Digging for roots

Searching for (and finding) the birth father I never knew

Author’s note: Except for the author, his wife and private investigator Jim Pihl, specific names of individuals in this story have been omitted or changed to protect their anonymity.

It was already hot outside. The morning air was thick with humidity as my wife, Connie, and I rode south on Interstate 81 in our air-conditioned rental car down the middle of the Great Appalachian Valley. This huge trough is one of the most traveled routes in North American history, having been used as major north-south thoroughfare by everyone from pre-colonial Americans; to European immigrants migrating to the South; to Walmart trucks carrying flat-screen TVs.

It was the day before the Fourth of July, and staring at the hazy Appalachian ranges surrounding us, I thought about the history of America and the Europeans who navigated the terrain to lay down new roots in unforgiving woods far from their homelands. And there I was, on the other side of the country from Chico, on my way to tapping into roots of my own, some of which I’d just learned run deep into those mountains and the first white people who settled there.

Up ahead, living 3,000 feet up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, was the birth father I’d never known. Connie and I were about to walk into a restaurant in a small Tennessee town near the North Carolina border to share a meal with him and his wife. A month before, all I knew about the man was the name, age and occupation listed on my birth certificate.

I was 3 years old the last time I’d seen him—a meeting of which I have no memory. And, on the cusp of completing a whirlwind three-week search that was more exciting and revealing than I had anticipated, I had no clue what to expect as we were about to meet again some 38 years later.

My mom and my birth father, “Hank,” were just two kids at the end of 1968—17 and 20, respectively—together briefly when he came home from Vietnam, then quickly going their separate ways before I was born.

I’ve naturally been curious about looking for Hank many times before, and I’d usually satisfy my curiosity by staying up late for a night searching his name on Google. I’d wonder to myself if he might be the doctor in Spokane, Wash.? Or maybe the professional wrestler in Florida? There was a picture of a guy in Nashville who kind of looked like me—and he was a musician too! That might be cool, I thought.

But earlier this year I made up my mind to carve out some time in 2011 and finally follow all leads to their end.

Before I continue, it needs to be said that I have a dad. My mom and he were married a few days before my fourth birthday, and I have called him “Dad” ever since. He taught me to drive a stick shift; he sang the “greasy, grimy gopher guts” song for me and my three sisters on command; and he worked hard his whole life as a salesman to feed and clothe us.

The author’s family unit in the early days with mom, stepdad, the young author, and two of his three sisters.

I love him. He loves me. He’s my dad; I’m his son. That will never change.

In fact, I’ve enjoyed a very good family life all around—for the first three-or-so years with just my sweet and loving mother and her parents and many siblings; then, after she met Dad, with him and my three sisters—who are, along with my wife, my best friends in the world.

So, given that I was raised with a family unit intact, I’ve never felt like there was something missing in my life. And since I didn’t ever know Hank, there’ve been no memories gnawing at me either.

This is all to say that my life wasn’t affected negatively by this separation. That would seem to make my situation different from those of lot of people who are searching for a birth parent or other relative—people, say, who grew up in foster care or are from broken homes. Of course, my only examples have been those I’ve seen on TV. And when you see the rawness of emotions during the tearful reunions on the reality shows and talk shows (those hard-to-deny “Oprah moments”), it’s obvious that there are often unresolved feelings and other issues at play for both the searcher and searchee.

I had no idea how Hank would react if I made contact, but I did know that I wouldn’t manufacture a dramatic moment by pressing him with a bunch of questions about his past. As curious as I might be about his answers, I was looking only to find him and introduce myself. We would still be strangers, after all. That was my mindset at the outset, anyway.

I started my search on June 10. I called my mom and told her I was going to look for Hank, for real this time, and I asked her again for anything she might remember.

From that interview, I gleaned a few vague details: She gave me what she remembered as Hank’s dad’s name and said she thought he had one brother and two sisters. She also told me that his parents owned a chicken ranch near the small California desert city where I was born, and that the last contact she had with him was when he came by the house to see me just before she remarried in the summer of 1973. I added this to what I got about Hank from my birth certificate: He was born in Pennsylvania and was 20 years old and a sergeant in the Army when I was born.

A couple days later, my mom also remembered the name of a high-school friend of hers who had introduced her to Hank, as well as the maiden name of a woman Hank had married and had a daughter with not long after my mom and he had split up. All of this information was completely new to me (including the bit about my having a half-sister somewhere).

I also called private investigator Jim Pihl. He has been working in Chico for more than 30 years, mostly for local defense lawyers, but since starting a website (pihlinvestigations.com), he said the number of people seeking his services for missing-person and birth-family search cases has increased.

The author and his wife flank his stepfather and mother in 2010, in Avila Beach.

Pihl was eager to help out. “I find it fascinating,” he said. “It’s kind of like playing a game of chess.”

My immediate goals were to use the Internet to find contact info for my mom’s high-school friend and for Hank’s second wife, and to come up with a list of potential Hanks by plugging various combinations of his name along with all the places, dates and other names into as many online resources as I could.

In addition to the mighty Google and Facebook, I took advantage of the Mormon church’s free genealogical database (www.familysearch.org) and signed up for free trials at a couple of the pay sites, Archives.com and of course the popular genealogy super site, Ancestry.com.

I even paid for the entry-level memberships at some of the creepy people-searching sites like Intelius.com, MyLife.com and Spokeo.com, all of which mine public data from cyberspace with an effectiveness that is, frankly, a little unsettling.

Ancestry and FamilySearch, with their vast collections of historical records, paid off first. Not only did I find my mom and Hank’s entry on the California Divorce Index (which included their date of marriage and Hank’s exact year of birth), but I also found the marriage and divorce records for Hank and his second wife.

This is how the madness started. With just this little bit of info I was able to track down Hank’s second wife and her current husband, living in Southern California.

I also found a bunch of Hanks who had the same middle name or middle initial as my birth father and/or were the same age (62). I ventured down a few of the paths of these guys’ lives. I crossed out some who turned out to be the wrong age; and a couple whose middle initials turned out to be for different names. I was left with a few Hanks in South Carolina and one each in Florida, Tennessee and North Carolina.

I took all my info with me when I went to meet with Pihl, who remarked how the availability of records and other information online has really made searching for someone a lot easier and less time-consuming for everyone, not just P.I.s.

“You can sometimes sit down and in an hour find somebody,” he said.

Chico P.I. Jim Pihl brings more than 30 years of experience (and some spiffy electronic-search tools) to the table, whether he’s searching for bad guys or birth relatives.

Photo By jason cassidy

Pihl normally charges $150 for a couple of hours of searching. Which, given his experience and the mighty Merlin Information Services database at his disposal (with its access to, among other resources, information gleaned from the three credit-reporting agencies) is well worth the money if you’re not interested in spending days on the Internet. I didn’t mind putting the time in myself, but I also wanted to be able to pick the brain of an experienced searcher.

Pihl had already run Hank’s name through Merlin and come back with 330 hits, many of them the same ones I’d found online. In addition to age, month and year of birth, address, reporting date, and (sometimes) phone number, each listing also comes back with a truncated Social Security number (first five numbers only). And a couple of the hits—in North and South Carolina—were for a 62-year-old man with a SS number that was issued in California.

“I realize this is coming completely out of the blue, but I am looking for my birth father and I’m hoping you can help me.”

I had my script all written. I called my mom’s high-school friend, and he was nice and intrigued by my search, but had lost contact with Hank shortly after he split with my mom. He had heard that Hank might have followed his parents back to North Carolina, which is what Hank’s second wife said as well during our brief conversation. Both she and her husband seemed a little shaken that I’d called their unlisted number (one of the scary realities of Spokeo, et al.), but they were very polite. She hadn’t been in contact with Hank since they split up in the mid-’70s.

“Carolina Hank” was looking like the right guy, so I re-combed all my resources and made a long list of every phone number, old and new, that was connected to North or South Carolina. On Saturday, June 18, the day before Father’s Day, I wrote up another little script and then called all nine. Every number was disconnected.

I was actually a little relieved. My heart was pounding out of my chest as I dialed each number—partly out of excitement at the idea of possibly having succeeded in tracking him down, but also because I was feeling that things were maybe moving too fast.

Nonetheless, I redoubled my online search efforts. At about 1 a.m. the following morning, I hit the jackpot.

A search combining one random city in North Carolina with one of the so-called “associated names” from the people-search sites produced a link to the 2002 obituary for Carolina Hank’s father. Included in the list of survivors were the names and home cities for him and all of his siblings. I plugged all of their info into the loop and found previous addresses for his father and two siblings that were in the same tiny California city in which I was born. I was now fairly certain that Carolina Hank was my birth father.

Over the next couple of days, I chased down each of the siblings on the list, all of whom were living in North Carolina at the time of their father’s death.

Genealogy sites like <a href="http://ancestry.com/">Ancestry.com</a> and <a href="http://familysearch.org/">Familysearch.org</a>, and more dubious people-search sites like <a href="http://spokeo.com/">Spokeo.com</a>, have given amateur investigators new tools in searching for lost loved ones in recent years.

I tried the brother first: died in 2005, at the age of 61.

Next, there were the two sisters to choose from, as well as another woman who appeared to be Hank’s wife or girlfriend (I’d found two addresses that this woman and Hank had in common, and in an online deed search for the county of one of those addresses I found a piece of property they’d purchased together).

I decided that, before I called a woman who might or might not know anything about her partner having fathered a son 41 years ago, I should try to connect with one of the sisters.

I was able to locate one of them on Facebook, which listed her city and occupation—home health nurse. That information, when plugged into Google, got me an address and phone number.

So, from my office phone on the morning of Wednesday, June 22, I casually dialed the number. A woman answered, and I stuttered: “I realize this is coming completely out of the blue … but I think your brother Hank is my biological father.”

She asked me what my mother’s name was, and then, sounding a little shocked, said, “Jason? … I remember you.”

She told me that Hank was a really nice man, and confirmed that he did now live in North Carolina. She then asked for my number and said that she would give it to her brother and assured me he would call. A few hours later, while I sat in a meeting with my editorial colleagues, the phone rang.

It was mind-blowing to consider the 38 years between me and Hank, and then to look down and see a North Carolina area code on my cell phone and know that gap was about to close.

My phone conversation with Hank lasted only a few minutes. He asked how I’d found him and whether my mom was still alive. I told him I was curious about my roots.

We both stuttered and interrupted each other over an intermittent connection trying to decide what biographical info to share. I told him I was a journalist and married with no kids. He told me he was retired from the construction business in South Carolina and building a home in the mountains of North Carolina, in the county where generations of his family have lived. (I’ve since traced them back to arriving in the area in the mid-1700s.) He was married too, but had no other children since my half-sister was born.

I also told him about the crazy and serendipitous fact that my wife and I had already planned to join her family for a vacation in West Virginia, and that in a few short weeks we would be only a five-hour drive from his house. We agreed to meet, and then said goodbye.

I was humming. It was thrilling to have put the pieces together and found my birth father, and my cell phone was vibrating like mad as my wife and sisters texted me in a frenzy, voicing the excitement and disbelief for which I was having trouble finding words. I called my mom and dad, and they were as congratulatory and supportive as they’d been throughout the process.

My phone call with Hank was brief, but afterward the world felt different, as though I’d stepped into an alternate reality.

The author meets with his half-sister for the first time at a Southern Calif. Dave & Busters.

I went back to Hank’s sister’s Facebook page, and after “friending” her, I came across one dark photo that she’d posted that looked like it had been taken with a cell phone in a dimly lit room. It was of two blurred faces nearly swallowed by shadows. One of the subjects was tagged “my brother,” and all you could really see of the image that I assumed was Hank was some white facial hair. I downloaded the picture and adjusted the levels with my puny photo-editing software, which didn’t do anything for the clarity, but did barely reveal two pale blue eyes that matched my own.

As that shadowy image came into relative focus, it was hard to deny the pull of my roots in those mysterious blue dots staring back at me.

I also found my half-sister. (Which makes half-sister No. 4 for me, since I don’t share a birth father with the three sisters I grew up with, though I have never considered them half-sisters.)

I found sister No. 4 by following leads from a connection to her mother and stepfather online. She too had grown up not knowing her birth father. When I spoke to her mom, I didn’t tell her that I knew about the daughter she had with Hank. I didn’t want to freak her out with my cyber-stalking.

As it turned out, my half-sister had always known about me. Her mom had told her Hank had a son from a previous relationship. She also told her daughter about me calling, and two days before Hank called she sent me an e-mail: “I would love to meet you and learn more about you, if you are comfortable with this, since you are my half-brother.”

So, a couple weeks after meeting Hank, I flew down to Southern California and met my new sister for lunch at a Dave & Buster’s. It was a quick but delightful visit. She was friendly and open, and we had one of those easy and lively conversations where three hours goes by in a blink (much the way conversations with my other three sisters always go). Naturally, we discussed my finding Hank and wondered where things would go with our relationship with him (she has now been in contact with him as well). But mostly we shared our stories.

Even though I went into this whole search with a strong feeling that sharing the same blood wouldn’t immediately translate into any kind of connection, there was an unmistakable chord struck with my new sister, for me, and it continues to resonate.

Maybe it’s just that we were simultaneously bonding over the new experience of finding a birth parent and sibling. Or maybe it was some yet-to-be-understood connection, one formed long ago on a genetic level. Or, as she said when I asked her about it later, “Maybe we are just two really cool people!”

As Connie and I wound through the final few miles of Tennessee countryside on the way to our meeting with Hank and his wife, I started to think that there was a way I should be feeling before going into this, and that I wasn’t feeling that way. Maybe it was pressure to somehow live up to an Oprah moment with this reunion. That’s the only example I had to go by.

There was no preparing for this kind of meeting. There was no real-life precedent. And I was anxious about being unprepared for the unknown.

The author posing on July 3, 2011, with his birth father after meeting for the first time in 38 years.

Connie and I were standing on the sidewalk when Hank drove up with his wife. We exchanged nervous “hellos” as they stepped out of their truck, and I shook Hank’s hand before we went inside and sat around a small table by itself in one corner of the dining room.

It was surreal as we all fumbled our way through figuring out how to conduct a reunion. I tried not to get caught staring as I looked for common features in Hank’s face (Connie and I both agreed that the proof was in the eyes—blue and a little downturned).

His appearance was a little gruff. He had a bushy goatee and mustache and a POW/MIA tattoo on his left arm. But it was softened by a gentle Southern accent and a sweetness as he touched his wife’s arm and shared pictures of her daughter’s graduation and their pets (cats and chickens), and when he complimented me on my lovely wife when she went to the restroom.

Much as when we talked on the phone, the conversation was somewhat stilted as we fought through nerves to order food and share the details of our lives with each other. But our wives rose to the occasion, keeping the conversation flowing, and serving as conduits between Hank and me.

He asked if I was nervous to meet, and I said that I was mostly concerned about disrupting his life to satisfy my curiosity. My wife asked him the same question and he said, “Yes.”

He also shared that after he left California he put that part of his life behind him. And though we didn’t go any deeper into that or any other issues, he did mention something in passing about veterans’ being “messed up” by the Vietnam War, something he echoed in a later phone conversation when talking about what was going on with him at the time my half-sister and I were born.

We sat at the table for about three hours before going outside and taking pictures and saying our goodbyes. We did not have an Oprah moment, and I’m glad for that.

I don’t know that Hank and I reached the same kind of common ground in this first meeting as I felt I did with my new sister. At this point, I’d say he and I are still just friendly acquaintances. But he did ask me to keep in touch, and I told him I’d like that.

The fact remains, however, that even though modern technology helped to quickly put us in the same room with each other, there are still decades of time and thousands of miles between us. And from here it looks like a long way to travel before we’ll be able to learn anything substantive about one another. But I am open to going down that road.

I started my journey with the intention of merely connecting the dots, but as the picture began to come together of these people to whom I’m genetically tied, I saw something growing in front of me, pulling me in. I have discovered new roots directly connected to me, and now I want to keep digging, not just for biographical details, but also for a deeper connection to what’s made me the man I am. It could be that I’ve already unearthed all there is to know, but maybe, buried beneath the layers between me and Hank, there is still more of me to find.