Sometimes things happen in life that are simply inexplicable ? magic moments that defy logic and reason. This story is about one of those moments.
On a sunny November day in 2012, my wife, Debbie, her 95-year-old mother, Wilma, and I left Columbus in search of Captina African Methodist Episcopal Cemetery ? an almost forgotten patch of land along a dirt-and-gravel road 7 miles southeast of Barnesville, Ohio ? and a lost ancestor.
That tiny hilltop cemetery, about 100 miles east of Columbus in Belmont County, was the burial site for many residents of a vanished but once-thriving African American community originally known as Guinea, a settlement of free blacks established there in the 1820s.
We somehow found the cemetery, but there was no headstone for the subject of our search: Debbie's great-great grandfather, Cpl. Jasper Haddock, a soldier who served during the Civil War in the storied 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, one of the state's two black infantry regiments during the conflict. (The other regiment was the subject of the 1989 motion picture, "Glory.") Jasper enlisted in the 55th Massachusetts in 1863, during a time when Ohio did not allow men of color to serve.
After a short time at the cemetery, we returned to Barnesville to see the 100-year-old Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church that was Wilma's special place during her childhood growing up in that small town. Parked in front of the now-vacant church, Wilma and Debbie sat in the car while I stepped out to take a few photos. As I returned to the car, I saw a man walking down the middle of the street toward me carrying two shopping bags. As he got within speaking distance, we exchanged greetings.
The stranger, who I later learned was Hiram Bowen, a Vietnam veteran, asked if we were visiting the church. I answered, "Yes," and remarked that we had just returned from visiting a cemetery a few miles outside of Barnesville in search of a distant ancestor.
Without hesitation, he asked, "Captina Cemetery? You're looking for a soldier?"
I was further stunned when he told me, "I'm the person who takes care of Captina Cemetery."
What were the odds that the only person on the street that day happened to be the caretaker of that cemetery?
I told Hiram about Jasper, one of at least nine African American Civil War soldiers known to be buried there, and mentioned that there was no headstone for him. Hiram's response was: "I'll get him one. For free. A granite one ? bigger and better than the ones the military provides."
"What's the catch?" I thought. Keep in mind, this was a chance meeting between total strangers standing in the middle of an empty side street in a small Ohio town.
I offered to pay for the stone, if he was indeed serious, but he rejected my offer, explaining that it is just something he likes to do for veterans. Hiram told me to send him all of Jasper's military records, and he would do the rest.
We were skeptical, but thought that it was at least worth a try, so I mailed him the documents. About six months later, I was surprised by a phone call from Hiram asking if we would like to come to Captina Cemetery to see Jasper's new headstone.
Two days later, Wilma, Debbie and I arrived and found a beautifully carved granite headstone that reads:
Cpl. Jasper Haddock
Born 1831 in Va. ? Died March 15, 1905
Co. F 55th Regt. Mass. Colored Infantry
Wounded at Battle of Honey Hill, SC.
Husband of Margaret Alexander and Jennet Poindexter
We placed a flag, planted lilies and recorded an impromptu memorial video that can be seen on YouTube by searching for "Jasper Haddock."
Wilma, now 102 years old, still talks about the experience with "that man on the street," a serendipitous encounter that still mystifies us. Some might call it divine intervention. Others could choose to call it fate, destiny or maybe just coincidence. All I can do is be content to simply marvel at the wonder of it all.
Thank you, Hiram Bowen, for all you have done to remember and honor our veterans.
(Editor’s Note: Doug Tracy, 70, lives in New Albany. Captina Cemetery is located on Somerset Twp. Road #T-30, just south off of SR 148. The cemetery is marked by an Ohio Historical Marker.)