Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Out of the Past-Johnnie Baitsell




     I noticed at that moment the young pre-teen boy sitting off to the side behind the counter with his arms folded across his chest, trying not to show his amusement at the situation playing out before him as a smile warred for control of his expressive, homely face. He was the store owner’s son, Johnnie Baitsell and I recognized him easily and had a lump in my throat as I goggled at him in amazement.
    Johnnie Baitsell is buried in the Cedar Township cemetery in Fremont and I’d had the single most exasperating time trying to locate his grave. I knew that he had to be buried there because I’d found his name on the list from the WPA grave registration survey. That survey was conducted in the 1930’s when the government, in an effort to create jobs for citizens during the Great Depression, had hired people to, among other things, walk the cemeteries and record the headstone information for every person buried in Iowa. That information, by the way, has become an invaluable resource for genealogy buffs like me. 
     I had doggedly kept searching the cemetery for Johnnie every time I came to work on my research but always to no avail. Then one day on impulse I squeezed around behind his parents headstone which is on the furthest east edge of the cemetery in the very last row of graves and up against the barbed wire fencing that butts up right against the woods, and low and behold there on the backside of his parent’s headstone was Johnnie’s information, along with that of his half-brother and baby sister who had also been on my list of graves that were MIA.
     Johnnie died when he was fifteen years old, from consumption which is the name for the end stage of tuberculosis, far away from his home in Iowa, down in Texas, where his mother had taken him for the warmer climate in hopes of restoring his health. I have his obituary which describes how he and his mother had decided to come home to Iowa but his doctor had advised and persuaded them to remain in Texas for just one more week. They’d agreed and only four days later Johnnie had died, cradled in his mothers’ arms and he never got to lay his eyes on his home or his family again. His last words as his mother held him close were, “Praise God.” His mother had returned by train a few days later bringing his coffined body home to his eternal rest at Cedar Township Cemetery. His story has always stayed with me because it was so very sad but also because of another strange twist and an amazing story in itself.
     I know that the boy I am looking at right now is Johnnie Baitsell because I have his portrait and it came about in a very peculiar way. There’s a man who lives out in California and at almost the exact same time that I was finally discovering Johnnie’s grave in Iowa, this man had been browsing for collectables at a flea market. At a booth selling old original tintypes, the image of a well-dressed homely boy with slightly too big ears had caught his eye and totally piqued his interest when he’d turned the tintype over and found scrawled across the back the words “Johnnie Baitsell, Mahaska County.” Thinking that he could perhaps do some investigating and discover the story behind it, he’d purchased the tintype and in a short amount of time he’d come upon the online memorial for him and added the portrait.
     The coincidences of me finding Johnnie’s grave and the man finding his photograph in California almost simultaneously more than a century after he’d passed away and now this, seeing him here alive before my very eyes; gave me a rush of goose flesh up my arms and the hair prickled at the nape of my neck. This is a meeting that I will forever treasure and an amazing alignment of the fates.
Johnnie’s father motioned to him now, and he jumped nimbly down from the stool he’d been perched upon and came around the counter.
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