the feeling was coming from. Maybe a church administrator or custodian was working today and now I had entered their day as a curious stranger in rural Georgia.
I approached the gate, read the Vickers's inscription and entered the cemetery. I was excited; the suspense was overwhelming. I wanted to run through the cemetery to locate the my grandparents as quickly as I could but decided a methodical approach would be a better choice and might reveal interesting facts that haste might cause me to miss. I started in the front left corner I walked left to right as I scanned the names on each headstone. I forced myself not to look ahead, the anticipation was almost overwhelming and my confidence was back as I now somehow new this was the right place. Left to right, left to right, I walked.
My great-grandparents greeted me subtly, quietly but lovingly near the middle of the cemetery. I had found them. The Johnson headstone was surprisingly one of the nicer ones in the cemetery. It was not the largest or gaudy but instead tastefully inscribed with ornamentation on each upper corner. The granite was polished smooth and glossy. It looked new and probably was not the original.
The headstone was was centered over the graves of my great-grandparents and inscribed JOHNSON. Each grave was covered with a large rectangle of granite lying flat on the ground. There was one for Charlie E. and Hattie T. Johnson. I had found them.
I walked the entire cemetery and found no other known family members or interesting clues. There had been a recent funeral here as the green funeral tent still shaded a fresh mount of earth. The grave was covered in flowers and potted plants. I did not investigate this site as I didn't want whoever was watching me to get to think I was up to no good.
I photographed the cemetery and walked across the road to the church. The church was locked so I knocked hoping I could meet with whoever belonged to the Ford Focus. No one answered. I was hoping I could inquire about church records, etc. to fill in more of the pieces of my genealogical past.
The day was a good one and I was satisfied. I was once again many miles (and hours) from home on a Friday afternoon due to dad's directions but it didn’t matter, I was with family.