A Frogman Frees the Writer in Me

At a party I met a woman who was a technical writer. It was 1965 and I was 23 and trying to find new bearings after having recently left a Roman Catholic religious order (the Brothers of the Christian Schools), which I had joined at the age of 15. The woman -- her name was Nancy -- greatly helped my readjustment by, among other things, relieving me of the burden of virginity. She also introduced me to the world of technical writing, having by the time of our meeting worked as a ghost writer for several years at John I. Thompson, a publisher of books on technical subjects in Washington, DC. Her current project there was helping a chemist produce a book. She described the project in great detail to me in the many conversations we had about her work, conversations which led me to ask if she could get me an interview at John I. She did get me one, and the company hired me as a writer. 

My first assignment was a piece of editing. "Just correct grammar and spelling," my boss, Tom Brown, told me. I did that, tho' it was painful because the writing was, in my opinion, so bad that I wanted to rewrite it. This was my first piece of work as an editor and was an introduction to one of the basic requirements of editing someone else's work, i.e., recognizing the fact that it's someone else's work not yours and that all you can do for it is your best to make it better without interfering with the basic structure of the piece. The process was painful but I got through it. Concerning the session in which my boss looked at the work, all I remember was his enthusiastic tone as he told me that it was good and his cautioning me never to keep potables on the same surface as paper. (He was referring to the cup of coffee I had brought to the meeting.) 

My first writing project was a manual for safing a limpet mine, which is basically a bomb which is attached to the hull of an enemy ship. It was very new technology. It was made mostly of plastic, weighed about six pounds, and could be easily deployed by a scuba diver. This was very different from limpet mines of the time, which were made of steel and very heavy. 

Understanding the mine was not a problem for me. The mine was basically a mechanical device and mechanical devices were something I was very familiar with. I had been studying them from the age of seven when I deciphered the illustrations in an encyclopedia of a steam engine. 

But writing about the device was a problem for me. Writing in general was difficult for me. It was not always so. From childhood, I was fascinated with writing. I wrote my first story -- three sentences long -- when I was five or six. I remember clearly, after finding an ending for the beginning and middle I had written, that a story consists of a beginning, a middle, and an end. I suspect that the realization was as near to an orgasm that any six-year-old can experience. 

My interest in writing stories was, of course, very much tied to my reading. I had begun reading for pleasure at about age five. My mother had provided me with the children's books she felt appropriate for a six-year-old. Fortunately, the first grade quickly got me into more interesting stuff. I began reading in the readers of friends who were in the more advanced grades and in the school library. My mother became aware of my activity when she paid a visit to the home of the principal of the school and took me with her. The woman had a set of encyclopedias in her living room. As the two women chatted, I picked out one of the volumes and began reading an article about cheetahs. I then went back to my seat. Soon afterwards the woman asked me what I had found in the book she noticed me reading. I said I found it very interesting, especially about the speed of cheetahs. I also told her that I had once ridden a cheetah. 

My mother then raised the level of my reading material. Part of this move was to supply me with Classics Illustrated comic books. They contained the gist of works like Tale of Two Cities and The Count of Monte Cristo, done in the style of comic books. Reading them became one of my chief pleasures and continued until I got to highschool. The experience planted in me the seed of the desire to make my living as a writer. 

But after entering grade school, I lost my desire to write. I wrote very little until my sophomore year of highschool when I joined the Christian Brothers. For our English classes we were required to write a minimum of 500 words a week. During this period, ironically, writing became very difficult, even painful, for me. This sad condition came from the conviction that what I wrote had to be true and having no idea of what truth was. The fact that I was in an environment where everyone seemed to think they knew all about Truth of course made matters worse. (I was very open about this with my spiritual director, who was also the Brother Superior of our community.) I remained in this state through highschool and my three years of college and religious vows as a Christian Brother. I brought all of this baggage to John I. of course.

Unfortunately, after a few weeks into the job I was having a hard time working with Mr. Brown and after I had finished the manuscript for the manual dealing with the limpet mine, he had the company put me at paste-up work. I suspect I was the cause of much pain for him. Not only was I inept, but I was suffering from a lot of repressed anger which would now and then erupt as rudeness and even a bit of shouting. 

I was somewhat upset about the change but figured that one way or another I'd get back to writing. In the meantime, the work in the paste-up group helped me get familiar with the nitty-gritty of creating books and I was grateful for that.

Thankfully, after a week or so at paste-up, one of the editors in another department of the company asked me if I would work for him as a writer. His name was Stuart Lilly. I accepted his offer of course and quickly grew to like and trust him. We remained friends long after I left John I. 

The first thing I did with Stu was to finish the work on the limpet mine. The manuscript had come back from the client with a request for changes. I made the changes and with Stu's help improved the thing in other ways. When the manual arrived from the printer, he called me into his office to show it to me. As I looked through it, I noticed a typo and pointed it out to him. Looking at him for a response, I noticed a look in his face which seemed to me pity or perhaps astonishment that I was not impressed with my accomplishment. "I'm glad you're working for me," he said. "I would give you this copy but none of our stuff can leave this building except to go to the government." 

Our next project was about a rifle-launched grenade. As I wrote, I began to sense that my style belonged in legal briefs, not in the manual I was working on, but I had little idea of how to change it. I think this was Stu's view as well. At any rate, after looking at my first draft he said to me, "See that guy over there? His name is Ned Merlino. Take it to him and ask him to read it."

"OK, sit down," the man said as he took the pages from me and started to read them.

Within a minute or so, he began to ask questions and make comments. My reaction to them was horror. It was clear from his comments that, for example, he had almost no idea of what periods and commas were about. I felt much relieved that there were no colons or semicolons on the pages, figuring that they might enrage the man. I was, however, wrong about this, i.e., there was a colon on the page. When Merlino saw it, he exclaimed, "What is this thing?" The tone in this question suggested that I was an idiot. That was for starters. Then I began to realize that the man probably had trouble reading a newspaper. Then to my memory came the words, "Most of the people who will use your work read at the level of a seventh grader. Assume that anyway." Then came to my mind a strategy for dealing with my horror: ask questions and, above all, do not try to defend your work. So I began asking questions, feeling that to try to convey anything by simply speaking was useless since I had no idea of how simply speaking would be understood. 

So ask questions I did and things began to gel. By the end of the half-hour or so meeting, I realized that I had stumbled into a gold mine. For one thing, working with Ned would help me overcome the lack of connection with my audience. I sensed too about Ned that working with him would help me overcome the problems I was having in my relationships with others at the company.

"Thanks very much," I said to him as he gave the pages back to me. I took them and stood up, then said, "I'd like for you to read it after I've rewritten the thing." He looked at me with surprise, paused a few seconds, then returned, "Yeah, sure. Any time."

I went back to my desk and for a half hour or so studied the notes I'd taken during the meeting . Then I rewrote the draft. "Vastly superior. And my new ally is going to help me write even better stuff," I said to myself after typing out and reading the pages. By how it was quitting time and Ned was packing up. "Good to meet you," he said as he went by my desk.

The next day, after I sensed Ned was able to focus on a discussion, I went to his desk and handed him the new draft. He read it over, handed the pages back to me and asked, "What about the illustration specs?" 

Illustrations! By the time I had started working with Ned, I was able to do orthographic and isometric drawings which were good enough to submit to the art department, as opposed to just telling people what I needed. I did this because I enjoyed it as well as because I wanted to know that my requests of the art department were possible before making them. Accordingly, I went back to my desk and got the four or five illustrations I had done for the piece. Ned looked them over for a few minutes and then asked with a bit of astonishment in his face, "Where did you learn to draw?" 

After a few weeks, Ned and I had become friends and often discussed our personal lives. He told me many stories of his experiences in World War II. He was for awhile a POW and the stories out of that experience were extremely interesting. One which I will always remember was of a murder. One of the GIs was raising a rat for food. When the rat was stolen by another GI, the rat rancher killed him. He told me too of adventures attaching underwater mines to the hulls of enemy ships. He told me also of his escapades ashore, which included a lot of wild drinking and brawling. And of the moment of inspiration which brought him back to the religion of his youth, Roman Catholicism. And of course he talked a lot about his wife and children. 

Ned also talked to me very pointedly about my moral and religious condition. He talked even more pointedly about my efforts to seduce one of the secretaries in the company. Also he told me that he had discussed my situation with some of his priest friends and that they had said that my type almost never returned to the Church. I did not feel that any of this was nagging but a sign of Ned's affection for me.

Although perhaps my morality was not improving, my manner of living was. For one thing I quit closing the local bars and started going to bed at a decent hour. I also got a place close enough to work to walk there, a step towards better physical condition and better work.

After working w' Ned for a couple of months, my output really took off. Because of Ned, I was seeing what I produced from his standpoint and for him the manuals were all about illustrations so I became more focussed on them than on the writing since I saw the writing as valuable only to the extent that it clarified the illustrations.

This work was delivering me from the shackles on my ability to write. I was writing about things which were simple and as real as my own body, things on which everyone could agree because they were not only things which could kill but things which had already killed friends and associates of some of those working within a few feet of me. It was this terrifying realness and simplicity of my subject which freed me from the paralyzing feeling that I was lying when I wrote. Working with Ned was also a great help in this process of liberation because it gave me a sense of speaking directly to another human being as well as a continual affirmation of the truth of what I was writing. The result was that I began to again write stories with energy and enjoyment. In highschool and college I had written many but rarely without pain and even disgust with myself. 

I've forgotten exactly how our relationship ended. Perhaps it would have lasted for a long time if the company had given me the 50% pay raise I wanted. They didn't so I decided to go back to school and finish my BA. I said my goodbyes on my way out of the office on my last day. Ned and I hugged. As I was coming out of the building, I found Tom Brown sitting on one of the balustrades by the steps waiting for his ride home. I stopped to say hi. He said he'd heard I was leaving, and I told him it was true. He asked me what I was going to study. 

"History and Chinese," I replied. 

"Chinese!" he exclaimed, looking away from me a bit and with his face saying, "I knew it all the time. The boy is crazy!"