Digging in the Past

Writing is not all agony.  I write things like this for fun and then send them to a friend, Leland Meitzler, so he can post them on his blog.  Besides, they don’t require a lot of research.  That work has already been done years ago when I compiled a genealogy.  The thing for you readers to remember is that they are all true.  Leland’s Blog is very informative and can be found at


Don’t Dig Up the Past!

Maybe it is just my family that has problems, but probably not.  I just know that I have been warned not to dig up the past by very serious cousins.  On more than one occasion and on more than one family line.  Of course, reasons were not offered (that would ruin the fun of making the warning).

I have never agreed to stop turning over rocks and looking under them.  I just couldn’t agree when I did not know what was hidden there waiting for me to find.  In fact, I was spurred on by such warnings.

Of course I found ugly things, especially surrounding the reputations of those who were murdered.  That is because it was necessary to blacken the names of those who were about to die.  You see, if a murderer went to trial, it was helpful to have killed a bad guy.  Juries understand bad guys.  Lawyers love to try the victims instead of the perpetrators.  Researchers have to learn to overlook purposeful blackening of names, especially when the victim was involved in a worthy purpose such as interfering with the KKK.

Do you know how the KKK was tracked down in  rural areas in 1874?  The deputy US Marshall went to retail shops and found out who was selling white sheets.  And then he found out who was buying those sheets.  Killers who hide under white sheets in the cover of night probably are not good judges of character, and when they are the ones spreading the stories about someone else, you can take those stories with a grain of salt.

When I began researching, I didn’t know who in my family was a good guy and who was not.  I just dug until I found the facts.  If I found evil people, that is what I reported.  If I found good people (or, “just not bad” people), I would report that as well.  Mainly, I found what type of enemies an ancestor had.  By learning about his enemies, I could get a grasp on my ancestor’s character.

But I will admit that I tend to think the best of someone until I learn differently.  After all, saints and sinners abound in this world and have done so for thousands of years.  There seem to have been more sinners than saints, making the search for holy folks take a little longer than the search for us ordinary types.

Now that I mention it, I do not recall anyone in my family who could qualify as a saint.  There were a few ministers and one who was both a doctor and a minister.  He was in St. Charles, MO in 1809-1811 when the biggest quakes in the US hit the Midwest and I don’t know if he uttered one cuss word.  That might qualify him for sainthood.  I didn’t look at him as a saint, however, but as an entrepreneur.  Because he was both a doctor and a preacher, he made money when people were coming and going.  Smart man, but not necessarily a saint.

And there was my cousin Jefferson Davis Grover (b. 1861and named for a Southern Saint) who was described by female cousins as the “handsomest man in the world.”   He died in 1925 in rather odd circumstances as told by his third wife.  He would not be a candidate for sainthood, either, unless you listened to his girlfriends.

There was a cousin, once, whom family members talked about in quiet whispers.  It seems her mother was not married to her father, but everyone knew about her birth. Of course, she was properly ostracized.  I have tried to locate this cousin who in my mind had no control over what her parents did.  I always felt she was treated rather shabbily.  She seems to want nothing to with the rest of us for some reason.  I can’t say I blame her.  To the best of my knowledge she has not taken a shot at any of us.  Maybe she is more of a saint than any of us realize.

Digging up the past is fun, as long as no one is hurt by it.  To this day, I have no idea why my cousins advised that I not research the family.  Maybe they heard something I missed.  Most likely they believed something that on the truth scale, ran between zero and one-half.  Maybe it made them feel important to be the sharer of family secrets.

No Messages from me from Beyond the Grave

I am still writing for a friend’s blog.  Here is a recent effort that is self explanatory:

Beyond the Grave

Filed in Thomas Fiske articles on Apr.05, 2010

Another amusing article by my friend, Tom Fiske:

Thomas Fiske I saw an Internet article titled “Texting from Beyond the Grave.” New technology allows a person to embed a chip in his or her granite tombstone that can be excited by telephones in the future so that a dead person’s typed message can be read out. Maybe a photo, too…

And I thought, “Some people just can’t let go.” But I also wondered if I were to leave such a statement, what my last message to the world might be. Would it be something like, “I told Evie I was sick…” or “Love your neighbor,” something that has been done much better and more often in the Bible. I just do not know. I doubt it would be one of those silly items that people send each other on the Internet each day—you know, one of those stories that is simply too cute to pass up, so you have to send the drivel on. Finding the right message would be a tough decision.

One day in 1944 in middle school a teacher had a boy by the name of Gilbert Lutz stand beside him in class. He commended the boy on his ability to carve. It seems the kid had boldly carved his name in a wood toilet seat in the boys’ bathroom. The teacher finished his special address to the carver by saying, “Of course, if that is where you want your name for all the world to see, you certainly have made your mark on the world.” I heard later that his parents were forced to replace the seat. We students wondered if Gilbert was allowed to keep the old seat so he could frame it and hang it on his wall at home.

So these new granite/electronic tombstones carry with them a great responsibility. But we genealogists can forget about them (and unadorned toilet seats, too) because we are already leaving powerful messages behind. Just a short list of a few generations would do, but many of us are also writing about our lives and the lives of our parents and even their parents. Most of these are monumental tales of proud, inner-directed folks.

I recall a Jewish lady who went to Poland in search of her ancestors. She was directed to a German Concentration Camp where her ancestors were put to death. Hers was a poignant story of bravery and destruction that carried with it a reminder of what can happen when we do not watch our political leaders very, very carefully.

My family was not Jewish (that we know of) but it consisted of soldiers in various wars. One was a corporal under Daniel Boone and General George Rogers Clark around 1784. He was not a big-time hero, but his deeds and deeds of those with whom he served, helped form this country. Those were the days when both moms and dads had to be good shots with a long rifle. Some of my people were Indians as well, so I came from a vast collection of shooters and shootees. They had very instructive tales to tell and I am writing them down as well as I am able.

You may choose a different course, but I believe I will forgo the granite messaging service. I have decided to  let my genealogy be my testimony, and my message for future generations.

Maybe I can’t let go either.

Hamburgers and Spies

Often, I write posts for another blog.  It belongs to the well-known genealogist Leland Meitzler, and its url is http://www.genealogyblog.com/ Here is one of my favorites that I wrote in January.

Cold Case Ancestors and Spies

It’s not that I have given up on Genealogy.  It’s just that all the easy stuff has come to light.  Now I am down to searching through Bavarian files from the 1800’s and early American files from the 1800’s.  Not as much fun as it used to be.  And the “oh, ho” remarks are sounding more and more like “oy,vey.” After all, I have been at it since I broke 100% of my legs about 1990.  That’s about 20 years.

Yes, I know many of you readers have been at it much longer than twenty years, and I have taken advantage of the Internet during my twenty years.   But you know what I mean: the easy data come first and then you run out of easy data unless you hail from a series of large families (another of Fiske’s maxims is that large families produce more genealogists than small families, making research come much more easily).

As I sat back to write this year’s Christmas letter to friends (Evie insists on doing a letter for family members) I gave a thought to bragging points.  It wasn’t long before I realized I was at an age when the length of a surgery scar was more important than the length of a holiday trip.  But I could talk about my new book, Ploughshares into Swords, which was selling a few copies;  I could mention my wild run-in with the CIA having to do with my tenth book; and there were two huge breakthroughs in my genealogy studies.

Nobody much cares about somebody else’s genealogy, though.  Unless it involves historical figures.  And part of mine was historical, in a way.  I had put away my folder on one of the members of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.  This “cold case” was Sgt. Nathaniel Hale Pryor, who supposedly had a son, also named Nathaniel, born in Louisville, KY about 1806.  (My mother was a Pryor, who was born near Louisville in 1902, so I always had an interest in this family.)  Senior was definitely historical and Junior Pryor was instrumental in making sure California went to the United States when Mexico lost its hold, so I think he was also an historical figure.

This is the year (2009) in which I found that Junior was a son of Senior and that both Junior and Senior have descendants who are alive and kicking as this is being written.  Some of Junior’s descendants are actually grateful for my work in proving their relation to Senior, but it doesn’t do much good.  Actual proof of Senior’s ancestry goes back a generation or two in early Virginia.  Then it seems to fade away, although I think I know where it goes after that.

The important thing to me is that those Pryors were Americans– not original settlers perhaps, but very early, anyway.  Weren’t there already English people in Virginia when the Mayflower landed in Plymouth, MA, in 1620?  I personally have seen Plymouth Rock and I am no more proud of it than I am those kinder shores in Virginia upstream from where George Washington’s family arrived years later.

Being American is what counts, regardless of the year of entry to our country.

I said there were two big breakthroughs this year.  The Pryors were the first. What was the second?  Well, my Bavarian great-grandfather Adam had two families.  His wife died in the 1860’s in Louisville, leaving him with four small children.  One of them died and he farmed out the rest.  But I didn’t know that.  All I knew was that the first set of kids  disappeared from all records before 1870.  I spent many years looking for those youngsters.  Finding all of Adam’s second family had been a chore (and that’s my group), so I closed and put away the folder on his first family several years ago.  They became another cold case.

Then, about September, a descendant of a kid in the first family sent me an email.  Despite all I could do to discourage him, this young man proved he was indeed my cousin.  We shared Adam as an ancestor, but not Adam’s wife.  Cheerfully and gratefully, I shared what I knew about Adam.  He came from Bavaria, he said, and that is I all I know about the guy.  Oh, a good guess is that he lived in the Pfalz area , but that really is all I know.

So I have learned three things in 2009.  Two are specific items about my family members and the third is that there are no such things as truly cold cases.

One more thing—when I meet certain people in a restaurant to get background material for my next book, I am taking a camera.  I hate being spied on.

The Fire Is Out

Maya Angelou, I am told, said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”  I find her statement to be true.  But I am running out of agony.   That is, my recent book is about ready for the publisher and I have no desire to write anything else.

Once I wrote a book just for fun.  It was about time travel and it was called, Time Out of Joint, a quote from one W. Shakespeare.   Nothing was burning a hole in my gut until I finished that story—Maya’s agony was missing.  But it came out all right.

The rest of my books, all eight or nine of them, though—they were born of agony.   I knew I had to write them or be very uncomfortable the rest of my days.  It was family stuff—stories about family members who died for a cause or did something unusual—those true tales pressured me into writing.

This final story is about a friend, a doctor who spent some nine years in the USSR during the space race.  Through him (I call him Tad Benson), the US and the USSR shared space medicine information.  President John F. Kennedy and Premier Nikita Khrushchev set up the program.   But the USSR could not admit it had help from the US and the US could not admit it had helped the USSR for a variety of reasons.  So, even today the story I told is universally denied.

Tad died a few years ago, an unsung hero.  All his years of inventing, testing and establishing friendships in two major countries have gone down the drain.  But he reached his goal and did not lose an astronaut or cosmonaut during his time of caring for them.

Tad’s story produced agony until it was written.  It is called The Insider—NASA’s Man in Baikonur. Baikonur was the name of the secret Soviet rocket launch site.  Now I can rest.

When I give a talk about one of my books, there is always someone in the audience, or maybe two, who say, “I know a story about ____.  But I never got around to writing it.”

My response has always been, “When it burns a hole in your gut, you’ll write that story.”  That was a long time before I read Maya’s quote.  But I knew, I just was certain that the burning of the gut is what drove me and very likely drives many other writers.

When people ask me, “What kinds of reviews did you get for this book?” I tell them the truth.  And the truth is that I don’t care.  Once the fire is out and the book is complete I can live again.  I don’t read the few reviews that I get.  It is too late to do anything about them because the book is finished and I am on to another project.

Well, I am through with projects.  I refuse to hear about any more of them.

And finally, the fire is out.

Writing for Friends

Lately I have not been writing for my blogs.  Instead I have been writing for another blog.  It is Leland Meitzler’s Genealogy Blog.  There I am a special category.  It is called Thomas S. Fiske Posts” or some such thing.  I asked Leland if I could put some of my Genealogy Posts on on my Blog, and he said he didn’t care.  So that is what I am going to do .  The next few posts on this blog will be posts from Leland’s Genealogy Blog.  But they won’t just be abut genealogy, they will be about all kinds of things.  I hope you will visit the genealogy blog.  It has all kinds of good information on it, not to mention some very good writers.

Here is the URL of the Genealogy Blog:     http://www.genealogyblog.com/

Intel Agencies–Another First

Every kid goes through a lot of first-time experiences.   You know, first long pants like my older brothers had, first adult-size pillow, first bicycle, first BB gun and many other firsts a kid has to fight for and can almost taste before he gets them.

At the outer fringes of my youth and well over sixty years of age, I am still a kid a heart.  So I really was interested in my first Spook event.  No, it’s too late for Halloween, I mean another kind of spook, entirely.

You see, I was at a hamburger place recently.  I  agreed to meet with a fellow radio Ham and a man who said he had once been with the CIA.  I wanted background material for my next book, which is highly complimentary of the CIA and US Intel agencies.  I had asked the CIA and others for help with the project, so I know they know what I am doing.  I have no secrets.  A little advertising is always a lot of help.

So I got to the restaurant and waited for the other two men to show up.  The Ham came first.  Having worked in the electronics industry, George is a few years older than I and has many more years of electronic experience.  I don’t know what he worked on.  He isn’t allowed to tell me and he doesn’t.  Maybe he didn’t even work on electronics.

We started with a pair of lemonades while we waited for Jack, the third guy.  George and I sat in a booth in the back of the restaurant where we hear but could not be overheard.  He chose the booth.  We talked for a few minutes and I made notes.  It was subtle, but I noticed that George changed topics and began to tell me about things he had mentioned before.  Soon he was telling innocuous stories about physics.  It was hard for me to follow.  Something was plainly wrong.  I thought it was because Jack had not showed up and he was stalling for time.

Eventually Jack arrived and sat down.  He was very vague as well.  He went to get himself a lemonade.  I noticed a man sitting in a booth facing ours.  He was reading a girly novel and holding the book in a peculiar fashion.  I thought little about him.

When Jack returned he suggested moving to another booth.  There, he sat against the wall where he could see out across the room.  He and George made remarks to each other that I did not understand.  I told them, “You guys are like twins who have your own private language.  I wish I knew what was going on.” At that moment, the reader stood and called for a waitress.  He told her there was a package under the table where we had been sitting.  She came over and got it to put in their “lost and found” drawer.  It belonged to Bill, so he asked her for it.

George and Jack laughed.  Jack said “I’ll tell you in a minute.”  He waited until the book reader left.  Then Jack said, “We’re being watched.  George and I are used to it.  There were two men in here keeping an eye on us.  One just left.  He could have just given that package to us, but he didn’t want us to look at him.  We can go ahead and talk now.”

Of course I asked about the two men.  I felt dumb because I wasn’t aware of all that was going on around me.  (I usually am aware of my surroundings, but I was focused on getting answers to questions about Spookisms I had generated while writing.)

We talked for quite a while.  Another man came in, a radio Ham whom George and I knew, but Jack did not.  We made introductions.  And then George began chatting with the new guy.  Jack said out of the corner of his mouth, “George is keeping him busy so we can talk, so go ahead.”  It was such a smooth transition that neither the new guy nor I had noticed it.  Once again, I was angry with myself because I missed the maneuvering.

Nevertheless, I learned new things to put in my book, which is nearing its last chapter.  When the interview was about over, I gave Jack a copy of my last book and wrote a dedication in the cover to him.  George wanted him to read it.  He thought it might have enough interesting material in it for a documentary film.  Jack produces films on the side.

Jack thanked me for the book.  He was interested in my unfinished book, he said, for its documentary value.  He didn’t know about Ploughshares, my current book about Caltech and its secret operations during WWII.

I looked around for more watchers, didn’t see any, and left the restaurant, happy that I may have obtained enough material to complete my next book.

I couldn’t help but wonder at whom the spooks were really directing their attention and how they knew we would be at that restaurant at that time, and so on.

It was later that I realized I had experienced another “first.”  It was the first time I had been “spooked.”  Getting a new bike is more fun.

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.

DNA Tests and Reality

(This is an edited post of May 31, as corrected by Kent Pryor, to whom I am very grateful.)

I just call it the Fiske curve because I don’t have any other name for it. Others may have found it and named it something else. In any case the curve sets out principles worth remembering about DNA findings in Genealogy. I got the data from conversations of several people on the Internet this week.

Several people on a Rootsweb List were discussing their strange findings from DNA tests and seemed to be laying down information we could all use.

One person wrote, “the 12 marker test is of almost no value, as many unrelated individuals can match at the 12 marker level.” I suspect that many people on many Lists are finding the same result, once they have obtained information from the 12 marker studies and then, encouraged, have gone on to the next step or two. This particular subject went on to the 67 marker test and found no one related who should be related, and then found four with the same DNA on all 67 markers who were not related at all. It is information like this that led me to think about some kind of a curve that would fit these data. Admittedly the evidence is anecdotal, but the facts real and have to be dealt with.

Another person wrote, “I have 180 names on my 12 marker (tests) on Ydna on my mother’s side all different names. I have the same thing you have on the 25 and 37 marker names that are unrelated and three different ones. . . I thought DNA had gone Crazy.”

With Ydna, you are following men’s DNA which would involve few name changes. But why is it that the more markers one uses, the less useful has become the data? Why is it that more detail seems to lead to more uncertainty? That is, adding markers tends to exclude relatives. This is counter-intuitive.

It appears that the curve is saying that if you have 0 marker tests that you could be related to everybody.  If you have the minimum number of markers tested, you could be related to not all, but many people.  And if you have many markers tested you are related to very few people,  even in your own family.

This could mean several things:

1) DNA tests are not testing what we think they are testing.

Very simply put, DNA testing may not be valid in a scientific sense. It would be interesting to combine results of thousands of tests to see how much uncertainty is introduced to established, documented lines. Perhaps DNA tests are reflecting epigenetics, a condition that is not yet proven, but which is considered possible by some experts.

2) Family names and records are not a good indicator of genuine relationships.

This is the opposite of 1 (above). Essentially, it says there is little true paternity in family lines.

3) DNA closeness can be more due to ancient cultural habits than anything else.

Before the industrial revolution, there seem to have been few travelers. That is, one seldom traveled more than seven or more miles from his home in a lifetime. The result had to be inter-marriage of cousins, and DNA tests today are simply reflecting those intermarriages. However, in America, where Swedish immigrants married Italian immigrants, the gene pool swelled and would have made an abrupt change from, say, 1800 on. This change should be apparent in some DNA studies. (I am a six foot tall, blond and blue-eyed American who is in small part American Indian).

Maybe all the above is a result of poor labeling. But I think it is telling us something that we didn’t especially want to know. And that is that our precious DNA marker tests are not doing what we wanted.

Maybe O. J. didn’t kill his wife, after all.

Khrushchev Lied and an American Spied

As I was writing yesterday’s post to this blog, I wondered who would be upset when my book, The Insider comes out. This is the actual story of NASA’s man who spent nine years flying into and out of the USSR during the Space Race and the Cold War. He was a space medicine scientist who was successful at keeping Soviet cosmonauts alive. He was a physician, a scientist, an inventor, and a serious man. That is why I believed my friend Tad when he told me about his adventures.

Seriousness aside, I checked his story. He had told me that on his return trips he had to be debriefed by two US Intel agencies. I found that he was attached to the NSA and the CIA for those nine years, according to their own records. The Department of State had absolutely no information on Tad except for one small document it had forgotten to purge. NASA had piles of information on Tad about his medical work in micro-gravity conditions, but it had no information about his travels to the USSR.

Tad had been a guest of the USSR at the invitation of Premier Krushchev. I wrote to authors of various books and articles about the Space Race and about “inside” information on the NSA and CIA, and I also wrote to one descendant of Premier Krushchev who knew a great deal about the USSR in those days. To date no one has told me that I am nuts. Most have said, “I didn’t know. Give me more details.” A copy of a letter from the NSA usually convinced them.

So now, as I finish my book on Tad, I wonder about the people I am going to offend. At least two countries are involved, of course: the US and Russia. Let’s look at Russia first.

Apparently, the Russian people know almost nothing about any assistance from the West. It appears from what I have read that the Russian people do not know about America’s Lend Lease program of the early 1940’s. In that program America supplied the Russians with aircraft, guns, ammunition, food and other supplies with which to fight the Germans. The Russian people do not know they were assisted in “The Great Patriotic War,” even sixty or more years afterward. The Russian people were not told the name of their space program manager until about 1985, when he died. His face was never shown on any Soviet TV, his name was never mentioned. Certainly, the Russian people do not know they were assisted in their space program by their chief competitor, the United States. Once the Russian people find out we helped them, they might be angry at their own leaders.

What about America’s allies? They might be offended when they find out we helped the USSR and didn’t tell them. More than that—we lied to our allies about what we knew. I doubt that we have come clean because no one seems to know about Tad. Of course authors of books and magazines and news articles in other countries will feel duped.

And in America, itself, there may be problems. President John F. Kennedy began this program a few months before he was killed. President Johnson and President Nixon continued the program and did not tell Congress. Those presidents lied to the US press and to the Congress in order to keep funds flowing for the space program. It may not have been a space race after all. Congress consists of the biggest bunch of blabbermouths in the US. If Congress people had known about Tad the world would have known about Tad, right after the Congress people were sworn to secrecy. There is no reason to think that NASA ever knew that Tad, formerly one of their own, had been in the USSR.

Several, if not all US Intel agencies knew about Tad. People in those agencies are all retired now and many have died. Newer members of the agencies don’t care about something that happened forty years ago. They have enough trouble with today’s problems.

Well, US Intel agencies might care to this extent: Tad’s trips to the USSR during the Cold War era were an intelligence coup. When my story is printed and people realize what the Intel people have done while claiming they didn’t even know where the Soviet secret launch was, they should have more confidence in these shadowy agencies.

Of course, there are American authors and former Soviet people in this country who write articles and books—they are sure to be embarrassed when the truth comes out. They have already commented on President Kennedy’s offer to share information on space medicine and have said that the offer was refused. Too bad for them.

But the people who really care the most about this story probably are those who make up the US president’s office. I suspect (but do not know) that President Kennedy promised Premier Khrushchev that the US Government would never tell the Soviet people that we helped them in the Space Race. There is, according to the CIA, a file on TAD that has a presidential seal on it. That means the file is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act laws.

Also, it may be that the US President does not want the US Congress to know that a previous president failed to report to Congress that we had a man in the USSR during the Space Race.

I sure would like to see that file. I have written to two presidents and asked to have a look. I even asked my congressman to ask the President. The President has not honored my request.

When Tad told me his story, he was dying. He has been gone for almost seven years. To my way of thinking he was a great American hero, a brave man who ventured into the Soviet Union without protection. He did it not once but many times during the Cold War, even when there was a sudden change in Soviet leadership in 1964 and he did not know whether he would be arrested. But by then he had many friends among the Soviet scientists and cosmonauts, and maybe they had enough pressure to protect him. We will never be certain about that, only that Tad went when he was called.