Finding Grover

The following article was written by my friend, Thomas Fiske
Thomas Fiske

Great Uncle Tom fled from the KKK in Kentucky in 1875. He went out west and stopped in a small town on the prairie. Tom’s job in Kentucky had been clerking and sweeping in a small general merchandise store. That’s almost all he knew. That and credit for his customers. He was single, so he didn’t have to know a lot more.

Immediately, Tom saw that the immigrants on farms and in villages out west needed a source of supply for all kinds of things such as needles, pots and pans, magazines, cloth and flatware. Since they depended on farm crops for income, these folks also needed credit. Needs presented themselves all year while crops were harvested once or twice per year. Animals could be sold all year, however.

How Tom did it, I don’t know. But he managed to set up a store. I have an old drawing of his first store out west. He developed an interest in railroads. He wanted to know their routes for the future. Towns which had nearby trains were likely to grow. They would need stores and banks. So with advance knowledge he established a bank in several towns before the railroad moved in.

Tom went one step further. He realized that people in one region of the country harvested crops at a different time from people in another region. Thus, he could set up corresponding banks that would supply funds to each other at different times in different regions.

Grover Walker 1908
Grover Walker 1908

Tom also did some farming himself and experimented with new crops. After all, the West was new to people and they did not know how bountiful their land could be.

Communication was poor in 1875. Railroads used the telegraph with wires running along railroad-owned poles on railroad-owned land. Tom took advantage of the telegraph by installing branches of the railroad wires in or near his banks. Then he hired relatives to run his banking system. He felt he could trust relatives.

In about 1880 Tom gave a bank to his nephew, Grover. Grover’s dad had been murdered by the KKK. Tom set up his dead brother’s kid in the banking business.

Grover was quite successful as a banker and was very well liked in the small town where he lived. I know that because of newspaper articles my grandmother collected about her brother.

Grover married Nellie Graddy, a small, pretty girl from Kentucky and took her out west to live. Early photos of her indicated that she probably came from money. Grover and his new wife had a son, who died when he was about five years old. They did not have any other children. But they seemed to have lots of money. Then Grover bought a fancy new automobile.

On Easter day of 1909, Grover tried out the new car. He loaded it with friends and took it for a spin. It spun, all right. It spun on its side and threw people out. Grover seemed to be the only one seriously hurt. He was under the car. And that evening, he died. Grover’s death was a terrible shock to his mother and two sisters. At least that is what my grandmother told me. She was his sister.

Nellie imposed on Uncle Tom to run the bank for her, but she was the actual owner of the bank. A few years ago, the bank’s president wrote to me that Grover’s and Nellie’s photos were still on the wall of the bank, which had become the First National Bank of the region.

Uncle Tom died in 1931 and the bank’s teller was promoted to run the bank totally. I met Nellie in the 1950’s and she died a few years later, still a widow and still living in the western town where she had moved as a new wife so many years before.

Nelly Graddy Walker
Nelly Graddy Walker

And that should be the end of the story. But it isn’t.

Two weeks ago I got an email from a young woman who lived in Nellie’s and Grover’s small town in the West. It seemed that she was charged with the responsibility of setting up a reference and museum room in a historical society building. The room was to be dedicated to Grover and Nellie. The emailer wondered if I had any information about Grover and Nellie.

“Yes,” I emailed back. “I have pictures and family history about Grover.” “And,” I continued, “I would be willing to swap photos and documents.” I made it clear that I wanted materials in return.

Of course, the young lady’s request answered my question about what I was going to do with all the junk I had collected concerning Grover’s family. But I did not tell her that. I also did not tell her that my children have seen my genealogical collection. Though they have promised to take care of my precious papers, I know that in their hearts, there lurks a Dempster Dumpster.

So for the last two weeks I have been researching old photos and documents that would be interesting to a neophyte collector with lots of room to spare. For instance, I found a photo today and shipped it to the little town. It was a portrait of Tom’s wife, Carrie Nixon, from Illinois. She was from the same county that President Nixon’s ancestors were from. It is an unusual name, so I am pretty sure, RMN was her cousin.

I found that Uncle Tom (for whom I am named) and Aunt Carrie finished their days in great wealth. But not happiness, because their last surviving grandson was gay. Their line ended with him. I would like to have known Uncle Tom. He was a very successful entrepreneur. My mother knew him and of course my grandmother also knew him. He was quite nice to both of them.

The search continues. I found a news story about the death of Grover, and I have quite a bit of material about his grandparent, Congressman Asa P. Grover. That’s where he got his first name.

Over time a large amount of papers will slowly shift their address from Fullerton, California to a small town out west.

How did this young researcher find my email address? I took the trouble, several years ago, to write something about Grover on one of those many Q&A sections of a genealogy web site. She tracked me down from there.

It appears that Grover and little Nellie will live on, while I quietly slip away into obscurity. I have been required to protect the Grover papers for only about twenty years and my usefulness is over. Unless of course, you want to know about the Leonards of England.

The Dark Side of Genealogy

The following article was written by my friend, Thomas Fiske
Thomas Fiske

Who knew there was a dark side to genealogy? I certainly did not know until today. It was news to me before I figured it out.

While looking at an Internet epistle from Family Roots, I saw two books that looked mighty interesting. As a fan of Amateur Radio and Genealogy, I was long accustomed to being disappointed at Christmas when I opened packages of socks and underwear. No one knew what to give me. This last year I decided to take matters into my own hands and get something I really wanted: genealogy books. Besides, my chest of drawers were full and my shelves were empty. This year I opened two packages containing books and I loudly thanked an obscure aunt who lives in Kentucky. I even wrote her a note of gratitude for the volumes. But I didn’t mail the envelope.

The first book, titled something like Ontario People, contains information about those folks who were loyalists when the Revolutionary War ended. I read that Americans offered them a hanging with all the appropriate amenities, while King George III offered them land in Ontario, Canada. Most people wanted to escape the rope and III wanted to fill Ontario with his subjects. Outside of the cold weather, it was a match made in heaven, proving that III was no fool.

Now, it just so happened that among the loyalists were a group of folks named Shippee who lived in Rhode Island. They quickly fled to Ontario. Over the next 100 years the Shippee/Shippy clan worked their way in a south-westerly direction until they found the American border. There they slipped across and traveled until they got to Iowa, where they settled.

The second book was titled Expansion of New England. It seems that my ancestor, a man named Fiske, had with his ancestors, been living in Rhode Island for some hundred years or so. There was a big recession in the area in 1837, so he took his small family and left for Southern Indiana near the Ohio River. He settled in New Albany, across the Ohio River from the city of Louisville, Kentucky. There, he had many children and all of them lived to maturity. In 1866, just after the close of the Civil War, Fiske moved across the Ohio to that wonderful city of Louisville where his number one son took up residence and established a profitable business. The river was about 3/4 of a mile wide without bridges, so the move was no small thing.

The Fiske family settled down and waited for me to be born. Eventually I showed up and there was great rejoicing. But I did not lead them. I tried several cities such as Cleveland, Schenectady, and Ontario, California before settling down.

And it was in Southern California that I met a pretty young woman from Iowa. Her maiden name was Shippy.

We had a wonderful courtship and then we married. While in middle age I took up the august hobby of genealogy. After several years of recording facts about my family, I began looking into my wife’s family. Her uncle had been doing the same thing, so his records were a wonderful help. My wife is an identical twin whose husband is also a genealogist.

All three of our records showed the same thing. The Shippee/Shippy family were loyalists who fled from Rhode Island and went to Ontario as guests of King George III.

Only my records showed that my Fiske ancestor was a captain his local militia. His side won the War and was charged with the responsibility of hanging loyalists.

I tried very hard to keep this information from my wife and her family, but eventually it leaked. I found out when I came home from work one day and noticed the silence. My wife was not speaking to me that day. She had discovered that the Fiskes were wanting to hang the Shippees. Or could have been; it made no difference. It made for a dark day.

When I saw these two very interesting books for sale on the Family Roots web site, I was reminded of that time and how much pain it brought to my wife. Oddly enough, it brought me no pain at all. Did I buy the books anyway? You can bet your bottom dollar I did.

But I may keep them hid behind my collection of various texts about the intricacies of Amateur Radio.

Cosmology Genealogy

The following article was written by my friend, Thomas Fiske
Thomas Fiske
Very seldom do my interests in cosmology and genealogy come together, but once in a while it happens. Especially when I think of a particular family line.

No one really knows what gravity is, and I am not fool enough to try to explain it. I know it holds our solar system together. Planets swing silently around the sun, held tightly by a thin “bond” called gravity. We cannot see this bond but we can demonstrate its presence and even calculate its strength. We can also predict what it will do far into the future or what it has done deep into the past. Gravity has a firm hold not only on our solar system, but also on our galaxy and even our universe.

I also recognize that certain people and families tend to gravitate around others. They seem to do it just as the planets swing around the sun. It was not unusual for elderly parents in the 1700’s to have their children living nearby in towns or villages or on farms that were close to them.

When the parents died, some of the children seemed to have been bound to each other and are known to have moved from territory to territory together. Today that is not as common. Children move many states away from their original homes and become separated from their families and family heritages.

This kind of attractive force can be very important in tracing one’s roots. There usually is a reason people stay together. Finding that reason can be crucial as the following example demonstrates.

It really doesn’t matter what my ancestor’s name was, but I will use it for convenience: Samuel Pryor. A hell-raiser in his part of Virginia, young Sam had several scrapes with the law. Some of these involved young ladies, so I know he was interested in females at an early age.

When he was 35 (1760), Sam married Frances Morton, a widow of one of the Merriwethers, and had several children. Those children seemed to have been somehow bound to their parents and also to each other over the years. Not only those children but also a set of other Pryor young folks stayed with them or near them. We do not know the names of the parents of this other set of Pryor children. All we know is that where known Samuel Pryor children went, the other set of Pryor children followed. Or maybe it was vise-versa. But whatever, they seemed gravitationally bound to each other.

Sam’s children by Frances moved on into Kentucky and so did the other set of Pryor children. Several of us researchers observed that there may have been a special relationship between the two sets of children. Since Samuel Pryor did not marry Frances until he was 35 years old, we reasoned that it is likely he had a previous wife. Or two. And it is also likely that his first wife or wives had children with him. That is what people did in those days.

Unless a bachelor is familiar with children, my wife pointed out, he does not want them when he is 35 years old. So, perhaps Samuel was quite familiar with children. He seems to have had no objection to raising a bunch as he approached middle age. (Maybe he was crazy.) But he was not so poor that raising them was a problem.

It doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to conclude that the “hangers-on Pryor youngsters” were half brothers and sisters of the set that we know about. There is no record of a former wife, no listing of births of children to Samuel during his early years. Also there is no record of parents of these “mystery” Pryor children, so they certainly could have been children of Samuel and Miz X.

After studying this rambling family, I have concluded, assisted by other Pryor researchers, that they were all Sam Pryor off-spring. One of these researchers is a descendant of one of the mystery Pryors.

In my mind’s eye, I can see our sun, surrounded by tiny planets. The planets swing around the sun in very regular orbits held tightly to it by an invisible bond of gravity. Just because I cannot see the bond, there is no reason to doubt its existence. And there in the dim swirling past, is a group of Pryor children orbiting around another group of younger Pryor children, connected by a bond I cannot see but only faintly sense. I think that bond is blood and kinship brought about by a common father.

Unseen genealogical bonds are clues and not facts. But they can point us in the right direction when we try to make sense of our past. They are worth looking for. As the years roll on, additional bits of evidence emerged that support our theory about the kinship of the two sets of Pryors. We have not proved their relationship yet, but we have never been able to find parents for them, either. The answer to our questions is probably written in the stars.

The cosmological approach has its usefulness.

The Seventy-two Year-old Scar

The following missive was written by my friend, Tom Fiske:

Thomas Fiske
I still have the scar. It is about 72 years old and, since I am blond, going white-haired, it hardly shows. But I know it is there, and I just checked to be sure I was bearing it nobly.

It was about 1940, and a boy I went to school with who lived down the street from us in Louisville, Kentucky, had thrown the lid of a tin can at me. Its edge was sharp and it sailed right at my head, opening a one inch slice in my scalp.

Of course, blood streamed down my face and I thought I was severely wounded. Gilbert Goldberg, the boy who cast the first can lid, apologized as my parents came by. They were out for a walk and stopped to have a look at me. About that time Gilbert’s folks came out to see how much damage their son had done.

Having had two other older sons, my parents knew that scalp wounds bleed profusely, but don’t mean much. They seized on the opportunity to introduce themselves to the Goldbergs and reassure them that they were not going to call the police or a lawyer. Over their lives, my parents maintained a “good neighbor” policy they had learned in Sunday school, and chose to make friends (while I bled to death).

I didn’t know it then, but my Kentucky ancestors served under 1) Col. Daniel Boone and 2) General George Rogers Clark when Indians were paid to scalp American settlers. So, they had lots of experience with scalping. Of course they probably had never run into any Jewish Indians.

Gilbert and I were friendly after that and I think he and his family moved to another neighborhood.

How did I stumble across this feeble memory? I finally got a look at the 1940 census. On it I discovered the names of long-forgotten streets and families I once knew. These were the families of kids with whom I went to school. I was probably in the second grade as a seven or eight year-old skinny little blond boy – with blue eyes.

I found the home of David Seubold, who proved his manliness by plunging his bare arm into a garbage can full of ashes and cinders from a coal furnace. Unfortunately, the can had just been taken out to the curb. Under the first three or four inches of cool gray ashes were glowing hot embers. He yanked his arm out of the ashes with a howl and was soon on his way to a local hospital for treatment of his severe burns. The rest of us kids with him were fascinated by what we saw and talked about it for days. Who needs TV with that kind of action going on?

The building next door to us housed a family whose father was head accountant for a machinery company that had once been owned and run by my grandfather. I don’t know any connection to my family, but there must have been one.
Down the street was a woman from Oregon with a son, William. Their last name was that of my cousin, a man named Castleman. I will have to look into that family. It is not a widely used surname.

My Great-Uncle Charles was on a street two blocks away. Dad used to take me over to see him and listen to his stories about being a riverboat captain on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. He was a lonely old man and my Dad recognized it. He just went there to help the old guy get through his last days.

The census pages were full of memories. Eventually, I found our family. We were a low to middle class family in a small house. A mother, a father and three little boys – all gone now, except for me.

I waited for about thirty years to look at the 1940 census. I’m old enough that I will probably never get a look at the 1950 census, so 1940 is “it” for me. And now that I have seen it, I’m not so sure it was the best thing I could have done.

Except that maybe Gilbert Goldberg might read this story and know for sure that I forgive him.

Out of the Mouths of Adults

The following article was written by my friend, Tom Fiske.

Thomas Fiske Today in a fit of bad old memories I recalled the kinds of things my parents would say as I was growing up. There were three of us mean little boys in the house (no sisters) and thus no model kids for us kids to emulate. I think the expression my dad used about us was “Hell on wheels,” which I presumed was a lot worse than Hell on Crutches or some such thing.

My pretty and dainty mother was reduced to threats such as “I’m going to tan your hide.” This was in the general category of such comments as “I’ll be forced to beat bumps on your head.” She was a soft spoken southern lady who was not easily provoked, but there were three of us imaginative Huck Finn types doing the provoking.

I do not feel good or bad about the way we treated our parents. It’s just that there was a lot of collateral damage in those days and our parents caught the brunt of it. What I really feel bad about is that I did not collect all the sayings our parents used. I really believe that if I could capture those words, I could present an accurate picture of what they were like.

It is important for all of us to collect those expressions while we can, because what people say tells a lot about them and allows others to see them the way they really were.

For instance, my father went through a period of a year or so in which he would end an explanation with, “Don’t you see.” It was not a question but a statement and it made him sound very professorial. He was one of those men who used an initial and then his middle name as a first name. His father did the same, becoming G. Walter Fiske when it suited him. It sounded pretentious to me, but perhaps I did not understand. My older brother, a very good mimic, began copying him and Dad gave it up. I think he began to not like the sound of it coming from my brother. He switched to such comments as “Lord love a duck!”

And my mother would say such things as “Lowsy me,” as she aged, which was a deep-fried southern expression that meant something like, “For heaven’s sake!”

What were some of the other expressions? “Wait until your father comes home!” was full of meaning for all of us. It was a general alert that cast a cloud of doom on the offender and caused the other two boys to scatter until just before dinner began.

“It’s good for you and will help you, too,” mother would say when the cod liver oil came out of the refrigerator. Oh, did I ever hate that stuff!

If all that weren’t enough, Mother used a lot of French words and pronounced them correctly, while Dad carried on short conversations with us in German. He had a German-American mother and he took German in college, while Mother took French in “finishing school,” whatever that was. Mother didn’t swear in any language, but Dad chose to do his swearing in English. I always felt my education was abbreviated because I could not swear in German. The Germans sounded more elegant to me when they swore.

Of course there were non-verbal expressions, such as the slow deliberations surrounding the choice of a willow branch with which to switch one or all of us, or choosing an adequate gentleman’s belt when capital punishment was called for.

Did we resent our parents and lash out against society? No, of course not. Nearly every boy we knew suffered the same. It was just part of growing up. In high school, for instance, I was quite good at grabbing my ankles while a teacher bashed me in the rear with a paddle. It smarted and I got smarter as time went on. In my senior year I was not paddled at all.

But I digress. I have been keeping a small booklet full of my parent’s and their parent’s comments. When I do write about my parents I will be able to describe them well, but more importantly, will be able to let them describe themselves by revealing the words they chose to use in everyday conversation.

Maybe this will not be as important as telling how they responded to the poor and those of different races and religions, but it will help round out the image I am trying to present. Perhaps it is a favor returned because they cared enough to straighten us out when we strayed from the straight and narrow.

Whatever the case I do it out of love and amusement, too. Maybe my children and grandchildren will understand me better as a result.

Grits or Genes

The following is another interesting article by Tom Fiske:

Thomas Fiske Not always do I practice genealogy. Sometimes I read about it. Right now I am reading a fun mystery by Fiona Mountain called Bloodline. It is a mystery involving a genealogical search in the Cotswolds in England. I have been there, and it looks like a genealogy unfolding. It’s a great place to lay your eyes on.

In her book, Ms Mountain wonders whether we are products of our genes or of our environment, or our own free will. “Sometimes I see my ancestors as puppet masters… It’s as if they’re there behind the scenes, controlling me, pulling strings I can’t see. I’m dancing to their tune…” a character in the book said. But in the final analysis, that character found herself in the middle between the pulls of Nature and Environment. I don’t know what happened to free will.

Everybody knows or at least suspects that the real determinant of personality (whether the forces of nature or environment take control) is nature, nurture, free will and sometimes all three. There is an entire political movement that asserts that our genes control us and we are not responsible for what we do. An opposite view is that we must take responsibility for what we do, for we alone are responsible.

Some people may really be driven more by genes than anything else. Who really knows whether there is an unseen hand that guides out lives? Well, genealogists have a closer look than many people. That is because we know how our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents lived. We can infer certain things by looking at their lives.

We know whether we are repeating their lives or not. I know that part of my life is very much like my father’s side of the family: mechanics and engineers and electrical designers and tinkerers, somewhat religious and very patriotic. Nearly all were entrepreneurs. I am the only economist, professional manager and teacher in the group, but I am not the only one to have run factories.

On the other hand I am only a little bit like my mother’s folks: farmers, lawyers, judges and politicians, with very little religion and patriotism thrown in. Innately, I do not trust lawyers and politicians. I heard enough “inside” stories to make an intelligent decision about which path to take. But my brother was like those folks and even looked like our grandfather on that side of the family.

You know about your own ancestors—how they ran their lives and what their abilities and expectations were. Perhaps in your family the genetic “pull” is strong. You also know much about your own talents and how you respond to the framework of the society in which you live. For instance, I am a Southerner who admired other Southerners.

I never will forget Carlisle Jefferson of Virginia. Yep, he was a white Jefferson descendant (maybe of Randolph). Carlisle lost his arm in WWI, when he has a dashing young pilot in France. He could deal a deck of cards with one hand faster than I could deal with two hands. He and his wife were friends of my parents. I wanted to be like him when I was a boy (but with two arms). He had great Southern manners and mannerisms that I still utilize in one form or another. Hunter S. Thompson, the author, lived across the street from us. He wrote about being a “Southern Gentleman,” so I was not the only one to be under the influence of that same environment.

I suppose everyone is influenced to some degree by his environment. But how much and in what ways do genetics, environment and other factors intermix to produce the person known as you?

Edward O. Wilson has supposed in one of his books, Consilience, that environment acts on genetics and that is why identical twins raised in different places, seem to grow up in different ways. My wife is one of those identical twins that has grown up somewhat differently from her sister. I think they are unalike but when my sister-in-law comes to visit, people mistake them for each other (I know one of the twins is heavier than the other, so if in doubt, I just pick one of them up).

It is not a problem of determining the “real” force that forms a personality, but of determining the mix or degree of forces. In spite of these problems we genealogists are in a position to observe patterns of behavior across the generations that can lead us to make useful observations about strong influences in a family. Sometimes there are those genetic influences that show up in trades such as medicine or scholarship or mechanics, and sometimes there are social problems such a tendency towards imprisonment. Some of us are wanderers. A cousin was on the Lewis and Clark Expedition. His father was a Virginia settler, while his son went off to California where he helped the U.S. take the territory from Mexico. They never saw each other after a brief period of childhood.

And all these factors are American. I have no idea what it was like in Europe or Asia or Africa. I have examined only those generations on U.S. shores. Some “forces” seemed to be genetic, some seemed to be born of free-will, some were social, and some were just nutty. No doubt there were other roots. All I can guess at with any accuracy is that something influenced certain families over several generations. I will probably never know what caused the something, just that it could have been present in the family’s genes or environment or possibly food supply.

Who knows? We all ate grits and loved ‘em.

Last Links to the Past

The following article is presented by my good friend, Tom Fiske:

Thomas Fiske Last July 2nd, the Fullerton (California) College Community Band put on its annual patriotic music performance. It was a large group that performed on the College quad surrounded by a huge crowd of listeners. The listeners brought their own dinners and tried to find spots in the grass in which to sit where the sun was not so beastly hot. Then a cool breeze came up and the music began.

The College puts on a good show, attracting many older folks. They are most often the ones who still believe in patriotism, flag waving and love of country. Many of them also served in the military. We were approaching the 4th of July, an important part of our history. No date was more important to Thomas Jefferson and John Adams than July 4th. They both refused to die until they had seen the fiftieth anniversary of the adoption of the Declaration of Independence. To some of us, it still is an important date.

As I looked around the quad area I wondered why these folks were really there. I went to be with friends, to listen to the music, to share stories about the past, and to reinforce the ties I had with the past. But there was another gentle attraction few of us recognized. It was the shared act of sitting around the campfire and telling stories that every generation has taken part in as far back as there have been campfires and groups of people to share them.

On July 2nd I noticed small groups of people, probably families, who ate together. Then there were those who recognized each other as members of the same community. And finally, there was the entire group that shared the common experience of Americanism. They enjoyed the music and the remembered hardships of war and military duty. Stories were passed on from one person to another and we learned, just as we had done a thousand generations before.

How many other ways do we meet like this? I wondered. There are church, mosque or synagogue meetings on various days of the week. Back in the 1930’s and 1940’s there were meetings among different families in which people huddled around radio sets to get the latest news and sports. There were and still are gardening clubs and ham radio groups and Boy and Girl Scout meetings.

Before the advent of radio, when people were not reading books, lecturers provided entertainment and a center of focus for groups who wanted to explore the world outside themselves (and maybe satisfy the urge to sit around the old campfire just one more time).

Larger ships of the 1900’s era provided speakers to entertain those bored passengers who traveled from one country to another. In my archives is a 1912 letter written by a U.S. ambassador to Turkey, who told about two such speakers. One was an old duffer who had been involved in the “Charge of the Light Brigade,” one of the bravest military actions ever taken (and one of the dumbest at the same time). It occurred about 68 years previously and the ambassador recalled:

“(I) met an older man named Sir John Blunt who was one of the very few survivors of the “Charge of the Light Brigade” at Balaclava in the Crimean War about 1854. He had been an aide-de-camp of Lord Napier, who led the charge and who was one of the early casualties. Sir John told the story of the Charge in such detail and poignancy that (the letter writer) said he thought he was there.”

“The Charge” inspired poems, stories and books before it was made into a movie. Its action had an iron grip on most who heard the story.

The letter writer told of another of the speakers he heard and came to know who was retired British Surgeon General May:

“May was on the hurried march across the desert to save General “Chinese” Gordon and his men in Khartoum around 1885. It was a terrible march for the 1,200 men who raced across the burning sands. Not all made it. May’s part of this large group consisted of 140 officers and men. Of them, 40 arrived. May was the only officer left in the group. Thirteen other officers had dropped out. May recalled, “Instead of rescuing Gordon and his comrades, we saw instead their heads stuck on pikes ornamenting the walls of the city.” They were two days too late.”

Not only were the passengers fascinated with stories told by people who were actual witnesses, but they also got to hear these stories with personal touches that publishers and editors did not have room for. Genuine history was passed on to other generations.

Don’t forget how we first learned about our ancestors. We were little kids once, in groups where family matters were discussed and people were described. The important things in their lives were brought out and their foibles were laughed at. Later, some of us researched the facts and stumbled into events no one told us about and soon we had an almost complete story. One cousin or another, looking at the same facts, would come up with a different story about the same person. That is when genealogy gets really interesting.

I maintain that it all goes back thousands of generations, when our ancestors sat around their campfires in the evening and entertained each other with their tales of the past. It was a survival mechanism such that those who followed the practice lived longer than those who wandered off by themselves under the watchful eyes of tigers or wolves.

Homer told and retold “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” many times. Others followed him for many generations with recitations before those two stories were written down. Perhaps the tellers saved many lives. In time, the urge to gather together in the evening around a large fire (to keep predators away) and the urge to share epic tales became inseparable.

Some of those stories are important to know by heart because they keep our nation together. How else are we going to reinforce our ties with each other and with the past? How are important times such as Independence Day to be remembered? I personally believe the resurgence of interest in genealogy will do its part.

Genealogists tell stories with the “personal touch,” which adds authenticity to their family histories. They often mention the important stories about how “Great-uncle Willie” was a personal guard to General Washington or some such person. When they repeat such stories, they reintroduce George Washington and his great military and managerial skills. (No kidding, I found a bronze highway marker which contained just such a story about an ancestor. Would a highway sign lie?) By telling our ancestors’ stories, we are telling the nation’s stories. So we need to keep up our good work.

We may be the last links to the past, or perhaps simply those who like to sit in front of a bonfire at night. However, there are many who prefer television sets, whose programs often seem to be designed to dull the mind, allowing the watchers to forget that Bengal tigers may be sneaking up on them.

Too Much Trouble

The following article is by my good friend, Tom Fiske:

There was no Grand Canyon trip for me as others on this Blog have taken. And I went to a lot of trouble recently to release my birth certificate on the Internet for the Thomas Fiskevery first time, but no one in the media took notice. They were all looking at some one else’s birth certificate. So I turned to a web page I am putting together for my old pal Howard.

There’s no doubt about it: Howard is dead – been dead for over ten years. We were good friends and I miss him a lot. I have been promising myself that I would put up a web page on the Internet in his honor. There is not enough about him on the ‘Net right now.

I knew Howard’s second wife and had met three of his children, so I knew there would be a lot of material. But I had no idea how much work this one web site was going to be.

The web site page is about finished and is not a work of art, but a work of genealogy. I had to determine when he was born and where, whom he married and where, what jobs he had held over a long career in psychology, and much more. Of course, I grew curious about a few things, like any genealogist. These had to be followed up.

As he grew older, Howard looked just like the movie actor, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. I wondered why he had not gone into the movie business. He had an IQ that was at the top of most people’s charts. Why not follow that up with a career in physics or cosmology, instead of being a college professor of psychology (I mean no offense to psychologists)? There were many questions, but few answers.

Anyway, after digging through my family’s past for thirty years, I felt adequate to the task of writing a few paragraphs about Howard. I thought genealogy was good training for such things.

Here are some of Howard’s achievements/activities: he was the author of three books. He was told by two thugs that if he wanted to live he would have to testify for Benjamin (Bugsy) Seigel in court. He taught a course at Purdue University with Dr. Lillian Gilbreth (mother of twelve children in the book and movie, Cheaper by the Dozen). He was personally asked by President Roosevelt to help out a sculptor (for whom he became an agent). He worked for Gen. Curtis LeMay during WWII and selected ten B-29 bomber crews for emergency missions. His number three choice flew the Enola Gay and dropped the first atomic bomb. Of course Howard didn’t know what was on the planes.

In California psychological circles he was the director of this and the manager of that. He lived on Catalina Island for a time while working for Phil Wrigley (who owned most of the Island). Later, Howard retired to a ranch in the Santa Barbara area where movie and TV personalities also lived. There, he was part owner of a winery that produced truly wonderful wines.
It is a long interesting list, only part of it is shown here. Naturally, each item had to be checked, where possible (I would check on these items even if my brother were involved. Especially, if my brother were involved.) So I did all that.

The work made me miss ole’ Howard. It was always exciting to work with him. But I might not want to hang around with him again. And when it comes to writing about people, I think I will stick to the more prosaic farmers and bootleggers in my own family. No one cared what they thought about gangsters, and only two of them were murdered.

Which reminds me – Bugsy Seigel was acquitted without Howard’s testimony and the thugs did not return, so Howard could breathe again. It was a harsh time in his life. Siegel went on to help establish Las Vegas and Howard went on to teach at USC. Now that I am about finished with the website page, I am going to be able to breathe again, too.

The Insider – NASA’s Man at Baikonur

The following book review is not about a genealogy book, instead it’s about an important period in American/Soviet history that was in the news nearly every day 1/2 century ago.

The Insider – NASA’s Man at Baikonur, by Thomas S. Fiske, 2011, 286 pp, ISBN: 978-1-935188-20-9.

A few days ago I finished reading another impelling book by my friend, Tom Fiske. Tom writes for and we stay in touch on a regular basis. So I’ve known for some time that this new book was coming out. During our correspondence over the last several years Tom would often comment about dealing with various super-secret government agencies, Sergei Khrushchev (Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s son), and others. He told me he was doing research for an upcoming book on an American who, with the United States backing, helped the Soviet Union with their fledgling space program. Yes – back in the bad old days when we had something called a “cold war.”

The story is about a gentleman whose specialty was “space medicine.” The man spent nine years of his life traveling to and from the USSR during the most heated years of what we all knew as the “space race.” His job was to help keep the Soviet cosmonauts alive – and he did a good job of it.
April 12 was the 50th Anniversary of Yuri Gagarin’s orbit of the earth in Vostok 1, so we’ve been hearing a lot about him the last week. But what you haven’t heard is that the pilot and cosmonaut Gagarin was a friend of an American working under cover who just may have helped to keep him alive on that first space orbit of the Earth.

Officially, all this never happened, but Tad Benson (an alias) did his humanitarian work as a physician and scientist while receiving no recognition for his work. He told his story to Tom when he realized that he had but a short time to live. Tom says that “grudgingly, US intel agencies have admitted that Tad was one of their own during the Space Race years, but little else.”

The book is printed as a work of fiction because of the sensitive nature of the material, and the unwillingness of governmental agencies tell the story. There are probably classified documents out there somewhere, but they haven’t been revealed yet.

The Insider is one heck of a great read. Being a history buff and having lived through the space race years (I collected all the newspapers with the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo space flight stories as a boy & young man), I found Tom’s latest book to be not only entertaining, but very informative. I just love knowing things that I’m “not supposed to know.”

Genealogy the Easy Way

The following article was written by my friend, Tom Fiske:

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.

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

The Detective in Us

The following article is by Tom Fiske:

Thomas Fiske It was quite wet outside and winds were swaying the trees very dramatically. But I didn’t care. The house was warm and dry and I had a new book – The Mysterious Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, (Puffin Classics). It wasn’t really new, just new to me. Our library puts on a sale of all kinds of books each year. These are donated items that the library sells in order to raise money. (I, the detective, suspect that the same books are re-donated each year for sale once more. The really interesting books may have been sold six or seven times. But mine looked fairly new, as though it had made the rounds only once or twice before. For fifty cents, what can you expect?)

A very special book, it contained three or four “new” stories written by Arthur Conan Doyle over a hundred years earlier. I had not read any of the stories, so you can see why I didn’t care how uncomfortable the weather was.

After heating a mug of cider in the microwave oven, I sat back in my big over-stuffed relaxer chair to consume my new treasure, while the winds howled. After a few pages I thought, “With some training, that Sherlock Holmes guy would have been a wonderful genealogist.” And he would have.

Sherlock worked in a small world in which all the important facts are brought to him daily in the form of newspapers. Often the population from which he deduced facts was limited to only a few Kings, Queens or other aristocrats or politicians. Instead of reading only about dead people he “read” live ones by examining their clothes, hands or shoes for clues about their backgrounds. He figured out “who done it” by making assumptions from a few clues and then helped arrest the villains in usually a bloodless manner. His friend Watson wrote up the stories from case notes.

Of course, when Holmes was bored, he shot up a seven per cent solution of heroin or he fiddled around, playing little known tunes on his violin. I sincerely hope genealogists do not use heroin when they research their families, although some badly done research I have seen might indicate the use of some kind of drugs.

Speaking of vices, Sherlock Holmes smoked cigarettes and, I believe the occasional cigar. This was the acceptable practice in his time and culture. So was dying at what we think was an early age. Forty years later when Social Security was enacted in this country, the time to collect on one’s contributions was age sixty-five. Our cynical government decided on this age because most working people died before age sixty-five. Now the average age at death for men is around seventy-six. During the extra years, people have accumulated wisdom and facts today that helped them to become better detectives than they could have been in Holmes’ time.

Sherlock was very much like us genealogists. And today’s genealogists are like detectives, sifting through names of people in a small population (all those whose surname is Smith in New England, for example). Sometimes we bring in expert researchers for assistance, just as Holmes works with police detectives such as Inspector Lestrade. We also deal with family members, just as Holmes did – or with military people for background information.

In some searches, of course, we spend years collecting facts until the truth emerges, while Holmes solves his cases usually within a few chapters of a book. He has a time limit, you see. We have the wonderful tool called the computer, which Holmes did not have. But his world was smaller, involving fewer people. Our world is larger in numbers of people, numbers of countries, and numbers of generations, so maybe it all evens out.

Holmes was confined to travel by trains between cities or to travel by horse-drawn carriages within London. I am sure his Baker Street traffic was no slower than the traffic we see on freeways and downtown streets. In town, he had to be careful where he stepped, which was a disadvantage of unknown proportion. We have better lighting at night than Holmes had. Therefore, we probably have more hours available to do our research.

So there are many plusses and minuses, even though our basic work is much the same: we are all detectives, but not totally scientific ones. Holmes made giant intuitive leaps in which he evidenced faith in himself. He had a very large ego. Some of us genealogists can claim a giant ego and the rest of us know we make those intuitive leaps. That is how we fill in all those blanks on the genealogy page before we have all the proof we need. The rest is plain old fact-finding and deduction based on the facts we find. And we use assumptions, too.

For instance, we assume that people within at least one generation of us live like we live (except for DVRs and cell phones). We can be pretty sure our fathers and their fathers hated politicians and taxes. We can also be sure that they reacted to taxation the same way we do. No doubt Holmes dealt with people who did the same things he did, and in the same way, too. It is one of the advantages of sharing a culture.

Sherlock was famous for saying, “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” How many times have we done our research by methodically eliminating the families in an area until only one is left that could be the family in our line? That is the family we concentrate on. Sometimes we cannot find proof of ancestry, but often we can. This method helps us focus on the (often) correct family or person we are seeking.

Yes, Sherlock Holmes would have been a wonderful genealogist. Instead of being bored and shooting up heroin, he could have done family history research for people. Likewise, some genealogists could be wonderful detectives. Actually, they are wonderful detectives, but with different titles and smaller paychecks.

I don’t know about you, but the detective work is what keeps me interested in genealogy. I have no heroin, so when I get bored I read books by people such as Arthur Conan Doyle, who invented Sherlock Holmes. And since I do not play the violin, I fiddle with Ham radio where I occasionally find new cousins. Once in a while my genealogy turns up murdered ancestors but sadly, I have to write up my own cases, since no one is interested in my genealogy but me.

But, genealogy beats daytime time TV. Without lost relatives and with nothing else to watch, who knows what I might shoot up in my dotage?

My Cloud Is Not Like Your Cloud

My friend, Tom Fiske, has a dilemma, and following are a few of his thoughts about it:

In Hebrews 12:1, we find something like this: “Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great Tom Fiske cloud of witnesses …” My cloud is different from most people’s. My cloud is a bunch of relatives who want me to write one more book. But I won’t give into them. I hope. They have good reason, which is all due to the genealogy information I turned up over the years.

When I finished General Morgan’s Legacy, I had a feeling there were a few more items I could have put in he book. General John Hunt Morgan was a Confederate officer who was captured by the Yankees in 1863. In the fall of that year, he and his aide, Captain Thomas H. Hines, dug their way out of their Ohio prison and escaped into Kentucky. Hines took Morgan to the home of my great-grandfather Will Pryor via the inn of a man named Pollard. Pollard is the great-grandfather of one of America’s finest writers, Wendell Berry. Using what family lore Wendell had and what lore my family told, plus many historical documents, including a letter from President Lincoln, I was able to put together the story of the Morgan escape.

General John B. Castleman Statue Later, Morgan was killed or murdered on a Tennessee battlefield and Hines escaped. Pryor fled to Canada. Hines joined forces with a fellow Confederate officer, John Breckinridge Castleman. Castleman’s brother was married to Pryor’s daughter. Hines and Castleman, with the help of others (possibly Pryor) set about destroying the supply lines of General U. S. Grant. They burned supply boats in St. Louis and then went to Indiana to sabotage more goods where they met with a man named Vallandigham. Vallandigham was “The Copperhead” and “The Man Without a Country.” He was not a Southerner, but was opposed to Lincoln and the war. What they conspired about is not known. But Vallandigham was a cousin of mine, so he was probably in some kind of trouble.

Hines and Castleman were captured. Castleman promised to leave the country and indeed, went to Europe. Hines was allowed to go to Canada, where he was some kind of a super spy not unlike James Bond. (Both sides spied on each other in Canada.) Finally, the war was over and then President Lincoln was assassinated. Only then did Hines, Pryor, Castleman and Vallandigham feel safe enough to return to their homes and resume their lives.

Clement Laird Vallandigham became a famous lawyer and eight years later accidentally shot Captain Thomas H. Hines at twenty-three (afterwards Chief Justice of the Kentucky Court of Appeals)himself while demonstrating a gun incident before a jury. Will Pryor was appointed circuit judge and then chief justice of Kentucky’s supreme court. There his friend Thomas Hines joined him. They took turns at being chief justice. John B. Castleman became a community leader and successfully avoided most political jobs. He was a local hero, and to this day there is a statue of him on a horse at the entrance to a great park in Louisville, Kentucky. In my mind it is a thinly disguised memorial to the Confederacy. (I was honored to know his nephew, Judge David R. Castleman, who was another cousin.)

So this group of men, all lawyers and mostly relatives, keep popping up in my mind. I know what they want. But I just do not want to write another book. I am going to hold out as long as I can… but I have this deep admiration for bravery and self-sacrifice that interferes. With any luck at all I will break an arm and by the time my arm becomes usable again, I will have forgotten this cloud of pestering relatives and their story.

Taking the Good With the Bad

Another short and thought-provoking piece by Tom Fiske:

Thomas Fiske

Genealogy has been great fun for the past twenty-five years, tracking down the ancestors and cousins and looking up all that information. Lots of real detective work. Sometimes I waited ten years or more for one tiny bit of information. Adding those bits were a kind of crowning glory to a partial quarter-century of work. Now I know quite a bit about all my great-grand parents and a lot about their parents as well. Some lines were easier, going back into Virginia in the 1600’s. One went back into England, another into Bavaria in the 1700’s.

There’s no doubt about it: I felt pretty good about my research and wrote at least three books that involved true stories about my ancestors and other relatives. Over time, I became the family historian. It was a lofty calling.

And then my world fell apart as I entered into the record that Robert Pryor Fiske died on September 3, 2010 at 12:25 P.M. in western Kentucky.

Jim, Tom & Bob Fiske Robert was my last living brother. Our family consisted of two wonderful parents and three mean little Fiske brothers. I was the youngest, and maybe the meanest, too. As a small boy, I was afraid that I would get lost from my family, that they would leave me behind somewhere. And that is eventually what happened. They are all gone and here I am, alone – but with the hope that we can be together at least one more time.

It never occurred to me that I would be entering my brother’s name and death date into the genealogical record. However, that was my responsibility. It was a joy to enter the names of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. But I sure felt horrible when I entered my brother’s name, partly for him and his family, but mostly for me.

Genealogy means you take the good with the bad.

Already I am looking for the next scribe in the family, a kid with the potential to keep the record intact. And one who will spell my name correctly.

Thomas S. Fiske
Fullerton, CA
January 25, 2011

Podcasting Your Family Stories

Another interesting post from Tom Fiske:

Thomas Fiske Some years ago I read that Leland Meitzler was going to be in Los Angeles at a genealogical meeting. We had never met except through letters and a few emails, so I decided to go meet him.

Leland was giving a talk on finding one’s ancestors through the use of tax lists. And it was a terrific talk. I went home determined to exercise my new knowledge. It helped, but I soon found out that those cheap ancestors of mine moved west rather than pay taxes. So I didn’t get as much help as I had hoped from tax lists. But I have always been glad that I got to meet Leland.

Leland has a vast knowledge in genealogy and in publishing. I, on the other hand, haven’t many specialties with broad interest, unless you want to know about Ham radio and propagation. But I did write a bunch of books. One of my books has in it many stories. These stories are often funny or agonizing in the way parents recognize as very personal. Some are about weird science and others are about bizarre history. I have been thinking about promoting the book in new ways.

My son got me interested in podcasting. That is, making short “radio” programs that are attached to one main theme. It isn’t hard to podcast—just find a decent microphone and a quiet place where you can read or tell your tale, using a free program called Audacity. So that is what I have been doing lately. I have been reading my stories into a microphone. My son adds a small amount of unobtrusive guitar music later, and helps me put the stories on the Internet. Soon they will be accepted by Itunes and will be offered for free.

The idea is that when people get interested in my stories they find they can order my book on or any other .com book store. And I can tell you that it is already working. I have a blog called Fiskacetics,“The Agony of Writing” and another called “Planting Trees.” So I write articles for my blogs and on the right hand side of the web page (sometimes it is the left) there is something called Links or Categories. Under these titles there is a topic called “Podcasts for “Four on the Floor.” Click on it and you have a choice of which story you want to hear. You will find me in my ordinary voice, telling a story about the day Holly’s eye came loose, or the time my brother shot his big toe off with a shotgun. Eventually there will be “the day the python pooped”—just be patient.

Podcasting is easy. For some it is a lot easier than writing. And it allows an author or storyteller to project his or her personality into each topic. This is useful unless you tend to preach. Anyway I hope to increase sales of my book with these stories. And I expect to expand into other books, those with very exciting and dramatic chapters in them.

The only thing I don’t like about podcasting is that I would rather not hear myself speak. But I will get over that in time, I hope.

I am suggesting that readers look into podcasting. Tell those stories about your nutty Uncle Joe and Aunt Clara, or those about the missionaries who barely escaped wild natives along the Amazon, or even tell how you do some difficult thing. Just remember—record at least ten stories of 5-15 minutes each and release one per week. Your single favorite story won’t cut it.

One thing though—be edifying and cheerful if you want Itunes to use your materials, or if you want return customers to your web site. Remember that good Biblical advice:

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things [they sell].“

Oops, I went and got too preachy. If you don’t believe me, try this web site and click on the podcast word on the left hand side—Kids’ Stories Podcast. It is free and you don’t have to buy anything.

I am convinced that American genealogists are a storehouse of world histories, if they will only share them.

Putting My Affairs in Order

The following article is another by my good friend, Tom Fiske.

Thomas FiskeIn the past several years I have undergone several serious medical operations. These are not the “you’ll be off your feet for a few weeks” types of procedures. Oh, no! These are the “Get your affairs in order” types of skirmishes between the doctor and my Maker.

I am not complaining because the doctors have been winning. It is the phraseology that bugs me. “Get your affairs in order” means one thing to one person and another thing the next. Say that to me and I immediately think of my genealogy. It means “get all your genealogy work into print or printable form.” And I do the best job I can. Afterwards I tell my treasured spouse how to get into the computer where all the financial information is stored, if I think of it.

Then the crisis is over and perhaps a lost cousin from Cincinnati calls me with new information. I carefully install his family back to 1870 and that throws off the pagination on a huge hunk of my genealogy book. When I have another heart attack the process begins again. It is not an endless cycle, but it is one with a lot of stops and starts in it.

After all, we moved from Arcadia, California, to Fullerton to be near a son who could help his mother when she finds herself alone. In other words, I came to Fullerton to kick the bucket. But I got a Ham radio license instead. Now I am doing my genealogy on the Amateur radio bands as well as by Internet. Yes, I have found two cousins by talking with them on the radio.

Furthermore, Ham radio requires my expertise on the roof in order to install and maintain my antennas. We Hams do emergency preparedness work and our equipment has to be ready for the next earthquake. I need to “get my affairs in order” about every time I go up there. I am not quite eighty years old yet, and I will quit going up there when I reach that age. Until then…

So my genealogy changes and lots of page numbers change with it. I have been using a standard genealogy program to make two books, one for my mother’s side of the family and one for my father’s side of the family. Both have changed significantly since the last time I was told to get my affairs in order. I have learned to make the two books in computer memory and not print them any more. The problem is that I never know when I will need to have them printed on paper with enough copies for family members.

My problem is finding a method of numbering pages so that the next email from a lost cousin will not screw up half the page numbers in my genealogy. I have a Ham radio handbook that is assembled by certain topics. These topics are given chapter numbers in normal order, followed by decimal points. Technology changes a great deal, so there are topics, sub topics and sub-sub topics set apart by decimal points, so that a vacuum tube could be found on page 3.12.06. That would be fine for family lines if a person could get an indexing genealogical computer program to use that system for page numbers. If I had such a system, I could put my genealogy in a loose leaf notebook and add pages where appropriate.

Then, when doctor tells me to put my affairs in order, I could smile for a change.

However, maybe I am looking at the problem all wrong. Once I have the books in my computer, I could print them to a DVD and include a GED copy afterwards. No pages are necessary with a DVD. And, I bet most family history libraries would love to have an indexed DVD of my family history. I could make ten DVDs and leave instructions for sending them to all the big libraries. That would take only a few minutes and would ensure that my work would last a while, provided that the library would be willing to update the information to the latest mode from time to time. (I do not know what follows DVDs, but I bet another method of storage is already in the wings.)

Tom, AA6TF