My two days in Duluth were productive. I spent hours at the library, whirling through microfilm. I read all of the front pages for a year, and some of the inside pages, too. I was reminded of all kinds of great stories that I had forgotten--like the story of Mr. Fixit, the small-appliance repairman, who was evicted from his repair shop when the city decided to build apartments in his spot.
Mr. Fixit refused to leave. Even though it was January, the city cut off his heat and water, trying to get him out. He lasted three defiant days, supporters bringing him hot coffee and sandwiches, before he finally emerged and was arrested.
A classic little-guy-fights-city-hall tale.
Or the story about Harmon S., who lived with his family in a log cabin deep in the woods of northern Minnesota. They were organic farmers long before it was trendy; they lived off the grid and off the land. And they objected when the Forest Service started spraying herbicides on nearby federal land. Harmon maintained that the chemicals got into a stream that fed his creek, thus contaminating his only source of water. He asked the Forest Service to stop spraying. The Forest Service said, basically, fuck you.
Things escalated, Harmon got mad, pulled out his rifle, and fired one shot straight up through the trees at a Forest Service helicopter that was buzzing around and spraying things.
Just like Mr. Fixit, he was arrested.
OK, I guess that's another little guy against the government story. I must like those; they stick with me.
Anyway, I took pages and pages of notes from the microfilm, and then I went off to do some interviews. I don't trust my memory about events of thirty years ago, and I had a lot of questions for my old boss and former colleague.
But I came away from those interviews shaking my head. Their memories do not always match mine. And that raises the question: Whose memory do I trust?
This is my memoir. That does not mean I can write it off the top of my head, without checking anything. (And if I hadn't checked, I would have put in print and gone to my grave believing that I worked at the paper when the Edmund Fitzgerald sank. But, as it turns out, I didn't; I started there six months later.)
News stories, dates, timelines--there is a lot that I am writing that is verifiable. But there is a lot that is not. My impression of events might not mesh with someone else's memory. But how do I know whose is right? Or are any of them right?
When I was talking with my old editor, Larry, he mentioned a story of mine that he has remembered after all these years. It was a great story, he said. Explosive. It was supposed to be a story about a small-town high school football game. Kind of a feel-good, "Friday Night Lights" kind of story.
But I apparently noticed kids sneaking away from the game to hide in the fields and drink, and pass out. I wrote this. Readers responded in fury.
As Larry told me this, I racked my brain, trying to remember this story. I was almost certain that I had not written this, but when I asked him, he assured me that I had. "I remember it very well," he said.
It occurred to me later that it might have been written by my friend Katy, who was my best friend at the time, sat near me, also has curly hair, and also likes nontraditional stories.
So I emailed her yesterday afternoon and asked her.
Here is her response: yes, I did write a story about that. It wasn't particularly explosive, though. And the high school students didn't disappear to drink in the fields during the game.
So now I want to email John Rott, the photographer who worked on the story with Katy, and ask him what he remembers. None of this matters to my memoir, of course. This story that I didn't write and wasn't particularly explosive is never going to make it into the book.
I'm just curious now. Who remembers this right? Larry? Katy? Rott? Me?
I fear that research such as this is not productive and extremely distracting. It takes me away from the stuff that I really need to find out. It takes away from my writing time. But it is fascinating, and it is seductive, and I am not quite ready to turn away.
A note on the photo: These are the railroad tracks that run underneath the parking lot by the Duluth Public Library. I parked in that lot every day for years, and yet I did not remember that those tracks were there.
UPDATE: Rott doesn't remember.