In the very first post, I mentioned that the exhibit was coming with a book. In the case of which came first, the exhibit or the book, the answer is definitely the book.
I first heard about Al Jacobson in April of 2005. I had just started working at the Great Lakes Naval Memorial and Museum, when the secretary of the board and the executive director came to me and asked me if I would be willing to transcribe/make minutes of the last three months of board meetings. After two hours of frantic typing (I love veterans, I really do, but they can get off on tangents so fast, and then they have to top one another!) they reached the end of the agenda and had to select two replacements for two members whose tenures were up and poor health was preventing their return.
One of the veterans said he knew two men who might be interested, and one of them was Al Jacobson, and proceeded to give a thirty second summary of what happened to him.
I remember thinking, “WOW! I have got to talk to this guy for our oral history project!” I mentioned that to our executive director, Bob, who was going to talk to Al in a few days, and he said he’d bring it up. Two days later, he calls me in his office and says while Al was quite busy at the moment, he gave Bob the account of the Flier that he’d written to give to me. It was amazing to go through that simple account, and I wanted to read more. I was shocked to discover that while there were dozens of submarine books on the market, including several each about the Harder, Wahoo, Tang and Growler, there was no book about the Flier at all.
I instantly thought, “I wonder if I could write it…” and just as quickly dismissed the idea. I had been writing “books” since I was in 9th grade, but usually by the time I finished, I couldn’t stop laughing at the ridiculous things I written. If I actually thought it was good, I put it away for six months or so, then re-read it, always to shrieks of laughter.
But the idea wouldn’t leave me. I started to do every bit of research I could on the Flier. Flier’s account was summerized in several large compendiums, and I was able to discover various facts behind these short narratives. The more I learned, the more questions I came up with and wanted to know.
So I decided to give it a try. The worst thing that could happen was I failed to finish. At least working from a real story, I couldn’t write myself into a ridiculous, melodramatic corner. I started to talk to Al about the Flier, and interviewed him on the phone and on tape. I started giving an “elevator speech” version of the story while I lead tours of Flier’s sister USS Silversides, and got a ton of people asking where could they buy the book, so I knew there was the interest.
The first draft was finally finished in 2007. It had taken two years of research and there were some large holes in the narrative, where I had been unable to find enough records to satisfy my accuracy standards. Sometimes, I had accidentally make Al sound like a girl (my husband would point this out, usually after laughing) but it was done, and I intended to start editing it while looking for a publisher.
But things kept getting in the way. We had to move out of state, away from the museum. The museum, which had been intending on doing an exhibit about the Flier, put that on the back burner to concentrate on the capital campaign for the new (now current) building. My husband and I had our first child, I was working evenings at my alma mater as their Archivist in order to make enough money to pay down debts we had built up while my hubby had been out of work (the museum had not been full time employment for me). The worst blow of all, (at least to me) was a book on the Flier WAS published, and a part of me wanted to give up. Who was going to listen to an untried author in the face of a WWII scholar?
Occasionally, I would go through and edit the book, and sometimes made headway on it. It was different from the Sturma book on Flier, since mine was a novel written from Al’s point of view rather than a pure non-fiction. Sometimes, I realized I was enjoying the story again for its own merits, and thought, ‘Why not?’ After all, if the Wahoo and Tang can have multiple books written about them, there was no law that there cannot be two written about the Flier.
Then Al died. The last survivor was gone, and I hadn’t finished soon enough to let him see it in print. I felt incredibly guilty and depressed, and then, more determined than ever to finish.
Things started to fall into place. The records I needed in the National Archives either were posted online or arrived weeks after I stopped looking for them. The museum got a new executive director who was interested in the Flier story and the exhibit and project were tentatively put back on schedule, and I no longer had writer’s block. Then the exhibit got green lighted, publicity was hinted at, and now the Flier has been found.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll start posting excerpts from the book and let you know how things are going. We’re going to self-publish at least to begin with because no one will take a manuscript from here to published as fast as we need it done, but that’s all right by me. Still, getting the book to print and the exhibit up in time could be really… interesting.