By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 5, 2006
Until recently, there was little to distinguish the grave of the "unknown" -- a tuft of yellowing grass off a quiet Marine base road next to where a church once stood. Graves nearby were marked "mother" and "father." But not this one.
Nothing but a small chunk of blank concrete and an iron Confederate cross indicated that someone lay there.
And it might have remained that way -- an anonymous plot swallowed over time by the Quantico Marine Corps Base -- had Raymond "Buck" Jones not remembered a childhood drive with his father. And found a piece of paper scrawled with the beginnings of their family tree.
Jones has spent the last five years tracing every vein of every leaf of that tree until he gathered enough evidence to satisfy himself -- and the military -- that the grave belongs to his great-grandfather Charles William Jones, a Confederate soldier.
"I'm 78 years old, and if I die, nobody will know who's buried here," said Jones, a former Marine who served during World War II. "You would be surprised how many graves are here that they don't know who they belong to."
Today, there will be an official ceremony at the grave site, where more than 30 of the 82 nearby graves remain unidentified. On a recent Friday, a handful of people stood in the hushed cemetery to watch as a hole was dug and a tombstone with the name "Pvt. Charles W. Jones" was laid.
"It's the first time on the base that we know of that someone claimed an unknown," said Ken Oliver, a base official.
In 1942, when the Quantico base expanded, it pulled 31 small family cemeteries into its borders. The cemeteries are private but maintained by the Marine Corps. Officials require proof that an ancestor is buried there before giving relatives any entitlements.
Oliver said Jones came to him two years ago with the idea of putting up a tombstone, but Oliver had only Jones's word that he was doing research and nothing in writing to back up his claim.
"I said when you get all that done and you have something for me, come on back," Oliver said, adding that he finally accepted a notarized affidavit as proof. "As soon as he put it in writing and had it notarized, then I had something I could use. I had physical evidence."
Jones, retired from the General Services Administration, said he probably gathered more evidence than he needed but wanted to be sure. When he started, all he had was a childhood memory of driving by the cemetery and his father pointing to an iron Confederate cross as his great-grandfather's grave. With that memory, and a piece of paper he found in an old suitcase on which his brother had written their basic genealogy, he started his research.
Jones is not your stereotypical library researcher. His shirts, in person and in dated photographs, gape open in the front, and his jokes, which he delivers often, border on crass. Still, in the last five years, he has logged hours at a time in libraries from Manassas to Richmond, searching Civil War archives and old newspaper clippings, tracking down marriage certificates and birth announcements. One of his favorite findings is a clipping from a Belle Haven church that says his great-grandfather and grandfather were chastised for dancing.
All of this bulges in a three-ring binder about four inches thick.
"This is the master book," Jones said, plopping it on the table in front of him.
Each page is carefully labeled and then covered in plastic. It is a culmination of tidbits, a few isolated sentences here and there, that together tell the story of the Joneses.
It begins with a grainy black-and-white photo of Charles W. Jones and his second wife, Virginia.
"There were three brothers who were in the Civil War," Jones said. "One was killed, and two of them came home."
From the records, this is what is known about Charles W. Jones: He spent his entire life in Prince William County, leaving for war at age 24 and returning home six years later. In between, he was listed as a "rebel deserter" and captured near Hanover. He was court-martialed about two years later and confined for nine months.
Jones said others in his family like to believe that their great-grandfather was a war hero, but the evidence says otherwise. It's possible that he even robbed a bank in his time, he theorized. "When they tore down his old house, there was Confederate money in the walls," Jones said.
Still, there is reverence in Jones's voice as he turns the pages of the binder. There is a series of four photographs taped together on one page, tracing the Jones men for four generations, ending with him. The men share the same thin lips.
"Life is just too hectic and fast for anyone to sit in a rocking chair and wonder," Jones said.
Nearby sits his companion, Marge Hooks, 74, who has known him for almost 50 years and has helped in his research. She drove with him to Richmond, where he would spend hours poring through the archives. She contacted the officials at the Marine base and compiled the list of those invited to today's ceremony.
"We're hoarders," she said. "Buck's worse than me."
Hoarding is part of it, but Jones admitted that he has also been driven by his own mortality. As he and Hooks see their friends dwindle in number, he wants to leave a bit of himself behind.
"I want my grandchildren, their grandchildren to know," Jones said. "Don't you think that's a good idea?"
On the last page of the binder is a picture of his own tombstone at the Quantico National Cemetery, where his wife, Joyce Mae, is buried. Under her name is etched: "Cpl. Raymond W. Jones USMC."
Not outwardly sentimental, he said he doesn't care whether anyone visits him once he's gone. But a hesitation in his voice hints otherwise. Hints at not wanting to be an "unknown." In the photo in front of him, flowers rest not only on his future grave, but on the four surrounding it. Jones put those there, too.