Mt. Hood at Dawn. See more at Mt. Hood at Dawn. See more at http://lascheratlarge.photoshelter.com/archive
I’ve been reading a lot of letters. It seems all I do these days is read letters.
But here’s a letter for you. I wish I could send it to you on the onion-skin I so often find myself reading, the translucent sheets etched with the black ink of a an old Hermes’s or Corona Portable’s hammer-strikes, the sheet carefully folded into an envelope covered with bright stamps and decorated with a picture of a DC-3 and bold capitals reading “VIA AIR MAIL.”
Of course, I can’t, but I still want to say hello, because it’s been a while (probably) and I miss you (certainly) and connecting beyond the superficial digital zones where we encounter one another. You may know where I’ve been, but perhaps something will settle on this screen. Letters, whatever their substrate, allow thoughts to steep better than ever-flowing streams of information we feel we must address and process now. Right now. Always now.
So feel free to read this and whatever letters follow at your leisure.
By the time I had the confidential State Department documents in my hands, I was five days into my research trip to Washington, D.C., I’d flipped through hundreds, maybe thousands of pages of dusty, sometimes crumbling government documents, private letters from publishing luminaries, and even water-stained diaries from hungry, stranded soldiers unaware of a coming death march through mosquito-infested, sweltering jungles.
All of it was fascinating, but more than halfway through my trip, little of what I’d found was of use to me. I’d spent nearly every dollar I had to travel to the National Archives and the manuscript division of the Library of Congress, and I still hadn’t found a smoking gun. I needed something that would allow me to triangulate Melville Jacoby's position amid all the myths and memories of World War II that have bled into our consciousness over three quarters of a century.
I’d ended the previous week sifting through a slender box containing thousands of typed index cards. They mapped the paper trails of countless other lives who’d crossed paths with U.S. diplomatic officials at the height of World War II. As the day drew to a close and I began to crumble — I’d barely slept for a week, rushing first thing every morning to the repositories and staying until librarians forced patrons to leave — I saw Mel’s name.
I pulled the card, somewhat surprised to learn it led to a “confidential file” from 1942. I’d fantasized about discovering once-secret documents related to Mel, but knew I could have been over-romanticizing his life. It wasn’t the only card I found. There was another, more somber file indexed. Beneath a bureaucracy of typed decimal reference numbers read the title ”Death in Australia of Melville J. Jacoby, American Citizen.”
It would be three more weeks — indeed, yesterday morning — until I received a copy of that file, but in truth, I already know perhaps more than I want to know about Mel’s death. What I sought at the archives that week was more of his life. That Monday morning, the stack of telegrams that began with a blaring all-caps “CONFIDENTIAL FOR TIME, INC., WITH MY APPROVAL, FROM JACOBY,” sent by Francis B. Sayre, the U.S. High Commisisoner for the Philippines, was a treasure.
In time I’ll unveil why what was within mattered, but I’m bringing it up now to explain that the find didn’t come easily, nor cheaply, nor does it mean I’m done working. Today I leave for California and visits to two university special collections, and I need your help more than ever. Can you spare a few dollars so I can keep searching for history?
Here’s a breakdown of what I’m spending and why I need your help:
- $836.56 — Amount spent for a round-trip flight from Portland to Washington, eight days of food and Metro fares, but mercifully excluding lodging, thanks to three terrific hosts.
- Emptied — The Amtrak Guest Rewards balance and Southwest travel credits I used for travel between Portland, San Diego and Palo Alto for a second, 15-day-long trip beginning today.
- $720 — Approximate combined total of expected food, transportation and other research-related expenses over the next 15 days.
- [Redacted] — Current abysmal balance of my savings account, especially following today’s rent.
- $380 — Total amount I’ve received in contributions to support research travel this Spring.
- None — Outside income expected from freelance writing and editing clients during my trip.
- $1177.56 — Amount I still need just to break even for this trip.
- Priceless — The generosity of six households inviting me to stay during portions of each trip, thus saving me from paying for three weeks of lodging.
When I wrap up this second trip, I will have spent the better part of five weeks searching for Mel’s story in the haystacks of archives and special collections libraries. That also means five weeks travelling, pulling documents, sifting and reading them, taking notes, processing what I’ve found, all on top of time I’ve been spending drafting new chapters of my book, revising my proposal and further developing my platform (That’s also five weeks without time to report or research other paying stories, apply for outside jobs, or seeking alternative funding).
Why This Matters
Writing nonfiction is as much an archaeological dig as it is a creative endeavor. Sure, if I want to bash my keys into the form of a story, I can assemble a thin skeleton resembling Melville Jacoby’s experience. As that comparison implies, such an outline would lack life.
It turns out that aside from my trip to California I’ll have to go back some day to the National Archives. Five days split between there and the Library of Congress were too few to process the hundreds of files that contain relevant documents. Now I know where to target my next search, but I’ll need to return to the archives to conduct it.
In the past three weeks I’ve also confirmed that there once existed a film of Melville and Annalee Jacoby’s last kiss. I know who shot the film, though I do not yet know whether it has survived the decades. It may very well rest in an archive somewhere, but I’m going to need your help to find it.
But as much as this dig matters to me, what does it mean for you? What do you care if I find some record detailing the tonnage of the boat Mel rode through the Philippines 72 years ago? Why should you be interested in him, particularly given that it will probably be a while before you read much about him (but don’t miss this story in which he makes a guest appearance)?
Perhaps it’s the mythic nature of this story: Given a choice between following his passion straight through danger and uncertainty or a secure, but unchallenging, career move, Mel chose to leap. In doing so, he not only connected with his eventual wife, Annalee, a woman making a similar gamble in pursuit of her passions, but found a job far more promising than the safe opportunity he’d sacrificed. With the world erupting in flames around them, Mel and Annalee’s lives intertwined. Together, they braved great danger to chronicle the horrors around them. Finally, after a tremendous escape and much sacrifice, they reached a serene, peaceful refuge, where home beckoned and nothing seemed capable of going wrong …
This is a grand story of a world teetering on the precipice of historic upheaval, an intimate tale of two young people with the world laid out before them, and a glimpse of moments of tenderness they’re able to share amid the harshest circumstances.
While I find this story compelling, it’s possible that’s not what will motivate you to offer a few dollars. Might there be other reasons you’ll contribute? Have I ever entertained you? Were you ever intrigued by something I’ve written or said elsewhere? Did you ever laugh at one of my tweets or status updates. Was I the one to introduce you to my neighborhood goats? Has their been a reporting trend you found out about or an under-discussed natural danger you’ve learned about because of me? Maybe I helped you discover a new way to get around your city.
I wonder whether there’s something more personal that might convince you to support me. Have I ever introduced you to a new friend or helped you find a lover? Perhaps we’ve cheered for the Dodgers together. Maybe we took a class together, or whiled away a few hours over beers. Did we run miles and miles together? What about traveling; have we crisscrossed the country or explored a foreign city together?
Maybe we’ve held each other’s hands. Maybe we’ve kissed. Maybe we’ve fought.
Perhaps we’ve cooked a meal together or whiled away a Sunday morning at brunch. Perhaps we’ve stayed up dreaming, regretting or reminiscing. Perhaps I witnessed your wedding or watched your children grow up. Perhaps I celebrated your career and cheered your triumphs.
Maybe you once sat in awe listening to Mel’s tale and told me who should play the leads in a movie of this life, wondering why no publisher has picked it up yet, let alone a film studio.
There’s another potentially more likely possibility: we may have never met. It’s quite likely we’ve never shared anything beyond existence in this moment. But maybe you recognize something in these words, some kind of yearning for it all to finally click, for something to come of years of work.
Maybe you don’t want to give me anything. So, I wonder, what would you suggest? What should I do to keep these wheels turning? Where do I find work that I can pour myself into while still being able to tell Mel’s story? How can I fund that story? What am I missing?
Whether I’ll ever arrive at a point where this letter can be mailed is still a matter of fate. So far we’ve been scared plenty but very lucky — and I’m knocking on wood. We slid out of one island hideout just a bare two hours ahead of one of Mr. Tojo’s destroyers and have been seeing dim outlines on the horizon ever since. But all that will be a story later, I guess.
—Melville Jacoby, March 18, 1942, Somewhere At Sea
Hello NBC, this is Mel Jacoby, speaking to you from Hong Kong. About 48 hours ago I was in Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek’s capital of Chungking watching excited and happy Chinese celebrate their greatest victory…
—Melville Jacoby, broadcasting over the NBC Blue Network, Oct. 7, 1941
In Government Archives, One Journalist Seeks Another’s Story
by Bill Lascher
SOMEWHERE OVER THE UNITED STATES - Explorers of a remote expanse of a 33-year-old Portland journalist’s memory discovered the latest in a string of uncanny circumstances surrounding his telling of the tale of a World War II-era correspondent’s brushes with history, romance and adventure.
Following two days of travel disruptions, Bill Lascher* is en-route to Washington, D.C. in pursuit of long-sought documents and other primary sources connected to the subject of his in-process book about one-time Time Far East Bureau Chief Melville Jacoby. The visit to Washington comes seventy-two years after Jacoby and his wife, Annalee — also a journalist — fled the embattled fortress island of Corregidor. Tomorrow, when Lascher steps into a manuscript reading room at the Library of Congress, he’ll do so on the second anniversary of the date he began an ambitious, but ultimately unsuccessful, Kickstarter campaign aimed at funding his upcoming book.
The discovery of the anniversary underscores the financial gambles Lascher has made on this and other research efforts into how the Jacobys’ careers and romance flourished amid one of the most pivotal moments of the 20th Century.
"If it takes shameless self-promotion, interviewing myself and one-sourcing a fundraising-pitch masquerading as a news story to afford to tell this story, then that’s what it takes," Lascher said during an exclusive intra-cranial interview.
Just before Bill Lascher departed for Washington, sources within the writer’s temporal lobe confirmed that he continues to seek outside funding for his research and other expenses related to his telling of Jacoby’s story. Financial records acquired by Lascher at Large reveal that Lascher expects to spend at least $800 on combined airfare, ground transportation, food and duplication costs for the current trip. Lascher said he would welcome even a $5 contribution, though he’s not ruling out the possibility that members of the public may contribute even more. Regardless of the amount he raises, the reporter says he’ll expend whatever resources are necessary to research and recount Jacoby’s tale.
Tomorrow, that pledge takes Lascher to the Library of Congress, where he will scour the private papers of prominent publishers and government officials whose paths crossed Mel’s and Annalee’s in the Philippines, China and elsewhere. Lascher will also visit the U.S. National Archives and Records Administrations facilities in College Park, MD, where he will sift through military and government records related to the couple’s wartime reporting and other events, such as bombings in Chongqing, midnight New Year’s Eve escapes from conquered cities, reports from the Philippine front lines and weeks at sea sneaking past enemy blockades.
"Mel’s life lends itself to a dramatic narrative, that’s certain," Lascher said. "But that narrative only comes to life with the realization it’s a true story. I need to be able to situate the almost unbelievable events Mel encountered within their historical context."
The revelations that came to light this week regarding the Kickstarter anniversary underscore a string of coincidences throughout Lascher’s work on the book.
"From learning I was related to this amazing reporter only after I pursued a journalism career myself, to my discovery of some of Mel’s surviving friends and their families, to learning about the man in my own hometown he worked with, I continue to uncover new surprises," Lascher said. Though the initial Kickstarter failed, further fundraising by Lascher paid for previous — though abbreviated — research trips to Stanford, Harvard and Yale, and to fund, at least partially, his early independent efforts to write and produce this book.
Trip May Involve the Newseum, Dogs
In addition to disrupting Lascher’s travel, Monday’s storm slowed researchers pulling a recording of Melville Jacoby’s broadcast for The March of Time . Even with the rescheduling, It’s uncertain whether Lascher’s five days in Washington will suffice.
Meanwhile, Lascher is likely to avoid sightseeing except when reading rooms are closed. Previous reports indicate Lascher may spend Sunday visiting the Newseum, an institution known to highlight the so-called “4th Estate,” a colloquial term often used in the United States to refer to the journalism industry. It’s expected Lascher will look for Jacoby’s listing on the Newseum’s memorial to fallen journalists. Sources close to Lascher who spoke on condition of anonymity (due to their being himself) say he may also spend some of his limited free time playing with the many dogs living at the homes of friends who have agreed to host him.
Next month, Lascher will spend two weeks at the University of California, San Diego and Stanford University, each of which holds personal papers and other primary sources further fleshing out Jacoby’s story. Costs for that trip were mitigated by Lascher’s use of frequent flyer and Amtrak frequent rider miles (Lascher is a frequent train rider who has previously indicated he is interested in a residency from Amtrak to aid his work on this book) and lodging offers from family, but Lascher expects to spend at least $700 on additional expenses such as food and ground transportation. Lascher says he certainly would welcome assistance for that trip as well, especially considering the cost of his time, which, when not working on his book, Lascher devotes to freelance journalism for clients such as The Guardian, Next City, and The Magazine.
Aside from these trips, at least 23 facilities in fourteen states have repositories containing collections Lascher has identified as directly relevant to Jacoby’s story that Lascher would visit if he had the resources necessary to do so. A map acquired by Lascher at Large illustrates the geographic range of these facilities. They do not include sites in China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam or Australia also relevant to Lascher’s research.
New Article, Dispelling Rumors
News of Lascher’s research anniversary comes as he prepares for the release of his upcoming article in the Spring, 2014 edition of Boom: A Journal of California. Expected to publish Mid-March, that piece will tell the story of a character from Lascher’s hometown of Ventura, California with an unexpected connection to Jacoby and who made key contributions to China’s struggle for survival during World War II.
In related news, Lascher insists that his recent viewing of Season Two of the hit Netflix show “House of Cards” will not influence his perceptions of the nation’s capital.
"Spoiler alert: the new season builds to a dramatic moment in a Library of Congress reading room wherein Frank Underwood brazenly refuses to wear gloves while handling a manuscript," Lascher says. "Or does it…"
Though armchair casting directors regularly inform Lascher of their picks to play Mel and Annalee in a seemingly-inevitable cable series or film spun off from their tale, Lascher remains squarely focused on his writing.
"Hey, let me write the book first" he says when asked who he thinks should play the lead, noting that interested publishers can reach out to his agent at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management. “But if Tom Hanks is looking for a project, I know he likes World War II stories and typewriters with history, like the one of Mel’s I was given when I first learned his story.”
*Full Disclosure: Lascher is the Writer, Editor, Designer, Social Media Manager, Intern and Janitor of this publication, and Jacoby’s cousin twice-removed, to boot