Paying the Price for a Smoking Gun


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.

Detail of decorative books above the entrance to the Library of Congress's Madison Building in Washington D.C. ( Photo by Bill Lascher )

Detail of decorative books above the entrance to the Library of Congress's Madison Building in Washington D.C. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

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?  

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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

A pencil from  the National Archives and Records Administration. ( Photo by Bill Lascher ).

A pencil from  the National Archives and Records Administration. (Photo by Bill Lascher).

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.

Rememberences of Bataan, Corregidor and China — the three places Melville Jacoby reported   —  at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. ( Photo by Bill Lascher )

Rememberences of Bataan, Corregidor and China — the three places Melville Jacoby reported  — at the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Bill Lascher)

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?

Click to Fund My Research