As of about 7pm a couple of Sundays ago, I had no idea that Bob even existed. Bob is a third cousin of mine, assuming I understand the arcane nomenclature of genealogists. I'd always assumed that third cousin, twice removed, was the kind of description that only had a reality in friend-of-a-friend stories. You know, the ones where a friend's cousin's barber's parrot's personal trainer had seen a ghost pirate carjack a hummer and drive it upside down into a river. i.e. possibly a tad more fiction than hard nosed fact. But Bob is a real person, living in the USA, and was a topic of family discussion because no-one had heard from him in twelve years. Not that he was missing, exactly, just that no-one on this side of the Atlantic had any idea where he was or any means to get in touch.
As was being told this, I slowly got more interested in the possibility of locating him through a generous application of internet magic. Up until now the search had been based via the Salvation Army, an approach which had depended on knowing his exact date of birth; information which wasn't available. I convinced myself that I was the guy to save the day and in my head I began to plan my approach.
Evidence existed in the form of a photocopied letter from his wife, printed in 1996, and describing the usual family matters which included plans to go on a Mediterranean cruise. It was a puzzle to be unlocked, which I thought I might morbidly tackle by first looking at shipping disasters. (After the obligatory Google search, of which a current example meme seems to be “Where are my damn keys”. We'll have to wait until 2015 for that one.) A border around the letter struck me as reminiscent of a template once used by the desktop publishing software Quark Xpress. A line of enquiry would then be to ask if anyone of that name had registered it. From then on, my thoughts got more elaborate and since I had no net access at that point, nothing existed to attenuate my growing enthusiasm.
I had no idea how Google Earth could help find a missing person, but I added it to my list anyway as well as the thrilling thought of calling the FBI to ask their assistance. Which was around the point that the phone rang.
It's my cousin Anne, who (having heard the tale last week) was calling with the news that she'd popped his daughter's name into Facebook and was swapping emails with her right now. Bob, she said, was alive and kicking and doing OK.
Well, after twelve years, at least I had the honour of being part of the search for the last thirty minutes.