Sunday, October 18, 2009

Reading in the Closet

My mother kept books she thought were inappropriate for children in the coat closet, which had a single light bulb and smelled vaguely of mothballs. You might guess that this was my favorite place to read. I think the forbidden books included things like Forever Amber, Tobacco Road, and a book called Green Dolphin Street, which had a hair-raising earthquake sequence.

There was a nun in Green Dolphin Street who had given away all her possessions when she took her vows, all except a small box of things she could not take with her but couldn't bear to part with.

I wonder if all of us don't have a few things which wouldn't mean anything to anybody but us. I have a Girl Scout tree-finder's badge, a class ring from college which I never wear, and even a small vial of earth from Thessaloniki. They aren't worth anything, and I don't think I've ever shown them to even my nearest and dearest, but if I were going away to become a nun, this is the sort of thing which would be hardest to leave behind.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Newspaper Mystery

I am in the throes of writing a mystery novel set at a large metropolitan newspaper in the 1950s. Being in the throes means that I have about twenty files on the computer as well as a large binder filled with notes, maps, and scribbles on envelopes and napkins.

The work brings up all sorts of memories of my first job, working for what I am calling the Knoxville Times: Sounds, feelings, even the names of people I haven't thought of in years.

And since we are far removed in time and space from those days, I might as well confess: I am the one who misspelled either "Seize" or "Siege" in a banner headline on the front page. It was some years after I started at the paper and I was on the rim of the copy desk, where we edited copy and wrote headlines.

The headline was passed to the copy chief, who sat in the middle of the U-shaped desk. He put the half-sheet of paper in the pneumatic tube which went to the composing room, where it was set in print, locked into a lead page, cast into a cardboard mat, recast as a cylinder in lead, put on the presses and printed.

The news editor swore very loudly when he saw the paper. The presses were stopped. The page was remade, the earlier copies of the newspaper scrapped, and all this was on overtime at regular union wages. And then the hunt began for who was at fault. Meanwhile, the man who sat next to me on the copy desk had found the original paper with the headline and had buried it in his desk drawer.

Heads would have rolled, of course, except that nobody seemed to know anything about who was really responsible for the misspelled headline. There were five or six of us on the copy desk; the news editor and the managing editor had seen the proofs and had not noticed the mistake.

I confess: Not only did I write that headline, but just now I had to look up the spelling of "Seize" because "I before E except after C" is still stuck in my head.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Making a Diamond

When Nic was about twelve years old, he saw a movie about diamonds and decided he would make a diamond himself.

He took an old water heater, an air compressor, carbon from an old dry cell battery, assorted jars, hoses and funnels, went to the store and bought carbide, which one could do in those days.

He bought a gas mask, heavy gloves and a roll of asbestos stuff which he intended to wrap around his legs.

Before actually beginning to make the diamond, however, he thought he would do a trial run. He started the water dripping on the carbide and ran around to the water heater to strike a match (he was not wearing his protective gear.) Nothing happened. He lit another match and nothing happened. He lit a third match, there was a huge explosion, he screamed and went running home.

His mother immediately called the doctor, who made a house call (they did this in those days) and found that, apart from lots of rust, Nic was not seriously harmed.

I love this story because it tells so much about my husband: His willingness to take a risk, his sometimes caution, and his idea that many difficult things may be accomplished by ingenuity and sheer persistence.