A Fine Line

November 7, 2002

When I wrote a piece about a chain of beer rings that circumnavigated my living room in Monterey in 1969, I felt the need to research both the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 and Ermal “Ernie” Fraze’s perfection of the pop-top can in 1963. The story was going to occupy four paragraphs at most, but I struggled with how much to include.

Did my readers need to know that Leland Stanford tapped the Golden Spike into a prepared hole in a tie of polished California laurel wood, which was subsequently torn to pieces by souvenir hunters? Did they need to know that 1869 transcontinental passengers still had to take a ferry across the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, and a 75-mile boat ride from Sacramento? Did they need to know that Ernie Fraze had too much coffee to sleep the night he made his design breakthrough?

In pondering this, I was reminded of a man named Bruce, a naval officer who ran aground and ended up in the mental ward of the VA hospital in Syracuse, from which he made regular excursions to the Syracuse University campus, where he was known as “The Six Million Question Man.” Bruce’s condition predisposed him to “going off on a tangent.” Every piece of information prompted a new thought, which took him in a new direction.

The library was one of Bruce’s regular stops, and I worked at the Reference Desk at the time, a choice destination for a man with questions. Bruce was clean and neatly dressed, and for a long time he was very polite, and we were instructed to treat him as we would any other patron. Some days, we answered his questions for hours. I remember one exchange especially, which began with the Pan-American Games. Bruce had heard about them earlier in the day, and wanted to know a little history. What organization was responsible for organizing them? Where were they located? I answered one question from the almanac, the next from a directory of associations. Bruce looked down at the directory and then back up at me.

“Who publishes this?”

“Gale Research,” I said.

“Where are they located?”

“Detroit,” I said.

“Do you have any books on Detroit?”

Bruce eventually took a dark turn, saying to one of my co-workers, “I’d like to hit you with a chair,” and so was banished from the library, to our enormous relief. But in following my curiosity from beer chains to Leland Stanford – railroad magnate, university benefactor and governor of California – I remember Bruce again, and wonder how fine the line is between curiosity and what we perceive as madness.

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