Conrad (Cunradt) Schlosser (1635-1694), Calvinist– 52 Ancestors #179

Thanks to the combined efforts of cousin Richard Miller, my friend Tom, a retired genealogist who works with German records and blog commenter, Karen Parker, we know that Conrad Schlosser is the father of both Anna Ursula Schlosser and Irene Charitas Schlosser through the sisters’ 1689 confirmation record which refers to “Irene Charitas and Anna Ursula, Conrad Schlosser’s daughters from Steinwinden.”

Clearly, I wanted to build this family, so I checked Family Search where I have found several German Church records previously.

I found a record of Conrad’s death in the record search by surname. You can also search by location, date and record type, or a combination. If one doesn’t work, try another. Some indexed records will show up in one type of search, but not another, even though they should.

No record images are available though, as you can see beside the camera icon. Bummer!

But there’s a secret tool. This nifty work-around is thanks to Tom who was working on finding the images of these records before I even found the index.

First, A Secret Trick

Do you see the camera icon where it says “no image found?” Well, that’s not always true and images are often available, even when it says otherwise.

We’re going to use a different tool.

First, if you don’t have an account for, create one. You’ll need one in order to sign in.

Then, under the dropdown for “Search” select “Catalog.”

Enter the place name. In this case, I entered Steinwenden and it autofilled the rest of the information.

Click on the blue Search button that you’ll see below the place name.

Next, you’ll see the relevant records for Steinwenden. I’m selecting “Church records.”

I see two options, only one of which includes the dates I’m interested in that begin in 1684. Happy dance! Happy dance!

Click on that link.

Now we can view the actual records by film number, and look, the camera image at the right in the green box indicates that these records ARE imaged. They aren’t indexed, but you can use the information from the regular search to locate the information, then browse the images to find the specific record you seek.

Ok, now back to Conrad.

Conrad’s Death

Conrad, Cunrad or Cunradt, his name is spelled all 3 ways in different records, was buried on February 13, 1694, the day before the Feast of St. Valentine. That typically means he died the day before. Before the days of embalming, people were buried quickly although there would have been no rush in February. According to WeatherSpark, February 9th is historically the coldest say in Steinwenden, and the temperature averages between 29 and 40 F. The ground probably wouldn’t have been frozen, so digging a grave wouldn’t have been a problem.

My friend, Tom, marked the entry with an X. How he reads and deciphers these records is utterly beyond me, but thankfully, he does. Conrad was age 59 at his death and so was therefore born in 1635.

Conrad’s Family Revealed Through Death Records

But there’s more.

Next we discover that his wife’s name was Anna Ursula and she outlived him, departing this world on March 15, 1701.

Anna Ursula’s death record is shown above, but there’s more there too. Conrad and Anna Ursula’s daughter, Anna Catherina’s death is recorded just above Anna Ursula’s, passing away March 3rd.

Below Anna Ursula’s death entry we find even more.

Conrad and Anna Ursula had a son, Johannes Schlosser born in 1680 who died 8 days later, on March 22, 1701, never having married. His death entry is the one beneath his mother’s entry, above.

That was one ugly March.

Another son, Carl was born in 1660 and died in 1731.

Carl’s death is recorded in the index, as well as the actual church record, below.  Sometimes deaths appear in the actual records that don’t know in the Family Search indexes.

A third son, Hans Peter, probably Johann Peter, was buried on July 31, 1691, having died at age 11. He would have been born about 1680, probably not long before the family immigrated to Steinwenden from Switzerland. It’s possible that Johannes and Hans Peter were twins, but more likely that the birth year is off because only the general age of death is given in the church record, not the actual birth year.

The 31st of July 1691 was buried in Steinwenden, Hans Peter Schlosser, son of Cunradt, aged about 11 years. Steinwenden Ev-Ref Kirche, BA (Homburg), Bavaria

Unfortunately, none of these records tell us where the Schlosser family originated or the occupation of Conrad.

Church and Graveyard

I would bet that Conrad is buried in the churchyard in Steinwenden. If the graves were marked at the time with more than a wooden cross, one wouldn’t be able to locate them today, because burial plots are reused in Europe. In some cases, family members are simply buried on top of or in the same place as an earlier ancestor. In other cases, the bones are removed to an ossuary to continue to their return to dust, freeing up the grave space for others, perhaps unrelated, to be buried. Customs and actual usage vary by location.

The church today in the center of Steinwenden was built in 1852, long after Conrad died, but the original church was probably located in the same location, and if not, certainly nearby. Keeping in mind that when Conrad and the Swiss immigrants settled in Steinwenden, there were only 6 families in residence, and one of those 6 could have been Conrad since we don’t know exactly when he arrived although it looks like it might have been in the spring of 1685. Six families, 25 people, and a church whose records begin in 1684!

Catholics and Protestants

Speaking of the church, this family has a somewhat unusual religious mixture.

On April 28, 1685, when Conrad would have been 50 years old, his daughter, Anna Maria married Melchior Clemens in Steinwenden. The typical marriage location was the church of the bride if the church of the bride and groom were different – assuming they were both of the same religious sect – meaning Catholic or Protestant.

In this case, the only church in Steinwenden was a protestant church which implies that both the bride and groom were protestant.

Anna Maria’s first child was born and baptized in this church on January 31, 1686, but then the unthinkable happened. Anna Maria apparently converted to Catholicism, because their subsequent children were baptized in the Catholic church in either Glan-Munchweiler, about 7 miles distant, or Ramstein, about 3 miles distant in the opposite direction.

Children cannot be baptized in the Catholic church unless both parents are Catholic.

Typically, the godparents must be Catholic too, given that the duty of the godparents is to raise the child in the event that something happens to both parents, and raise that child in the Catholic religion.

However, in this case, an exception was made for some reason. We have no way of knowing whether the churches in this region were relatively lax, or something else came into play, but regardless, an exception was made.

Ironically, it’s those Catholic church records that provide insight into Conrad Schlosser’s religion.


In 1694, Carl Schlosser, Conrad’s son and the brother of Anna Maria Schlosser Clemens stood up as the godfather in the Ramstein Catholic church for the son of his sister, Anna Maria. Carl is noted in the Catholic church record as “the honorable young man, Carolus Schlosser, Calvinist of Steinweiler.” Carolus is the Latin form of Carl. Honorable in this context probably means that his parents were married at his birth, but still, this record of a protestant standing up for a Catholic child at baptism is quite unusual.

This baptism occurred on May 9th, less than 2 months after Carl and Anna Maria had buried their father, Conrad, recorded for posterity (and grateful descendants) in the Steinwenden church records. Might this recent death have softened the resolve of the priest in Ramstein, or perhaps the reason the baptism took place in Ramstein is because that church was more lenient that the Catholic church in Glan-Munchweiler where the previous three children had been baptized.

At that time in Germany, the protestant church consisted of two branches. Beginning in the 1500s, many Germans accepted the teachings of Martin Luther (1483-1546) and the Evangelical or Lutheran church was formally established in 1531, breaking from the Catholic church.

Another group of protestants who accepted the creed of the Swiss Calvinist reformers eventually became members of the Evangelical Reformed Church which broke with the Catholic church about 1530.

Calvinists were named such by the Lutherans who opposed the sect referring to French reformer John Calvin (1509-1564). It was a common practice in the churches of the day to name what they perceived to be heresy after the founder of the heretical movement. Hence, Calvinism.

While the Calvinists and Lutherans were both protestant sects, they viewed each other as heretics and the Catholics thought both sects were heretical.

By SCZenz at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,

John Calvin (born Jehan Cauvin in France) preached at the St. Pierre Cathedral, the main church in Geneva. Of course, by the time that Conrad Schlosser was born in 1634, Calvin had been deceased for 70 years and the Schlosser family would have been learning the tenets of the faith from ministers of the Calvinist faith.

This tells us something of the Schlosser family history in the 100 years before Conrad’s birth, since the 1530s. The Schlossers had been separated from the Catholic faith for 100 years or less, about 4 generations.  In that time, someone converted to Calvinism.

Calvinists differ from Lutherans on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, theories of worship and the use of God’s Law for believers. For example, Calvinists of the time believed that Christ is actually present at the Lord’s supper, in spirit, but present just the same, as opposed to those who believed that the supper simply serves as a reminder of Christ’s death. Confession was also a part of the Calvinist faith.

Calvinist religious refugees poured into Geneva Switzerland, especially from France during the 1550s. In Switzerland, protestant churches were typically Calvinist, while Lutherans were found more in northern Germany. This further points to the Schlosser family’s Swiss origins and raises the possibility of French origins before that.

The Calvinists were known for simple unadorned churches and lifestyles, as show in this painting by Emanuel de Witte from about 1661, only a couple decades before our Calvinist Schlosser family is found in Steinwenden.

5 Points of Calvinism

The 5 points of Calvinism, referred to as TULIP, are as follows, according to Wikipedia’s article on Calvinism:

The central assertion of these points is that God saves every person upon whom he has mercy, and that his efforts are not frustrated by the unrighteousness or inability of humans.

  • Total depravity“, also called “total inability”, asserts that as a consequence of the fall of man into sin, every person is enslaved to sin. People are not by nature inclined to love God, but rather to serve their own interests and to reject the rule of God. Thus, all people by their own faculties are morally unable to choose to follow God and be saved (the term “total” in this context refers to sin affecting every part of a person, not that every person is as evil as they could be). This doctrine is derived from Augustine‘s explanation of Original Sin. While the phrases “totally depraved” and “utterly perverse” were used by Calvin, what was meant was the inability to save oneself from sin rather than being absent of goodness. Phrases like “total depravity” cannot be found in the Canons of Dort, and the Canons as well as later Reformed orthodox theologians arguably offer a more moderate view of the nature of fallen humanity than Calvin.
  • Unconditional election” asserts that God has chosen from eternity those whom he will bring to himself not based on foreseen virtue, merit, or faith in those people; rather, his choice is unconditionally grounded in his mercy alone. God has chosen from eternity to extend mercy to those he has chosen and to withhold mercy from those not chosen. Those chosen receive salvation through Christ alone. Those not chosen receive the just wrath that is warranted for their sins against God.
  • Limited atonement“, also called “particular redemption” or “definite atonement”, asserts that Jesus’s substitutionary atonement was definite and certain in its purpose and in what it accomplished. This implies that only the sins of the elect were atoned for by Jesus’s death. Calvinists do not believe, however, that the atonement is limited in its value or power, but rather that the atonement is limited in the sense that it is intended for some and not all. Some Calvinists have summarized this as “The atonement is sufficient for all and efficient for the elect.”
  • Irresistible grace“, also called “efficacious grace”, asserts that the saving grace of God is effectually applied to those whom he has determined to save (that is, the elect) and overcomes their resistance to obeying the call of the gospel, bringing them to a saving faith. This means that when God sovereignly purposes to save someone, that individual certainly will be saved. The doctrine holds that this purposeful influence of God’s Holy Spirit cannot be resisted, but that the Holy Spirit, “graciously causes the elect sinner to cooperate, to believe, to repent, to come freely and willingly to Christ.” This is not to deny the fact that the Spirit’s outward call (through the proclamation of the Gospel) can be, and often is, rejected by sinners; rather, it’s that inward call which cannot be rejected.
  • Perseverance of the saints” (also known as “perseverance of God with the saints” and “preservation of the believing”) (the word “saints” is used to refer to all who are set apart by God, and not of those who are exceptionally holy, canonized, or in heaven) asserts that since God is sovereign and his will cannot be frustrated by humans or anything else, those whom God has called into communion with himself will continue in faith until the end. Those who apparently fall away either never had true faith to begin with (1 John 2:19), or, if they are saved but not presently walking in the Spirit, they will be divinely chastened (Hebrews 12:5–11) and will repent (1 John 3:6–9).

The Wikipedia article contains a chart comparing Calvinism and Lutheranism. While to the Calvinists and Lutherans, I’m sure the differences were dramatic, today, they seem rather like unimportant details.

Conrad Schlosser might be rolling around in his grave right about now (if he still has one,) given what I just said!

Conrad’s Surname

The German name Schlosser translates to locksmith, fitter or metalworker, in English. This leads me to wonder what a locksmith would have done in the 1600s, in Germany or Switzerland.

Locksmiths were also metalworkers, which could have extended to other types of metalwork, including locks.

However, I did find one incredibly beautiful German lock and key that is about 400 years old.

A German locksmith, Peter Lenlein, has been credited with creating the first watch in the early 1500s, so locksmiths certainly existed by 1635 when Conrad was born. We don’t know when this family adopted surnames although surnames in Germany were in widespread usage before 1500. We will probably never know whether Conrad was a locksmith or not, but clearly at some point in his direct paternal line, someone was either a locksmith or worked with metal of some sort.

Conrad’s DNA

Conrad’s Y (paternal) DNA would have been carried by his sons. Of Conrad’s three sons born, only one lived to adulthood to marry and reproduce.

Carl Schlosser was buried on January 16, 1731, age 66 years and 3 months of age in Steinwenden. This record provides his birth in about October 1664, probably in Switzerland. Unfortunately, few Swiss records have been either transcribed or microfilmed.

Carl’s marriage at age 36 in January 27, 1701 is recorded in the Steinwenden church records, although 36 is somewhat late to marry.

Hans Carl Schlosser, son of the late Cunrad Schlosser of Steinwenden married Agnes, legitimate daughter of the late Hans Peter Hunen von Weisenheim.

Thankfully, Carl did marry, because even though he married late, he had a large number of children, which means there’s a prayer of a male Schlosser descendant for Y DNA testing today.

Carl and his wife set about having children right away, and continued for the next 20 years:

  • December 18, 1701 – baptism of Anna Regina Schlosser, daughter of Carl Schlosser and Agnes, died immediately after baptism. Carl’s sister, Regina Haffner was one of the godparents
  • December 24, 1702 – baptism of Anna Margaretha Schlosser, daughter of Carl Schlosser and Agnes, baptized quickly and died soon afterwards. Same godparents as 1701 child.
  • June 20, 1704 – baptism of Johann Michael Schlosser, son of Carl Schlosser and Agnes. Godparent was Elisabeth, wife of Johannes Muller, but we don’t know who this Johannes Muller was. Given that Irene Charitas Schlosser had married Johann Michael Mueller (deceased in 1694), this Johannes Mueller could be related, although he is probably not a son of Johann Michael Mueller. The only son of Johann Michael Mueller known to to survive was his namesake who was age 12 in 1704. However, the child’s given name was Johann Michael, so maybe.
  • July 29, 1705 – baptism of Anna Ursula Schlosser, daughter of Carl Schlosser and Agnes.
  • August 19, 1708 – baptism of Anna Catharina Schlosser, daughter of Carl Schlosser and Agnes.
  • March 17, 1711 – baptism of Maria Barbara, Schlosser, daughter of Carl Schlosser and Agnes.
  • November 12, 1733 – baptism of Regina Catharina Schlosser, daughter of Carl Schlosser and Agnes. On October 8, 1724, the burial of Regina was recorded in church records at age 11.
  • November 26, 1716 – baptism of Johannes Schlosser, son of Carl Schlosser and Agnes. On March 20, 1720, the burial was recorded in the church records for Johannes, age 4.
  • September 24, 1719 – baptism of Anna Margaretha Schlosser, daughter of Carl Schlosser and Agnes.

Unfortunately, only one of Carl’s sons survived, meaning that son’s descendants are our only prayer of finding a Schlosser male who carries Conrad’s Y chromosome today.

Equally as unfortunately, I can find no trace in the church records or at Ancestry of Johann Michael Schlosser after his birth.

If you descend from Johann Michael Schlosser, or are a male descended from the Schlosser line from Steinwenden or nearby, and can connect your line back to this Schlosser line, I have a Y DNA testing scholarship for you!

Regardless of how you descend from this line, I’d love to hear from you.

Working with the New Big Y Results (hg38)

If you are a Family Tree DNA customer, and in particular, a male or manage male kits, you’re familiar with the Big Y test.

The Big Y test scans the entire gold standard region of the Y chromosome, hunting for mutations, called SNPs, that define your haplogroup with great precision. This test also discovers SNPs never before found.  Those newly discovered SNPs may someday become new haplogroup branches as well. The Big Y test is how the Y DNA phylotree has been expanded from a few hundred locations a few years ago to more than 78,000, and along with that comes our understanding of the migration patterns of our ancestors.

We’re still learning, every single day, so testing new people continues to be important.

The Big Y is the logical extension of STR testing (panels 37, 67 and 111), which focus on genealogical matches, closer in time, instead of haplogroup era matches. STR locations mutate more rapidly than SNPs, so the STR test is more useful for genealogists, or at least represent an entry point into Y DNA testing. SNPs generally reach further back in time, showing us where are ancestors were before STR test results kick in.  More and more, those two tests have some time overlap as more SNPs are discovered.

If you want to read more, I wrote about this topic in the article, “Why the Big Y Test?”.  Ignore the pricing information at the end of that article, as it’s out of date today.

Before we talk about the new format of the Big Y results, let’s take a step back and look at the multiple reasons why Family Tree DNA created a new Big Y experience.

The first reason is that the human reference genome changed.

What is the Human Reference Genome?

The Human Reference Genome is a genetic map against which everyone else is compared.  In essence, it’s an attempt to give every location in our genome an address, and to have them all line up on streets where they belong on a nice big chromosome by chromosome grid.

That’s easier said than done.  Let’s look at why and begin with a little history.

Hg refers to the human reference genome and 38 is the current version number, released in December of 2013.

The previous version was hg19, released in February of 2009.

This seems like a long time ago, but each version requires extensive resources to convert data from previous versions to the newer version.  Different versions are not compatible with each other.

You can read more about this here, here, here and here, if you really want to dig in.

Hg19, the version that we’ve been using until now, was based only on 13 anonymous volunteers from Buffalo, New York. Hg38 uses far more samples and resequences previously sequenced results as well. We learned a lot between 2009 when the previous version, hg19, was released and 2013 when hg38 was released.

Keeping in mind that people are genetically far more alike than different, sequencing allows most of the human genome to be mapped when the genomes of those reference individuals are compared in layers, stacked on top of each other.

The resulting composite reference map, regardless of the version, isn’t a reflection of any one person, but a combination of all of those people against which the rest of us are compared.

Areas of high diversity, in this case, Y SNPs, may differ from each other. It’s those differences that matter to us as genealogists.

In order to find those differences, we must be able to line up the genomes of the various people tested, on top of each other, so that we can measure from the locations that are the same.

Here’s an example.  All 4 people in this table above match exactly on locations 1-7, 9- 10 and 13-15.

Locations 8, 11 and 12 are areas that are more unstable, meaning that the people are not the same at that location, although they may not match each other, hence the different colored cells.

From this model, we know that we can align most people’s results on the green locations where everyone matches everyone else because we are all human.

The other locations may be the same or different, but they can’t be aligned reliably by relying on the map. You can read more about the complexity of this topic here and a good article, here.

A New Model

The challenge is that between 2009 and 2013, new locations were discovered in previously unmapped areas of the genome.

Think of genome locations as kids sitting in assigned seats side by side in a row.

Where do we put the newly discovered kids?

They have to crowd in someplace onto our existing map.

We have to add chairs between locations. The white rows below represent the newly discovered locations.

When we add chairs, the “addresses” of the kids currently sitting in chairs will change.  In fact, the address of everyone on the street might change because everyone has shifted.  Many of the actual kids will be the same, but some will be new, even though all of the kids will be referenced by new addresses.

This is a very simplified conceptual explanation of a complex process which isn’t simple at all.  In addition to addressing, this process has to deal with DNA insertions, deletions, STR markers which are repeats of segments, palindromic mutations as well as pseudo-autosomal regions of the Y chromosome. Additionally, not all reads or calls are valid, for a number of reasons. Due to all these factors, after the realignment is complete, analysis has to follow.

Suffice it to say that converting from one version to the next requires the data to be reanalyzed with a new filter which requires a massive amount of computational power.

Then, the wheat has to be sorted from the chaff.


The conversion to hg38 has been a boon for discovery, already.  For example, Dr. Michael Sager, “Dr. Big Y” at Family Tree DNA has been busily working through the phylotree to see what the new alignment provides.

In November, he mentioned that he had discovered correct placement for a new haplogroup, high in the R1b tree, that joined together several subclades of U106.

In hg19, U106 had 9 subclades, all of which then branched downwards.

However, in hg38, utilizing the newly aligned genome, Michael can see that U106 has been reconfigured and looks like this instead.

Look at the difference!

  • Two new haplogroups have been placed in their proper location in the tree; Z2265 and BY30097.
  • A2150 has been repositioned.
  • Because of the placement of A2150 and Z2265, U106 now only has two direct branches.
  • S19589 has been moved beneath Z2265
  • The remaining 7 peach colored haplogroups in the old tree are now subclades of BY30097.

You may not know or realize that this shuffle occurred, but it has and it’s an important scientific discovery that corrects earlier versions of the phylotree.

Congratulations Dr. Sager!

So, how does the conversion to hg38 affect customers directly?

The Conversion

In or about October 2017, Family Tree DNA began their conversion to hg38. Keep in mind that no other vendor has to do this, because no other vendor provides testing at this level for Y DNA, combined with matching.

Not only that, but there is no funding for their investment in resources to do the conversion.  By that I mean that once you purchase the product, there is no annual subscription or anything else to fund development of this type.

Additionally, Family Tree DNA designed a new user interface for the enhanced Big Y which includes a new Big Y browser.

The initial conversion has been complete for some time, although tweaking is still occurring and some files are being reconverted when problems are discovered.  Now, the backlog of tests that accumulated during the conversion and during the holiday sale are being processed.

So, what does this mean to the consumer?  How do we work with the new results?  What has changed and what does all of this mean?

It’s an exciting time. We’re all waiting for new matches.

I’m going to step through the features and functions one at a time, explaining the new functionality and then what is different, and why.

First Look

On your personal page, you have Big Y Results and Big Y Matches.

Either selection takes you the same page, but with a different tab highlighted.

Named Variants

Named variants are SNPs that are already known and have been given SNP names.

At the bottom of the page, you can see that this person has 946 SNPs out of 77,722 currently on the tree.  Many SNPs on the tree are equivalent to each other.

The information about each SNP on this page shows that it’s derived, meaning it’s a mutation and not ancestral which is the original state of the DNA.

If you look closely, you’ll see that some of the Reference and Genotype values are the same.  You would logically expect them to be different.  These are genuine mutations, but they are listed as the same because in hg19, the reference model, which is a composite, is skewed towards haplogroup R.  In haplogroup R, these values are the same as the person tested (who is R-BY490), so while these are valid mutations on the tree of humanity, they are derived and found in all of haplogroup R. The same thing happens to some extent with all haplogroups because the reference sequence is a composite of all haplogroups.

The next column indicates whether the SNP has or hasn’t yet been placed on the Y tree.

The Reference column refers to the value at this address shown in the hg38 reference model, and the Genotype column shows the tester’s result at that location.

The confidence column shows the confidence level that Family Tree DNA has in this call. Let’s talk about confidence levels for a minute, and what they mean.

Confidence Levels

The Big Y test scans the Y chromosome, looking for specific blips at certain addresses.  Every location has a “normal” blip for the Y chromosome as determined by the reference model.  Any blips that vary from the reference model are flagged for further evaluation.

Blips can be caused by a mutation, a read error or a complex area of DNA, which is why there is a threshold for a minimum number of scans to find that same anomaly at any single location.

The area considered the “gold standard” portion of the Y chromosome which is useful genealogically is scanned between 55 and 80 times.  Then the scans are aligned and compared to each other, with the blips at various locations being reported.

The relevance of blips can vary by location and what is known as density in various regions.  In general, blips are not considered to be relevant unless they are recorded a minimum of 5 to 8 times, depending on the region of the Y chromosome.  At that level, Family Tree DNA reports them as a medium confidence call. High confidence calls are reported a minimum of 10 times.

Some individuals and third-party companies read the BAM files and offer analysis, often project administrators within haplogroup projects.  Depending on the circumstances, they may suggest that as few at 2 blips are enough to consider the blip a mutation and not a read error.  Therefore, some third-party analysis will suggest additional haplogroups not reported by Family Tree DNA. Project administrators often collaborate with Dr. Sager to coordinate the placement of SNPs on the tree.

Therefore, at Family Tree DNA:

  • You will see only medium and high confidence calls for SNPs.
  • Over time, your Unnamed Variants will disappear as they are named and become Named Variants with SNP names.
  • When Unnamed Variants become Named Variants, which are SNPs that have been named, they are eligible to be added to the Y tree.
  • If the SNP added to the Y tree is below your present terminal SNP, you may one day discover that you have a new terminal SNP, meaning new haplogroup, listed on your main page. If the new SNP is within 5 upstream of your terminal SNP, looking backward up the tree, you’ll see it appear in your mini-tree on your personal page and on your larger Haplogroup and SNP page.

Unnamed Variants

Unnamed variants are newer mutations that have not yet been named as SNPs.

In order for a mutation to be considered a SNP, in true genetics terms, it has to be found in over 1% of the population.  Otherwise, it’s considered a private, personal, family or clan mutation.

However, in reality, Family Tree DNA attempts to figure out which SNPs are being found often enough to warrant the assignment of a SNP number which means they can be placed on the haplotree of humanity, and which SNPs truly are going to be private “family mutations.”  Today, nearly all mutations found in 3 or more individuals that are considered high confidence calls are named as SNPs.

Both named and unnamed variants are a good thing.  New SNPs help expand and grow the tree.  Personal or family SNPs can be utilized in the same fashion as STR markers.  Eventually, as new SNPs are categorized and named, they will be moved from your Unnamed Variants page and added to your Named Variants page.

If you had results in the hg19 version, your unnamed variants will have changed.  Just like those kids sitting on the bleachers, your old variants are either:

  • Still here but with a new name
  • Have been given SNP names and are now on your Named Variants list

The great news is that you’ll very probably have new variants too, resulting from the new hg38 reference model and more accurate alignment.

If you’re really a die-hard and want to know which hg19 locations are now hg38 locations, you can do the address conversion here.  I am a die-hard but not this much of a die-hard, plus, I didn’t record the previous novel variant locations for my kits.  Dr. Sager who has run this program tells me that you only need to pay attention to the two drop down menus specifying the “original” and “new” assemblies when utilizing this tool.

Y Chromosome Browser Tool

You’ve probably already noticed the really new cool browser tool, positioned tantalizingly to the right of both results tabs.

Go ahead and click on either a SNP name or an unnamed variant.

Either one will cause a pop up box to open displaying the location you’ve selected in the Big Y browser.

Utilizing the new Y chromosome browser tool, you can see the number of times that a specific SNP was called as positive or negative during the scan of your Y DNA at that specific location.

To see an example, click on any SNP on the list under the SNP Name column.

The Y chromosome browser tool opens up at the location of the SNP you selected.

The SNP you selected is displayed in pink with a downward arrow pointing to the position of the SNP. The other pink locations display other nearby SNP positions.

See that one single pink blip to the far right in the example above?  That’s a good example of just one call, probably noise.  You can see the difference between that one single call and high confidence reads, illustrated by the columns of pink SNP reads lined up in a row.

You can click on any of your SNP positions, named or unnamed, to see more information for that specific SNP.

Pink indicates that a mutation, or derived value, was found at that location as compared to the ancestral value found in the reference model.

Blue rows and green rows indicate that the forward (blue) or reverse (green) strand was being read.

The intensity of the colors indicates the relative strength of the read confidence, where the most intense is the highest confidence.

The value listed at the top, T, A, C or G is the abbreviation for the ancestral reference nucleobase value found in the reference population at that genetic location, and the value highlighted in pink is the derived (mutated) value that you carry.

Confidence is a statistical value calculated based upon the number of scans, the relative quality of that part of the Y chromosome and the number of times that derived value was found during scanning.

I love this new tool.

I hope that in the next version, Family Tree DNA will include the ability to look at additional locations not on the list.

For example, I was recently working on a Personalized DNA Report where the SNP below the tester’s terminal SNP was not called one way or another, positive or negative.  I would have liked to view his results for that SNP location to see if he has any blips, or if the location read at all.


The third tab displays your Big Y matches and a mini-tree of your 5 SNPs at the end of your own personal branch of the haplotree.

Your terminal SNP determines the terminal (final or lowest) subbranch (on the Y-DNA haplotree) to which you belong.

On your mini-tree, your terminal SNP (R-BY490 above) is labeled YOU.

The number of people you match on those SNPs utilizing the new matching algorithm is displayed at each branch of the tree.

The matches shown above are the matches for this person’s terminal SNP. To see the people matching on the next branch above the terminal SNP, click on R-BY482.

The number listed beside these SNPs on your 5 step mini-tree is NOT the total number of people you match on that branch, only the number you match on that branch AFTER the matching algorithm is applied.

I put this in bold red, because based on the previous matching algorithm that managed to include everyone on your terminal SNP, it’s easy to presume the new version shows everyone in the system who matches you on that SNP – and it doesn’t necessarily.  If assume it does or expect that it will, you’re likely to be wrong. There is a significant amount of confusion surrounding this topic in the community.

New Matching Algorithm

The Family Tree DNA matching algorithm has changed substantially. It needed to be updated, as the old matching algorithm had been outgrown with the dramatic new number of SNPs discovered and placed on the phylotree. Family Tree DNA created the original matching software when the Big Y was new and it was time for a refresh. In essence, the Big Y testing and tree-building has been successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams and the matching routine became a victim of its own success.

Previously, Family Tree DNA used a static list of somewhere around 6,000 SNPs as compared to over 350,000 today, of which more than 78,000 have been placed on the tree. By the way, this SNP number grows with every batch of Big Y results because new SNPs are always found.

The previous threshold for mismatches was 4 SNPs. As time went on, this combination of a growing tree and a static SNP list caused increasingly irrelevant matches.

For example, in some instances, haplogroup U106 people matched haplogroup P312 people, two main branches of the R1b haplotree, because when compared to the old SNP list, they had less than 4 SNP mismatches.

The new Big Y matching routine expands as the new tree grows, and isn’t limited.  This means that people who were shown as matches to haplogroups far upstream (e.g. P312/U106), whose common ancestor lived many thousands of years ago, won’t be shown as matches at that level anymore.

Many people had hundreds of matches and complained that they were being shown matches so distant in time that the information was useless to them.

The previous Big Y version match criteria was:

  • 4 or less differences in Known SNPs (now Named Variants.)
  • In addition, you could have unlimited differences in Unnamed Variants, then called Novel Variants.

Family Tree DNA has attempted to make the matching algorithm more genealogically relevant by applying a different type of threshold to matching.

In the current Big Y version, a person is considered a match to you if they have BOTH of the following:

  • 30 or fewer differences in total SNPs (named and unnamed variants combined.)
  • Their haplogroup is downstream from your terminal SNP haplogroup or downstream from your four closest parent haplogroups, meaning any of the 5 haplogroups shown on your 5 step mini-tree.

Here’s the logic behind the new matching algorithm threshold.

SNP mutations happen on the average of one every 100 years.  This number is still discussed and debated, but this estimate is as good as any.

If your common ancestor through two men had two sons, 1500 years ago, and each line incurred 1 mutation every hundred years, at the end of 1500 years, the number of mutations between the two men would be approximately 30.

Family Tree DNA felt that 1500 years was a reasonable cutoff for a genealogical timeframe, hence the new matching threshold of 30 mutations difference.

The new match criteria is designed to reflect your matches that are most closely related to you.  In other words, the people on your match list should be related to you within the last approximate 1500 years, and people not on your match list who have taken the Big Y are separated from you by at least 30 mutations.

There may be people in the data base that match you on your terminal SNP and any or all of the SNPs shown on your mini-tree, but if you and they are separated by more than 30 differences (including both named and unnamed variants) on the Y chromosome, they will not be shown as a match.  

By clicking on the SNP name on your mini-tree, at right, you can see all of the people who match you with less than 30 differences total at each level, and who carry that particular Named Variant (SNP). The example shown above show this person’s matches on their terminal SNP. If they were to click on BY482, the next step up, they would then see everyone on their match list who is positive for that SNP.

On your match page, you can search for a specific surname, nonmatching variants or match date.

The Shared Variants column is the total number of shared variants you have with the match in question.  According to the lab at Family Tree DNA, this number very high because it is reflective of many ancient variants.

You can also download your data from this page into a spreadsheet.

The Biggest Differences

What you don’t receive today, that you did receive before, is a comprehensive list of who you match on your terminal and upstream SNPs.

For example, I was working with someone’s results this week.  They had no matches, as shown below.

However, when I went to the relevant haplogroup project page, I discovered that indeed, there are at least 4 additional individuals who do share the same terminal SNP, but the tester would never know that from their Big Y results alone, if they didn’t check the project results page.

Of course, it’s unlikely that every person who takes the Big Y test joins a Y DNA project, or the same Y DNA project.  Even though projects will show some matches, assuming that the administrator has the project grouped in this manner, there is no guarantee you are seeing all of your terminal SNP matches.

Project administrators, who have been instrumental in building the tree can also no longer see who matches on terminal SNPs, at least not if they are separated by more than 30 mutations. This hampers their ability to build the Y tree.

This matching change makes it critical that people join projects AND make their results viewable to project members as well as publicly.  Most people don’t realize that the default when joining projects is that ONLY project members can see their results in the project. In other words, the results are available in the public project, like the screenshot above.

You can read more about Family Tree DNA’s privacy settings here.

Another result of the matching algorithm change is that in some cases, one man may match a second man, but the second man does not show up on the first man’s match list.

I know that sounds bizarre, but in the Estes project, we have that exact scenario.

The chart above shows that none of the Estes Big Y participants match kit number 166011, also an Estes male, but kit 166011 does show matches to all of those Estes men.

Kit 166011 is the one to the far right on the pedigree chart above, and he is descended from a different son of Robert born in 1555 than the rest of the men.  Counting from kit 166011 to Robert born in 1555 is 12 generations.  Counting from kits 244708 and 199378 to Robert is 10 generations, so a total of 22 generations between those men.

Kits 366707, 9993 and 13805 are 11 generations from the common ancestor, so a total of 23 generations.  Not only are these genealogically relevant, they carry the same surname.

The average of 30 mutations reaching to 1500 years doesn’t work in this case.  The cutoff was about 1555, or 462 years, not 1500 years – so the matching algorithm failed at 30% of the estimated time it was supposed to cover.  I guess this just goes to prove that mutations really don’t happen on any type of a reliable schedule – and the average doesn’t always pertain to individual family circumstances.

If you’re wondering if these men match on STR markers, they do.

In this case, the Big Y doesn’t show matches in a timeframe that STR markers do – the exact opposite of what we would expect.

One of the benefits of the Big Y, previously, was the ability to view people of other surnames who matched your SNP results.  This ability to peer back into time informed us of where our ancestors may have been prior to where we found them.  While this isn’t genealogy, per se, it’s certainly family history.

A good case in point is the Scottish clans and how men with different surnames may be related.

As a family historian I want to know who I match on my terminal SNP and the direct upstream SNPs so I can walk this line back in time.

What’s Coming

At the conference in Houston in November, Elliott Greenspan discussed a new direction for the Big Y in 2018.  The new feature that all Big Y testers are looking forward to is the addition of STRs beyond the 111 marker panels, extracted from the Big Y as a standard product offering. Meaning free for Big Y testers.

The 111 and lower panels will continue to be tested on their current Sanger platform.  Analysis of more than 3700 samples in the data base that have both the Big Y and 111 markers indicate that only 72 of the 111 STR markers can be reliably and consistently extracted from the Big Y NGS scan data. The last thing we want is unreliable NGS data being compared to our Sanger sequenced STR values. We need to be able to depend on those results as always being reliable and comparable to each other. Therefore, only STR markers above 111 will be extracted from the Big Y and the original 111 STR markers will continue to be sold in panels, the same as today.

However, because of the nature of scanning DNA as opposed to directly testing locations, all of the markers above 111 will not be available for everyone. Some marker locations will fail to read, or fail to read reliably.  These won’t necessarily be the same markers, but read failure will apply to some markers in just about every individual’s scan.  Therefore, these additional STR markers will be supplemental to the regular 111 STR markers. You get what you get.

How many additional markers will be available through Big Y?  That hasn’t been finalized yet.

Elliott said that in order to reliably obtain 289 additional markers, they need to attempt to call 315.  To get 489, they have to attempt more than 600, and many are less useful.

Therefore, speculating, I’d guess that we’ll see someplace between 289 and 489, the numbers Elliott mentioned.

Are you salivating yet?

Given that the webpage and display tools have to be redesigned for both individuals’ results, project pages and project administrators’ tools, I’d guess that we won’t see this addition until after they get the kinks worked out of the hg38 conversion and analysis.

It’s nice to know that it’s on the way though. Something to look forward to later in 2018.

In Summary

I know that the upgrade to hg38 had to be done, but I hated to see it.  These things never go smoothly, no matter who you are and this was a massive undertaking.

I’m glad that Family Tree DNA is taking this opportunity to innovate and provide the community with the nifty new Y DNA browser.

I’m also grateful that they listen to their customers and make an effort to implement changes to help us along the genealogy path.

However, sometimes things fall into the well of unintended consequences.  I think that’s what’s happening with the new matching routine. I know that they are continuing to work to tweek the knobs and refine the results, so you’re likely to see changes over the next few months. It’s not like there was a pattern or recipe anyplace.  This has never been done before.

Here’s a list of changes and updates I’d suggest to improve the new hg38 Big Y experience:

  • In addition to threshold matching, an option for direct SNP tree matching through the 5 SNPs shown on the participant’s 5 step mini-tree, purely based on haplotree matching. This second option would replace the functionality lost with the 30-mutation threshold matching today.
  • A matches map of the most distant ancestors at each level of matching for both threshold matching and SNP tree matching.
  • An icon indicating whether a Big Y match is an STR match and which level of STR panel testing the match has completed. This means that we could tell at a glance that a Big Y match has tested to 111 markers, but is only a match at 12.
  • An icon indicating if the Big Y match has also taken the Family Finder test, and if they are a match.
  • An icon on STR matches pages indicating that a match has taken a Big Y test and if they are a match.
  • Ability to query through the Big Y browser to SNP locations not on the list of named or unnamed variants.
  • Age estimates for haplogroups.

If you are seeing Big Y results that you find unusual or confusing, please notify Family Tree DNA support. There is a contact link with a form at the bottom of your personal page.  Family Tree DNA needs to be aware of problems and also of customer’s desires.

Family Tree DNA has indicated that they are soliciting customer feedback on the new Big Y matching and tools.

Please also join a relevant haplogroup project as well as a surname project, if you haven’t already. Here’s an article, What Project Do I Join?, to help you find relevant projects.

If you think you have an unnamed variant that should be named and placed on the phylotree, your haplogroup project administrator is the person who will work with you to verify that the unnamed variant is a good candidate and submit the unnamed variant to Family Tree DNA for naming.

If you are a project administrator having issues, questions or concerns, you can contact the group projects team at  Be sure that this address is in the “to” field, not the “cc” field as the e-mail will bounce otherwise.

Don’t forget that you can reference the Family Tree DNA Learning Center about your Big Y results.

Thank you to Dr. Sager for his assistance with this article.


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Recovering the Past – WayBackMachine

Nothing is forever, especially not on the internet.

Have you ever utilized a site, only to discover that precious information was gone the next time you wanted to reference the site?  And I don’t mean that piece of data was missing, but the entire site was AWOL.

We think in today’s digital world that increasingly more and more information is becoming available, and while that’s true, some also disappears.  People die, sites and providers become obsolete.  Whatever the reason, you may have some recourse finding that missing site.

The site WayBackMachine, provided by Internet Archives “crawls” sites and archives their contents, or at least part of their contents, periodically. They have saved over 308 billion, yes billion, web pages since 1996 – 21 years.

And by the way, Internet Archives is contribution funded, so if you use the site and find it valuable, please contribute what you can.

Find the Name and URL of the Site You Seek

The first piece of information you need is the actual website address of the site you are seeking. You can obtain that in a number of ways:

  • Check your saved links
  • Look in any document where you may have saved or embedded a link
  • Check old Genforum or Rootsweb lists that might pertain
  • Google for the site name or any other information that might produce a result

Note that each page of a site has it’s own URL so you may need a page URL, not just the main site’s URL.  The main site’s URL will contain the cover or landing page which may or may not lead to the page you actually want.

Let’s say all I can find are Iinks where I can’t actually see the website address.  What then? Let’s step through this process.

Finding the Address of an Embedded LInk

Next, go to WayBackMachine at this link:

I provided the actual link above to illustrate the difference between an embedded link, under the word WayBackMachine, and a link that is spelled out with its actual url.  Sometimes you can “mouse over” or “fly over” the embedded link with your cursor to display the real address.  Sometimes not.

To find the actual address of the embedded link, behind the word WayBackMachine, above, click or double click on the link. You may have to control+click. The link will then take you to the address or url.  If the site is there, you’re in luck.  If not, you will receive an error message, but you will then be able to see in the url line the address to which the embedded link tried to resolved.  That’s the address you want, which is the same as the link that is spelled out. Copy that link, because you’ll need it for finding an archived copy in WayBackMachine.

Using WayBackMachine

By now, you should be at WayBackMachine.  Let’s use my own blog address as our guinea pig.  Let’s pretend that for some reason, my blog was suddenly gone.  Yes, in a pique of outrage or a horrible mistake, I could delete all 900+ articles in the blink of an eye by deleting the site itself.  Of course, I’m not planning for that to happen. But life doesn’t always go according to plan.

However, and this is a really big however, should I die unexpectedly, you know, like from that blood clot when chocolate and my ancestors tried to kill me earlier this year, and no one paid the annual fee to WordPress, my blog seriously would be gone. So would anyone else’s in the same situation.  WordPress is free “forever” for unpaid sites, but paid sites are another matter.  And who knows what forever means in reality.

At WayBackMachine, enter the url of the site you want to find.  I’m calling this the target site – the one you are searching for.

If you enter a partial url, WayBackMachine finds candidates from as much as you entered.

If you have used this tool before, the format has changed and isn’t terribly intuitive, or wasn’t to me. Let’s step through the results.

What You See

For, you can see that they began crawling, which is a technical term for scanning, my blog in mid 2012.  That’s exactly when I started this blog.

The have scanned the blog often ever since, which makes since, given that I publish at least twice weekly.

On the top row, you are positioned in the current year whose calendar is displayed below the year band. To view other years, side back and forth on the year bar. The yellow year is the calendar you are viewing, below the year band.

On the calendar portion, you will see blue or green dots.

Now, you’re going to laugh, but I could not for the life of me figure out how to actually display the website I was searching for.  In all fairness, the site I was hunting was older and the little colored dots were not visible on my screen, meaning I would have had to scroll down to see them.  This is where you need another set of eyes.  I want to say a very big thank you to my long time friend (and DNA project co-administrator) Janet Crain for figuring out what to do next.

On the calendar, click on the blue and green dots to view actual archives pages from the site you are seeking. If you’re saying “duh,” I know, so was I.  It’s intuitive AFTER you know how it works and you actually see the dots.  In my defense, Janet said it took her awhile to figure this out too. Maybe she was just being nice😊

Once WayBackMachine brings up the target site for you to view, you can then click on links on that original site, and those links will (sometimes) go to other pages on the site that WayBackMachine has also saved.

Not all target site links are saved, and links that involve applications (like searching for a surname) don’t work, because the application isn’t saved, just the viewing page.  Sometimes search features are just ways to view additional pages, and if that is the case, you may be able to find what you are seeking by poking around. For example, if the search is only making it easier to find your ancestor on a page that is fully displayed on the site, that page may well still be available, even if the search function no longer works. However, if the search only shows you a piece of data from a data base behind the scenes, the search will no longer work.

Having said that, WayBackMachine has been my salvation more than once.

By this time, you’ll either have what you were seeking, or many more questions.  For answers to those questions, refer to the WayBackMachine FAQ.

How Does This Affect Genetic Genealogy?

You may be asking yourself how this affects genetic genealogy and why I’m writing about it.

The genetic part of genetic genealogy is only half the equation.  Genetic plus genealogy.  Genealogy is the other half.

If you’ve been doing genealogy more than a few minutes, you’ll surely have needed to retrace your steps to find something you just know you found previously.  And if you’re like me, you’ll be very VERY regretful that you didn’t record more of some resource when you had the chance.  And of course, you’ll discover that too late.

With the recent outage of the Rootsweb archives, trees and homepages, we’re reminded once again how much we depend on resources that we think are permanent, but that really aren’t. Let’s hope that eventually, most of the Rootsweb functionality will be restored.  If not, it wouldn’t be the first time that a free resource we utilize has been discontinued for any variety of reasons.

As it turns out, Judy Russell and I were composing similar articles at the same time, and she specifically addresses finding Rootsweb archived pages utilizing the WayBackMachine, here.

Thank goodness for WayBackMachine.

At least it gives you a prayer.

Lincoln School Days – 52 Ancestors #178

One of my schoolmates posted this picture of my grade school.  I had been searching for a photo for years and was so glad to see this one.

The memories came flooding back. Memories I had forgotten entirely. As I recalled those days, some fondly, and some not, I realized how much they connect me to the person I am today.  Links forged one by one into a chain.

This photo was taken about 10 years before I started school, but Lincoln School didn’t look much different a decade later. I remember that it was an old building at the time, built in 1893 for a whopping $15,000. To a 5 year old, it looked huge and castle-like, holding secrets I couldn’t wait to learn!

It’s long gone now, of course, replaced by something much more modern – probably with carpet and air conditioning – neither of which were in the building I attended. It was barely heated!

It’s hard to believe I spent 6 years in this building.  It seems long ago and far away.

I learned a lot in that old school.  Much of it not “book-learnin’.” Many things shape us in ways we’re not aware of at the time.

Grade school went from first through sixth grade, when students transferred to a Junior High School for 2 years, or in my case two different schools for one year each, before transferring to High School for the final 4 years.

Lincoln School was arranged with 4 classrooms on each floor with a center area that served as a central entry to all 4 classrooms. Each floor had one drinking fountain with four spigots that were turned on with a hand valve underneath.  There was no fire escape.  We never considered that a fire might trap us on the second floor, with only one stairway.

What was in the attic and tower?  I never thought to ask or even realized there was an attic or tower.  Of course, one good ghost story would have fixed that.

Restrooms were in the basement to which we descended on wooden steps worn thin in the center and curved over time by thousands of childrens’ footsteps.

The basement also held a room large enough to accommodate two classrooms simultaneously that was used to view movies. Movies were a treat and we all loved movie day! Not every family had a television, believe it or not.  We didn’t until I was in second grade and then we only received all of 3 channels, on a good day, by adjusting the rabbit ears.

Those movies arrived in black reel canisters and sometimes much to our disappointment, the film would break, creating a loud flapping slapping sound. The lights would come on, the teacher would attempt to rethread the movie, and we would hope she was successful and that we hadn’t missed too much!

Ahhh, those were the days.

The Lay of the Land

Looking at the photo, above, my first and second grade classroom was the same room, located the back left lower quadrant with two windows showing in the photo.  The two taller center windows on the left side were coat hallways, one per classroom.

My third grade classroom was on the second floor, immediately above the first and second grade room.

My fourth grade classroom was the top left front quadrant, with the turret.

I wonder why only one corner of the building had a turret.

My fifth grade classroom was the right top front quadrant.

My sixth grade classroom was the right rear quadrant on the top floor, out of view from this angle.

The playground was in the rear of the building.  The school took up about 2/3rds of a block, with the playground taking up the balance of that block.

We didn’t have a public kindergarten.  Most kids started school in first grade.  It’s a wonder any of us can function today, without pre-pre-school, pre-school, pre-kindergarten and then kindergarten.  Somehow we managed.

Oh, and another thing.  We walked to school – and home for lunch as well.

Yes, at 5 or 6 years old.

By ourselves.

No one kidnapped us and we didn’t get lost either. Times have certainly changed.

We crossed a street too.  Or in my case, two streets. One of those streets was “paved” with bricks.

For really busy intersections, as defined by “busy” of those days, which is pretty much deserted today, we had safety patrols.  Patrols were either 5th or 6th graders and they helped the younger kids cross safely. Being a patrol was an honor. No adults were involved. The intersection right beside the school had patrols on all 4 corners.

At school, we shared drinking fountains and played kick-ball outside at recess every day except for the coldest days of the year when we played inside instead.

I think, but I’m not positive, that this was the dress I wore on the first day of school.  I was proud as punch to be walking all by myself.  I didn’t turn 6 until a month or so after school started. I almost had to wait another year to start school.

I was oblivious to the fact that my mother watched me, from a distance, of course, the entire way to school.  I’m guessing she cried as well, but I was way too excited and too busy to notice – focused on the future that day, and the school in front of me, beckoning with it’s come-hither promise of secrets soon to be revealed.

First Grade

Mrs. Malone was my first grade teacher.

I was so excited to finally be old enough to attend school.  Not to mention that I got one of the “big desks.”  You can see that the desks ranged in height for the students. I was always tall for my age.

I’m the third row back, at the end of the row just to the left of Mrs. Malone’s left arm.  I remember how much I loved all of the various exercises.  Spelling, compound words, telling time. They were all my favorites!  I carry that same type of love and enthusiasm for genetics today.

In the back of the room, the red perpetual calendar on the file cabinet was so much fun because we replaced the month name and arranged the days in the proper sequence each month.  And those kites.  Each student made one and we decorated the room before the photo was taken. Creativity flowed!  It was springtime.

I loved to read the Dick and Jane books.  I exasperated my teacher by reading the books right away, then had nothing to read with the rest of the class. By the time I was out of first grade, I had read all of the second grade books and the school was debating what to do with me. “Skipping a grade” in that school system at the time was unheard of. It was discussed as an option, but given that I was already the youngest child in my class, it was also pretty quickly dismissed.

Out of sheer boredom, I began writing my own stories. I still do. You’re reading one:)

In first grade, I learned just how much I loved to read and the world opened up before me. I read voraciously. National Geographic magazines in the classroom showed me how large and interesting the world waiting for me was.  Now, I’m a National Geographic Genographic Project affiliate researcher, and the world is larger than I ever imagined, expanded exponentially by our own history written in DNA.

My favorite game was “duck, duck, goose.”

This photo is so painful.  I remember those bobby pin curls so…painfully.  And Mom cut my bangs too. I HATED that. Ugh.

I wouldn’t smile with my mouth open, because I had teeth missing! Now I wish I had.

Second Grade

In Lincoln School, we had a phenomenon called a split class.  That happened when there weren’t enough students for two full classes of a grade, and too many for one.  One poor teacher, who I’m sure lost some kind of straw-drawing event, got to teach half of a class of one grade and half of another.

The good news is that the students in split classes were generally the more advanced students in each grade, so there was less need for direct teacher contact. It was generally a smaller total student count too.

My second grade class was a split class between first and second, and I was VERY PROUD to be in a split room. Mrs. Malone was my teacher again.

This was the year I learned how good it felt to excel. I got to help the teacher a lot as well, which I loved.

This was also the year that a dog bit me outside the school before class, although I never understood why.  I was frightened and told the principal who just happened to be standing near the steps.  He took off running and followed the dog home so I wouldn’t have to take rabies shots.  Bless that man.  I had no idea what a favor he had done me until my own child had to take rabies shots a generation later.

Mom still cut my bangs. I still hated it.

Third Grade

Third grade wasn’t a good year for me.

The week school started, or the week before, my father was killed in a car accident. No one knew what to say, so no one said anything at all, including my teacher. Everyone simply acted like nothing had happened, but my world was turned upside down with grief.

I didn’t much care for my teacher, Mrs. Copley, not pictured here, and she didn’t much care for me either.

Mrs. Copley asked each child what they wanted to be when they grew up.  Boys wanted to be soldiers, policemen, firemen and such.  Girls wanted to be secretaries, nurses or teachers.  Except me.  I don’t remember what I said I actually wanted to be, except that it wasn’t a typical “girls” career choice.  Mrs. Copley told me I had to pick something else.  I refused by remaining stoically silent.  I couldn’t think of anything on the “allowed” list that I wanted to be.

My other memory of that year, which is not fond whatsoever, is that another student was running in the hallway that ran beside each room.  We hung our coats in those hallways, on hooks and entered the classroom from the rear.

Running was forbidden.  The other student was running in front of me, and I knew she was going to get into trouble, so I dropped back a bit.  I didn’t want the teacher to think I was with her.

She ran into the room, and quickly took her seat in the rear.  Mrs. Copley looked up to see me enter the room.  I hadn’t been running, but the teacher of course thought that I had.  She took me into the hallway, called the neighbor teacher to watch and paddled me with a board. The entire school knew. Mrs. Copley knew full well I was not a student who disobeyed or lied, so why she chose to do what she did is beyond me.

I swear, she wanted to break my spirit.

I was horrified and humiliated.  I felt dirty and soiled, even though I hadn’t been bad.  And worse yet, many of the students in the rear of the room knew I had been wrongly accused and then disciplined, yet not one spoke up on my behalf. I saw them lower their eyes, pretending they had seen nothing.

It was in November of that year that Mrs. Copley and the rest of the teachers were suddenly called to meet with the principal. It was unusual for them all to be called at once into the center “court” between the classrooms, leaving no teacher to watch the students in the rooms directly. We could see the teachers and we knew something was going on, based on their body language.  The principal was touching them, putting his arm around some, which was something we had never seen before.  Some were holding each other.

Mrs. Copley returned and told us rather matter-of-factly that President Kennedy had been shot and killed in Dallas.  Not one of us had any idea where Dallas was located. I remember staring out the window, into the sky.  More death.  In the last three years, both of my mother’s parents had died and my father 3 months earlier too.

We had lots of questions and she had no answers. She seemed cold, but I suspect she was trying to be strong. Children take their queues from adults.  We knew our world had changed, but we were clueless as to how.  Many were frightened.  We heard crying throughout the school, and some parents came to get their children.

Third grade was also the year that I fell on the playground, chipped my front tooth and drove a piece of asphalt into the palm of my hand.  That asphalt finally worked its way out about 10 years ago.

I was very glad for third grade to end. I surely didn’t look very happy in my picture.

This was the year that I learned life wasn’t fair.  Thank goodness for 4th grade, or I’m afraid this year would have begun a downward spiral.

Mom still cut my bangs, but at least it looks like I talked her out of those awful bobby pin curls.

Fourth Grade

Fourth grade with Mrs. Wartenbee was much better and a very exciting year for several reasons.

First, we got to play the flutophone, also called a recorder and tonette elsewhere.  That was a rite of passage. The school provided the instruments, so everyone received their own flutophone and got to play. We were so excited and so awful, to begin with, that we must have surely woke the dead.

Second, we had music class, which I dearly loved.  Unfortunately, from third grade, the previous year, we could hear music class next door, but we had to wait until we were older. That had been torture.

This was the year I learned how music touches and lifts the soul.

Better yet was the spelling bee that occurred every May in Mrs. Wartenbee’s class.  EVERYONE knew about the spelling bee and couldn’t wait to participate. We practiced for months. The whole school was abuzz about this every year so we had been looking forward to “our turn” for three entire years which seemed like an eternity.

The winners formed the royal court and there was a special afternoon procession.  I was pleased for the winners, who were my friends, but I was utterly MORTIFIED by the word that laid me low.

I’ll, I (eye), apostrophe, l (ell), l (ell).  Right?

No? So, I got to try again.

Because I knew I was right, I said the same thing a second time.

That was a mistake, because I was out at that point.

I forgot to say the word, “capital” before the I (eye) in I’ll.

Just the same, I was in the spelling court, sitting on the step at right in front.  I got to wear my “Sunday” pink Easter dress, my new shoes, and my white gloves.  The spelling court was a very big dress-up deal!

Ironically, today, as adults, several of us in Mrs. Wartenbee’s class remember which exactly which word tripped us up. And I’d wager we’ve never misspelled it again.

And yes, bobby pin curls AGAIN.  My bangs were so short because Mom couldn’t cut a straight line. She kept lamenting that they weren’t even, and kept trying again.


Fifth grade

Fifth grade was a split class again, between fourth and fifth.  Mrs. Holtz was an awesome teacher whom everyone loved. She complemented every student about something regularly, finding the best in everyone.

Mrs. Holtz was either widowed or divorced. No one knew for sure.  She was very mysterious, and we lapped that up.

She had lived and taught in Hawaii, and regaled us with stories of her life and students there.

She spoke about different cultures and the story I remember most vividly is one where she explained that one of her students had a “pet louse” that came out of his hair and ran around on his face.  We were all utterly horrified, but she used that example to teach us about how people in different cultures perceive and believe things differently.  My head itched anyway.

Fifth grade was the year I began wearing glasses. I loved them because I thought they made me look smart. Mrs. Holtz told me that!  And like cat-woman too. Pretty cool for being 10.

I got to borrow my Mom’s special necklace for my school picture.

Sadly, I wanted to play in the school band, but we couldn’t afford an instrument. Such a letdown after the wonderful flutophone experience the year before.  Thankfully, today rentals are available for students and schools provide some instruments as well.

This was the year that I realized how much money, or the lack thereof, shapes opportunity. Somewhere in the back of my kid-brain, I knew that I wasn’t going to let that happen to me once I had an opportunity to prevent it. Mrs. Holtz made it very clear that education was the vaccination against poverty.

And Mom was getting progressively worse bang-trimming.

Sixth grade

Sixth grade was also a split class between fifth and sixth grade.

Our teacher, Mrs. Moss was wonderful and so inspirational.  This might have been her first year out of college.  She seemed more like us, closer in age.  The girls talked to her about their problems.

This was the year that the school system changed to “new math” and no one, not even the teachers understood new math. Everyone, including the teachers hated it. I recall vividly, in sheer and utter exasperation, asking Mrs. Moss if I would ever in real life need to use base 8.  She pondered a bit, and finally said no, she didn’t think so. I then proclaimed that I was done with base 8 and shut the book with an air of finality.

Of course, years later, when I was studying computer science, I needed to learn base 8 and programmed using base 8 as well as hexadecimal.  Karma, I’m sure.

Sixth grade was the year of standardized testing and I remember when our results came back, Mrs. Moss took each of us aside individually and explained what they meant.

No matter what the results revealed, she was very positive, highlighting each student’s strengths with upbeat suggestions about what might help as well. Everyone looked forward to their turn receiving their test scores and no one came away disappointed or upset. That alone is an amazing accomplishment for a teacher.

Mrs. Moss told me that my capabilities were exceptional and that I could be anything I wanted. I learned right then and there what percentile meant and how ranking worked, although I must admit, I was shocked at where I placed.  I took her at her word, however, and emboldened once again, pronounced that I wanted to be an astronomer. (Take that, Mrs. Copley.)

Mrs. Moss looked rather stunned, swallowed a couple times and told me that I wrote very well too.  She said that I should be a scientist that writes and said she wanted a copy of my first book. She told me she expected great things of me, although looking back now, she probably told every child that, because that’s the kind of person she was.

Self-expectation is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This was the year that I realized my potential was boundless and life was an open book, literally. A ripe fruit waiting to be harvested.

I wonder if Mrs. Moss would be interested in a DNA report or would like to subscribe to my blog.  Not exactly what she had in mind at the time, but authoring has changed dramatically, as has science.

My “first book” was actually a computer science paper, years ago, presented at a conference and included in book format in the conference proceedings.  The next books were technical manuals.  The first book that was what she probably had in mind was about Y2K in municipal government.  I’m not thinking she was interested in that either.  The common thread was and is making complex subjects easy to understand. She nailed that one!

I don’t even want to discuss these bangs.  Or those horrid spit curls.

It’s OK to laugh!

Junior High

The fall of 1967 would see all of the former 6th graders from Lincoln School walk another few blocks to Pettit Park. We still walked past Lincoln School, mind you, but we were much too old and mature to even notice. Lincoln School was so last year!

One big change was that we ate lunch neither at home nor at school.  Pettit Park, like Lincoln School, had no cafeteria, but it was too far to walk home and back in the allotted time, so a few of us who lived most distantly ate at a small diner/soda fountain type restaurant near the school.

I learned about budgeting my lunch money for the week and that I could buy a large pickle for less than a sandwich and get just as full.  I learned about priorities, like shakes instead of hamburgers, for example.

Pettit Park isn’t a lot different today, although it’s an elementary school and not a Junior High anymore. The red quonset hut type structure was the gym and the entire facility was a much more contemporary building than Lincoln had been.

It seemed quite large and sophisticated at the time.

The big change, aside from the school itself, was that we would rotate classrooms every hour.  We had lockers and home rooms, but no more class pictures.

My home room teacher was a man, Mr. Michner, and on one of the first days of school, he dropped a “hall pass.”  Both of us grabbed to retrieve the slip of paper before it hit the ground, and wound up clasping hands, missing the hall pass entirely.  Both of us were horribly embarrassed, and the entire classroom, including Mr. Michner, laughed until we were in tears.  At 12 years old, EVERYTHING is embarrassing. I wanted to DIE or at least shrink out of sight.

We had gym class, and horrid gym outfits with miserably embarrassing communal showers, but no more outside recess. Lincoln School never had a gym, so that was new, but not something I enjoyed except for volleyball and square-dancing.  Although I hated to square-dance with the boys in those horrid gym outfits.

We were becoming young adults.  My mother finally allowed me to wear nylons that year.

This was the year I learned to sew and I began making my own clothes which I dearly loved. Eventually, I made quilts from my clothing scraps. I continue sewing today, but mostly quilts with fabric purchased for that purpose.

And yes, just in case you wondered, I finally got old enough to refuse to allow mother to cut my bangs.

My mom gave me the special ballerina neckace, which I cherished for many years until it was stolen a decade later.

Eighth Grade

In 8th grade, we changed schools again and walked another mile or so to Lafayette Park. Lafayette Park had a cafeteria and lunch cost either 30 or 35 cents, I can’t remember which.  Students weren’t allowed to leave at lunchtime, which seemed odd since the year before, we ate out unsupervised.

I learned that rules often have nothing to do with logic.

The school was flat and nondescript, but the social environment wasn’t.  Now three schools had been merged into one, and there were more friends, sports, clubs,  opportunities and tween-age drama.

I entered the world of boyfriends, much to my mother’s chagrin.

We had these awkward social events called “sock-hops”, dances in the gym, where groups of girls would cluster together chattering like magpies and boys would egg each other on to approach the girl-cluster and ask one to dance.

Then, both people got to embarrass themselves in front of everyone else on the dance floor. God forbid a slow dance would start.  What to do?  What to do?

Or, horror of horrors, she might just decline the dance invitation – in front of everyone.  He would be humiliated and ruined for life.

Sometimes, kids would “go steady” too. The boy would give the girl a masculine ring of some sort and she would wrap it with angora floss because it was too big to wear otherwise. That ring was an unbelievable status symbol and source of pride. We even carried toothbrushes in our purses, not to brush our teeth, but to brush the floss on the ring. Oh and the floss had to be color coordinated with our outfit of the day too. There were rules you know!

Sometimes she gave him one of her rings too, and he wore it on his little finger or on a chain.  Breakups rivaled the worse soap operas in the media today and hormones were raging. Much sobbing occurred and everything seemed like a matter of life and death. Then it all started over tomorrow.

There is not enough tea in china to convince me I want to be an 8th grader again!

At the end of 8th grade, a true transformation took place.  Not only were we now officially teenagers, we also would transition to the high school for 9th grade.  There, we were “freshmen” not “9th graders” and we would no longer walk past Lincoln School on the way to and from school each day. Once again, we would be free at lunch, which became yet another social event.

Lincoln School was part of the childhood we were racing away from at breakneck speed, eager to be 16 and drive and then grown up – the land of being able to do exactly what you wanted to do, when you wanted to do it. Or so we thought. Little did we realize that freedom came with a pricetag.

Lincoln School was all but forgotten, and wouldn’t be remembered again until many years later, when her students, scattered to the winds, would once again begin to gather on Facebook.

A special thank you to John McClain, my Lincoln School classmate for providing me with the class photos. None of mine survived.

Female Viking Warrior Discovered Through DNA Testing

Hervor dying after the Battle of the Goths and Huns. A painting by Peter Nicolai Arbo, a Norwegian historical painter. Hervor dressed like a man, fought, killed and pillaged under her male surname Hjörvard.

Then the high-born lady saw them play the wounding game,

she resolved on a hard course and flung off her cloak;

she took a naked sword and fought for her kinsmen’s lives,

she was handy at fighting, wherever she aimed her blows.

The Greenlandic Poem of Atli (st. 49), The poetic Edda. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ancient DNA

I just love ancient DNA. Not only does it provide us a way to “view” long deceased individuals who we may be related to, one way or another (Y, mtDNA or autosomal), but it gives us a peephole into history as well.

Recently, a Viking warrior long presumed to be male has been positively identified as female through DNA analysis.

The paper titled A female Viking warrior confirmed by genomics by Hedenstiera-Jonson et al provides details.

Oral history tells us of female Viking warriors, but mostly, those stories have been dismissed as mythology. But guess what – they weren’t.

A Viking warrior grave excavated in Birka, Sweden in the 1970s was originally identified as a female. That finding was initially dismissed in light of the extensive warrior burial artifacts. The skeleton was presumed to be a warrior male due to extensive funerary objects indicating a high ranking individual. Similar female warrior burials have been dismissed as well by saying that the warrior artifacts might have been heirlooms and don’t identify the burial as a warrior.

The warrior burial has now been indeed proven to be a female using DNA analysis.

From the paper’s authors:

This type of reasoning takes away the agency of the buried female. As long as the sex is male, the weaponry in the grave not only belong to the interred but also reflects his status as warrior, whereas a female sex has raised doubts, not only regarding her ascribed role but also in her association to the grave goods.

A great deal can be told about skeletal remains through their bones – and certain traits indicate males or females. In 2014, a scientist again suggested that the bones of this burial suggested the warrior had been a female, but that commentary was met with significant skepticism because of the warrior’s high rank based on the grave goods. DNA was determined to be the only way to resolve the question. Thank goodness this avenue was pursued and was productive.

From their abstract:

The objective of this study has been to confirm the sex and the affinity of an individual buried in a well-furnished warrior grave (Bj 581) in the Viking Age town of Birka, Sweden. Previously, based on the material and historical records, the male sex has been associated with the gender of the warrior and such was the case with Bj 581. An earlier osteological classification of the individual as female was considered controversial in a historical and archaeological context. A genomic confirmation of the biological sex of the individual was considered necessary to solve the issue.

From their results:

The genomic results revealed the lack of a Y-chromosome and thus a female biological sex, and the mtDNA analyses support a single-individual origin of sampled elements. The genetic affinity is close to present-day North Europeans, and within Sweden to the southern and south-central region. Nevertheless, the Sr values are not conclusive as to whether she was of local or nonlocal origin.

And their discussion:

The identification of a female Viking warrior provides a unique insight into the Viking society, social constructions, and exceptions to the norm in the Viking time-period. The results call for caution against generalizations regarding social orders in past societies.

The paper further states that over 3,000 warrior graves are known, with approximately 1,100 excavated. I have to wonder how many of those graves might be females too.

The Birka warrior was confirmed to be a female by the absence of a Y chromosome, but her mitochondrial DNA can tell us even more.

Mitochondrial DNA

Her mitochondrial DNA is haplogroup T2b.

Dr. David Pike is the administrator of the haplogroup T mtDNA project and the mtDNA T2 project at Family Tree DNA. He notified me of these results and offered the following information:

The list of mtDNA mutations in the supplement (namely those obtained from a canine tooth) are actually quite thorough (see page 15 of the supplement). They include all of the mutations that lead up to and including mtDNA haplogroup T2b. And then they go on to include two more that do not yet fit into any currently-named subgroup of T2b. These are T5774C and C16354T.

People who are curious about their own mtDNA can determine their status at position 16354 by a simple HVR1 test at FTDNA, but position 5774 requires a full mtDNA sequence test.

Within the T projects for which I’m an administrator, there are a few people with T5774C with none that have both of these two mutations. At least not yet… it would be nice to encourage more people to do full mtDNA testing.

If you have tested at a company other than Family Tree DNA that provides you with only a haplogroup, and it’s T, T2 or T2b, you might want to consider the mitochondrial test at Family Tree DNA to obtain a more definitive haplogroup and your actual mutations. Someone, someplace, may well match this Viking warrior woman.

Who is She Most Like?

The report indicates that the Birka female warrior showed autosomal genetic affinity to the following present-day populations:

  • British Island of England and Scotland,
  • North Atlantic Islands of Iceland and the Orkneys
  • Scandinavian countries of Denmark and Norway
  • Baltic counties of Lithuania and Latvia
  • Sweden from the south-central and southern region

The warrior was more like northern Europeans than southern Europeans, which shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Your Mitochondrial DNA

Mitochondrial DNA holds so many secrets and provides testers with information you can’t possible discover about your ancestors any other way. Males and females can both test. If you haven’t taken the full sequence mitochondrional DNA test, please consider doing so.

Want to know what you might discover? Please read the articles, Mitochondrial DNA – Your Mom’s Story and Jasmine’s Journey of Discovery.

You can click here to order a the mtFull Sequence test or upgrade an existing test to the full sequence level.


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My Son – The Final Ten Days of a Dream Come True – 52 Ancestors #177

This is an intensely personal story, and I have written and rewritten this article about 100 times.  Putting pen to paper has been very difficult, awash in so many emotions.

I have decided to publish this, then not to publish, then to publish, also about 100 times.  I am revising one final time (again), but I am leaving the content much as I wrote earlier.  It has an authentic voice, that of a mother, me, and I want to leave it that way and not infuse it (too much) with my “author-editor-self.”

It’s a long article too, so get a cup of tea and find a cozy place, maybe beside a nice warm fireplace.

I’d like to introduce you to my son as I honor his walk through the valley of the shadow…

The Final Ten Days

The final ten days of what, you’re probably wondering.

A chapter.

A half-life.

A career.

Early promise, perhaps, that blossomed into a flower whose time has come.

The final ten days actually began years ago.

The Naming

In Native American culture, a child is often named when a family member or elder is inspired with an appropriate name.  The child may also be renamed, or take different names at various critical points in their life – often as rites of passage.

We didn’t realize we were following tradition, but as it turns out, we did.

I hemmed and hawed and agonized about my son’s name, finally selecting one, but my mom, not so much.

She walked in to the hospital nursery and after looking at my son, announced his name, “Butch.”

“What???”, I gasped. “I think not!”

“Butch it is,” she said and smiled contentedly.

Criminy. That battle was won before it even started.

And Butch it was until the day she died.

I didn’t have the money for the hospital “first baby” photographs offered, nor did I own a camera.  Those days were long before selfies and the world-wide fascination with preserving everyday life in photos.

Thankfully, Mom did have a camera and after we came home from the hospital, my first photos of my son are with Mom and (step) Dad holding my firstborn. He was looking at mom adoringly in this photo and they had a uniquely special relationship from then forward. It’s like they had always known each other and she was just waiting for him to be born.

This little yellow sleeper is the outfit he wore home from the hospital.  I still have it tucked safely away in my memory box.

In spite of his nickname, he grew up to be a relatively normal child.

He loved life on the farm, participated in sports in school and became a Boy Scout.

The Youngest Volunteer

My son was but 16 years old when he joined the local volunteer fire department.

However, that wasn’t really the beginning of his exposure to public service, because his father, before him, had also been a volunteer firefighter and my son had grown up listening to the shrill wake-me-from-the-dead Plectron tone that summoned firefighters (and their families) from their sleep, invariably from meals and even from Christmas Day.

Christmas Day Accident

That horrible Christmas day accident was unspeakably devastating for everyone. It was already difficult enough that the weather was terrible, preventing us from traveling to my parents on Christmas Eve. Then, in the early morning hours, the fire tone – shrill and piercing woke the house.  We hoped it was nothing, a false alarm, but it was an accident on the expressway. My husband threw on his clothes running out the door, as firefighters do, hoping to be back by breakfast.

Instead, shorthanded with not enough first responders due to the holiday, I was summoned to help and of course could not leave children alone, so we all dressed and arrived to help. I knew it had to be bad, really bad.

It wasn’t just the early morning roll-over accident, but the 5-year-old whose mother and uncle were trapped under the overturned car, and her puppy who was lost, missing from the scene.  We distracted the little girl as the firefighters used their equipment to lift the vehicle and extract her mother and then her uncle, only to confirm the horrible truth. They were gone, forever. The only consolation for some of us was that they hadn’t suffered.

The puppy that the little girl would so desperately need when she would be told about her mother and her uncle needed to be found.

The rest of Christmas Day was spent by my family in a desperate search in the snow up and down the expressway and in neighboring subdivisions for the family puppy.  We could see our warm home beckoning from across some of the snow-covered fields, but no one made a peep about going home as we continued the search – not even the youngest grade-school-age child.  Our hands were numb and so were our faces and toes when we finally gave up as darkness began to fall on a horrible day.

By late evening, the puppy had been located, thankfully safe, picked up by another driver as it ran terrified.  The child’s family members had arrived at the hospital, bearing their own grief, to shelter the little girl and explain something a five-year-old should never have had to understand.

I was 7 when my mother had that talk with me about my father and a car accident. I knew what she was facing, and would face the rest of her life every Christmas. Just like I do each year at Labor Day.

To this day, I shed tears remembering that horrific Christmas Day.

Our own Christmas after that?

I actually remember nothing about it, nada, not one thing.  Except being grateful, and crying.  I had my family of whom I was so proud.  It wasn’t what we wanted to do on Christmas Day, but it’s what we did, as a family, from oldest to youngest. Everyone tromped in the icy cold, searching ditches and fields.  We did what needed to be done.

No one in our family would ever have considered doing anything else. Then or now.

Early Influences

I wonder, sitting here more than three decades later, if that day somehow influenced my son’s decision about his eventual career in some small way. Maybe that day and others similar.

Or maybe it was simply that firefighting and volunteer rescue work had been an ingrained part of his life for so long. My father, the grandfather he never knew had been a firefighter in the military.  Is it somehow buried in his genes?

Was it the fact that we were once owned by the official fire department Dalmatian, Missy, a dog who we rescued not once, not twice, but three times and who rode in the local parades in the fire truck?

Or maybe it was the red flashing lights and the adrenalin that surges through the veins of every first responder. That’s powerful medicine for a young male.

Joining Up

Regardless of why, the minute he turned 16, my son immediately signed up for the fire department – except there was a hitch.  He was only 16 – and the department had a “juniors” division with rules that were somewhat different from the older department members.  For example, juniors were forbidden from running “lights and siren” to respond to a call.

Now, of course, when you are driving your father’s sports car to respond to a fire during the day when no one else is home, with the fire light installed permanently on the roof…one might be tempted to use those lights and siren in order to arrive faster. Only for the public good, mind you, not because lights and sirens were cool.

And I’m sure that my son never noticed that the young ladies thought that the fact that he was a firefighter, driving a snazzy fast car, was very attractive. Never!

Adrenaline combined with fast cars and young ladies.  It’s no wonder!

Furthermore, I’m equally as sure that the following spring being sent on a grocery errand in his father’s brand-new convertible, becoming “trapped” in the Memorial Day parade and having a half dozen of those young ladies ride on the back of his father’s car was entirely accidental.  In fact, we would never have known if the neighbors hadn’t mentioned how nice it was to see him in the parade. That along with the minor detail of the convertible top being permanently sprung from 5 or 6 doting young women sitting on the top above the back seat as he drove proud as a peacock in the parade, waving to the crowds like a smiling Cheshire cat.  The neighbors told us it was a lovely parade and how nice of him to drive.

The convertible top was never right after that. I never got the grocery item either.  Every single grocery in the county was out of cat litter and there was a nation-wide shortage.  Imagine that!  All that searching is what took him all afternoon. He tried his level best.  Honestly!

Miraculously, a shipment had somehow arrived by the time I went to the store.

He never admitted he didn’t exactly get “trapped” in the parade, either😊


Such fond and funny memories today.

Junior Firefighter

Of course, my son had been exposed to the fire station and the firefighters years before he was old enough to join, so it was no surprise to anyone that he joined as soon as he was eligible.

While in some ways Junior firefighters didn’t quite have the same status as adult firefighters – couldn’t drive the big rigs, for example, in many ways, they excelled.

The Juniors held fundraisers, bake sales and rummage sales to raise money for gear.  They contributed wholeheartedly and often much more enthusiastically than older members.

In the photo above, my son is at the far left, his father laying third from left.

You might be aghast at this photo of the firefighters in days before selfies having their photo taken in front of a structure fully engulfed in flames – instead of extinguishing the fire – but rest assured, all is well.  This was what is known as a “training burn” where owners contribute a structure that needs to be demolished so that the fire department can hone their skills.  The structure is then set on fire so that the firefighters can practice putting the fire out.  Eventually, the structure is demolished by fire so that the owners can simply remove the debris instead of an entire structure. Costs less and is less dangerous too.

As a firefighter, you certainly don’t want your first exposure to a fully involved structure fire to be a fully involved structure fire with lives depending on your actions, and reactions. Training burns are a win-win for everyone.

As I look at this photo, taken sometime between 1988 and 1991, I’m acutely aware of the passage of time.  Aside from my son, only one of these people is still involved with any fire department.  Another then-young firefighter is a pilot, the rest being retired or “gone.” I doubt these men and women (yes, there’s a woman at far right in this photo) had any idea the degree of influence they exerted over an impressionable teen.

As one of my mentors once said, “You’re leading by example all of the time, but you only acknowledge it when you’re proud of it.”  Firefighters and volunteers of all kinds set a wonderful example for the next generation.

Growing Into Your Feet

As we would say on the farm, puppies have to grow into their feet.  That fit the description of my son’s excursion into the realm of both firefighting and police work.  I don’t know how he would ever have been able to choose between the two, because he loved both as well as other types of rescue work.

My son worked during summers as a life guard and in college, as an officer for the Department of Natural Resources.

In high school, he became a member of the Explorer Post of the Michigan State Police.

His senior picture, above, was prophetic and clearly showed his devotion to public safety.


As he moved on to college, majoring in Criminal Justice, of course (what else?), he also began what would be a patchwork combination of college, jobs and volunteer work for the next few years.

I firmly believed that children should bear the responsibility for their own education, although admittedly it was less expensive then.  In order to help with college expenses, he became a resident hall advisor, known as a RA, for his dorm. He was also a volunteer firefighter and police officer for the university.

While my son turned out to be a wonderful human being, his teen years were not without conflict at home, and in particular, with me.  He was no saint and children do not come with a handbook. He was my first child and I was by virtue of inexperience, a rookie parent.

By the time he went to college, I suspect he was extremely glad to leave, and I was relieved that he had managed to get to that point alive and with all body parts in relatively good working order.

We did have a few trips to the hospital with a rattlesnake bite and broken bones incurred playing football and skiing. That rattlesnake bite is an entire story all by itself. Suffice it to say, never sit on a rattlesnake!

He was a member of the ski patrol too, but got run over by another skier while he was trying to help someone who had fallen.  They brought my son down on the stretcher instead of the other way around.

That episode resulted in one of those frightening “You need to come now” calls and I drove as fast as possible on ice covered roads.  They didn’t know how badly he was injured, only that they were bringing him down on a stretcher. I had visions of broken necks and brain damage. Mothers are like that.

I was incredibly worried until I arrived and saw him sitting on the stretcher, surrounded by several very concerned young women fussing over him like mother hens, wrapping him in blankets and bringing him things to eat and drink. He wasn’t the least bit interested in going to the hospital with Mom to get his broken arm set, but I digress.

As a peace offering, after he went to college, I subscribed to a service where your child at college received a monthly goody box packed with stuff college kids like, with a gift note enclosed.  “Love, Mom.”  I was hoping that might encourage him to call home at least once a month.  Keep in mind, this was before the age of widespread cell phones.

In any event, in October or so of his second year at college, which was his first year as a resident hall advisor, he called me, quite exasperated.

“Mom, you’re not going to be BELIEVE what they did!”

“What who did?

“The kids at the end of the hall.”

“What did they do?”

“Well, quiet time for study or sleep is supposed to begin at 10PM. They had their stereo blaring and I had to walk to the end of the hall to ask them to turn it down, even though they clearly knew what time it was.  Just as soon as I got back to my room, they turned it back up again.  I feel like I’m babysitting. This is ridiculous!”

I tried desperately to stifle laughter, but managed to choke out one word.



“Karma, son, karma.”

“Not funny Mom.”


I probably shouldn’t have said that, in retrospect, but occasionally my evil twin comes out of my mouth before the good twin can stifle her.

He grew up a lot that year.

I sent more boxes.

Work and Distractions from Study

In addition to being a RA, he joined the local fire and police department and coached the Special Olympics team.

In another year, he would become a counselor at a home for violently disturbed children aged 6-18, many of whom had been severely disabled physically and/or emotionally by abuse – the most difficult of the difficult cases – children that most institutions wouldn’t accept. One of his friends was attacked and severely injured while working there, resulting in permanent injuries and eventually, death. It was no walk in the park.

Oh yea, and he managed to attended classes too, at least part of the time.

That’s not to say there weren’t challenges, because there were.  He wasn’t as focused as he should have been on his studies, and his grades reflected his distractions, which of course, included a girlfriend.  At one point, we had to have “the discussion” about grades, which made my son very angry.

However, his anger also made him very determined, which was, after all, the entire point of the parenting discussion. He told me years later that he was so angry he vowed then and there to “show us,” and graduate at the top of his class – and indeed he did. Retrospectively, I don’t care WHAT motivated him, as long as something did.

In the years since, he has never relinquished his steely resolve and dedication. You can call it tenacious or stubborn – but most of the time it’s an exceptional attribute and a wonderful trait, except occasionally when it falls distinctly into the stubborn range. Ying and yang.  Yes, he’s personally responsible for most of my grey hair.

Those traits will both serve you well and drive you crazy. I know since I think I might have been the genetic donor. (Ahem!)

However, he’s incredibly dependable (which does NOT extend to being on time in his personal life) and you can take what he says to the bank.

The Puppy

It was the summer of 1992 that my son showed up at the office where I was consulting with a tiny puppy in the palm of his hand – only 4 or 5 inches long and maybe a day old, umbilical cord still attached.  Thrown away by a horrible human in a dumpster.

My son found the puppy in his capacity as a DNR officer, heard her whimper, rescued her, and did what any red-blooded American boy would do – he took the puppy to his mother and went back to work. He knew the puppy would die otherwise. Of course, I had to explain to my client that I had to leave, but at that moment, saving the puppy was my priority.

We named her Angel, because we truly didn’t think she would survive.

She did and lived with us for many years until she passed peacefully over the rainbow bridge as an old dog.

Tragedy Strikes

The summer between my son’s second and third year of college was marked indelibly by the loss of his father.  I use the word “loss” rather loosely, because his father didn’t actually pass away entirely, just in the form that we knew him.  He sustained a massive stroke, drastically affecting his body and more tragically, his mind.

My daughter and I became 24x7x365 caregivers (in addition to work and school) and my son simply had to fend for himself.  His college was a couple hours distant, trips home were extremely difficult and didn’t occur often. During one of those trips home, his roommate suffered a seizure while driving and totaled his car.  My son’s first responder training was life-saving that day.

After the stroke, holidays were no longer cause for celebration, only grief and strife. I can only describe this period as “living Hell.”

This tragedy was followed a few months later by another, the death of his beloved grandfather – a long miserable process wherein death was a relief.

A double whammy.

To say the next few months and years were difficult is an understatement the magnitude of which I can’t even begin to convey.  For my son, for me and the rest of our shrinking family.

Baptism by fire either causes people to cave or survive.  He survived, thankfully but baptism by fire is hell on earth.

I wanted to give my children wings, but not this way.


By his college graduation, my son had matured into a leader.

As I watched him move through the crowd, shaking hands, coordinating events, then deliver a lovely speech, I knew that his life was forever transformed.

He had indeed made it to the top of his class.  This was not the young man I had taken to college years before.

Thankfully, my mother, my daughter and I were able to attend his graduation, although our family was but a shadow of what it had been just a few years earlier.  My mother was so proud that she nearly “popped a button,” as she would have said.

And yes, she still called him Butch.

As I watched my son deliver his speech, I was struck by the fact that sometime while I was struggling mightily to deal with the repercussions of my husband’s stroke, earning a living and putting food on the table – my son had grown into a man albeit while traversing a very rocky road filled with cavernous potholes.

He had also married and brought my wonderful daughter-in-law into our life.

I was beyond proud of my son, puffed up like a puffer fish.  He had overcome hurdles that a college kid shouldn’t have to face, with his family torn apart by disability, death and the resulting strife.

He had achieved his goal by excelling, but as his mother, I fought an underlying nagging feeling that while he had achieved what he so desperately wanted, ultimately, he might not be either happy or safe. I was uncertain how much was premonition and how much was outright raw fear. Regardless, that undercurrent would be my constant companion at one volume level or another for the next 20+ years.

Public Safety

My son’s true professional career commenced a month after his graduation, as luck would have it, in a city where I was consulting at the time. I actually have no idea if that had any bearing on him being hired, because I doubt they weighed his mother’s recommendation very heavily.

Mothers do tend to be a bit biased (she said with tongue firmly in cheek.)

He was so proud to wear a uniform full time – professionally. He worked hard for that honor! He had made his dream come true.  Dreams are much more likely to come true with a lot of elbow grease, and he was never afraid of hard work.

The following year, he changed jobs to the employer where he would spend the rest of his career. The new employer was a Public Safety Department meaning the officers are both police officers and firefighters.  A perfect environment for his combined skill set.

The result is that every person on a public safety department bears twice the responsibility in terms of training and being prepared for whatever the day brings – be it a police situation, a house or car fire, someone with a health issue, a factory fire or a hazmat situation. They see them all, sometimes one after another or even simultaneously.

One night you may be putting out a major fire and the next day you may be tracking a culprit through the woods.

Training, planning and working with the public as well as local businesses is a critical function of a public safety officer.  Kind of like the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared,” on steroids.

Then and Now

The years between then and now have brought many changes to our family, our nation and our culture.

When he first began his career, I worried some, as a mother normally would, but I knew he was well trained and competent.  In other words, he wasn’t going to get himself into a dangerous situation.  He was always the level-headed person in any situation, thinking clearly.  He took “be prepared,” very seriously. His life, and others lives, depended on that.

As the years progressed, I began to worry more as some of his assignments became increasingly dangerous and the drug culture accelerated in the US.  His department was located on one of the major drug routes between two major cities.

Furthermore, his department covered two major expressways and the incidents of officer shootings, especially related to traffic stops, has increased dramatically in the past few years as well.

It seemed that being well-trained and sensible might not be enough anymore.

He didn’t talk too much about what happened at work.  I was more likely to hear something on the news than to hear about it from my son.  Partly, I think, that was because he was busy at home with his young family, but additionally, I suspect it was an attempt to protect me from the chronic, unending worry he knows I would have felt.

Unending Gut Wrenching

A day in the life…

In case you wonder, officers cry.

Not in front of anyone, of course.

They don’t tell their mothers and they certainly hope no one catches it on camera.

This was a fatal motorcycle accident.

They cry when children die.

When people are fatally trapped in fires.

Or cars.

When they can’t save a heart attack victim.

Or when they know a child’s abuse will only continue after they leave.

They don’t discuss these things.


Officers also stop to save people when they aren’t in uniform.  My son was commended for valor when he pulled a man from a wrecked burning car – with no protective gear.  He wasn’t working that day.  He was just the angel who just happened to arrive to save the man in his hour of peril.

My son doesn’t discuss that either.

Or the blue premature baby whose lifeless body he was able to breathe life back into.

He doesn’t talk about any of those things, aside from mentioning much later that it was a privilege to be able to save that child.

My daughter-in-law told me that he was also honored as Officer of the Year one year, something else he never mentioned.

I generally don’t find out any of this until years later, unless his wife happens to send me something at the time.

From him, never.

The Call

Then, early one spring, the day came that every mother of an officer dreads.

The phone rang.

In the very early morning. Those calls are never good news.

My daughter-in-law’s cell phone number backlit on the phone display in the darkness of the bedroom.


Her voice.

Those seconds waiting to hear her say something were an eternity.

She said my name.

I said yes.

She clearly knew it was me, so I knew something else was coming.

She certainly didn’t call to chat at that hour.

She said:

“I just wanted to let you know before you hear it on the news.”

Life stopped. My vision swam.

I leaned on the counter.

“He’s been involved in a shooting.”

My greatest fear.

Time stretched out in a surreal way I never knew was possible.

“It’s not him.”

“But it’s an officer shooting and there’s a fatal.”



By blood pressure hurtled through the roof and the adrenaline instantaneously surged. My heart was racing and felt like it was going to burst through my chest. My knees turned to rubber.

“Is he hurt?”

Another eternity passed.

She might have been driving.

Background noise.


“Where is he?”

“At the hospital.”

She was obviously horribly, horribly shaken. Her voice was quivering.  I had never seen her that way before. Just like I’m an officer’s mother, she’s an officer’s wife. We are not weak women.

To this day, he still doesn’t speak much about this, but it was an officer’s worst nightmare.

Ambushed in the middle of the night, fired on point blank after being called to a domestic violence situation.  My son was awakened at home.  He told me that he knew immediately when he heard the location and nature of that call that one of his young officers was responding to a situation that was extremely dangerous. My son knew the history of the family and the address. He got in his car and left immediately.

The officers were gunned down, one and then the other, in cold blood.

One officer was killed.

One was able to be saved.

I can’t even begin to recant the situation as my son described it.  Holding your fellow officer as they bleed out their lifeblood, in the dark, knowing you can’t save them but trying to comfort them, and not knowing if the killer will be shooting at you next. Even second and third hand, the raw unrelenting intensity and terror of this situation came through loud and clear.

These are the things that sear and scar the souls of officers.  That’s not the end of that story either, but even today, years later, I can’t share the rest.  Because of the circumstances, this incident dramatically increased the danger to the responding and fellow officers, even after the primary incident was over.

Not knowing what else to do, my quilt sisters and I made the surviving wounded officer a quilt, hoping it would help with his recovery.

It’s not a coincidence that the adult woman at right in the photo below is the same woman firefighter in the training burn fire department photo some 20+ years earlier.  The children are my granddaughters.  Quilts, firefighting and public safety are all family affairs and run in this family generationally.

While I grieved for the slain officer and his family, as well as the wounded officer, my son’s fallen brethren, I was oh-so-very-grateful that my son had not been the one shot or the one killed. The reason was only that he wasn’t scheduled for that shift – nothing other than the luck of the draw.

I felt so guilty for feeling that way in the face of the devastating loss of others.

There but for the grace of God…

Wounds and Scars

My son wasn’t physically hurt that day, but he was wounded just the same, as were all of the officers in his department.

The cumulative wounds of all of the pain, scars and injuries over the years.  The pain of the people he couldn’t save, and sometimes the pain of the people he could save, but couldn’t help enough.  The people fighting their own demons that he sees over and over again. The people who need help but our society isn’t structured to help, so they live marginally until they die miserably, horribly, or both.

The children.  Oh God, the children.  And the animals.  Dependent beings betrayed by those in positions of power or betrayed by fate or the blatant stupidity or irresponsibility of others.

Drunk drivers, spousal and child abuse, rapists, murderers. The children my son told me about that were molested by both their father and grandfather.

The all too familiar smell of death.

I don’t know how he keeps his sanity. PTSD on steroids.  Soldiers serving in a prolonged war that they know will never end.

This is not what my son meant to sign up for. This is not the scenario he expected.

This is what all officers have to face, every day of every week of every year. They are walking targets. Nothing prepares you for that.

Or that people hate you for no reason.

Anger and Danger – A Toxic Brew

In September of 2015, Lansing firefighter Dennis Rodeman was intentionally targeted, hit and killed by an angry driver because people were slowing down to deposit donations into a boot as part of the firefighter’s volunteer annual Fill The Boot Campaign on behalf of the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

Intentionally killed.

The driver turned around, went back, sped up and intentionally ran over Dennis.  Furthermore, his wife, pregnant for their first child, was working as the ER nurse at the hospital where Dennis was transported and pronounced dead.

This time, I made a baby quilt.

The saddest baby quilt I’ve ever made.

These past two years have been particularly difficult, because the political environment in the US has become incredibly polarizing and people from many walks of life have been cast as stereotypes, including people of color, police officers and others.

People are angry.  Some people feel empowered to exhibit behavior that was previously considered unacceptable and police officers are the ones caught in the crosshairs as they try to mediate and facilitate peace.  In other situations, police are the bearers of bad news and have to deal with people who don’t want to be questioned or arrested.

The most dangerous situation?  Domestic disputes where emotions are already running very high before the police are called, followed by suspicious persons and attempted arrests. Complicate all of that with either alcohol or drugs, and sometimes both.

And traffic stops – any officer’s nightmare – along with those officers’ mothers.

You never know the intentions of the person you are stopping.  There is no such thing as a routine traffic stop – and it’s worse on a known drug route.

Of officers shot and killed in the line of duty in 2016 in the US, 21 were ambushed.


At work.

How many people run the risk of getting ambushed at work, every single day?

Another 53 died in traffic related incidents. Three were beaten to death, one was stabbed and one drowned. Six were from Michigan.  These aren’t green inexperienced hothead rookies either.  The average age was 40 and the average length of service was 13 years.

And while some officers are not honorable, I assure you, most are and have always been. There is very little other motivation for entering this profession.  All officers, both firefighters and police, are in much greater danger now than ever before.

As I write this in late November 2017, just last night, we lost another officer who was specifically targeted by a fleeing high-speed driver as the officer attempted to deploy stop-sticks.

Which brings me to today.

The day after Thanksgiving and I’m preparing to be very thankful, indeed.

The Home Stretch

Our Thanksgiving wasn’t on Thanksgiving Day.  Officers work holidays and often, older officers try to give younger officers a break so they can be with young families on holidays. Our holidays are whenever our family is together.

I am always so grateful to see my son and his family – or put another way – I’m incredibly thankful that I still have a son to see. Other mothers don’t.

My son goes to work every day with a smile on his face and a target on his back to serve others. And he has for nearly 30 years, since he was 16 years old. Two thirds of his life.  He’s served in his current job for almost half his life.

Thank God, he’s almost done.

He’s in the home stretch.

The final 10 days – 5 of which are in uniform.

For the first time ever, this coming Tuesday, I’m actually going to get to do a “ride along” with him.

It’s been a long and often very rough road, these past decades. More like a combination triathlon and marathon than a typical career. He still works weekends, works uncounted overtime hours, in all kinds of weather, often in danger, on icy roads, and misses many of his children’s events because he can’t leave until the job is done – not just when his shift ends.

I’m incredibly proud of my son, his decades of service, his integrity and of the positive ways in which he’s touched the lives of so many.  But I’m also unbelievably glad to be done walking on egg shells on a daily basis and hoping against hope the call that I’ve dreaded for decades doesn’t come.

I feel like I, we, have dodged a bullet, pardon the pun, every single day.

Just 5 more days until I can change prayers.

Five more days before he closes the door on his squad car for the last time and takes off that uniform forever.

Just five more days.

I couldn’t be happier.

On his last day in uniform, his wife of all these years will be riding with him, closing out this chapter of his life and welcoming him to a new, and hopefully safer, future.

As one of my friends so succinctly said, every new beginning comes from some other beginnings’ end.

Act two is about to begin.

As I ride with him, I’ll be interviewing him about his time as a fire and police officer, and I’ll be sharing his thoughts with you.

Ride Along

As I drove to station this morning to join my son today, I listened to the radio coverage of the police officer’s funeral who was killed on Thanksgiving.  Flags everyplace were at half-staff.

I remembered 9-11 when I stopped by the station to be sure he was alright because there was a HUGE accident which closed the expressway in both directions. He was safe, but quite busy on the scene.  I don’t think he ever knew I was here, as I needed to continue on to my destination.  All drivers were distracted that day listening to the unfolding of that national tragedy. I drove the back roads, wondering when the insanity would stop. I knew that police and firefighters would be in more danger than anyone else – they always are.

I promised myself not to cry as I rode in the passenger’s seat beside my son. I couldn’t help but remember earlier days of riding in the passenger seat as he drove for the very first time. He was ecstatic.  I was a wreck.

A few months later, we went to Virginia and he got to drive nearly the whole way. In fact, the only reason he went along was so that he could drive. I was much more relaxed this time.

Once again, I choked up remembering how grateful I was to have this opportunity. He had survived more than 8000 days of danger. Only 4 more to go, after today.





Holy water from Lourdes?

All of the above perhaps.

I was so pleased to be invited to join him on the road for a few hours, something I’ve never gotten to do before.  He works 12 hour shifts and when he works days, his mornings are often spent on the road responding to calls and the afternoons in the office approving reports and doing paperwork.  He’s a Sergeant, so he has administrative responsibilities in addition to his duties as an officer and as a firefighter.

Of course, as firefighters and first responders, any activity is subject to interruption.  When fires happen or emergencies, the station clears immediately.

His jobs and responsibilities have varied over the years, with some special assignments, but he is finishing out his last few days on the road. Today was glorious, warm and sunny, at least for this time of year.

As we pulled out from the station, central dispatch was busy relaying police and fire calls to all of the agencies in his county.  The fire tone sounded.  That Plectron sound hasn’t changed any over the years.  The difference now is that there was a confusing cacophony of dispatch orders and calls throughout his and neighboring jurisdictions, all of which he had to be aware of in case of requests for assistance.

A special laptop is mounted in the car, and the officers have to monitor the calls on the laptop, along with driving and whatever else comes up.

At one point, the neighboring department was dispatched on simultaneous police, fire and rescue runs – and my son’s agency provided mutual aid for the police call since one agency couldn’t respond to all of them at once.  Police and fire work is always a mixture of choreographed scrambled insanity.

These men and women are highly trained and prepared for whatever happens next.  They are knowledge workers, and you want your fire and police to have as much training and knowledge as possible. Your life depends on it, and sometimes even more important – your quality of life.  If you’re having a heart attack, your quality of life is increasingly compromised for every incremental 30 seconds that your heart and brain are without oxygen.  Crisis training matters as does having enough equipment to be able to respond promptly.

I don’t have any idea how many lives he has saved, but I hoped we wouldn’t add another one today.

What Will You Miss?

I asked my son what he would miss most about his job, after retirement, and he said that he would miss the camaraderie with his fellow officers. I could have predicted that answer.  It’s particularly evident after seeing him interact with everyone who comes in contact with him.  He waves and smiles, and more importantly, you can see that their smiles aren’t perfunctory, but they are genuinely happy to see him.

Many residents wave as well, and he has clearly fine-tuned his people skills over the years.  His genuine caring shows as he says hello, answers questions and engages people.  He’s honed the fine art of defusing difficult situations.

I am reminded of watching him interact with his fellow students at graduation, those many years ago, and was surprised when his classmates presented him with a gift.  Same leadership and people skills, two decades later.

The Flip Side

Not everyone is glad to see him though.

As we patrolled the roads, he showed me where they had found 12 meth labs dumped last year.  I didn’t know this, but meth equipment can only be used once.  If a meth lab is discovered in a house, they have to actually gut the house, including the drywall before people can live there again.  Meth is that toxic – and people intentionally put this stuff in their bodies.

A few miles later, we stopped to shepherd a flock of turkeys across the road.

I was really hopeful that we didn’t come across any animals that needed to be rescued, because he and I don’t have a particularly good track record in that vein and I didn’t know how his department would react to him returning with his mother AND some injured animal in the front seat.

And yes, I did get to ride in the front seat, not the “special” box seat in the rear.

As we rode the expressways, most people were courteous and amazingly, dropped their speeds.  So nice and mannerly.  Except for that one who passed him.  Ok, blind, death wish, idiot?  Who knows. Who would intentionally fly by a marked police car?

I reminded myself how dangerous traffic stops are – made even more so when you realize the person you are stopping may be blatantly in-your-face disregarding the law. Perhaps trying to antagonize the officer.

Part of the area my son’s department patrols is a rather seedy area marked by small alleys and bars – although many have, thankfully, closed in recent years.

Most Frightening Experience

I asked him about his most frightening experience.  Like many officers, I expect, he had to think a bit. Situations that would terrify most people are part of their daily routine.  Officers tend to bury the worst of these memories because if you thought about them very often or dwelled upon these situations, you’d make yourself crazy.

And now that I think of it, you’d make your mother crazy too.

Before I tell you this story, my son is not small by any means.

He recounted a late-night call years ago when he was working midnights.  A man in one of those alleys behind a bar with a gun.  I think he told me more, but I didn’t hear anything beyond “man with gun.”  Oh, and a very large man – like 450 pounds.  It was a gang situation, and my son was alone.  They don’t ride two officers to a car, and the only backup car on duty was across the county.

The man refused to stop when told to do so. He advanced towards my son, and started to mock him. As my son pulled his nightstick, the man taunted, “what do you think you’re going to do with that?”, laughing, and continued moving towards my son menacingly.  Five or six other men were behind the 450 pound man.  My son knew he could easily be rushed and these were clearly gang members. He didn’t know how many more there might be, or where.  He was very clearly in danger and possibly trapped. He didn’t dare take time to turn around to look behind him.

My son pulled his gun and started backing up, warning them to stop.  My son said his training clicked in and he was calculating distance, because they are taught not to allow a suspect who is advancing on you to get closer than 16 feet because they can stab you before the bullet takes them down.  Furthermore, in this case, the other 5 or 6 men following the large man could rush you before you could fire 5 or 6 additional shots, if need be, to protect yourself.

Preparing to shoot.

Backing up, shouting…





Getting ready to fire.

The last thing he wanted to do, ever, was to shoot someone.

Suddenly, the officer from across the county arrived and burst onto the scene.  He happened to know the name of the 450 pound man from having interacted with him previously, shouted his name and asked what he was doing?  He told the 450 pound guy to stop, because he was going to die otherwise.

Thankfully, he did stop, and his buddies ran off.

Even just hearing the story, all these years later, made my blood run cold and chilled me to the bone.  Not because my son almost shot someone, but because he could have died a horrible death. I knew how close he had come.

Maybe it’s a good thing I didn’t know at the time.

All of this made me wonder – is the glass in the squad car bulletproof?  What about the doors?  I never thought to question this before.  Yes, it’s a good thing I didn’t know.

It’s Not Just Your Life

It’s no wonder that many police officers won’t eat at restaurants in the area where they live.  They have too many people who “don’t wish them well.” The longer you work in an area, the more people you arrest, the more people (and their families and friends) who don’t care for you. Sad commentary, when you think about it. Being a police officer isn’t just your job, it’s your life and it affects the lives of your entire family.

It’s your life, but it’s not just your life. It’s the life of your family too.

Your spouse, of course.

Life as a police officer affects the lives of everyone, from the oldest family member to the youngest, in ways that people outside of law enforcement would find incomprehensible. Suffice it to say that school and extra-curricular activities can be difficult for children.

I must confess that these pictures are some of my all-time favorites.

These exude the perfect blend of toughness, protection and love.

It seems so unfair that these innocent creatures pay a price for their father’s occupation. It’s no surprise that many officers move away from their communities after they retire.


Our excitement for my ride-along day, other than a couple calls for domestic disputes where my son (mother in tow) simply arrived as backup for other responding officers (I think they gave him a break cause his Mom was riding along), was a retail fraud situation. Retail fraud is shoplifting.  Let me translate – some guy in a dark hoodie decided to steal a laptop from a store. Merry Christmas!

Ok, let’s try this again, he stole a laptop and ran outside across the parking lot, according to the dispatcher’s second transmission. Oh, and he’s about 6 feet tall.

Transmission 3: No, no, he’s in another store now.

4: Oh wait, he’s gone again.

5: No, we don’t know if he is black or white.

6: But he has on a grey or black hoodie.

7: Uhhh…we think we might see him again.

Clearly, there’s a lot of confusion, but the officers have to assume that there is a thief to be caught and position themselves accordingly.

My son and the other responding officers stationed themselves outside the entrances to the stores in question as well as the mall entrances.  Thankfully, not a large mall or there wouldn’t have been enough officers.

Some officers walked through the stores in question looking for a six-foot male with a dark hoodie.

I told my son if the shoplifter was smart, he would simply ditch the hoodie. Maybe “trade” it for something else in, say, a nice black and white stripe.

My son said the perpetrator would likely be carrying a laptop or something that size. So we sat at our appointed location and watched. And watched. And watched.

My son gave me very specific instructions as to what I was to do in the event that the perpetrator was spotted and a foot-chase ensued.  In essence, stay in the car and out of the way.

Got it.

That is, unless the tides were to turn and my son no longer had the upper hand and was in danger.  Then, all bets are off.  Yes, always a mother, regardless.

However, when the officer inside the store saw the security video and talked to the loss prevention people, it turned out that the store security people actually stopped the man in the hoodie and he gave the stolen property back, then ran out the door.

So, we weren’t looking for someone in the second store after all, nor someone with a laptop. The man we were looking for ran off across the parking lot several minutes before we arrived. He was probably watching and having a hearty laugh or stealing from a second store while the police were distracted.

We drove around the neighborhood for the next hour or so, searching, to no avail. He was probably long gone or off to the next targeted location.

The one man we did see in a gray hoodie at the mall wasn’t the least bit concerned with police officers and it was quickly determined that he wasn’t the person being sought.

Another day in the life.


Like many days for police officers, there was no time for lunch.

I also discovered that officers can’t use public restrooms.  They can be ambushed there.  Plus, you have to take off your 11-pound gunbelt.

Officers go back to the station, or wait. Sometimes for hours. It’s not like they can just leave a scene.

Going to the bathroom when needed is a luxury most of us simply take for granted and never even think twice about.

My son was generous with me, we got to take two, count ‘em, two, bathroom breaks and wound up eating snacks in the squad car that Mom had in her purse. Had I known, I’d have brought better snacks. It turned out to be our special picnic. Much different than childhood picnics with snoozes on blankets beside the lake, those memories now softened by the haze of time.

Some things never change. Mom’s still bring goodies. Always the Mom, but to a son who hasn’t been a child in a very long time.

Immeasurably Proud

The great thing about our kids is that we love them even more as adults, as if that’s even possible. Then add to that cocktail how proud we are of them.

Immeasurably proud. I never thought I could be prouder than I was as I watched his graduation speech those many years ago, but I was, as I watched his retirement speech this week, a couple days after my ride-along.

Ironically, and perhaps being a bit cheeky, his fellow officers gave him a clock.  Now he has absolutely no excuse for being late.

My son succeeded, and survived. He has come through that long hallway, that career he had worked so long and hard for – literally through the valley of the shadow of death.

He sought to save lives.

He did.

He sought to make lives better.

He did.

He sought to inspire others.

He has.

His dream, all those years ago, came true.

The Final Day

So today, when my son signed off the air for the final time, and not only cleared his car and shift, but cleared his badge for the last time, retiring that badge number forever from service, I was torn between overwhelming relief, pride and gratitude.  These difficult days are all memories now.

His locker is vacant now, and it’s for a GOOD reason. His buddies are all jockeying for his desk and office things. Jokes are flying and backslapping is happening as he walks through the station.

I see him looking at the fire trucks, still longingly, and remember his fire trucks as a child.  HIs favorite toys.

I can set about finishing his quilt. That horrible nagging premonition that dogged me for years had, so thankfully, never come to pass.  I can finally breathe easier and know that he won’t die or be terribly wounded in the line of duty. Now I only have to worry about “normal” things.

I can finally say those words without fear of “jinxing” the situation.  No, I’m not typically superstitious, but when your kid’s life is on the line, every single day, you will do absolutely any little tiny thing that might bring them a modicum of luck or protection. I understand the genesis of superstition rooted in powerlessness and fear.


This Christmas was the best ever!  Not only did he not have to work, there was no chance he’d have to leave in the middle of the day or the meal.  He was almost on time too! But the best gift of all, for me, is his retirement.

Thankfully, this is a celebratory quilt! I’ll be sewing his patches from his now-retired uniforms into the 4 blue corners!

I gave him the quilt I made for him, but the best was yet to come. It looks like someone else in the family has inherited the quilter gene too!

His youngest daughter made her first quilting project, a hotpad to give to her Daddy for Christmas to celebrate his retirement. The center block is part of his old umpiring shirt – his first job at age 13 where he learned an incredible amount about public relations with upset parents.  Believe me, nothing upsets parents more than having their child called “out.”

I went to those games to protect him, just in case, although he never knew that.  Fortunately, he never needed protecting.

Little did we know at the time how he was being prepared, shaped by divine hands.


As we were riding back to the station at the end of our ride-along time together, I asked him whatever happened to the officer that was wounded in the shooting a few years ago. There’s a very fine line between being supportive and caring and prying – and I didn’t know where that line was in this case. The officer had been off work for a very long time and I had been hesitant to ask too much, not wanting to violate the officer’s privacy, put my son in an awkward position or make him unnecessarily sad. I knew that my son had been deeply grieved – particularly because the wounded officer was one of “his rookies” that he was training at the time. He thought of him as a younger brother.

My son kind of chuckled, so I breathed a sigh of relief, knowing that this was going to be a positive answer.

“He’s doing fine now.”

I told him how relieved I was to hear that.  Maybe the quilt helped.

He smiled broadly, grinning ear to ear and said, “Guess who’s applying for my Sergeant position, now that I’m retiring?”

Yep, I knew.  “His rookie,” now all grown up.  Just like my son did all those years ago. Following in his footsteps, or at least hoping to.

Those are mighty big shoes to fill.

My son has touched the lives of so many in this path with such fleeting hands, sometimes only briefly and invisibly.  Anonymously if he had his way, and often with the whispered brush of wings.


We love them and give them wings.

Some become eagles and soar.

The Journey of Man – Redux 15 Years On By Spencer Wells

I can’t believe that is has been 15 years since Spencer Wells wrote The Journey of Man – but it has.

For those who aren’t familiar, this groundbreaking book and documentary were the first of their kind, serving as incredible inspiration as well as a boon for DNA testing.

If you haven’t seen the documentary, and even if you have, I’d strongly recommend watching on YouTube, here.  The YouTube version is half an hour longer than the National Geographic documentary because about one third of the original PBS version, now available on YouTube, got left on the cutting room floor when the Nat Geo documentary was produced.

I watched the original documentary several years ago and I enjoyed watching this version every bit as much.

For an upcoming Insitome podcast later in January, Spencer, along with Razib Khan, is going to revisit The Journey of Man.  So very much has been learned in the past 15 years, even though it does seem only like the blink of an eye.

Questions for Spencer?

After watching the original Journey of Man: A Genetic Odyssey video, do you have questions for Spencer?

If so, you’re in luck, because Spencer is asking for your input.

From Spencer:

For this Journey of Man Redux episode, we’d love to get your thoughts on what we should include – questions left unanswered in the film/book, peoples or places we should look at in greater detail, or simply your favorite scenes.

Spencer will be following along!

This is an extremely rare opportunity to have your questions addressed by the founder of the Genographic Project.  I guarantee you, I have a list of questions!

A New Neanderthal

The Insitome podcasts are available at the iTunes store, here. Depending on your computer, you may only need to click on the blue “Podcast website” link on the bottom left.

If that doesn’t work, you’ll need to install iTunes on your system.  Click on “View in iTunes,” following the prompts to install iTunes on your PC.  Then, after iTunes is installed, click on the “Podcast website” link.

As luck would have it, today, Spencer is introducing the podcast, “Neander-Me, Part 1” focused on “what it means to be 2% Neanderthal that includes an interview with John Hawks via Skype from the Rising Star excavation in South Africa last fall.”

Part 2 of this series is scheduled to follow next week.

If you want to see how much Neanderthal you have in your genome, you can order Insitome’s Neanderthal application, here.

I reviewed my own Neanderthal results in the article, Insitome’s Fun Neanderthal and Metabolism Apps.

Take a look at the Neanderthal info, but don’t forget to watch the Journey of Man video and submit your questions to Spencer in a comment.


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