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.