Everything I’ve written on this project has been typed in from the start. This morning as I wrote in my journal, by hand, I circled back to explore an area I’ve typed about. What a difference! New thoughts and insights gushed onto the page, breaking through a wall I only dimly knew existed. I’ve known for ages that printing things out makes a quantum difference. Things just look different on paper than on screen. So why would this not also be so when the words go directly to paper?

This is not news to me at all. I’ve been journaling by hand for a few years now, and am firmly convinced of its value for exploring deep thought, but had not made that connection with this project. It’s too easy on the computer to just back up and have another go at it, which impedes the free flow of thought. I know — turn off the monitor. That’s not the same. I don’t write on paper with my eyes shut. Why would I type that way? No, I just need to spend more time with pen and paper.

A couple of weeks ago I met with a man who sought input on an idea that turned out to be quite synchronistic with my Writing for the Health of It project. He uses a fountain pen. I developed a full-blown case of pen envy as I watched that tip glide so smoothly across the Moleskine page. I have a pen. A nice one. I have no ink. Ink is not easy to find and I don’t like the idea of the tiny disposable cartridges. I also have an ancient Esterbrook from sometime like fifth grade. Where can I find ink? Will my thoughts deepen further with the silkiness of a perfect point?

The answer will appear. Meanwhile I still love my Tül gel pen.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been tapping away on the loop through town for several days now. For some reason, this part has seemed unduly complicated, and I keep stopping to do research and check Street View on GoogleMaps. I don’t suppose it matters if I spend that time now or later. One way or the other, it must be spent if I’m going to get the details right. Now I’m finally on the home stretch for this section. I’ve done everything around the center of town, and now I’ve gotten into the heart of the Community Center. Another day or two should do it before we roll on down the road to the high school.

If I had known I would use the drive through town as the basis for the story when we were there, we could hardly have planned the route more conveniently. The town itself is cooperative. There are a few more roads in and out now than there were back then, but the main road hasn’t changed. We went in one way, made a loop through town, and left out the other side. The trip out is perfect for wrapping up several left-over memories. I continue to be pleased with my choice of structure.

Someone asked me recently if I paste in stories I’ve already written. I did that with one, but nearly everything I’ve written has been new material. And the voice of something I wrote in 2002, for example, is generally rather different from the way I’d write it for this purpose. Writing the free-standing ones was good experience. Last night in a tele-chat with members of National Association of Memoir Writers, Nina Amir urged all of us to send stories out for publication, to build platform for our books even more than generating income. I got the message! Perhaps I can find homes for some of those freestanding stories.

My head has been in books the last few days. One, Blue Shoe by Anne Lamott, is a novel. The other, The Atomic City: A Firsthand Account by a Son of Los Alamos by Terry Rosen, is a memoir. Blue Shoe was fascinating because it was based on the search for the truth of family relationships and the result of shedding light on long-guarded Truth. Sometimes fiction can tell more truth than memoir does, at least in a general sense. But The Atomic City is the one that rang my bells the most loudly.

It rang my bells for several reasons. Terry Rosen graduated a year before I did, and our paths did cross now and then, though I don’t recall direct interaction. Although he was one of the guys I would love to have gone out with (that prospect seemed too futile to pursue or even dream about), I primarily thought of him as “Louie Rosen’s Son.” Louie was already legendary at that time as one of the super-brains at the lab, so brilliant that, as I heard it, he sat in an ivory tower and dreamed up whatever he wanted and they paid him a lot of money to do it.

Terry’s book spotlights his father’s achievements, and my impression wasn’t too far off the mark, though his research was not that esoteric. My assumption that Terry was a cut above the (Los Alamos level) average brilliance was also true, though I derive that fact from reading between the lines, not his declaration.

Primarily the book validated my sense that there was indeed a sort of caste system in place, one that co-existed with across-the-board egalitarianism. How did that work? The population was divided into a grid with ethnicity and national origin in “columns” and the job classification (scientist, engineer, plumber, electician …) of the family breadwinner in “rows.” It didn’t matter if your forebears came from Great Britain or Hungary, (non-Europeans were all but non-existent in Los Alamos back then) but job classification determined where you lived, and indirectly who you associated with.That effect was far less strong on kids than parents, but we all knew who lived in Western Area.

The book validated my sense of reverence for place. I think we all felt that. And he went on to elaborate on his perception of the effects of growing up in a high-pressure environment, causing so many of us to have an unusually high sense of urgency about achievement.

Reading that volume was fascinating because I spent time talking with Terry about writing during an all-school reunion in 2000. He sent me the pre-publication manuscript for review and critique, and I still have those files. I was able to flip back and see that all my suggestions were implemented in the final draft, published by Sunbelt Eakin. But to my dismay, the final version omitted several pages of material that I would have kept in. One of my suggestions was to break the manuscript into two parts, one about “The Los Alamos Years” and a sequel about the rest of his life. He resisted the latter, but Sunbelt Eakin convinced him. He closes the first volume with the promise to go more deeply into the effects on his later life of having grown up in Los Alamos.

The general public will never read those conclusion … he died a year after the first volume was published.

Lucky me! My copy of the manuscript includes the second section. I reread it yesterday. I found it far less compelling than the Los Alamos section, perhaps because I knew nearly all the people he mentions in that part. The second needs a lot more work to prepare it for publication and he’s not around to fill in the blanks. Reading the account of his reunion with his childhood sweetheart (after three failed marriages for each of them) and her tragic demise had me in tears once again. She and Terry witnessed a car hydroplane on a wet highway south of Pueblo, Colorado and stopped to render assistance and call for help. A second out-of-control car ran directly into Jennifer, missing Terry by a few inches. He witnessed her instant death.

What did I learn from rereading the two volumes of this story?

  1. Readers who “were there” are likely to be the most enthusiastic.
  2. Publishers exert a lot of control over contents — if anything is sacred to you, publish it yourself. Of course we have lots more flexibility to do that today than Terry had ten years ago.
  3. His first volume has significant relevance as a historical record of the Los Alamos community. It includes personal glimpses and inside stories about the key players in the Manhattan Project. This sort of anecdotal material is not available anywhere else.
  4. His analysis of the social system in early Los Alamos is a resource for others of us puzzling out the same era, and holds special interest for that reason.
  5. The story of these super-achievers posed a special challenge, to document their achievements without sounding pompous. In my opinion, he kept his balance on that tight-rope, primarily by reporting most events without pointing out their sheer brilliance.

Overall, the material will have little influence on my own story and how I tell it, but it’s still fascinating, and I deeply appreciate that Terry took the time to write these 231 manuscript pages. Reading this reminds me that I have three more volumes on my bookshelf that I want to skim through again: The Atom and Eve by Elsie Blumer McMillan (wife of a Manhattan Project scientist), Children of Los Alamos by Katrina R. Mason (an anthology of interviews she conducted with assorted offspring of LASL employees), and The House at Otowi Bridge by Peggy Pond Church (The story of Edith Warner, who entertained The Scientists at dinner parties in her small tea room by the Rio Grande, at the bottom of The Hill).

Where will all this reading take me? I don’t know, but like Mattie in Blue Shoe, I feel driven to keep digging. There is some Truth not yet uncovered, for me, or perhaps all of us. There has never been a time when more resources were available for low or no-cost research from the comfort of home.

Right now I am keenly aware of the process of writing and the sheer joy of sitting on my sun porch early in the morning, computer-in-lap. A raucous jay warns off other birds, or perhaps calls to the chicks that recently left the nest. Its harsh sound is intrusive and distracting, like a thorn or itching mosquito bite. Our house nestles into the west side of a steeply rising hill, and the first rays of sunshine have yet to rise above it. I love this softly gray, moist time of day, especially when the temperature is perfect for comfortably sitting out here, as it is today. The deciduous hardwood forests in Pennsylvania are so different from the ponderosa pine clad mountains I grew up in, yet the same deep sense of connection prevails. Memories seem more real out here.

As I consider what I’ve already written, I realize I need to add more details, and I see where they are lacking. For example, I have not described myself at all, nor have I said anything about my husband other than the fact that he is with me on this trip. I can add some self-description in an early scene about wearing my new turquoise chunk necklace on a visit to Old Town in Albuquerque. I can describe my husband in the scene I’m still working on that’s set near the apartment where he lived the summer I met him.

No, I’m not spending all my time revising, not even rereading — these revelations occur at odd moments, like in the shower, or while I’m cooking. If I don’t do something about them soon after I think of it, like any story idea, they’ll be lost. As I see it, I have three choices: scroll to the place I’m thinking of and add the material, jot some notes in a separate file (or scrap of paper), or take no action and hope I remember again when I’m ready to edit the whole manuscript.

“Just get the story on paper. Don’t stop to revise as you write.” So say the Experts. My decades of experience at the sewing machine tell me otherwise. A sleeve is a sleeve is a sleeve. Pattern instructions put cuffs on sleeves way late in the game. But it’s entirely possible to sew the side seam of the sleeve and fully finish a cuff buefore you even cut out the rest of the shirt. Aside from having to sew the shoulder seams before inserting collars and sleeves, little is sacred about the order of construction for a shirt. And so it is with stories. I listen to my inner sense of order most of the time.

Now my jay bird has moved a few hundred feet deeper into the woods, and a chorus of gentler birds has returned. I’m going back to my manuscript.

Now it’s time to tell how I met my husband, one week after I graduated from high school. For decades I told people I met him exactly one week after I graduated, but recently I checked an online perpetual calendar and discovered that wasn’t quite true. I graduated on Monday and met him on Tuesday a week later. Today I went back to that calendar to verify the date of a party I threw shortly after that, and found a surprise.

The date, May 28, is red on the calendar, signifying a holiday. I blinked and looked again. I checked my diploma to verify the date. It appears that I graduated on Memorial Day, but in reality, aside from graduation it was business as usual that day. How could that be? I dimly recall a date change, so I checked Wikipedia. Sure enough, in 1968 Congress passed the Uniform Holidays Bill, moving Memorial Day from its traditional May30 date to the last Monday of May, thus ensuring a three-day weekend.

Is this level of detail useful for building tension or moving my story along? On the contrary. I think it would be a distraction. It’s a piece of fascinating trivia to admire and put back on the shelf. Online resources are fascinating and useful tools, but we have to know how to draw boundaries.

I did use the calendar to verify that our wedding was on the exact date of our first kiss. Isn’t that romantic?

Last time I actually wrote anything on my manuscript, I began describing the church building we were driving past and listing memories. I only got a few sentences into that section. It was late when I got to that point and I feel into a state of brain freeze. I’ve been back a couple of times and felt overwhelmed by the idea of resuming where I quit writing. Aside from anything else, I was sure I’d written about this before and didn’t want to spend another half hour restating what I’d already done, but I could not find that file. This hump loomed large.

While looking for something else a couple of days ago, I came across the file I needed. This morning I’d planned to do a simple cut-and- paste, then edit the result. But as I poured a cup of coffee, the root of the problem jumped out at me. This was boring. Big time boring. Even to me. How can I fix that? I  wondered.

I immediately knew the answer. Scene. I needed to write it as scene, with some dialogue and action. How many times have I shared my trepidation about writing my cerebral life as scene? In spite of this angst, I felt my energy level rise at the idea, so I set my mug down, pulled my ‘laptop onto my lapdesk and began tapping away. It flowed more smoothly than I expected. I got the whole scene drafted, and moved on through Junior Rifle Club, the next site along the drive.

How convenient that my life back then was so containerized with little overlap  among my various activities, clearing the way for isolated sight-specific memory.

The new material will need a lot of editing before it’s ready to share, to add more tension among other things, but at least it’s on the page now. On the page. I like that phrase. That page can be either digital or paper, and it’s “written down” in either form.

While writing about Rifle Club, I wondered how long the shooting range was. I tried standing at various distances from a wall, looking at an imagined image the size of a target and estimating from that. Fortunately I was able to find a description of the requirements for an official NRA shooting range. It was not the 30-40 feet I guesstimated — it was the full fifty feet I originally assumed. Perhaps nobody would notice if I’d gotten it wrong, but it isn’t that hard to dig around and get it right. I appreciate accuracy in the details, whether I’m reading or writing.

My other big challenge of the day was wording around the temptation to use distancing phrases like “I remember…” A quiet voice urged me to “Take responsibility for your story. Just say it, plainly and simply. Don’t try to hide.” Direct statement worked.

Just as I decided it was time to quit doing research, lest I create more memories than I discovered, I had to dig in my own photo file and crank up Google again. But this time it was to verify.

I imagine everyone reading this blog has driven through a turnpike ticket/toll booth or military gate somewhere along the road. I remember the Front Gate as being like a combination of those, but the covered area I remember from the early days is not there now. I found a photo of that original gate in my personal collection that verifies my memory.

The Los Alamos Historical Society could surely tell me when they took it down, but since I don’t remember, it doesn’t matter. I was able to verify the year as being 1957, which is good, because I thought it was 1956. The difference means that the event occurred before April in 1957, the time when I would have needed a pass. I think. Or was 14 the age for passes? Another fact to be documented. I’ll save up these questions and query the Historical Society with all of them at once. As a matter of principle, I do want to be as accurate as possible on details like this, and that’s a challenge when things blur into distant and composite memories.

The writing is fun again, like working a puzzle