Gene Weingarten Mines Magic From Just 'One Day'

Oct 26, 2019

How much human life goes into a single day? Life and death, effort and rest, love, loss, and striving. Gene Weingarten — who's won two Pulitzer Prizes for his Washington Post feature writing — decided to try and tell stories from a single day in history, and remind us of the preciousness of life in everyday moments.

His new book is One Day: The Extraordinary Story of an Ordinary 24 Hours in America. Weingarten calls the book the ultimate extension of his "hammer and nail" technique. "As an editor I once had five different writers walk into a room, take out five phone books, and hammer a nail into each phone book," he says, "and the deal was, they had to write a profile of whoever that nail stopped at. It was risky. But you know, I have the philosophy that there's a story in everything. And they proved it true."


Interview Highlights

On deciding which day to write about

I went to a restaurant, brought [an] old green fedora. Inside were 63 crumpled pieces of paper — 31 on the first drawing, drawn by a little boy for the day of the year. 12 in the second one for the month the year, and 20 for the third one; I had limited the year to one of 20 years. I wanted people alive who I could talk to who remembered what happened. So we limited it to 1969 to 1989.

On the chosen date, Sunday, December 28, 1986

Journalists will tell you that the absolutely worst news day of the week is Sunday. And this was a Sunday. The absolutely worst news week of the year is the sleepy one between Christmas and New Year's, and at least at first glance, 1986 didn't ring any great news bells with me. We seemed to have the worst day of the week in the worst week of the year in a bad year.

On one of the stories that did happen that day — a Dallas firefighter's act of courage

He did the proverbial thing: He rushed into a burning building. In his case, he could have put an oxygen mask on, but he had heard that there were children in there, and he didn't take the time to do it. He used this primitive technique that firefighters can use if they have the nerve: He grabbed his air from the [firehose] nozzle. You know there's a little ring of air around the nozzle as it's pouring the water out. And he went in. There were two children. One did not survive. One did. And the one who survived, survived with phenomenal injuries.

On Michael Anthony Green, the surviving child

He is deeply disfigured, to the point where initially it's hard to look at him. He knows that, he acknowledges that. He actually has worked in a haunted house without any makeup on. He has that kind of attitude toward what happened ... it was his idea. After a very short period of time in talking to this amazing young man, you kind of forget that he looks different. It's a phenomenon I didn't think I would experience and I did.

On researching with Google

The book has these tragedies in it. It also has stories that are ostensibly simple and straightforward. And what I did find is that the deeper you dig, you find out that nothing is really simple or straightforward. - Gene Weingarten

Googling the date gives you a lead. What happens after that is the follow-up, and that's where the magic arrives. The lead you get is essentially a tip to something that might have happened that day. In the follow-up, you get all of the depths and some — some — of the follow-up just turned into unbelievable stories, way deeper than the initial story suggested.

On how we missed all these stories the first time around

We were engaged in our own lives. You know, the book has these tragedies in it. It also has stories that are ostensibly simple and straightforward. And what I did find is that the deeper you dig, you find out that nothing is really simple or straightforward.

There is a couple that met on the day for five minutes. They then went on a date the next day, and on this date they got pretty drunk and announced to a roomful of people that they were engaged! And on the following day the man moved in with the woman — which is the day he learned for the first time that she had two sons. He just hadn't thought to ask. Now obviously, this is a relationship doomed. Well they're still together. And they're still in love, and it's just this wonderful happy story about love and persistence.

On whether he could choose most any day in history and still have this range of stories

I am now absolutely certain. I don't think it matters what day you would pick. You would get different stories but they would still cover this amazing scope of life.

This story was edited for radio by Samantha Balaban and Ed McNulty, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

How much human life goes into a single day - life and death, effort and rest, love, loss and striving. Gene Weingarten, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner for his Washington Post feature writing, decided to try and tell stories from a single day in history and remind us of the preciousness of life in everyday moments. His book, "One Day: The Extraordinary Story Of An Ordinary 24 Hours In America." Gene Weingarten joins us in our studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

GENE WEINGARTEN: Good to be here.

SIMON: Telling the story of a single day of history is kind of an extension of your hammer and nail technique, isn't it?

WEINGARTEN: It is. It's the ultimate extension of it. As an editor, I once had five different writers walk into a room, take out five phonebooks and hammer a nail into each phonebook. And the deal was they had to write a profile of whoever that nail stopped at. It was risky, but, you know, I have the philosophy that there's a story in everything. And they proved it true.

SIMON: So you decided to try to tell the story of a single day in history, an - you settled on what that day would be after what I'll call an extensive scientific process.

WEINGARTEN: I went to a restaurant, brought a old, green fedora. Inside were 63 crumpled pieces of paper, 31 on the first drawing drawn by a little boy for the day of the year, 12 - and the second one for the month the year, and - 20. For the third one, I had limited the year to one of 20 years.

SIMON: You wanted it to be old enough to be history but also have a lot of people who were still around.

WEINGARTEN: I wanted people alive who I could talk to who remembered what happened, yeah. So we limited it to 1969 to 1989.

SIMON: And the date that was chosen?

WEINGARTEN: December 28, 1986. Journalists will tell you that the absolutely worst news day of the week is Sunday. And this was a Sunday. The absolutely worst news week of the year is the sleepy one between Christmas and New Year's. And at least at first glance, 1986 didn't ring any great news bells with me. We seemed to have the worst day of the week in the worst week of the year in a bad year.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, hardly turned out to be the case because there are glimpses of hundreds of stories in this book. December 28, 1986, that morning a fire in a house on Exeter Street in Dallas. A firefighter named Richard Lane committed an act of selfless and undaunted courage.

WEINGARTEN: Yeah, he did the proverbial thing. He rushed into a burning building. In his case, he could have put an oxygen mask on, but he had heard that there were children in there. And he didn't take the time to do it. He used this primitive technique that firefighters can use if they have the nerve. He grabbed his air from the nozzle. You know, there's a little ring of air around the nozzle as it's pouring the water out. And he went in. There were two children. One did not survive. One did.

SIMON: Yeah.

WEINGARTEN: And the one who survived survived with phenomenal injuries.

SIMON: This is Michael Anthony Green...

WEINGARTEN: Yes.

SIMON: ...A little boy. What's he like today?

WEINGARTEN: He is deeply disfigured to the point where initially it's hard to look at him. He knows that. He acknowledges that. He actually has worked in a haunted house without any makeup on. He has that kind of attitude toward what happened.

SIMON: And it was his idea, as I recall.

WEINGARTEN: It was his idea. After a very short period of time in talking to this amazing young man, you kind of forget that he looks different. It's a phenomenon I didn't think I would experience. And I did.

SIMON: It was surprising to me - it was not surprising to me, but it was shocking that you asked if he regretted what happened to him.

WEINGARTEN: Yeah. And there is something interesting in Michael's attitude; it's actually fascinating. He doesn't want to remember the fire. He doesn't think he remembers the fire, but he doesn't want to remember the fire. And the reason is that he does not look at himself as a victim of anything. He is exactly as he has always been to himself. He feels if he remembers the fire, suddenly he would feel as though he had lost something. And so one of the things that happens in the book is I talk to a brain chemist to try to figure out if some dreams that Michael has been having, some nightmares that Michael has been having, are actual memories of the event. And they're not. And I was able to tell that to Michael. And it was great relief.

SIMON: How do you find these stories? Forgive me - you didn't just Google, did you?

WEINGARTEN: Forgive me. Yes, I did. That was - that probably accounted for half the stories. But it wasn't the Googling. Googling the date gives you a lead. What happens after that is the follow-up, and that's where the magic arrived. The lead you get is essentially a tip to something that might have happened that day. In the follow-up, you get all of the depths. And some of the follow-up just turned into unbelievable stories way deeper than the initial story suggested.

SIMON: Reading your book made me think of words from - you know, Auden's poem, "Musee Des Beaux Arts?"

WEINGARTEN: Don't know it.

SIMON: Icarus flying, a little boy. And Auden writes about suffering they were never wrong, the old masters, how well they understood its human position. Here's the line, how it takes place while someone else is eating or opening the window or just walking dully along.

WEINGARTEN: That's great.

SIMON: I mean, here's this one day from history, and all this life going on.

WEINGARTEN: Absolutely.

SIMON: And in a funny way, we were looking away from it at the time, weren't we?

WEINGARTEN: We were. We were engaged in our own lives. You know, the book has these tragedies in it. It also has stories that are ostensibly simple and straightforward. And what I did find is that the deeper you dig, you find out that nothing is really simple or straightforward.

There is a couple that met on the day for five minutes. They then went on a date the next day. And on this date, they got pretty drunk and announced to a roomful of people that they were engaged. And on the following day, the man moved in with the woman, which is the day he learned for the first time that she had two sons. He just hadn't thought to ask. Now, obviously, this is a relationship doomed. Well, they're still together.

SIMON: Yeah.

WEINGARTEN: And they're still in love. And it's just this wonderful, happy story about love and persistence.

SIMON: Do you remain convinced you could choose most any day in history and still have this range of stories?

WEINGARTEN: I am now absolutely certain. I don't think it matters what day you would pick. You would still - you would get different stories, but they would still cover this amazing scope of life.

SIMON: Gene Weingarten and his book "One Day: The Extraordinary Story Of An Ordinary 24 Hours In America." Thank you so much for being with us.

WEINGARTEN: Great to be here.

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