Saturday, September 17, 2011

Dam Nightmare

I’m sitting in a conference room with several dozen “suits” surrounding me. There is a discussion going on about a report that needs to be written to complete the research and study that has been conducted. Judging from the discussion, I can tell that all of the people in the room are well versed on the topic of the report. The discussion is focused on the organization of the study report, which will be divided into three different phases. Phases I and II are apparently nearing completion and are about ready to go to the printers. Phase III is not done and that seems to be a problem as the group’s discussion suddenly turns toward me.

The chairman of the meeting turns to address me and asks when the third phase of the report, which I have apparently been working on, will be ready to go to the printers for publication. There is a politician on the speakerphone, Senator Somebody-Or-Other in Washington or Madison, who is squawking at me that I have had plenty of time to complete my portion of the report. He wonders why I’m not ready to publish my findings. All of the people in the conference room glare at me and wait for my answer.

After fidgeting in my seat for a few eternities and as the sweat starts to trickle down my brow, I slowly respond to the inquiry.

“What is this Phase III that I am responsible for all about anyway? I have no idea what any of this is all about.” The conference room breaks into pandemonium. All of the bureaucrats in their suits are yelling at me, fingers are being pointed at me; papers are flying into the air. The Senator is screaming at me over the speakerphone.

I awake with a start; terror fills my heart; my nightclothes are soaked with perspiration. Awake, my mind starts to retreat from the terror of the nightmare; the early morning coolness dissipates the quagmire of the dream. Reality starts to overcome the subconscious fear raised in the nightmare. I think to myself, “What was that all about?”

I swing up and sit on the edge of the bed. Staring out the window at the fog that stretches out from the Kickapoo, I try to clear my own mind of the fog of sleep. As focus starts to come to my conscious mind, I see the volume laying on the nightstand beside my bed. The recognition of the title on the volume that lay there in the early morning light jars me awake some more.







NEW YORK, N.Y. 10017

When writing on some books, you never want to stop working on them. For me it was that way with the first volume of the history of La Farge. I loved to write on that book. The only thing I liked better than writing on that history was researching the material for which I was writing. I was in Seventh Heaven when it came to researching and writing on La Farge’s history, but eventually the volume of material and scope of time became too vast to include in one book.

At a certain point, I had to make a decision to stop writing on the history of the village and publish the first volume of what I had found. Picking a spot to stop that history then became a question that I had to answer. Eventually I chose to stop volume one of the La Farge history in 1962, which is the year that the La Farge Dam Project was authorized by Congress. I chose that point at which to stop because I knew that there was a whole other story to tell when one came to the dam project. Little did I know how compelling that story would be for me to tell?

I have been compiling information on the story of the La Farge Dam Project for some time. For more than a decade I have been teaching groups of students and adults about the dam project. I don’t really know how many groups I have led out onto the Kickapoo Valley Reserve for a tour of the largest unfinished dam in the state of Wisconsin. Over the years I have talked to people on both sides of the dam project controversy about their involvement in it. When the interviews for “The People Remember” oral history project were being conducted in 2000-01, I was listening closely as the people told their stories about the dam project. Over the years, I have made several research trips to St. Paul, where the Army Corps of Engineers keeps their records on the project. As I was researching for the La Farge history, I was compiling separate files of material that I found on the dam project.

In January, I began the process to write the dam project book. It was a familiar story to me; after all, I lived and worked here in La Farge through much of the story. The story had a beginning and an end, which I was quite sure of how to tell. It was the middle of the story that got to me. How does a project of this magnitude get started and then never finished? How does a dam project not become a dam project? What made this project at La Farge play out the way that it did? I had some big questions to answer, so I started to pore through the press clippings on the dam project. The mountain of material in the studies and reports about the project became my favorite reading material. The deeper that I dug, the more engrossed I became in what I was finding.

Some of my findings were almost too good to be true, so I had to write them down for the book almost as soon as I found them. Reading over the press clippings and reports and writing on what I had read became my passion. The process of the researching and writing started to consume me. At a certain point, it was all that I really wanted to do and it pretty much consumed my waking hours. I couldn’t remember conversations with people because instead of listening to what they were saying, I was thinking of some dam project minutia. I would sit quiet in committee meetings, paying no attention to what was being discussed and yearning for them to end so I could return to my dam project research and writing.

I would read until my eyes clouded over and I couldn’t see properly anymore. I would type on the dam project manuscript until my fatigue would prevent me from putting sentences together. Sleep would help clear the mind and eyes and restore some strength, but then the dam project started to creep into my somnolence as well. As I slept an idea about the dam project story would form and I would awake with the idea fresh in my mind. I would race to the computer keypad to get the idea down in my manuscript. Later I could return to the concept or idea and flesh it out to better tell the story. This happened many times as story ideas would leap from my subconscious while in slumber.

Then the dam project dreams began. I did not even know what they were when they first started to form in my sleep. There is a nightmare that teachers have that goes like this: You are in a classroom, but you don’t know any of your students and you don’t know what you are supposed to be teaching. Usually the students are terribly uncooperative in this nightmare scenario, which makes the dream even more frightening. Occasionally when I taught social studies classes at La Farge High School for over thirty years, these types of dreams would happen. However, since I stopped teaching on a fulltime basis, the dreams have rarely occurred. Then this summer, the nightmares started to reappear in my sleep, but in an altered form. In the new nightmare classroom, I would be trying to teach the students about the dam project and I could not seem to convey to them what I wanted to say. I could not get the story across to them.

Then the nightmares morphed into the conference room scene that I described at the beginning of this writing, where I became an active member of the group doing a study on the dam project – except I didn’t seem to have any idea what my job was supposed to be.

As it turns out, my job was to tell the story. When I finished telling the story of the dam project and getting it down in written form, the nightmares and weird dreams about the project ceased. I have my version of the story of the dam project told. Now I’m working with my co-publisher Chuck Hatfield to get the book put together and ready for the printer. I plan to release the book to the public on the weekend of La Farge’s Small Town Christmas in early December.

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