Alta Journal is pleased to present the third 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.In Part Two, Deverell recounted Francis’s time at Fort Dix and in the trenches of World War I.
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.
My father hardly ever talked about the first 20 years of his life. We had those few stories: Cappy and his parachute, the bedroom in the attic, some discussion of high school sports. He set pins at a bowling alley, and he remembered that the neighborhood toughs would try to knock him off his feet with their bowling balls as he picked up and steadied pins.
It wasn’t a happy childhood for my dad. Sick parents (sometimes the ambulance would come to the house in the wee hours), dire straits, the weight of the Catholic Church and its expectations and demands.
His mother wanted him to be a priest. He was a good student, a very good student. We did not know until after he died about the various academic honors he’d received at the Aquinas Institute, his Catholic high school. When it came time for college, he had no money.
Assumption College, a small Catholic school in Canada, offered him something by way of financial aid. He hitchhiked north across the border for what must have been a miserable freshman year that he never talked about. Eventually, scholarship funds kicked in at the University of Rochester, and he came home.
My dad left the church when he married my mom in June 1956. Her Presbyterianism and his Catholicism became Episcopalian for them, the denomination in which I was raised. My dad’s best friend from school and church, a man who also eventually became a doctor, stopped speaking to my dad the day he left the church. That’s the parochial world of my dad’s upbringing. I can’t imagine it, but I know better than to be too surprised.
My dad married my mother and joined the air force, which sent him to medical school. He had a long and distinguished military career, including service in Japan during the Vietnam War and an eventual assignment at the Air Force Academy. He then had a second career as a private-practice physician in Colorado, where I grew up and where my mother and sister still live.
The homes I grew up in had few pictures or mementos of my father’s family or Deverell history. We had far more from my mom’s side of the family—she comes from a long line of stable burghers and farmers, people who had books in parlors and photo albums shared down through the generations. Like clockwork, though, my dad dug into his family history more as his own life ebbed. He loved going to Ireland, looking for Deverells in County Laois and County Wexford, in cemeteries and public records and battered, stone farmhouses. He found a lot of them. He hired an Irish genealogist to fill out the family tree, and she did so with admirable skill. He took some Deverell soil from a hardscrabble farmstead in the southeast of Ireland. We sifted it through our hands on his Colorado grave.
I knew nothing about my dad’s Uncle Francis growing up. The same is true for my sister. My mother is less sure, though she says she did not know much. I imagine they must have talked at least a little bit about the reason my dad’s middle name (and mine) is Francis.
I think the mystery of Francis is probably something my dad thought about. Francis was another family member who left too soon, not unlike when Hob and Helen’s deaths robbed my teenage dad of his parents. The loss of Francis was even more mysterious than death. He was the man whose name made up half of his own, the man who vanished.
In 2016, my dad brought me into his book-lined study, told me what he knew, and asked if I could help find out what had happened to Francis. He told me that some in the family thought he had been killed in World War I, that he was a war hero. But he knew that wasn’t true, if only because that doughboy uniform, with the soldier in it, had come back across the ocean at war’s end.
It had been nearly a century. Could the two of us find Francis?
TO BE CONTINUED