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

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.

Wanted Publicity, dead or alive

Recently IE Magazine came out with its latest issue.  It is dedicated to Industrial Engineers mostly in America and I am a life member of the organization.  So the editors gladly gave me part of a page to tell about what I, a retired industrialist have been doing.  Here is how it came out:


Page 12 of IE Magazine

Sometimes the agony of writing is partly made up for by either extra publicity or extra large checks.  So far I have not had much experience with the checks.

Adding Something New

The best way to get over the agony of writing a book is to begin another book. I just sent to a publisher my book General Morgan’s Legacy. It is a novel about a modern man who stumbled across information about the Confederate General John Hunt Morgan as he escaped from a Yankee prison in 1863. The book consists of two stories intertwined, but separated by about 140 years.

What sparked the book is information about General Morgan that suddenly emerged from an exchange of letters between me and a well- known poet/novelist. It seems this writer’s great-grandfather and my great-grandfather worked together to help Morgan get back to Tennessee so he could once more attack the Union Army.

With this book I will be presenting new information about the Civil War and one of its Generals in the South. Adding to the existing literature on a topic is always fun. Every book I have written (except the one on time travel—Time out of Joint) has done just that.

I interrupted the writing of another book to finish the Morgan book. I was getting bogged down into too much detail in my newest book, Ploughshares into Swords. That book tells what civilians did to assist the WWII war effort, and in particular what the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) did both with artillery rockets and the atom bomb. In that book I will be adding to the literature about the Bomb and about rocketry. Perhaps Caltech as well.

In between chapters of Ploughshares I am writing about a curious turn of events that occurred during the Cold War. Armed with grudging information obtained from US intelligence agencies under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), I will be able to put together a story that will upset several writers of CIA expose’ books of the past decades. What they said in part was not true, either because they did not know, or because they did know but were not allowed to tell.

It is always fun to add new facts to old, established history.

Back to School

A few days ago I was invited to the retirement party of a principal of a highly successful middle school. I had not seen him for three years, or the school or the teachers. But there was a time when I knew them all quite well, because I had worked at the school as a substitute teacher.

Substitute teaching was a fluke for me, a time filler after I retired from industry as a manager of people who ran factories. Teaching is quite a different undertaking, but my wife was a very good teacher in public schools and I felt I learned enough from her to try it, myself. I’ve always had a very high opinion of teachers, and of my wife’s professionalism, so I could not think of any calling more useful.

It took a while to learn how to deal with kids in the school environment. I found it was an honor to work with most of the students. And it was a privilege to work with the other teachers. The school district was one of the best in California and the school one of the best in its district. But I didn’t know it when I was so busy figuring out math and science lessons on the spur of the moment.

When I was invited to the retirement party, I went, honored to be remembered. It was a big party with officials and teachers from all over. I knew many of them somewhat and a few of them very well. I had forgotten how well. There were hugs and handshakes all around. Some tears on my part, too.

That chapter in my life was finally over last Friday afternoon. I had spent most of my life in industry, but the last eight years I spent in the classroom have a special glory. As a teacher, I learned that there is hope for tomorrow because of the bright, idealistic boys and girls we are training today. I wish more retired people would make the effort to see what really goes on in our public school classrooms, and who the heroes in our cities really are.

Congratulations, Dr. Joe Fox of Dana Middle School in Arcadia, California!

Doing Good Deeds

Cryptograms fascinate me. While I am told that poets make very good writers of prose, I am no good at poetry. But I find that cryptograms help me visualize words.

You know what cryptograms are, a statement by someone in which the letters of the words are all substituted by other letters. I began decoding one recently that went this way:

DY DH BLY IBLVXF. . .

I saw right away that DY DH is probably IT IS, and the BLY could be NOT. I went on in this vein and decoded the statement this way:

IT IS NOT ENOUGH TO DO A GOOD DEED. ONE MUST BE INVOLVED IN IT WHOLE-HEARTEDLY. EACH ACTION SHOULD BE PERFORMED WITH LIFE AND SOUL, WITH EVERY LIMB, WITH ALL ONE’S VITALITY. (ABRAHAM HESCHEL)

I found that Rabbi Heschel was considered a very profound thinker of the twentieth century, but I am thinking he must have been difficult to live with.

“What is wrong,” I thought to my self, “With just quietly slipping a hungry man five bucks for a burger?”

Truly, different strokes for different folks. Maybe I should do more crossword puzzles.

Writing Fast

The humorist Calvin Trillin was quoted as saying, “In modern America, anyone who attempts to write satirically about the events of the day finds it difficult to concoct a situation so bizarre that it may not come to pass while his article is still on the presses.”

Calvin was not especially interested in science.  But if he were he could say the same thing about this field.   I wrote a story that had a lot to do with time travel and other scientific feats.  Between the time I began the story, Time out of Joint, and the time I ended the story, some 350 pages later, there were important developments in science that made part of my story obsolete.  So now I am doing a sequel.

Time was when we kids would have done almost anything to own a two-way radio that was ten times as large as a cell phone and full of delicate vacuum tubes, but such a thing was impossible with the current technology.  Within forty years many people had tiny, rugged two-way radios in the form of cell phones that worked almost every time they were tried.

When I taught in middle schools maybe three years ago, I told students many times, “This is a great time to be alive!”  The technology available to everyone, including kids, would have stunned the average person in the 1950’s.

From a technological standpoint, it is a great time to be alive.

But you have to write fast.

Challange to Daylight Saving Time

This very day I was asked a very important question by a fan who loves my blog (yes, there is one). She thought I was wise enough to know all kinds of things and asked,

“What is the purpose of Daylight Savings Time?” It is a timely question because sooner that usual we are going to have to make an adjustment. March 11, I believe.

My correspondent, who is old enough to enjoy telling her age, has the initials MM. I refer to her as MM and imagine that she is really Marilyn Monroe because I have seen pictures of her as a young lady.

Here is the wisdom I laid on her about the purpose of Daylight Savings Time:

Dear MM,

The sole purpose of Daylight Savings Time is to refresh one’s memory about the location of each clock and timer in his or her abode. I seem to have 43 of the things. Twice a year I am forced to reacquaint myself with all the devices as I reset them. They lurk in strange, hard to-get-to places in dark corners, such as on top of the water conditioner on which dwells black spiders that have red symbols of death on their shiny bodies.

It takes me about a week to change every timing device during which period many things go bump in the night and angry mail delivery people get wet in the day when the sprinklers go off inappropriately. It is always a race to see if I can find them before there is a lawsuit filed against me.

If you need any more help on this or any other topic, please let me know.

Nagging the Buggers

One of the more interesting parts of writing something original is doing the research.  Yesterday I got a call from the NSA, a super-secret intelligence agency.  They wanted to tell me about the work they had done in response to a request I made.

I have been writing about someone who was involved in the space program for two governments in the 1960’s.  He died a couple of years ago and on his way out, he told me lots of things he had done.  He was a very modest man whose life included huge achievements.  I have come to realize that he wanted me to write about them, but he didn’t want to ask.

Before I write about anyone of the Cold War era , I consider whether his or her life involved secrets.  Then I try to determine which agency might have information about him.  I make my requests to the agencies first, because they take the longest.  Usually, it is the FBI or the CIA.  But I knew my subject reported to two intelligence agencies and that he was not allowed to tell one what he had told the other.  I bet that one of them was NSA.  And I bet right.

An acquaintance in a chat room had once worked with the NSA.  He advised me not to “ping” the NSA.  It was too late.  I had already sent them a request fax.  After all, they have a web site saying they have a Freedom of Information Office.  So I requested information under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).  And several weeks later they called me.

A very nice lady told me that the person I was searching for had indeed been a contractor and told me which years.  She added that they had destroyed his file twenty years ago and had nothing left but an indoctrination form with his signature on it.  I was floored!  I was sure the NSA would never admit to hearing his name uttered in their offices or even in the environment of Washington, DC.  I thanked the lady and hung up the phone.

Then I thought about it for a moment.  The word “contractor” almost sounded like my friend was hired by the agency for pay.  He was an ex-army officer, a well-established professional man who didn’t need the money, and I knew he would never accept pay for assisting his government.  So I called back.

This time, I startled the lady who had talked to me a few minutes before.  I asked what a “contractor” was to them in the 1960’s.  She stammered a bit but finally responded that he was not an employee, but was a person who was lent to them by another, er company.

I am working on the other, er, company for more information as this is being written.  I hope they are just as helpful.

By the way—the Federal Government does not all throw away all copies of anything. It was only a few years ago that I wrote a book based on the files of the Secret Service from 1873.  They were in a dusty corner of the National Archives.  Maybe my great granddaughter will dig something out about this friend before she dies.  She is two years old as I write this.

Homage to Writers

I can guess how they felt, the two teenagers who wrote me thank-you notes because I gave them copies of two of my books at Christmas time.   The kids probably felt embarrassed at having to submit their writing skills to a man who writes books.  But they did a good job.

The reason I know how they could have felt is that today I sent a letter to one of America’s finest writers, and I was very careful to be on my best writing behavior as I did it.

The author was Wendell Berry, and when he writes a book, it is immediately reviewed by the N.Y. Times and the L. A. Times.  Wendell’s great-grandfather and my great-grandfather lived in the same town at the same time, and both seemed to have helped Gen. John Hunt Morgan (CSA) escape from the Yankees in 1863.  We have been comparing notes for some time.   (A bit of the story about my ancestor and President Lincoln’s dealings with him can be found on this web site in my Nov. 29 Post to this Blog.)

So, I was nervous about writing to Wendell.  And I can say it here because I know he will never see this Blog; he is famous for avoiding computers.  Well, maybe there is a crack in his armor.  Most of his notes to me have been hand-written.  But I noticed his last letter had been composed on a computer.

Maybe someday Wendell will become sloppy with the rest of us keyboard bangers.