From The Blog

One Source May Hide Another

The poet Kenneth Koch, in a poem titled “One Train May Hide Another,” warns against assuming that things are only what they appear to be. The...

The poet Kenneth Koch, in a poem titled “One Train May Hide Another,” warns against assuming that things are only what they appear to be. The inspiration for the poem is a sign at a rail crossing in Kenya alerting motorists and pedestrians to the possibility that a long train passing in one direction may conceal a train approaching from the opposite direction. When faced with analogous situations in life, the poem cautions, “[p]ause to let the first one pass./You think, Now it is safe to cross and you are hit by the next one. It can be important/To have waited at least a moment to see what was already there.” So, too, in reporting, one source may hide another source, and when conducting interviews, it’s important to take the time “to see what was already there.”

In my case, I didn’t have to do much waiting. To my good fortune, the first source revealed the second early on and without solicitation. Nevertheless, this experience is a reminder that, in any interview, it’s worth taking a moment to probe for other sources that you may not be aware of. You don’t want to get “hit” after you publish with a key document or interview subject you didn’t know about because you never asked, especially if it contradicts or complicates your story.

My first source was Dr. Charles Lundquist. Lundquist, who is 86, works at the University of Alabama, Huntsville (UAH), where he is Director of Interactive Projects. I reached out to him because I knew that he had worked at the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) at the same time as Col. John C. Nickerson, and I was curious whether Lundquist remembered the colonel. Nickerson—the focus of my project—was in charge of external operations for the rocket program in Huntsville, effectively the chief of staff for the head of the program, Gen. John B. Medaris. Nickerson faced a court martial after he leaked information about the rocket program to the press in order to persuade the Pentagon that it was a mistake to limit the Army’s role in rocket development.

The second source, hiding behind the first, was a significant collection of Nickerson-related documents at UAH’s archive. Lundquist was kind enough to alert me to its existence in an e-mail before we’d even spoken. Although I’m not sure if I’ll be able to get down there this spring, I’ve been in contact with the UAH archivist—Lundquist put us in touch—and she responded enthusiastically to my interest in the documents. Based on its finding guide, the collection appears to be very well organized and comprehensive, and it looks like it contains a host of key documents that are not available elsewhere. Internet searches and searches through the Columbia library had not led me to this collection. If Lundquist hadn’t told me about it, it’s not clear I would have come across it. One source may hide another source, and had Lundquist not volunteered the existence of the Nickerson collection, it would have been essential for me “[t]o have waited at least a moment to see what was already there”—namely, taken the time to ask the right questions about other sources.

Lundquist himself is also proving to be an invaluable source. I decided to contact him because I figured he might have some general recollection of Nickerson and the court martial. I was pleasantly surprised to learn, when I spoke with him recently, that he had worked closely with Nickerson, whom he called a good friend. Lundquist had come to Huntsville in 1954. At the time a newly minted engineering professor at Penn State, he had been drafted into the Army and, given his expertise, had been assigned to its rocket program in Huntsville. When his draft period ended a couple years later, Lundquist decided to stay on as a civilian.

Although he and Nickerson lost contact after the colonel’s exile to the Panama Canal Zone, Lundquist was able to provide anecdotes and observations about Nickerson before and during the court martial, as well as context regarding the rocket program and military’s reaction to the leak. He expressed, for example, the frustration the scientists and engineers felt when Pentagon policies slowed—or threatened to halt—their rocket research. In addition, the conversation, coupled with some documents-based research, has persuaded me that Gen. Medaris is an important figure in the story, given his fraught relationship with Nickerson. While time constraints kept our first interview on the short side—about 25 minutes—Lundquist agreed to speak with me further as my research develops.

I’ve also learned that Lundquist, in his work at UAH, is collecting—on behalf of the university—documents and other information on the team of German scientists who worked alongside him and Nickerson in the ABMA and, later, at NASA, where Lundquist also worked. That information may also prove useful as far as understanding the rocket program and possibly the court martial itself, depending on whether the German scientists’ papers mention Nickerson or his court martial.