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Saving Stories 

What you write on the internet could live there forever.

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I have no aptitude for science, but I read science-lite articles when they crop up in the back pages of the newspaper. I look for stories about Otzi the Iceman, a mummified hunter killed by an arrow in the back 5,300 years ago, and I read most articles about dinosaurs. The latest one casts doubt on the theory that an asteroid strike was the proximate cause of their extinction. The clues are sealed in sedimentary rock layers—tracks in primordial mud, literally—and it takes a scientist to interpret them.

I occasionally ponder my own footprints in the mud, so to speak. What residual part of me might be as interesting to my progeny as Otzi's copper axe and flint knife are to me? It won't be the 35 mm slides that chronicle my life experience. They are already relegated to the same status as daguerreotypes—relics from a pre-digital age. Besides, I've learned that unless a photo or slide is captioned, follow-on generations will discard them. First into the dumpster go pictures of European cathedrals, babies, cats and beaches at sunset followed eventually by pictures of unidentified people mugging for the camera.

Words have a better prospect, I think. A few years ago, I set out to write about a young physicist. She was a quick study, sizing me up as a science know-nothing. She agreed to an interview so long as I permitted her pre-publication review. "What you write may live on the internet forever," she said. "It has to be accurate."

If she's right, these very words may be unearthed from electronic sediment a hundred years hence. I would prefer that they would be found on the yellowing pages of a journal, but there's no chance of that. I have never kept a journal. It is a minor regret on par with not having seen the aurora borealis or not having eaten a Psilocybin mushroom. I wish I had been disciplined enough to keep a journal. I don't mean a fancy, leather-bound book but something along the lines of a recipe-card box into which I stashed anecdotes, newspaper clippings, quotations and odd facts like "75 million people visit the adult website Pornhub each day." The box journal is an impractical scheme, of course. With no index or organizing principle, I could never find anything.

I do have a few anecdotes that stay close at hand because I sense they have an integral place in something soon to be written. Here are three anecdotes in waiting:

In 1979, the Army sent me to the first Nuclear Weapons Accident Exercise (NUWAX) at the Nevada Test Site. At the time, nuclear bombs were still being detonated under the desert there, 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. NUWAX tested procedures for recovering nuclear weapons from an airplane crash. One night, after NUWAX had ended, I drifted into a PX snack bar. Most of the chairs were taken, so I sat next to a guy dressed in construction garb. We struck up a conversation over cans of Coors. He told me that he had worked on a logistics support team at the Nevada Test Site for a few years. He explained that with each underground nuclear explosion, there was a chance of a rupture of the earth that would allow deadly clouds of vaporized rock and radiation to spew forth. If that happened—and it hadn't happened to him yet—his job was to pour truckloads of concrete into the fissure for as many hours or days as it took to stop the leak. A dangerous but critically important job, he said, for which he was paid a premium, hazardous-duty wage. "It sounds scary," I said. "Yeah, man, pretty scary," he replied, pausing, "there's no way I would do it."

I grew up with Bob Rose. Early on, he had a Midas touch in the stock market. He was cruising to country club soirees in a Porsche while the rest of us were cruising State Street in rusting Chevys. He died in 2013. Judging from the crowd at his funeral, Rose was a man about town. The well-dressed mourners gathered under a huge white tent at Red Butte Garden on a hot afternoon. The eulogies included descriptions of Rose's love of skiing and his unique relationship with the game of golf. Explained one speaker: "He loved every facet of the game—the clubs, the clothes, the shoes, the tradition, the luxuriant courses and manicured greens—everything but golf. He disliked playing the game."

My wife and I moved to Venezuela just as Hugo Chavez reclaimed power after the abortive coup of 2002. Our apartment was on the ninth floor. Our balcony looked down on a palm-lined, urban canyon created by tall apartment buildings. Chavez was a populist who, like his idol Fidel Castro, loved giving speeches extolling his socialist Bolivarian Revolution. On Sundays, he held forth on the radio. He talked for hours. The audience response, called cacerolazo, was immediate. People took to their balconies with pots and pans and banged them together as if the citywide din would drown out Chavez' interminable bluster.

Beside a few anecdotes like those, I don't hold on to much. I throw away pay stubs, bank statements, bills and receipts. I do accumulate stuff left over from repairs—bike parts, sprinkler heads, wire nuts and such—in the hope that I'll eventually use them. I also save the little tubes of superglue even though I know that when I need the half-used tube, it will be fossilized beyond use.

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