Clinton Harris was cleaning out a cottage in Mary Esther that had been destroyed by a fire. He found a large book, its cover blackened from smoke and soot. But in one corner, barely visible amid the charring, were the letters "Bibl." When he opened it, he found a family's history.
MARY ESTHER — More than 25 years ago, fire snaked through a residence on U.S. Highway 98 in Mary Esther, gutting the interior, but leaving the walls and roof standing.
Clinton Harris, then a local handyman, was hired to clean out the charred structure, which had been a rental cottage. By the time Harris started his work, the residents had cleared it of whatever personal property they could salvage.
Or so they thought.
Busily at work, Harris came across a thick book, the edges of its pages and its cover blackened from smoke and soot. But in one corner, barely visible amid the charring, were the letters "Bibl."
"I was going to throw it in the trash, but when I opened it up, there wasn't anything wrong with it," Harris recalled Friday.
Inside the Bible, a genealogy record survives, listing the names of Jimmy David McGregory Jr., of Sacramento, California, and his wife, the former Mary Bell Hughes, of Clarksdale, Mississippi, who were married on Christmas Eve of 1974 in Clarksdale. The Bible also includes details of McGregory's military service, noting his time in the 1970s with the Army's 2nd Armored Division at Fort Hood, Texas.
Also noted in the Bible is the birth of the couple's firstborn child — a son, Jason David, born July 28, 1977. Other handwritten notes recall Jason's first Christmas — "He had so many gifts, he couldn't keep his mind on one long enough to open it, for wondering what was in the others." The Bible also records the son's first Easter, noting he "was really surprised with what the Easter bunny left. He had never seen an Easter basket before."
Harris made some attempts to track down the Bible's owners or someone connected to them, mostly by looking through the local phone book. But eventually, he gave up, and became the custodian of the charred Bible and its family history.
"I used to read in it every now and then," Harris said, but eventually, after he moved to Crestview, the Bible was relegated to his garage.
Or at least that was the case until a few months ago, when Harris and his brother-in-law, Harry Brown of Fort Walton Beach — both religious men — were visiting at Harris' home.
"We were sitting out in his garage ... and we got to talking about something in the Scriptures," Brown said. "This Bible was out there, and he said, 'Well, go look it up.' He began to tell me the story about how he got it. He said this was the only thing that survived."
"He's a very religious guy," Brown said Friday, "so he wasn't going to get rid of a Bible."
Leafing through the Bible, Brown, like his brother-in-law years before, noticed the personal entries, and began thinking about how he might track down the owners. Sensing Brown's interest, Harris readily allowed him to take the Bible.
"He was excited about it," Brown said. "I reckon I'm more into family history and things like that.
"When I looked in it, and I saw the history in here, the military history," Brown continued, "I thought, 'Well, I can go to the VA (the Department of Veterans Affairs) and they can find him."
Later, though, Brown thought that maybe taking his story to the media might be a faster and better way of tracking down the Bible's owners.
Friday morning, Brown brought the Bible and its story to the Daily News.
One of the reasons that Brown wants to reunite the Bible with its owners is what he sees as the increasing importance of tangible connections to family as people get older.
"Sometimes, when we look at stuff like that when we're young, it doesn't mean anything to us, but when we get older, it becomes very important to us," Brown said. And, he added, "When you look at somebody's original handwriting, it seems like you're still talking to them."
Like Brown, Harris wants to see the Bible get back to the family to which it belongs. And like any religious person, he's not above hoping for some divine intervention.
"Maybe the Lord will get involved in it," Harris said. "He works miracle things."