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.