*The family of Percy Ronald Chess was used to him disappearing for stretches of time. He had enlisted in the Air Force in May of 1971, but they say after his honorable discharge in February of 1974, he was never the same. He couldn’t hold on to a job for long, and was no longer sociable. In fact, when living with family, he’d eat whatever they prepared for him — as long as it included ketchup, then he would retreat to his room eat.
Relatives thought he may have suffered from mental illness, even though there was no formal diagnosis they could recall.
“He was very secluded,” said one of his sisters, Elouise Chess Williams, who lives in Atlanta. “It was as if he was in a totally different world.”
He’d also disappear for days, even weeks at a time. But 20 years ago he left for good.
As far as anyone knows, Chess wandered for two decades. Family members searched for him, contacted police stations, homeless shelters and everything in between.
They tracked his travels through his arrest record; which consisted mainly of petty crimes such as loitering, prowling, stealing and receiving stolen property. Once, one of his brothers could’ve sworn he saw Chess walking along the highway in Atlanta, but by the time he exited and turned around, the man was gone.
The family found signs he’d been in Florida, Alabama, Washington, Tennessee. Mississippi, Georgia, and Virginia, but they never seemed to move fast enough to catch up to him. He’d learn how to fix cars and broken machines as a kid and his family suspected these were skills he used to sustain himself as he hitchhiked across the country.
In mid-April, one of Chess’s brothers in Florida got a call from the police in Fort Lauderdale, who had been contacted by the police in the District. Chess had been located.
A tourist in a paddle boat came upon his body, floating in the Tidal Basin near the Jefferson Memorial, on March 31. It took authorities two weeks to find his family and although his cause of death is pending, D.C. police don’t suspect foul play.
Obviously saddened, his family says there is also a sense of relief.
“We’re talking over 40 years of him coming and going, and us really wondering if he’s dead or alive,” said one of his sisters “In one way it’s a relief. But it’s sad because he was so much a part of us.”
Chess’s sudden death, his obituary says, “is most disquieting and without answers.”
“In different times and different circumstances, he could have had a really great life,” said his niece, Margaret Smith-Williams, 33, who lives in Miami and last saw her uncle when she was 13. “You don’t want your loved ones to pass away alone.”
Chess’s family buried him on Tuesday at Georgia National Cemetery for veterans, outside Atlanta, where several of his relatives still live.