Saturday, November 24, 2012

Litter 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. Along 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

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Those Trees I Planted

Recently, AML wrote a comment about my “Onalaska” post:

AML wrote...
Every tree has a life to give and has a reason to leave. So planting more trees will help make the world green and wonderfull.

Few would want to argue with AML, and as I worked on the story that was eventually used in part by the author of “Onalaska,” I thought many times about the mighty and beautiful trees that were killed off so that his country might have houses and baseball bats and pianos, and whatever else entrepreneurs might use to create jobs and produce things that people wanted and needed.

And I also thought about the title of this blog, “Planting Trees.” I called it that not because I was thinking of elms and maples and cherry blossoms, but because I was thinking of putting ideas into the heads of young people. My trees were a metaphor for giant redwoods and palms and walnut trees--big ideas in the minds of our next generation.

After I retired from industry, I really went to work. I went to the local school district and said, “I want to be a substitute teacher.” I had two college degrees but they still made me take a test for aspiring teachers. It was absurdly easy, and after the local police checked me out, I found myself in a classroom.

Standing in front of 35 kids every day from seventh grade to high school age kids, I found that I had a very high office. Yes, I had taught three semesters of a management course in college, but I did not like doing it. About half of my students were graduate students and half were undergraduate students. The experience was kind of frustrating for me.

But when I found myself in front of an algebra class, or a science class in public school, I was really at home for two reasons. One reason had to do with Democracy. Public schools are where Democracy is ingrained into the minds of our young people. I supported it every way I could. Sometimes this meant protecting possible gay children and always it meant protecting small girls from being trampled by big boys. It often meant discouraging rumors and false stories about one race being superior to another. It meant telling girls that they could do math just as well as boys (which is absolutely true).

It never occurred to me to present just one side of a story, no matter what I personally felt. I might miss some “trees” that way.

The second reason I felt at home is that I was able to plant other trees. When there were breaks in a lesson, I told funny stories about my own family life when I was a kid with two older, meaner brothers. My own children were grown, so I talked about them and their injuries. These tales reinforced the idea of a strong family which protected its members and shared its sorrows as well as its joys. These were “trees” also.

Planting trees in public schools this way allowed me to explain science and math in new ways as well as telling true stories about our country’s history that reinforced the American culture.

The kids asked for copies of my stories so I wrote first one book and then nine more. Parents asked for me when they found that a teacher was going to be absent, and asked for me to tutor their kids. I didn’t need the money and my health was failing, so I had to slow down over time and then finally quit altogether.

During this time and even after I came to believe that it would serve the students and teachers well if more older people volunteered to be substitute teachers. Older citizens had something important to say about what they had observed over the years.

As for me, I knew that teaching was one of the most important jobs I ever had. I was allowed to plant many trees for about five or six years. Fortunately, I was teaching in one of the best schools in one of the best school districts of the state of California. It was an honor to be included as a teacher with the REAL teachers in that district who were full time professionals.

I retired from a job in industry where I managed the people who managed divisions of manufacturing companies. I was, by all accounts a professional manager. And yet, nothing was as fulfilling as those years I was allowed to stand in front of a classroom of kids from all over the world and plant American trees along with Algebra, Science, and Social Studies.

So yes, AML, planting more trees will help make the world green and wonderful.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

The Book I Did Not Write

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.

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. It will be available in early 2012.

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.

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.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Unconventional Wisdom

The following appeared on my friend Leland Meitzler's Genealogy Blog ( I wrote it so I have permission to use it.

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 at 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

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

JFK'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.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Scheherazade and 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 right side of this page to Links and click the words “Four on the Floor Podcasts.” Read by the author.

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.

Monday, August 30, 2010

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.