Everybody likes a good mystery, but Steve Nelson and his son, Michael, happened into one that upended their lives. It’s a tale of DNA, long shots and rattled relationships. And it brought Michael, of Brandon, and Steve, of Gulfport, to Columbus as they searched for answers — who was Steve’s real father?
It all started
The narrative begins in April 2015, when Michael Nelson, now 35, became interested in his family history. Through ancestry.com, he compiled what he knew and decided to complete a DNA test from the site to supplement his family tree.
“When the test result came back, it had me as being 18 percent Caucasus,” Michael said. “I found this very strange because I never heard of this being in my family. I didn’t even know what it was.”
He discovered that the Caucasus is a region at the border of Europe and Asia, situated between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. The unexpected information was a puzzle, but not necessarily an alarm.
As Michael pursued developing a comprehensive family tree, he next hoped to get a DNA test done for his father, Steve, as a gift. Steve suggested first getting them done for his own parents, Michael’s grandparents, due to their age. That pair, divorced now for several decades, had lived in Columbus in the mid-1950s, on 17th Street North. Before joining the Army in 1954, Steve’s father worked as a car hop at the Coffee Cup, a Columbus eatery. Steve’s mother waitressed there, and at another well-known spot, the Straight 8 Cafe.
“My dad and I took a road trip together to see them and learn more about family, and to get the samples,” Michael explained. They visited Steve’s mother in Bolivar County, and then his father, who lives in Yalobusha County. It was a good trip, a time of connection and exploring old family gravesites.
When Michael received his grandparents’ DNA test results some time later, however, the puzzle loomed larger.
“They showed that I match my grandmother, but I did not match my grandfather,” Michael said. Neither test explained the Caucasus heritage in Michael’s results. When he told his father, Steve was troubled, perhaps because he had always been aware that he was different from his siblings.
“I have five brothers with brown eyes,” said Steve, citing one example. “I’m the only one with blue eyes.”
The next step
With some apprehension, Steve had his own DNA test done. On the day results arrived, life turned inside out. Steve was no match to his father; his ethnic origins revealed he was 28 percent Caucasus. The man he’d thought since birth was his dad, was not.
“I thought I was a Nelson,” Steve said. “I thought that for 61 years.”
Steve and Michael hoped there had been some mistake. In April 2016, they had testing done with a second company, only to get the same results.
“It hit me pretty hard,” said Steve. “I would look in the mirror and ask, who am I? ”
There was the difficult task of sharing the DNA results with the man Steve had always believed to be his father. He was astonished, disbelieving. Approaching Steve’s mother was even harder. To complicate an already-delicate situation, she struggles with mild dementia. She, however, was the only person living who could offer answers. Getting them took time, adroit questioning and a well-meaning interceder, Steve’s brother, Jimmy.
In June of this year, the story slowly came out. In 1954, the man Steve knew as his father was away from Columbus for military training. During his absence, Steve’s mother met a handsome Air Force cadet with blue eyes and brown hair at the Straight 8. He was stationed at Columbus Air Force Base. The two would go dancing and out to dine at the Bell Cafe.
More than 60 years later, Steve’s mother could not reclaim in her mind his full name; it was a difficult one to pronounce. She did remember his first name was similar to “Edwan,” and that he was from Turkey or Belgium. He never knew their brief relationship produced a son.
The search for “Edwan”
A quest to trace the person the family had begun to think of as “Edwan” began in earnest.
“The key to finding him was to find a list of Turkish cadets at Columbus Air Force Base during the last few months of 1954,” said Michael. “This was harder than I thought.”
The hunt would entail endless hours of research online, on the phone and on the road. Jimmy visited Columbus and instigated contact with the air base historian. She did what she could to help, providing pictures from a 1954 annual, but too many questions remained. A picture of one cadet named Edwin was shown to Michael’s grandmother, but it raised no flicker of recognition.
Michael researched military records on site at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, and then, on June 23, he and his dad visited The Commercial Dispatch in Columbus.
“I was grasping at straws, I know,” Michael admitted, “but I contacted The Commercial Dispatch to see if I could find any article that would give me a clue, a name or an event that would mention foreign cadets.”
Father and son searched through bound copies of newspapers dating back six decades, but no “miracle article” was unearthed. They did read, however, that the base had dances with the community, something Michael’s grandmother confirmed with her memories of “Edwan.” The identity of Steve’s real father, though, remained a mystery.
“I thought we were beating a dead horse,” Steve admitted this past week, about five months after that day in the newspaper archives. But as the adage foretells, perseverance pays off.
On Aug. 20, Elisa Soares Ayers of North Carolina entered the story. In her own ancestry.com research into her husband’s family, she had discovered a link to the Nelsons and contacted Michael via the site. As the two communicated, “she became very interested in my mystery,” Michael said. Soon, she had joined the search for “Edwan.”
“On Aug. 26, Mrs. Elisa discovered what my family and I have been looking for — a list of cadet names for 1954 for the air force base in Columbus,” said Michael. “The list was on ancestry.com the whole time! I was shocked.”
Blanks began filling in rapidly. The list revealed five Turkish men, one of them named Erdogan Kisacikoglu. (During the search, it had been suggested that the name of the person sought could be Erdogan, just like the current president of Turkey; it sounds somewhat similar to Edwan.)
“My mind was racing, so was Mrs. Elisa’s. I was 95 percent sure we found my real grandfather,” Michael said. “We now had a possible full name.” Almost immediately, Michael was in for after-shock: Elisa Ayers discovered a 2014 post on the ancestry.com message board, from Bora Tolga Kisacik of Miami.
“Mrs. Elisa not only might have found my real grandfather, but also my dad’s first cousin in a matter of minutes,” said Michael, in awe. “After reading the post, I was sad, amazed and excited. Sad, because if this was my grandfather, he was no longer living.”
The post told that Edrogan had died in a car crash in Turkey along with two of his children many years earlier. His descendants were searching for a former wife and a daughter of Edrogan’s in the United States, a daughter born years after Steve.
Exhilaration at finding any of Edrogan’s family was high. Communication with Bora Tolga flowered, leading to shared information, photos of Edrogan that Michael’s grandmother recognized, more DNA tests and confirmation. At last, Steve knew the identity of his father. The journey had, at times, been visited by doubt, anxiety, forgiveness, excitement and now, discovery.
Face to face
At Thanksgiving, Steve and Michael met Bora Tolga in person in Miami. He fed them their first Turkish meal; they took him to his first football game. With Bora Tolga as translator, Steve Skyped with Edrogan’s surviving brother in Turkey, an uncle Steve had not known existed.
“He cried when he saw me,” Steve said of the encounter via Internet. “I wish you could have seen his face.”
What no doubt struck Edrogan’s brother at first sight was what had amazed everyone else when seeing photographs of Edrogan for the first time — the resemblance between Steve and the father he never knew.
The search is concluded, but discoveries are only beginning for two families — one American, the other Turkish.
“I feel better knowing that we found him,” said Steve. “I’m not wondering who I am anymore. … It’s a God thing.”
Emotions are still evolving, but Steve’s primary regret is that he was not told years ago. He now knows that he was 13 when Edrogan died, old enough to have hopefully formed a relationship, had each known about the other.
“But being able to talk to my cousins and to my dad’s brother is filling a void; that’s the only way I’m going to know him,” said Steve.
Michael remains awed by factors that fell into place to bring two families together: his initial interest in family history; Elisa Ayers hands-on help; former Columbus Air Force Base cadet Jerry Ohlson and his daughter, Lynda, creating a page on ancestry.com with the names from ’54; Bora Tolga’s post on the site; and Jimmy’s above-and-beyond assistance. Many people helped along the way, including staff in the office of Mississippi’s Fourth Congressional District U.S. Congressman Steven Palazzo; Michael approached them for assistance in locating a cadet roster.
“I mean this like I have never meant it before: God works in mysterious ways,” Michael said. “I don’t know what he has in store for us. I do know my family is willing to go where he leads us. … Our families are looking forward to getting to know each other more, both as people, and culturally. We have a lot to catch up on!”
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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