Alta Journal is pleased to present the first installment of a five-part original series by historian and longtime Alta contributor William Francis Deverell. The twisty, suspenseful story of the disappearance of Deverell’s great-uncle Francis, it begins in snowy upstate New York before moving to Europe and Los Angeles. As Deverell searches for his missing namesake, he discovers more than he bargained for.Each week, we’ll publish the next chapter of this real-life mystery story. Visit altaonline.com/serials to keep reading, and sign up here for email notifications when each new installment is available.
This is the story of three men across three generations of a single family: my great-uncle, my father, and me. It is a story that spans the world through 100 years, from a largely Irish neighborhood in upstate New York to the trenches of the First World War in France to Southern California. It’s a story of historical research, what we can find if we’re lucky and dogged. It’s also the story of what remains—and may always remain—unknown. This is also a tale, an allegory perhaps, about restlessness and how the American West draws us with whispered promises of reinvention and redemption.
Pictured above is 78 Devon Road in Rochester, New York. A contemporary online real estate platform describes the home as a single-family, traditional-style property located in the middle of the street. Built in 1925, the house has two bedrooms, one bath. It is “coated in wood.” Its features include “hot water heating and a full basement.” It last sold in 2004 for $30,000.
My father, William Francis Deverell Sr. (1932–2020), who is also pictured above, grew up in this house. His father worked at a small outfit that made synthetic rubber and other chemical products. His mother, Helen, was at home caring for my dad and his two older sisters. It was a tight neighborhood, as far as I know: Catholic, working-class, Irish. Most everyone answered to the sacramental rhythms and devotional calendar of the church. Because I knew him, and I knew his drive, I expect that my dad thought even as a boy about how to break free from these roots, from this hardscrabble neighborhood, maybe even from his family. That wanderlust—not quite the right word, a bit too cheerful—may have been genetic.
I have never been in this home, but I can just barely remember my dad driving us by it once, something like 50 years ago. He hardly ever talked about growing up on Devon Road. His was a boyhood marked by loss. My dad’s father died when my dad was 14; his mom, five years later. Great Depression times were tough. The family was poor to begin with, and then they really struggled.
My father told only a few boyhood stories from Devon Road. One was that his father, William Hobart Deverell, called Hob, would sit with his five brothers around the dining table into the late hours. The Deverell brothers loved sports, loved talking and arguing about sports, especially about the Rochester Red Wings baseball team. As the night wore on, good-natured fraternal camaraderie could deteriorate. I don’t doubt that drinking was involved (my grandfather Hob used his chemistry skills to make a lot of bathtub gin during Prohibition). The brothers would run one another down. “You don’t know what you are talking about” or “You don’t know a thing about baseball.” When some line had been crossed, they would troop outside, and two or more of them would begin to throw punches at one another. My dad found this exhilarating and frightening all at once.
The Deverells had a dog named Cappy. One winter when the Rochester snow was the customary many feet deep, my dad made a parachute for Cappy. He somehow affixed it on the unsuspecting dog. Up they went to the second story of the Devon Road home, out onto the roof through one of those two windows. My dad flung Cappy off. The lucky hound landed harmlessly in a snowbank.
I used to call my dad out on this cruel stunt. “He had a parachute,” was my dad’s usual winking reply. When I look back, it seems to me that this was one of the few fun things my dad did as a kid, though I could be wrong. Well into his 80s, he made beautiful paper airplanes. That skill always seemed like muscle memory to me, drawing on practice from 70 or more years earlier. He was a beautiful ice skater, fluid and graceful. As a kid, he likely could have skated six months out of the year.
My dad’s two sisters, Margaret and Jean, shared one of the bedrooms on the second floor. Hob and my grandmother had the other. My dad slept in the attic. It was one of those ladder-drops-from-the-ceiling attics. He had a tiny bed, a desk, maybe a bookcase. He was, I think, always studious. It had to have been cold up there, at least when it wasn’t. I’ve been to Rochester in the winter, and it chills even my Colorado bones. I’ve been in the summer, and the heat and humidity stop me in my tracks.
There was something else up there in the attic at 78 Devon Road: a starched and neatly folded military uniform. A doughboy ensemble from World War I. It had belonged to a young soldier attached to an artillery regiment made up in part by Rochester boys who shipped off to France not long after the Wilson administration brought the United States into the “war to end all wars.”
My dad would put that uniform on—it must have been mighty big on him—and play soldier up in that too-hot or too-cold attic. I don’t know if there was a hat, but in my mind’s eye, there is one, a classic campaign hat, complete with leather chin strap. It would be perched high on my young dad’s head—prominent foreheads are in the genes—as he transported himself from a rough working-class Irish Catholic neighborhood in Rochester to the Somme, to Verdun, to Flanders Fields.
Before my dad found it and wore it on his attic marches, that uniform belonged to Uncle Francis: John Francis Daly, his mom’s brother. My dad was William Francis Deverell, as am I. The Francis as our middle name comes from the young man who wore that khaki uniform in France more than a century ago.
That uniform is all that the family had of their soldier boy. Francis came home from war, seemingly unscathed. But he very quickly dropped from sight. His disappearance gnawed at my father and then at me. What we found out astonished us. Francis went far, far away. Yet he was so close.
TO BE CONTINUED