Haunted by a past that remains unknowable

December 07, 2004|By Michael Olesker

NOW IS THE roughest time of the year. Yesterday, as close as Bill Ey can tell, he had a birthday. Next week comes an anniversary. It will be 69 years since the snowy night somebody telephoned the old St. Vincent Infant Home and said there was a baby waiting outside in the dark.

A policeman with a flashlight found the little boy wrapped in a blanket in a nearby cornfield, with two warm bottles of milk lying next to him. All labels had been cut from the child's clothes and blankets, to avoid identification. A car sped into the night and was gone.

At his Rosedale Auto Service, on Belair Road in Gardenville, Ey still has the faded newspaper clipping from December 21, 1935, and the photo that ran in the old Baltimore News and Baltimore Post, under the headline, "Baby Abandoned In A Cornfield."

Beyond that, Ey knows only what readers of that day's newspaper know: Nothing at all. And the emptiness haunts him.

"All my life," he was saying now, pausing for a moment to compose himself, "I've wondered when I was born and who were my parents. Where did I come from? We settled on December 6 as my birthday, but it's kind of a guess. I mean, even my kids ask that question: `How can you be sure?' They always bring it up, because it's their roots, too. They say, `What nationality are we? Polish? German? What are we?' I say, `I don't know.' I don't know where I came from. I don't know who I am. And that's the thing you want to know more than anything else."

We define ourselves by our lives, but also by those that preceded us. The details matter. Because, over the years, as Ey married his wife, Rose -- they're now celebrating their 49th wedding anniversary -- and had five children and four grandchildren, something happened: The emptiness of not knowing extended across each new generation, who wondered: Where's the rest of our story?

What they know are these threads of it: At 11 o'clock that long-ago night, the telephone rang at St. Vincent's, the infant home run by the Sisters of Charity. Sister Celestine heard a male voice on the telephone declare, "There's a baby on your doorstep." St. Vincent's was located in Northwest Baltimore, on what is now the site of the Reisterstown Road Shopping Plaza.

Sister Celestine and Sister Louise went to the front porch and then the back. They found nothing. They called Baltimore police, who dispatched an officer named John Fritz. Searching through a nearby cornfield, he found a blond, blue-eyed baby, apparently unharmed by the cold. The child was maybe a week old. For a little while, the nuns named him John Field: John, for the policeman; Field, for the cornfield.

"And that's all I know," Ey was saying now.

The voice on the telephone went away that night, and so did all links to Ey's past.

But he's never stopped trying to uncover them. The nuns kept him for six months, and then Officer Fritz and his wife inquired about adopting him. But they weren't Catholic and were turned down. Then a Canton shipyard worker and his wife, William and Matilda Ey, adopted him and named him Bill.

"The people who adopted me, I loved them, I couldn't have asked for better parents," Ey says. When he was "7 or 8 years old," they sat him down and told him all they knew about his beginnings. He didn't understand them at first, but as the years went by, and he began to define himself in more sophisticated ways, he wanted to know more.

"The people who left me in the corn field," he says. "It was the Depression, I guess they couldn't afford me." For years, he says, he went back to St. Vincent's to consult with the nuns. Had they heard anything? Had anyone ever called? "I figured," says Ey, "a mother will not just abandon her child and never wonder where that child is." He joined the Marines, and on leave would go back to St. Vincent's and question them some more.

Years later, he also tracked down Officer Fritz. It turned out, Fritz lived only a few blocks from Ey. But the trail had long since gone cold, and Fritz had no clues to offer.

Six years ago, Ey hired a young woman to work at his auto repair shop. When she heard Ey's story, she mentioned an elderly neighbor who knew the story, because the man's wife had done charity work at St. Vincent's. The husband picked her up the night Bill was found in the cornfield and "remembered it like it was yesterday," Ey said. "He said he saw a car, a Packard, speeding off. But he didn't think anything of it right away, and he didn't mention it to anybody until the next day."

But the clues ended there; nothing more came of it.

And now, 69 years later, the haunting continues. "It's part of my life that I don't have," Ey says. "I sit at home and watch these TV shows, where they link people up who haven't seen each other for years, and I can't even watch the end of them. It tears me up. I'm not asking for the world. I'd just like to know who these people were. Maybe I have brothers and sisters out there. My parents are probably gone. And now I'm running out of time. I call Catholic Charities every few months. Nobody knows."

This is the roughest time of year. Maybe yesterday was Bill Ey's birthday. But maybe it wasn't.

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