|My great great grandpa, George Henry "Harry" Webb, was a guy whose life fascinated me when I first read about him in the autobiography my great grandmother, his daughter, wrote. I could see a lot of myself in him.|
"Harry" never liked working in the coal mines of Seymour, Iowa. Whenever he could get some time off, he'd hop on a train and see where it went. Eventually he got out of the mines and started traveling around with a circus selling ice cream cones (he is thought to have been the first guy in Iowa to buy a cone-maker). Back in Seymour, he opened The Lyric, a silent film theatre, around 1907. My great grandmother wrote that she remembered a lot of films of horses running around; at first she thought they were going to run off the screen and trample everyone.
That's him with his hands on his hips, next to my great-grandmother, who is about five here. The sign says "The Lyric: Moving Pictures."
After selling the theatre he owned a candy store and soda fountain for a while, then when prohibition came he got a job as something of a rural gangbuster. He would get jobs undercover in small town restaurants and find out where the stills were by eavesdropping.
In the just-relesed 1940 census, he was living in Des Moines and listed as a painter.
I paid a minor tribute to him in the book Sparks; among the list of "holy quests" on Emma and Tim's checklist, one was to "find the grave of Tim's great great grandpa Harry."
I'd never seen that grave myself, and I'm in Des Moines today. With an hour or two to kill, I thought I'd go find it myself.
The people in the office at the cemetery uncovered a bit of confusion - the lot he was buried in didn't seem to exist on the map. But we determined that he would likely be in the section of Spanish American War vets, which was small enough that I could probably just wander around until I found the place. He and his wife seemed to be in unmarked plots, but they gave me the names of the people next to him and said they'd ask the government for a stone, since he was a veteran.
BUt it turned out that the records were off - the graves were marked with regular white marble stones in the front row of the Spanish American War section. A very nice place, really, on a hill with a nice view.
Now, I have some moral dilemmas now and then about talking about ghosts and all of these things where we look for ways to contact the dead (the kind of thing that is pretty much a part of my job as a ghost tour guide). I have serious doubts that it's possible, and so did Grandpa Harry - he used to chuckle at stories of seances. But his daughter said she believed that he was a bit psychic; one day he looked up from stoking embers and said he'd had a vision of a soldier falling in battle, and later learned that his cousin had been killed in World War 1 that day.
Even though I tend not to believe that what we say to people at their graves is anything they can hear, I think there CAN be a value in that sort of magical thinking, as long as we take it for what it is. So I stood there and told Grandpa Harry who I was, and what I knew about him. And I told him that I was in high school when I first read about him, that I'd gone to Seymour trying to locate the building where his theatre was, and that I'd decided around then that I wanted to be just as interesting a person as I thought HE was. I've done all right so far, but now as I reach a sort of cross-roads where I don't know what I'll be doing next or whether what I've done before was worth the time and sacrifice, it felt good to stand there and tell him I was going to keep on trying.