Detritus Along the Great Information Highway

In my newspaper* today the columnist Mike Royko was quoted as saying, “It’s been my policy to view the Internet not as an ‘information highway’ but as an electronic asylum filled with babbling loonies.”

Mike must not have seen a highway before he left us.  Alongside those long ribbons of cement stretching far into the future lie a great deal of garbage.

The Internet is no different.  Instead of paper bags, bottles, used baby diapers and tin cans, the ‘Information Highway’ is littered with thoughts of the barely literate.  Those thoughts may have all the value of a used diaper but many fall short of that goal.

Mike died in 1997.  It is a good thing he is not around to view the Internet’s roadside today.   We have learned to survive the last fifteen years because we were made of sterner stuff.  Or, maybe because we learned to look down the highway toward our goal, not letting ourselves be distracted by the babbling loonies.

Well, some of us, anyway.

*Orange County Register

John P. Meehan, MD: Scientist and Diplomat to the USSR

President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev of the USSR not only had their red telephones so they could communicate on a moment’s notice, but also were “pen pals” of a sort.  They scribbled notes to each other that were probably taken to their offices through diplomatic pouches.  This was most likely the means by which Kennedy convinced Khrushchev to share information about space medicine, although people in both nations were assured that no such agreement was ever reached.

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It was in 1962 that Dr. John P. Meehan was asked to fly to the USSR to meet with Soviet scientists who were working on the USSR race to the moon.  Dr. Meehan, known as Pat to his friends, endured many uncomfortable flights through the black night skies from Southern California to Moscow or Baikonur (Siberia) during the next nine years.  It was his job to share his knowledge of space medicine with the Soviets in order to keep cosmonauts alive in space.  Soviets got ahead of the US in rocketry engineering but lagged far behind in medicine.  When Pat was in the US he worked with NASA to do the same thing.  When he was not doing either, Pat was a professor of physiology at the University of Southern California.  He retired as chairman of that department.

And, when Pat returned from each flight to “the other side,” he was interrogated separately by two US intelligence agencies.  NSA admitted that Pat was a contractor to them for the years 1962 to 1971.  He was able to add large amounts of information to what the US already knew about the Soviet space program.  The Soviets did not know that Pat was well versed on rockets as well as space medicine.

Pat was not allowed to be seen on public air liners, so special arrangements had to be made to get him inside the USSR without being seen.  These flights were sometimes dangerous, but his most fearful experience came when Premier Khrushchev was removed from office and Premier Brezhnev took over.  Pat did not know for certain whether he would be arrested or welcomed on his next flight to Moscow.  This all took place during the Cold War.  As it turned out, he was welcomed and Brezhnev, who was said to never talk with the West, did.  Historians might wish to reconsider their positions on this point.

Over the years Pat made many friends with Soviet scientists and also with Soviet  cosmonauts.  He was fairly close to Yuriy Gagarin (possibly the first man in space) and Alexei Leonov who made the first space walk.

Pat’s clandestine trips to the USSR ended in 1972.  But in 1975 he went back to the Baikonur space program station to receive a “hero’s welcome” for his contributions.  Now that the US and Russia are cooperating on many more space projects it is easy to credit the groundbreaking work that Pat did to ease tensions between the two super powers.

My book The Insider told Pat’s story as part of a novel.  However, it is now possible to reveal the name of the real man who was so very brave and patriotic when his country needed him.  While he did not get to fly the rockets as some did (and get much deserved glory), he was a hero in every sense of the word.

The Book I Did Not Write (but wish I had)

It must have been four years ago when I got an email from a guy named Vic.  He was researching a story about the lumber industry in the Midwest to the Far West.  In doing so he came across one of my family lines and then my name as a submitter of the information.

Vic introduced himself and then began asking questions.  It was then that I had to ask myself a question:  was I going to write a book about these cousins or not?  If not, would I object to letting someone else write their story?

So I didn’t respond to Vic right away.  I thought it over for several weeks (while I worked on another book) and then decided to let Vic use my information.

At first, I sent Vic what only he asked for.  Then I asked if he knew some strange stories of the deaths of several of my people.  He didn’t, so I sent the details and photographs.  This led to other questions and materials flying back and forth across the Internet and soon I was learning things about my family.  Then I began to look forward to Vic’s emails.  I dug deeper into my own piles of papers for him.  And then came the announcement:  the book was finished.  I would be getting a copy in a week or so.

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For me, it all began with the murder of my great-grandfather in 1874. I wrote about him and the cowardly backshooting by the KKK in those ugly days after the Civil War.  I followed the family afterwards because witnesses against the Klan did not live long and I wanted to see what had happened to them.   Three brothers disappeared completely.  One had been killed and the other two may have fled to what is now Panama.

A fourth brother, Tom Walker, testified and then fled out west.  He had been a shopkeeper at home but out west he started stores and banks to serve settlers in Kansas and Missouri.  He died in 1931 as a very wealthy man.  His family line ran out in 1967 when his only grandson, a gay man, died young of cancer.  It was Tom’s family’s epic tale that I wanted to write about.

It seems Tom Walker had a daughter who married a wealthy young man named Bill Carlisle.  The Carlisle family was very big nationally in the lumber industry.  The new family soon produced two sons.  Tommy was killed by a drunk driver in 1937.  The driver died in a mysterious fire soon after.  Money from both sides of the family ended up in the hands of Tom Walker’s other grandson, Bill Carlisle.

Bill was very interested in the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, and not the lumber industry.  He and his partner would go to New York and would throw parties for the artsy folks.  I have a letter at the time of his death that said, “Bill has died.  I notified the Roosevelts, Andre Kostelanitz, Rosa Ponselle . . . (and other luminaries of the social set in the 1960’s).”  Bill’s partner lives within thirty miles of me at Laguna Beach as I write this, but is very reclusive and will not talk to me.

So Vic wrote a very interesting book about the lumber industry and the people who founded it using most of his own enormous research, but he flavored his interesting work  with materials I had sent him.  After reading the book, I found I was glad that I had done my family history, glad that it had been useful to someone else, and glad that I had placed their names on the Internet.

Vic is a good, interesting writer.  He has the knack of making a well-documented history seem like a novel.  Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan and others whose historical works  appeared on PBS have that same ability.  They are inventing a new genre which fits genealogists needs very nicely.

The name of the book is Onalaska and the author’s full name is Victor J. Kucera.  I recommend it as an interesting book by itself, but also as an example of how you can organize and present that genealogy you have in the back of your head.   The book has 340 pages plus an appendix, end notes, time line and an index.

Onalaska is a book I did not write.  But I wish I had.  I would say more about it but I just discovered a letter my grandmother wrote to Tommy’s mother after the car crash in 1937.  Maybe I can get it to Vic so he can include it in the final edition.

All sales will benefit only the museum in the Lewis County Historical Museum in Chehalis, Washington.

One more thing:  you just don’t know when the material you collected is going to be useful to you or to someone else.  That is why it is worth the effort to be the “expert” on your family and to have the information handy.  And it is useful to let someone on the Internet know that you have it.

Unconventional Wisdom

The following appeared on the Genealogy Blog, owned by Leland Meitzler

(http://www.genealogyblog.com/) .   I do genealogy from time to time and got to know Leland as a friend.   I also have met the wonderful author Wendell Berry and read just about anything he writes.  Recently I saw a poem of Wendell’s that fit a genealogy page really well, so I wrote about it for the Genealogy Blog but have permission to use it here.

One of the dot com book companies sent me a small book of poems by my favorite author, Wendell Berry.* In one short poem Wendell described a Thomas Fiske method of doing genealogy that I thought was particularly useful. He wrote about his gratitude for his children and grandchildren and then said:

At our dinners together, the dead
Enter and pass among us
In living love and in memory.


And so the young are taught.


I showed the poem to my wife Evie, and tears came to her eyes as she thought of her pretty daughter Julie, who was killed by a drunk driver on the eve of her wedding some twenty years ago. We have often talked about Julie with the grandchildren around the dinner table.

In the author’s artful description, not only is ancestry passed on but also it is used to teach the young. I cannot write how many times my family meals were conducted this way, in which “the dead enter(ed) and pass(ed) among us” as someone told a story about a person from the past.

It is a good thing the dead don’t eat much, because many of these meals were conducted during the Great Depression or during WWII when food was scarce. But no matter how hungry I was, I always remembered the stories my parents or grandparents told. Now that my children are getting older they remind me that I told them stories as well.

I am forced to wonder how much damage I did by telling the “racier” stories about my two older brothers and me rather than the stories in which we helped someone or showed some kindness.

But that is water under the bridge. Having a long memory, I became the family genealogist and put my parents’ stories to good use. I hope my grandchildren will save those tales for their kids. All things considered, I managed to make the stories into learning experiences in which I passed on part of the American culture. Maybe the dead paused long enough to approve.

Of course they heard stories “in living love” because they were family and when I tell stories, family members always wear white hats – maybe hats with footprints on them or with holes through the crowns because we had our share of screwballs. But always they had white hats because they were the good guys.

I kind of forgot the other kind of stories.

*Berry, Wendell, Leavings. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 2011, p.41

Pres. Kennedy’s Joke on the American People

After at least four years of research and writing, I completed a book about President Kennedy’s joke on the US people.  He truly did send a space medicine scientist, one of the few the US had, to the USSR to help keep their cosmonauts alive.  JFK did not live long afterwards, but Presidents Johnson and Nixon carried on the program.  Apparently, they did not tell Congress.

Premier Khrushchev of the USSR had to be in agreement, of course.  He was ousted in 1964, so Premier Brezhnev had a choice to make.  He chose to keep the program intact.  The scientist secretly flew back and forth to the USSR for about nine years, while the US was competing with the USSR to be first to send a man to the moon.

I knew the space medicine scientist, who died a few years ago.  After I wrote the book, I sent a letter to one of his children, also a scientist, saying that the book was on the market but that I had altered the scientist’s name and home city.

A few weeks ago I got a letter from a child of the scientist.  It was very informative.  He did not know I had written the book and he did not know what his father had been up to.  Here is what he said, in part:

Dear Mr. Fiske,

On the advice of my sibling, I have read your book The Insider.   Needless to say, the content left me floored.  I had no idea that my father led a double life as our country strove to put a man on the moon.  My next reaction is to thank you for helping to fill in some of the blanks of my father’s life.  He was remarkably careful in what he would tell us about his work and it was clear that he had a lot more to say.  Without your patient and persistent interviews the story would have died with him. I am very grateful that you were willing to take the time and personal risk and write your book.  A couple years prior to his death I had arranged for a physiologist working on the history of space flight to interview Dad.  His health was already failing and his Parkinson’s (disease) made communication difficult.  Dad refused to meet with the physiologist and I always regretted the opportunity missed.  I should have known that Dad would have arranged for an interview on his terms.

The interview was with me.  I am not a physiologist, however.  Nor did I intend to write about the scientist.  While I got a crash course in physiology from the scientist, little of it “took.”  I am an MBA and more of a student of management and an economist that a medicine man.  I never liked biology and its off-shoots.  Once the scientist had told someone about his adventure, he said nothing to anyone else.  I was working under the theory that his children knew what their father had accomplished, but the letter tells me I was wrong.

It appears that his wife knew and I knew.  She was also my friend.  But in this country, we three knew alone knew of the very brave things the scientist accomplished.  Of course, two Intel agencies knew, but it all took place over forty years ago, and most of them are dead or retired by now.  Newer staff doesn’t care and is busy working on other problems.  Still, no one in our Government is giving up any information, willingly.  The Russians know and have long memories.   They would rather not let the world know that they had important assistance from the US when they were setting all kinds of records in space.  It is not a time of ease at my house.

I called the book The Insider: NASA’s Man at Baikonur. It is available at the usual dot com book stores such as Amazon.

Scheherazade and My New Podcasts

Having spent most of the day trying to give Itunes an address of my podcast, I am somewhat exhausted.  What a complicated mess their web page is!  I would rather file my 1986 income taxes again than tackle their web pages once more.

The podcast is a series of stories I tell from my book “Four on the Floor.”  After I left industry, I spent a few years teaching math and science in public schools as a sub.  It was fun for me and the kids were generally great to work with.  There were times when the lesson was over and the bell had not rung.  I used those times to tell stories about my kids or my brothers, or exotic stories from science or history.

And kid love gore.  For instance, they loved to hear about the time my older brother blew his big toe off with a shotgun.  That was a gun safety story.  There was a reason for each of these tales.  Kids always want to know why you tell a story.

Of course, the kids asked me to write my stories (I suppose that was so they could tell them to their kids).  Eventually I did just that and now, nine books later, I’ve about decided to quit writing.  If you want to hear one of my stories you can go to the left side of this page to “Blog Roll” and click the words “Four on the Floor Podcasts.”   I am fortunate to have a son who can set these things up for me.

Scheherazade was the best story teller there ever was, with her Arabian Nights stories, much better than I.  But she was highly motivated.  My only motivation was to pass along the art of story telling to a bunch of kids, just to let them know there was something more interesting in life than TV.  I may have convinced a few.

Unintended Consequences

Congress often passes laws that have unintended consequences.  The sociologist Robert K. Merton wrote a paper about the subject as early as 1936.  Some of unintended consequences are serendipitous, but others are negative or perverse.  It seems that Congress has a way of introducing negative or perverse consequences.

The Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act of 1930 was designed to increase revenues for America and protect American jobs, but it almost single-handedly destroyed the world’s economy.  And was it President Clinton’s administration that caused taxes to be raised on luxury boats?  The result was that the poor guys who made boats were suddenly out of work.

Individuals can cause unintended consequences as well.  When I began to write my book, The Insider I had no ill will against anyone.  Yet, as the book is about to appear on the market, I found I have caused damage to a great American astronaut.  I had no such intention.

It was in 2002 that General and astronaut Thomas Stafford produced his book, We Have Capture.  It is a good book and I recommend it.  The General is an American hero.  Unfortunately, Stafford thought he was the first American to reach the secret Soviet launch station called Baikonur in April of 1975.  He said so in his book.

General Stafford was not at all the first American to reach that space launch station.  If it were not central to my book, I would have said nothing, but my book is about the guy who did get there first, and why he went there.

The Insider is about Tad Benson, MD, a space medicine scientist.   President Kennedy got him to agree (through Hugh Dryden) to go to both Moscow and Baikonur to share ideas on space medicine.  Oh, I know there are lots of people who said Khrushchev and Kennedy never reached an agreement on this subject, but they are wrong.  Benson spent almost nine years traveling back and forth to the USSR, doing what he could to keep both cosmonauts and astronauts alive in space.

I knew Benson.  He was a serious man a good friend who died too early.  I checked with various agencies of the federal government to find out what he was doing during the years 1962-1971, and found that Benson had been a contractor to the NSA, CIA, NASA and other groups.  I found that he also got an award from the USSR for his work.

There was a stranger on Gen Stafford’s plane to Siberia.  He was on the bus when it arrived at the launch station.  Stafford did not mention that Soviet scientists hugged and otherwise ganged up around the stranger, slapping him on the back and ignoring the other Americans.  Tad told me about it, and the story appeared elsewhere in the Internet.  Tad said that the other scientists wondered, “How did the Soviets know this guy?” but they were never told.

So I told the story in my book The Insider, with as much detail as I could.  Tad was dying as he told me and we did not have a whole lot of time.   I did not set out to take any of the glory that General Stafford richly deserves.  But I did want to tell Tad’s story because I am one of the few in the world who knows it.  And my health isn’t all that great.

The really sad part of the story about Tad and his heroic adventures is that I am not allowed to use his real name.

Turning in My Quill Pen and Ink

It takes a lot of perseverance to write a book.   I should know because I have finished ten of the things.  It would have been easy, so easy to lay a half-written book aside and promise myself I would get back to it some day.  And then wait for that day to come.  It never comes, you know.  I had to be motivated.

Most of the books I wrote were non-fiction.  They contained stories that I knew had to be told.  Just had to be told before I kicked the bucket.  No one else could have told those stories.  I may have made some of those stories into fiction for various reasons (there are always reasons for not publishing a story including “it might offend someone”).

Making them into fiction is just a slight extra demand on the author.  Some of us are mere reporters and do not know how to do anything but list events and the people who caused them.  There is very little challenge in just reporting.

Anyway, at almost the end of my trail, I think I’ll quit writing books.  Even though there’s some modest glory in being America’s least-read writer, I don’t care.  I only know that on my bookshelf is a collection of nine, soon to be ten, books.  And lots of articles as well.  I wrote them.

As I said, the stories had to be told.  Not telling them created pressure.  Now the pressure is off.

The books are like paintings.   You can look at them and like them or not like them.  It doesn’t matter.  They are there, ten books that weren’t anywhere fifteen years ago.  They contain ideas and remembrances and historical details for any and all to see.  What’s more, the books are edifying and nearly every word is spelled correctly.

There was a time when I was just starting out in the literary world at age seven. In those days my goal was to read a complete book.  It was hard to read them all the way through and I knew I would be proud of myself if I could concentrate long enough just to read every page.  Eventually I reached that goal and that began my life-long love of books.

How many times did I wander into my college’s book store and smell the wonderful aroma of paper and paste and whatever it is that makes a new book smell so good?   My romance over the years never flagged.

Sometime during my college experience, though, I began to look at books differently.  There was a time when, if I didn’t understand a book, I would put it down and think I was too dumb.  After my MBA degree, the truth hit me:  if I could not understand a book, I would lay it aside and say to myself, “That author can’t write.”  But I still loved books.  They had to be well written, however.

During my first fifty years never did I dream I would be able to write a book.  I did not even want to write one because I realized I was not of the writer class, I was of the reader class.  Most of us are that way.  But then I turned over several rocks in my family history foundation and there they were—the stories that had to be told.

Now I have done my duty.  I have told the stories of murder and war and struggle during WWII followed by the Space Race and the Cold War.  It is someone else’s turn.  I will not listen to any more stories, much less tell them.  Now I am content to read very well written books, preferably new ones that have crisp clean pages.

Don’t offer me something on the Internet.  I hate computer screens.  I just want to turn pages and look at black words on white pages, words that can bring back memories or cause me to dream great dreams.  I think I have earned that privilege.

It may take a lot of perseverance not to write another book, but I believe I will win out.

I think the literary world will survive.  After all, I still have my blog to work on, and the Genealogy blog as well, and maybe an engineering magazine or two.

Agony of a New Book

Anybody can write a book.  Producing a book is very hard.  It is right up there with producing a new product for a large company such as General Electric.  I have done both and I am not sure which is more difficult.

A new appliance starts with the drawings and specifications.  From these you have tools made and you buy equipment that holds the tools.  You design the tests and find space for the rest of the production facilities including assembly lines.  You make sure pilot models work as they are made on equipment you will use in actual production.  And you assure that the boxes they are sold in are made correctly, fit the product and look good.

Authors would be well-served if they had a mental image of the finished product sitting on their shelves.   They need a rough idea of the plot, but must be flexible.  Characters do not always do what you want them to do.  So plot changes will probably occur.  A new book requires front and back covers, well-edited text, pictures of acceptable quality, readable type size with the correct font.  Covers do sell books, you know.  Chapters must be appropriately ended.  A book is in fact a list of details that must be accomplished before it can be completed.  Tables of contents and indexes must be prepared.  There seem to be no end of concerns for you to handle personally before the book is ready for production.

Finally, each author of a new book is an entrepreneur, trying to sell copies in the face of stiff competition from many other authors with the same idea.  But if he has a good story, he will never be at rest until he has written it and has seen the book on people’s shelves.

In spite of all this, I have completed my last book.  I named it The Insider.  It is a novel about an American doctor who spent nine years flying into and out of the USSR during the Space Race when the US and USSR were competing with each other to be the first to land a man on the moon.   President John F. Kennedy got Premier Khrushchev of the USSR to allow a NASA doctor to visit the USSR’s secret space launch site about 1963 in spite of problems in Cuba and other US-USSR conflicts.   These two world leaders were looking far ahead in the space business.

All the experts say it did not happen.  But it did and the man they sent was a friend.  The few Government records that still exist support the NASA scientist’s story, even though most were hidden from me and any other writer.  It seems that most writer-experts relied on the CIA to tell them the truth, or they relied on people in the USSR to tell them the full story.  You may have noticed that books by and about Khrushchev just did not talk about the space program.   It seems that the US Congress did not know about the doctor, either.  If they did, they would have blabbed about him to everyone they knew.  But they thought there was a serious competition and had no idea we were helping the Soviets.

But that was over forty years ago, almost fifty years now.  Do you think anybody is willing to release the files on this simple doctor who helped keep Soviet cosmonauts alive?  Not in this country.  Perhaps one Soviet cosmonaut is still alive who might be interested in telling what he knows.

Anyway, the pain of producing The Insider is almost over.  The anticipation of the joy of upsetting self-proclaimed “experts” has kept me to the task.  I don’t have any more book ideas now, and this will be my tenth book, so I think I will quit.

Mensches and the American Way

Often I write about how we are pieces of a movement that enriches the world.  It’s the ‘Merican way.  If you do your genealogy, you know that.  Many Americans have enriched the world through medical research, industrial research and computer research among other ways.  What do I mean?

Well, ours is the country large enough and free enough to conduct a medical business that has money left over, a surplus, with which to invent new medicines and machines that will help people get well.  Other countries have medical systems that are dominated by government.  Their government has taken away all incentives to produce new medicines and machines.  They rely on the United States.  When the US becomes like them, its incentives will evaporate.

My own background is in industry.  I cannot tell you because I do not remember how many of my inventions and methods were used to manufacture devices in a less costly manner so that poor people could afford them.  Most of these devices were useful in removing dirt and germs, so people lived better.   And they had jobs they could depend on.

Of course, the computer industry revitalized our economy in the 1980’s.  Not only did we get a useful product, the computer, but also we got a lot of jobs for people.  Wealth was created.  We were free enough to evolve an entirely new industry the rest of the world did not have.  So we all have benefited .

Who was the guy that invented the computer hard drive?  I don’t know.  But I know he was a piece of the pattern that produced fast, long-lasting computer machines.  And that is about all we can hope for—to be a piece of the pattern.  Just as our forefathers and mothers were part of the pattern, adding a nip here and a tuck there in the human quilt, voting for the kind of place they wanted their children to grow up in.

Yesterday, I got word that my brother-in-law died.  He had been a professor of some arcane subject in the mechanical engineering school of a large state university.  Using his knowledge he developed tomorrow’s inventors.   He also came up with some pretty good ideas, himself.  But he had another attribute.  He was a mensch.

Ordinarily, I do not like to use foreign words when I write.  I love the English language (which is about 59% Latin).  But we don’t have the word for everything.  A mensch, if you don’t know, is Yiddish for

“Someone to admire and emulate, someone of noble character. The key to being “a real mensch” is nothing less than character, rectitude, dignity, a sense of what is right, responsible, decorous.”

(I found this definition on an interesting blog:   http://blog.guykawasaki.com/2006/02/how_to_be_a_men.html#ixzz0nNsQo1TS)

It was wonderful to have such a man in the family:  quiet, unassuming and brilliant.  He wasn’t a mensch because he was a professor.  He was a mensch because of  his life pattern of conduct.  The fact that he was interested in genealogy, the fact that he was a very good pianist and the fact that he was a fine Christian person had nothing to do with his mensch-ness.  That was because he chose to live a certain way and he stuck with it.

His name was David Shippy, PhD.  He was called professor but his real occupation was to contribute to society and his country in a positive way for as long as he could.   In that occupation he was successful.  His two children are contributors as well.  An attitude like Dave’s is contagious.  We’ll probably never know how large his contribution was, but you can bet it was big and red and fit extremely well in the fabric of  our social well-being.  And it will last for a long time.  But you have to stand back to see it.  The whole thing has been growing for over two hundred and thirty years.