I’m no stranger to writing nonfiction, but a biography is a bit different from what I’ve done in the past. It requires the same amount of research, but the focus is slightly different. To be honest, it took me a little while to realize that when I first started writing. And until I realized that, the project was frustrating.
When I first started writing, I thought that the main story of the book would be the historical documents and that my grandfather-in-law’s (Dale’s) story would wrap around that. But the notion felt wrong and I was often stuck in my writing.
Finally, I decided that the main text should be Dale’s story and the historical information should be ancillary and back up his words. Once I figured that out, the writing flowed.
I’m lucky in that Dale is still alive so I can talk to him and ask questions. I have hours and hours of recordings I can go back to for source information. He has colleagues who were more than happy to be interviewed and tell me stories about him. It has been fascinating learning about his life.
But that is also the part that makes it challenging. In my other nonfiction, the words I put on the page were mine; they were my opinion about a topic that interested me. In a biography, my opinion doesn’t really matter much.
I could totally interject it if I wanted to; give a personal quip or account of what I think about something, but I think that gets away from what I’m trying to do. Don’t get me wrong, the words on the page are mine, but they reflect stories that were told to me. I’m sure my tone or voice comes through in the writing, but I’m not presenting an argument or opinion. I’m presenting someone else’s facts.
At the same time, I’m picking and choosing which facts are presented. Dale has been alive for 90 years, and in that time, he’s met a lot of people and had a lot of experiences. He’s made impacts on the world and people’s lives, and others have done the same for him. But not all of these things are worth reading about, and if I tried to talk about all of them, the book would be gigantic. So I have to decide which ones are most pertinent and should be on the page for the audience to read. I have to develop the themes and decide how the book will be laid out.
I’m going to be honest, it’s a bit nerve-wracking trying to figure this out. There are so many amazing and heartbreaking stories, and I’m sure they all are important in their own way, but it’s just not feasible to put them in book form. I feel like I might be doing a disservice by not including them all. Like I’m omitting parts of his life, but I try to choose the stories that represent Dale the best.
I have Dale’s recordings and what he tells me in person, and I sift through them to find the nuggets I think would be the most appealing. I know that not everyone will agree with the ones I picked. I’m sure they would argue that there were others stories that were more important, but—again—I can’t put them all on the page. And since I’m the one working on the book, I have to do what I think is right.
When I’m finished with this book, there’s only one opinion that matters, and that’s Dale’s. If he appreciates and approves the book, then I’ve succeeded in my goal as an author. I’ve made my audience happy.
Here’s an excerpt from one of the chapters that is more finalized but not necessarily done done.
When Dale was 10, he took a job at a local pig farm as the cook’s assistant. His duties required him to be up before everyone else so that he could make sure the table was set and everyone was fed. The cooks weren’t always the nicest people, and on more than one occasion, Dale stormed off from his job, intent on never returning. But more often than not, his father would march him back to the farm to continue his duties. He was told that he couldn’t quit until the end of the season, and his dad wasn’t going to let him quit every job he started.
The situation with the cooks often didn’t get better when he returned. Since they knew Dale was stuck, they often worked him that much harder. However, Dale learned valuable lessons. The experience instilled in him a work ethic and sense of duty, and it taught him how to take orders—a trait that came in handy when he joined the Army.
Dale was 16 years old when Pearl Harbor was bombed, and like every other boy in the country, he wanted his chance to prove his patriotism and defend democracy against the tyranny that threatened to take over the world. His brother was already in the Navy, and Dale waited impatiently for his chance to enlist.
The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, by Japanese fighters marked America’s commitment to join WWII. Before this incident, they tried to maintain a neutral position, even though they supplied weapons, ships, planes, and ammunition to Britain to help them fight the Germans. After Pearl Harbor, the U.S. committed to send soldiers over to fight the war.
Dale was more than willing to do his part, but enlisting in the Army was a bit problematic. For starters, Dale was in agriculture, and his services would be more beneficial at home. Not willing to take no as an answer, he left ranching and took a job as a welder. That accomplished the goal. On August 9, 1943, Dale enlisted in the Army. He was barely 18. Dale was eager to get where the action was and “be one of the boys.” One of his friends that he had gone to school with in McFadden also enlisted.
He left from Rawlins on an old bus to go to Denver. At that point, he was kind of scared—both of what he was getting into and because he wasn’t sure the bus would actually make it. Many of the other recruits were also feeling the anxiety. The vast majority of them had never left home. But that didn’t concern Dale. He had always been independent and worked away from home since he was 10. But there was still a concern of what lay ahead. Thankfully, the bus ride came with entertainment.
One of the fellow recruits was a bit of a jokester. On the way to Denver, as they passed through towns, he would holler out the windows at the girls. When they got to Denver, they were immediately lined up for a health inspection. The jokester stood in front of the doctor, who also happened to be a captain, and was told, “Skin her back and milk her down.”
To which he replied, “Doc, just smile at it, it’ll skin itself back.”
All the recruits thought the remark was funny, but no one dared laugh. It was obvious that the captain didn’t see the humor in his words. The funny man was court martialed after only being enlisted for 2 days. He was the example that the Army wasn’t going to tolerate any shenanigans, and the others fell in line. Dale certainly didn’t want to have to explain to his parents that he got in trouble, so he straightened up instantly and prepared to follow orders.
No doubt the soldier’s sarcastic reaction to the situation was driven by fear of the unknown. Dale certainly felt it. After passing the initial examination, they were fed, issued uniforms, and assigned to barracks. There was very little time for anything, and the new recruits were expected to change quickly into their new attire and prepare for drills. Dale had no idea what was going on, so his fear was renewed. He changed as quickly as he could, throwing his belongings onto his bed, including all the money he had. When he returned later, the money was gone. Someone made out really well that day going through the new recruits’ belongings. A few of the soldiers sat down on the bed and began to cry, but Dale let his anger lead the way. He asked to see the colonel, and he was taken into his office.
“What are you here for, soldier?” the colonel asked.
“Somebody stole my money,” Dale explained.
“Yes, they did.”
“How much did you have?”
Dale told him.
“You sit down right there and I’ll get you a pencil and paper and you give me those serial numbers and I’ll have that money back to you before the night.”
At this point, Dale was becoming more agitated, and he didn’t hide his contempt. “Come on!” he huffed. “What do you think you’re doing? Give me the number of your bills.”
The colonel also was getting irritated with where the conversation was headed. “Don’t get smart with me, soldier. You’re in the Army now, and I can’t do anything for you unless you can give me the serial numbers.”
Dale knew there was nothing more that could be done, so he walked out of the office angry. It was an encounter that would always stick with him and sour his perception of the Army.