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.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

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.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

On Producing a 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.

Sunday, May 09, 2010

Make Way for a Mensch

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:

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.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

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 perpetr ators. 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.

Monday, April 05, 2010

No Messages by Me from Beyond the Grave

I am still writing posts for the blog of my friend Leland Meitzner, the genealogy guru at Here is one that is self-explanatory:

Beyond the Grave
Filed in Thomas Fiske articles on Apr.05, 2010

Another amusing article by my friend, Tom 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 mom and dad 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, but will let my genealogy be my testimony, and my message for future generations.

Maybe I can’t let go either.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Hamburgers and Spies

Often, I write posts for another blog. It belongs to the well-known genealogist Leland Meitzler, and its url is 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 V irginia 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.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Practical Communism

Who was it that said, “Communism always works when you have enough cement blocks to build walls and guns to shoot people who climb over those walls”?

I noticed that the new US health bill provides for 16,000 additional IRS agents. I wonder how well they shoot?

God help us!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

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.