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Phone Home


As I write this, I am riding down Route 701 in South Carolina, laptop balanced precariously on my knee. I have been chatting online and by phone with editors, writing and sending stories and pictures.

At the same time, my vacation plans have been formulating, as I consult websites on my phone to determine which places are interesting, which I will give a miss, and what is open on this day before New Year’s.

All of this is pretty commonplace these days, but it still fascinates me. And on this particular trip I have been ruminating on the accessibility we have to those hundreds, or thousands, of miles distant from us. How very different it is from days of yore.

What brought me to South Carolina was curiosity about the fate of my third-great-granduncle who came to South Carolina in the fall of 1860, just weeks after the death of his mother in Prospect Harbor, Maine. He was an adventuresome 20-year-old at the time, suddenly cut loose from family responsibilities. He accepted an offer of employment in South Carolina on a timber plantation owned by Henry Buck, originally of Bucksport, Maine. Buck, it seemed, liked to hire northern men because he thought they worked harder than Southerners.

Nathan Clifford Moore was wide-eyed in the hinterlands of South Carolina, which he described in three letters to his sisters as “some lonesome” and very removed from the pleasures of civilization. He chose a volatile time to come, just as the state seceded from the Union. He wrote to my great-great-grandmother, describing the tumultuous social scene as slaves were harassed and intimidated and “northerners are daily arrested or invited to leave.” He believed he woud soon have to go, adding enigmatically that if he were forced to leave before March, “I will go south.”

And that was the last anyone ever heard of him. No more letters, no enlistment in the Union Army; no happy homecoming. Nothing. The only trace of him is in the name my brother bears.

I have always suspected he sleeps with the alligators, having run afoul of the local “malitia,” which he described as terrorizing the countryside.

So, I was surprised a few years ago while doing genealogical research to discover that the Buck Plantation still exists and is still owned by the same family. With true genealogical zeal, I hoped that I would be able to find some mention of what happened to him in plantation records, a diary or perhaps a letter. This year we seized the opportunity of the Christmas lull to travel South.

The Buck family here has received us with true Southern hospitality, guiding us to the family cemetery, now-derelict plantations and even to their lovely residence at the Upper Mill where Clifford Moore worked. While here, I have researched in libraries and museums and have found some interesting accounts that raise the tantalizing thought that he may have been among the Maine men who sailed for the West Indies when the state seceded. But, alas, I have yet to find Henry Buck’s business ledgers or diaries. So, the mystery continues.

All of this has led me to contemplate how history might have been changed if our current technology existed in centuries before. Most immediately for my family, Nathan Clifford’s fate would be known. But what about bigger historical events?

The fate of our nation might have been much different during the Civil War if Robert E. Lee, frustrated at Gettysburg by the failure of J.E.B. Stuart to report in a timely manner, could have dialed up his errant general and demanded the results of his reconnaissance. Might Lee have won that pivotal battle if he could have learned the Union troops’ strength earlier? Would we be two countries today if Verizon had existed?

Personal drama might have been spared in the Daniel Boone family when he set off on his long absences in the dense wilderness. The Cherokee War separated Rebecca and Daniel for several years, and family lore holds that, after years with no word and assuming her husband was dead, Rebecca found comfort in the arms of her brother-in-law. Her daughter, Jemima, was born in 1762, shortly before Daniel’s return.

How much simpler if he could have dialed up and said, “Don’t expect me for supper. See you in two years.” To his credit, he loved the child and she became his support in his old age.

The grim fate of the Donner Party in the Sierra Nevada in 1846 might have been averted if their wagon train had only been equipped with GPS. All of us have had occasion to curse our Garmin or TomTom when we stray off the route and it announces it is “recalculating,” but none of us has yet had to resort to cannibalism as a result.

Undoubtedly, there are many more examples of how modern technology has saved us worry and angst about the whereabouts of others. In the end, we should all take the advice of E.T. and “phone home.”