D.C. vendor Brandon Byrd serves frozen custard from Gigi, right, a 1952 Metro van. He wants to add a 1957 Metro van and has launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to restore it. (Brandon Byrd)
Columnist

Twenty years ago, Harold McClendon offered to help his son with a middle school homework assignment on his ancestors.

Harold hasn’t really ever stopped. The 71-year-old federal retiree from Mount Vernon spends part of nearly every day at an archive or library, or on the computer, chasing down McClendons and Lewises (his mother’s maiden name); Morans and Apgars (his wife’s parents’ surnames).

“The appeal to me, I guess, is that I get to meet the people of my past,” Harold said. “If they hadn’t done what they did, I wouldn’t exist.”

It is fascinating to imagine the actions and interactions, decisions and coincidences, that created each of us. Just think of the unruly mass of humans who had to meet and mate, each relationship leading inexorably closer to . . . you.

“It’s like getting a book you can’t put down,” Harold said of genealogy.

Harold has helped countless others assemble those books. He volunteers to help people with their family history questions. And after becoming involved with the Mount Vernon Genealogical Society (unaffiliated with George Washington’s plantation home), he created Harold’s List, a massive calendar of genealogy-related events taking place across our area.

The current Harold’s List runs to 97 pages, with details on both groups offering basic research classes and those hosting more detailed lectures, such as how to find your War of 1812 ancestors.

That’s what had Harold at the National Archives earlier this week. A woman in Washington state had wanted to join a group for descendants of veterans of our second war with Great Britain. “It doesn’t look like we’ re going to be able to accomplish that,” Harold said.

But as often happens, she wants him to keep looking, just to find the interesting details that can make long-dead relatives come alive.

In my limited experience with them, genealogists tend to focus on relatives who were heroes or who were lovable rogues: cattle rustlers or deserters.

What about what must surely be the majority: people who lived boring lives, picking their noses in elevators and being late with the gas bill?

Well, that’s a question for another day. But Harold said black sheep are actually exciting to find. “That’s going to produce a lot of records,” he said. “When you go to court or get arrested, a lot of personal information will come out.”

Military pension records are especially valuable. “When you look through there, you almost hope they get denied,” he said. “If they get denied they come back the second time and tell you twice as much.”

Hate bureaucracy? Just think how much future generations will depend on it to learn about you.

You can find a copy of Harold’s List on the Web site of the Mount Vernon Genealogical Society (mvgenealogy.org). To be added to Harold’s e-mail list, send him a message: haroldm@
erols.com
.

“I’ve never gotten such positive feedback on anything in my life,” said Harold of this most valuable resource.

Keep on truckin’?

Brandon Byrd is slowly building a sweet, vintage-style empire. When I wrote about Brandon two years ago, the ex-hip-hop publicist had just taken to the streets of the District in Gigi, a lovingly restored 1952 Metro van. Gigi has been serving up Goodies Frozen Custard from spots around town, including near Barracks Row on weekends.

This summer, Brandon opened a 1950s-style soda bar at National Harbor, with root beer floats a specialty.

Now he wants to double his fleet with a 1957 Metro van he found in Pennsylvania.

“The rust is pretty significant,” Brandon said of the desirable “shortie” van. “I want to do a complete grafting job, as far as putting in new metal.”

He’s found a collaborator in J&M Rodworks, a car restoration shop in Glenwood, Md. Brandon has turned to Kickstarter to raise the $35,000 it will cost to get Rudy running.

As is the custom with Kickstarter, donors get benefits. In this case, the range goes from a free root beer float for a $5 pledge to a catered sock hop for 300 guests for a $5,000 pledge.

“My vision is to make it my doughnut and coffee truck,” Brandon said of Rudy. If he can raise the cash by Oct. 1, he’ll spend the winter restoring the van for a spring 2015 debut. “There’ll be some other options, such as oatmeal, fruit bowls and juices. Although I eat frozen custard daily, I’m a big fan of oatmeal.”

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.