Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Case Study in Bureaucracy

The year was 1976. I was freshly graduated from high school and ready to become a wage earner. But first, I had to have a Social Security account. Easy, right? But wait! I had been born overseas as an Army brat, and more significantly, not on a base hospital. My dad was with the ASA and stationed at an old Luftwaffe base in Rothwesten, Germany. So my officially-stamped birth certificate reads “Geburstekunde.”

I did have the consular report of my birth (both of my parents were American citizens, so I could have been born on the moon – I was still an American citizen.) but it was a Xeroxed copy and not the original, so it was not accepted. We need your green card, they kept mailing me.

At the same time this was going on, I was a fledgling genealogist. I had sent for and received my great-grandfather’s death record, having obtained his death date from his headstone. He was buried in the same town where I grew up, in the same cemetery where my grandparents were buried, and now, where my dad is buried – three generations in the same cemetery!

My great-grandfather’s name? John Joseph Smith! His death record revealed little I didn’t know, having grown up around most of his ten children and hearing lots of tales of the family. However, there was one detail that stood out to me: he had a Social Security number! At that moment, I had an epiphany. If I had to jump through so many hoops to get an account, what did an Irish immigrant have to do?

I contacted my local SS Administration office – which just happened to be the same one he would have applied to. Fortunately, this was in the days before they realized that genealogists were cash cows, so I got a copy of the application he filled out without having to sell my soul.

Although this document didn’t yield a lot more information than I already had (yes, when I get to the other side, he and I are going to have a conversation!) it did contain two more important tidbits: his exact birth date and his mother’s maiden name, although badly misspelled.
John and Kate (Beggins) Smith had ten children, six of them girls, known as “The Aunts.” Fast forward several years to a funeral of one of The Aunts. The youngest, Aunt Agnes, handed my dad a half-sheet of paper and suggested I might be able to use it in my research. Now we have more significant detail: His county of birth in Ireland and the year he was admitted into citizenship. 

This made it possible to shepherd out his naturalization record from the gazillions of other John Smiths from Ireland who sought citizenship.

Fast forward a few more years to, where the data from a massive indexing project is being uploaded. The Smith headstone I had located at the Calvary Cemetery in Brockton that gave me the information on John’s three sisters, including Bridget (see “Dusting Off Memories,” 12 February 2017) finally paid off in a major way: the indexing program of the LDS Family History Library had just begun to upload large amounts of data from the work. Included? Bridget, the daughter of Pat Smith and Catherine Guickan, born in Ballinamore, Leitrim, Ireland. 

Had I not had that maiden name from John’s Social Security application and Bridget’s information from her headstone, the information would have been meaningless – just another Smith! But now I have a town/parish in Ireland in which to concentrate my search for the elusive Smith.

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