By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Some of you long-time subscribers know that I am unofficially the Sparrow family historian.  Or maybe I’m officially the historian because I’m the only one geeky enough to research this stuff.  I don’t know whether my interest is due to my love of history or simply having too much time on my hands.  Whichever it is, I find out something new whenever I search Ancestry.  Last month I discovered that that the daughter our grandfather had with his first wife turned out to be an international woman of mystery.  More on that another time after I’ve found more information.  And, true to form, what I can’t find in fact I’ll make up.  As the Irish say, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.”  I’ve actually been studying a lot about the Irish lately because next month I will be going to Ireland for nine days with four friends on a sightseeing and knitting adventure.  I’ve even learned the national anthem of Ireland in hopes that I can whip that out at a local pub.  As I say, I’m trying to learn as much as possible before I go, not only about the country but about our Irish ancestors.


One of our second cousins has done marvelous ancestry work on my dad’s side of the family so I know that we have at least three relatives who came to the U.S. from Ireland in the 1800’s.   Digging a little deeper, I found that my great-great grandmother left Tralee in 1854 on the ship Theodore.  It was somewhat of an ill-fated trip since she ended up being murdered by her cook in 1887.  Some of you may recall my blog about that – it’s a long and sordid story.  But moving along…I’m still attempting to find where the other relatives were from and hopefully I’ll stumble upon something before I leave.  Although we can trace most of our heritage back hundreds  of years, we still have some black holes.  Our mother’s mom, for instance, abandoned our grandfather and our mom when she was three so we know very little about her.  She is the Holy Grail of my ancestry work.  A few weeks ago I got to wondering if maybe she was Irish too – in whole or part – so I decided to do the Ancestry/DNA test.

It’s a pretty simple process – you simply spit into a test tube about five times and ship it off.  Of course, even the simplest test sometimes eludes me so I absentmindedly chewed my calcium pills right before I spit into the tube.  I was horrified to see the pinkish swirls in the tube so I rinsed it out and started over again.  Twice.  I won’t receive the results for a few weeks but I’m afraid they may indicate that I’m part Tums.  I told both of my brothers that I had done the test and that I’d share the results with them so we’d all know our ancestry.  But when I told a friend that, she informed me that brothers and sisters can have different genetic ancestry results.  Well, didn’t I just feel like a complete ignoramus.  The last thing I remember reading about genetics was that brothers and sisters are the closest of all relatives because they share two common parents.  So I set out to research and found a great article on the subject written by a Stanford genetic scientist, Dr. Barry Starr, which I will try to summarize.  If you Google him at “Stanford at the Tech” website you may end up spending hours reading his information and easy-to-understand articles.

Dr. Starr concedes that it’s logical to assume that brothers and sisters should have the same ancestry background since they both got half their DNA from mom and half from dad.  But DNA isn’t passed down from generation to generation in a single block. Not every child gets the same 50% of mom’s DNA and 50% of dad’s DNA, unless they are identical twins.  So it’s possible, really probable, for two siblings to have some big differences in their ancestry at the DNA level. Culturally they may each say they are “1/8th Danish” but at the DNA level, one may have no Danish DNA at all.

What I take away from all this is the impression that our DNA make-up is a bit like a roulette wheel – not all the marbles are going to fall into the same categories.  My test may show a large percentage of Northern European ancestry but with some ringers thrown in just to make things interesting while my brothers…well, who knows what might come up for them.  So what does this mean?  It means that my brothers are going to have to cough up the $69 for their own test.  If nothing else it may prove that we’re really full siblings and mom wasn’t fooling around with the milkman.


Hot Air Ballooning – Sunset in Palm Desert

by Bob Sparrow

(After Suzanne’s touching blog last week, I’m again responsible for taking us from the sublime to the ridiculous)

I had never taken a ride in a hot air balloon; no reason, the opportunity had just not presented itself, until last weekend when we were in Palm Desert.

My research uncovered three places in the desert that could facilitate my first balloon ride:

  1. HAVENFUN Hot Air Ballooning in La Quinta
  2. Magical Adventure Balloon Rides also in La Quinta
  3. Balloons Above in Bermuda Dunes

I decided that ‘HAVENFUN’ was not going to be my choice – I want my ballooning people to be very serious about me floating on the breeze thousands of feet above the earth. ‘Magical Adventure’ also didn’t appeal to me as when I think of magic I think of things disappearing and I definitely didn’t want to disappear. So I settled on ‘Balloons Above’ figuring that that is where balloons are supposed to be.

There were also options as to when I could take my first balloon ride, sunrise or sunset. I opted for sunset based on the chilling logic that if my balloon went down in a fiery heap that I’d have had one more day on earth.

The ad for the balloon ride read as follows:

See the sunset over Palm Desert from a hot air balloon – up to 3,500 feet in the air. Hot air ballooning at sunset brings a whole slew of new sensations and sites to see. (The sensation I was feeling wasn’t new at all; it was that old sensation of wanting to throw up)

Your pilot for the day is a seasoned veteran who’s flown countless hours and can almost seemingly control the wind. (Our pilot looks like he was seasoned with Jack Daniels last night. Control the wind? He could barely keep his hands from shaking)

Following your journey of about one hour, you’ll land for a Champagne toast – a common ritual of hot air ballooning that commemorates the wonderful flight. (I think our pilot was still recovering from his Champagne toast from his sunrise trip)

Bring a camera to capture every moment (as it could be your last!).

The preparation for a balloon flight is a bit unnerving; the balloon is lying deflated and lifeless on the ground, I was hoping this wouldn’t be what it looks like when we landed, until they bring over what looks like a ‘flamethrower’ and point it at the balloon and fire at it until it fills the balloon with propane.  My research into propane read as follows: Propane is a stable and predictable fuel, but highly volatile. Highly volatile!!!!  I’m amazed that the whole thing doesn’t go up in flames, which to be honest I was secretly hoping for as it would then cancel the ride.

With the balloon fully ‘gassed’ and hoping our pilot wasn’t, I looked at the other people who were climbing into the basket and wondered, ‘Are these the people with whom I will be spending my last minutes on earth?’ My heart was pounding just thinking about floating on the wind in this wicker basket 3,500 feet above the desert floor.

So, what was it really like? I have no idea; although the balloon sites and information above is real, I never got close to a balloon. Balloons have no wings, no motor, no parachutes, you’re being held in the air by what amounts to nothing more than a large fart and you’re at the mercy of the wind.   And the only thing I would know about the pilot with whom I’m entrusting my life to is that he cannot control the wind.  You could take off in Palm Desert and end up in the Sahara Desert for crying out loud!

So I guess the only thing full of hot air was me. Maybe I’ll go someday . . . I’ll keep you posted.


By Suzanne Sparrow Watson

Each week I am Dash the Wonder Dog’s Uber driver to work.  The job doesn’t pay much but it has a great perk –  I get to meet a lot of wonderful senior citizens.  I love old people, partly because I’m not too far off myself from soft foods and hearing aids.  Many of the residents in the care center he visits are now well into their 90’s, which means they are part of the much-admired “Greatest Generation”.  I love talking with them about their lives – most of them are so cheerful and love to talk about their life experiences, especially those events that occurred during the “Good War”.  Of course, memories being what they are, I’ve heard a lot of the same stories over the past two years but the recollections are always told with such enthusiasm that it’s easy to be enthralled time and time again.  When Dash first  started his job there were three men who served in WWII.  Last month the last of them, who was my favorite resident, passed away.  Currently, the WWII generation is dying at a rate of 400 per day.  So for today’s post I want to remember the special men Dash and I have met.

General Seth McKee

The oldest, and certainly the most senior of the former military men was Four Star General Seth McKee.  During WWII he held many group and division positions and in November 1944 he assumed command of the 370th Group.  He  served in France, Belgium and Germany, and logged more than 190 hours in 69 combat missions in the P-38 Lightning aircraft.   Over the ensuing years he held increasingly responsible positions until finally, McKee was appointed assistant vice chief of staff, U.S. Air Force. On 1 August 1969 he was named commander in chief of North American Air Defense Command and Continental Air Defense Command (NORAD/CONAD).  So he was quite a guy.  By the time I met him he was 100 years old but was still pretty darn sharp.  I was told that the general had been a dog lover all of his life so I took Dash into his room whenever he was awake.  Shortly before he died I took Dash to visit and put him on the bed.  General McKee petted him and told Dash what a good looking guy he was.   So in addition to being a war hero he liked dogs and thought Dash was handsome – makes him pretty perfect in my book!

Mack Shumate

Mack Shumate made no secret of his WWII service – as soon as you entered his room you couldn’t help but see the huge poster of him and his squadron taken during one of their missions in Europe.  Mack navigated numerous B-24 squadrons during the war and then returned to begin a successful career in the coal industry.  Whenever Dash would visit him, Mack’s aide (a Vietnam vet) would be in the room to attend to his needs.  Usually the aide and I spoke and Mack would give Dash a quick brush of his hand.  But on the final time I saw Mack he was all alone in the room.  I asked if he wanted to pet Dash and he said he did.  Dash laid down and it was the first time I saw Mack really touch him – he had a huge smile on his face the entire time.  He died the next day and I like to think that Dash helped him have one last great experience – petting a dog.

             Bill Hallas


The resident I was most fond of was Bill Hallas.  The first time Dash visited him two things became evident – the love for his wife and his pride in his service.  There were pictures of his wife and family – and dog – scattered around the room but the one that intrigued me was one of him with his wife taken during the war, he in his snappy uniform and her in a beautiful outfit with an overnight case in her hand.  I asked him if it was their wedding picture and he told me “No, it’s when we were on our way to a celebration in Miami honoring returning war veterans.”  That said, he whipped around to his nightstand and handed me a list of his WWII missions.  It was impressive – 50 missions all over Europe.  He said, “It was a good time to be 19 and not know any better.”  His bookcase was overflowing with books about WWII and I never walked in his room that he wasn’t reading one.  He also was sharp as a tack, with a great sense of humor.  Due to a paralyzing stroke on one side he pushed himself backwards in his wheelchair everywhere he went.  A few weeks ago I found that he had pushed himself down to the dining room at 10:30 in the morning.  Lunch wasn’t served until noon so I asked him, “Mr. Hallas, are you down here waiting for lunch?”  “Well,” he said, “I sure hope so or I’ve wasted a lot of energy!”

Over the past two years we’ve talked a lot about the war but he always told me something about his family too.  He was so proud of all of his children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren – I could tell he must have been a great dad.  But the real connection between us was that we both loved dogs and we shared a birthday.  Last summer Dash brought him chocolate on “our” birthday and he was thrilled.  Shortly after that he installed a huge aquarium in the facility and dedicated it to his wife, who died several years ago and was a big animal lover.  Last month when we visited him he was not in his room, as usual, but out in the common area staring at the aquarium.  That was the last time we saw him.  The next week I came around the corner into his room only to find it empty except for an attendant making up the bed.  I cried that day and cry still when I think of him.

This generation of men, honed by the Depression and the War, are idols to me.  Common, ordinary guys who thought it important to defend their country.  They became the Citizen Soldiers that won the war, and then returned home to build successful lives and communities. I’m not sure we Baby Boomers ever truly appreciated all that they did, quietly and without fanfare.  I worry that the Millennials, who require safe spaces, may not grow up to be quite as admirable.  I hope they do – in their own way and in their own time.  They need look no further that the “Greatest Generation” for inspiration.