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Sunday, May 15, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Life, Single Spaced -- Can A 36-Million-Word Diary Capture A Man? -- The Diarist Of Dayton -- For 22 Years, Five Minutes At A Time, Rev. Robert Shields Transforms The Ordinary Into Something Else

THE DIARIST IS PERPLEXED. HE cannot find his own grave. He knows it is nearby, along one of the few gravel paths that crisscross this small cemetery. The gravel crunches under the tires of his automobile as he searches for the plot with the flat stone marker inscribed ROBERT W. SHIELDS. FATHER. 1918-.

"It's got to be here somewhere," he says, wheeling onto one of the paths for the third time. The diarist has visited this cemetery often. The names on the stones became familiar to him during his years as a minister, which preceded his calling as a diarist. He seems to have married or buried someone from every family in the southeastern Washington town of Dayton.

"I asked one widow if there was anything special she wanted me to say about her husband," he recalls, studying a pair of crooked trees in an attempt to gain his bearings. "She said, `No. Just get rid of him.' "

The diarist chuckles. He has an impish sense of humor to go with his feeble sense of direction. He drives around the cemetery some more.

"I'm lost," he laments. "I won't be able to find my own grave."

It is only one of the diarist's many sources of uncertainty. Others include the interpretation of his dreams; the disposition of his eternal soul; and the motivation for keeping a daily diary for the past two decades that, if it does in fact contain 36 million words (his latest estimate; pity the fool who tries to verify it), must be regarded as the world's longest.

"What do you think of that?" he will say at one point, sitting at a dining-room table pinned to the floor by one ledger-like volume that spans the past 17 months and demands to be lifted with two hands. He glances at the diary's pebbled leatherette cover and sounds as befuddled as a man can be.

"Why does a person do it? I don't know why I do it."

The diary is his monument to himself. As much as any piece of granite, it will be his tombstone. He intends for it to be preserved in a library at Washington State University, alongside pioneer journals and literary manuscripts and a quarter of a million Edward R. Murrow photographs, under florescent lights shielded to filter out the rays that make ink fade. Then, long after the diarist is dead and buried and worms have eaten his flesh, those among the living will be able to turn the pages - thousands upon thousands upon thousands of pages - and wonder about this man and his mission.

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 9, 1994; DAYTON, WASHINGTON.

12:00-12:10 I ate a tin of King Oscar kippered snacks. They are $1.09 on special this week but regularly they are much more. I have enjoyed them for perhaps fifty years.

12:10-1:00 I ate a 15-ounce Hormel Chili con carne while I made a grocery list from the Albertson and Safeway flyers.

1:00-1:05 I ate a medium banana. McQuary's has them on special at 39 CENTS and they are splendid ones, too, while Safeway charged me 79 CENTS or 89 CENTS a pound for them last week.

1:05-1:10 I splurged. I let out buckets of water. A sluice, a flume.

1:10-1:15 I made handwritten memoranda for the diary. I am behind on typed entries.

You might wonder whether living a normal life while writing it all down in five-minute increments is like patting your head while rubbing your stomach. Does doing one make it much harder to do the other?

Shields' diary unspools out of his life like NYSE quotes from a stock ticker. He types on 11-by-14-inch paper divided into two columns, single-spaced; a slow day fills three columns - about 2,000 words. Biological routine - sleeping, eating, excreting - consumes line after line. There are other, less natural rituals, too: recording the temperature from several thermometers, indoors and out; summarizing stories of interest from the newspaper and the TV news with Peter Jennings and the series "Unsolved Mysteries"; jotting down detailed notes on distance and time when driving out of town, a task complicated by Shields' reliance on a digital watch that he has never learned how to re-set. Right now it is running an hour and five minutes ahead.

"I do things then make a record of them. I do things regardless of the record. I do things for the purpose of doing them," Shields insists. "The diary doesn't run me; I run the diary."

Later he will confirm that in the past 10 years he has avoided traveling anywhere that would require an overnight stay. "If I'm away for three or four days I get so far behind in my diary it's impossible to catch up," he says. "I want to stay close to my work."

THURSDAY, JANUARY 27, 1994.

9:55-10:05 Jim Broatch of Milford, Conn., called . . . He is head of some sort of organization that deals with compulsion and I admitted the diary was "an obsession of sorts." He is sending me free literature about the organization.

The diarist's house is equipped with 10 phones, but when they ring he lets his wife, Grace, or his 32-year-old daughter, Cornelia, answer. They screen the calls so he can continue his work.

When it is someone who says "My name is such-and-such; I heard about the diary," Shields will invariably reach for his pen and ask: "How do you spell that?"

If it is neurotically obsessive to care about the correct spelling of a person's name, or the price of extra-lean hamburger, or the humidity of a spring day, or the brand of one's razor blades and the size of one's bowel movements, then so be it: call Shields obsessive, or worse.

"He doesn't want to be cured," says Cornelia, who keeps a less verbose diary of her own, maintains numerous files related to the TV show "Quantum Leap" and its stars, Dean Stockwell and Scott Bakula, and has written a historical novel based on the Whitman Massacre.

"We could all use being obsessed like that so we can get work done," she says. "I have a list of every book I've ever read. Everybody I admire is obsessive-compulsive."

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 9, 1994.

12:30-3:40 I slept for three and a half hours. I was in a very small church, standing in the sanctuary behind eight people. One man in a dark overcoat, hatless, stood with his back to me, and was very lame in his left foot (or leg), so that he was hunched over to the left side. He was (ex-President) Richard Milhous Nixon. When the offering tray was passed, he slapped an envelope in the collection plate with a gesture of annoyance and impatience, even anger.

The diarist never dreams of typing; "I have never even dreamed of a keyboard," he marvels. "That seems strange."

If you were to have a life-like dream of the diarist at work, Shields would be wearing blue long johns. He would be in his tiny closet of a study, sitting on a tattered secretary's chair, cushioned by a foam donut. A horseshoe formation of six IBM electric-memory typewriters would stand at the ready. He would hunch over one, his stubby hands moving deliberately. His right hand would be curled like a claw, middle finger extended, hunting and pecking, a reminder of the mild stroke 2 1/2 years ago that slowed his output from 90 words a minute to a plodding 15 or so.

There would be no sunlight, no way to know for sure whether the big schoolroom clock on the wall meant 10 p.m. or 10 a.m.

The shelves around him would contain the Encyclopedia Britannica, the complete works of the 18th-century Swedish theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, typewriter ribbons, paper, correcting fluid.

In front of him would be tacked five outdated, wallet-size calendars. Also, the phone numbers and addresses of his 30-year-old twin daughters Klara, a law student in Seattle, and Heidi, a doctor in Ohio.

The Shields children remember the sound of typing coming from their father's study in the middle of the night. It was not a dream.

"He overdoes everything," says Klara. "It's his nature to keep going and going all the time. Heidi and I - I want you to quote this - lead normal lives."

THURSDAY, MAY 27, 1993.

3:35-8:55 I lay abed five hours and twenty minutes but I certainly did not sleep all that time . . . I burdened my mind again with not being able to attend final examinations at Harvard Divinity School, which caused permanent loss of credit. I was in Deerfield, New Hampshire, without a car or any means to get to Harvard, and I well remember the sadness of that day. Then I was sidetracked at Garrett by a professor who said I had "a very bad profile, and needed psychiatric treatment." I was given the faculty decision that I could not re-enroll in Garrett for my senior year without taking $1,000 worth of psychiatric care at my own expense. I attribute the vote to my belief that the Lord Jesus was God, an idea abhorrent to most or all of the faculty, and to my belief in spirits.

Occasionally he tells his diary things he would not tell a stranger, which is one way to make a diary interesting. "Uninhibited, is a word I like to use," he says, sounding pleased at being able to use the word again.

This much can be said of Shields' life without consulting the written record:

He was raised in Seymour, Ind. (the same small town where John Mellencamp got his start). He first kept a diary at age 17, pouring out his heart about a girl who did not even know he existed and could scarcely have imagined what chain reaction she would touch off. The early diary phase lasted only a few years. It went into remission by the time he graduated from Franklin College, Ind., and continued to lay dormant while he attended several seminaries and divinity schools.

His father, a one-time speed typing champion (222 wpm from the Gettysburg Address, memorized), told Shields when the son left home: If he wrote to him every day there would be plenty to write about; less if he wrote home only once a week.

Out of school and on his own, Shields sold children's encyclopedias and also worked for a yearbook company. He taught English in Kennewick before moving in 1969 to Dayton. It is a town of 2,500 residents, 83 National Historic Register homes, 13 churches, and two banks on Main Street with time-and-temperature signs that never agree. At Dayton's columned high school Shields taught English; after school he moonlighted as a ghostwriter of books and dissertations. He sold the manuscript business in 1985, donating the approximately $75,000 in proceeds to Washington State University as an endowment to store and maintain his diary after his death.

Until then, he juggles thousands of dollars in credit-card debt with a monthly income of $285 from his teacher's pension, $300 from the WSU trust and a pittance from social security; when he must dress up, he wears a deceased man's blue pinstriped slacks given to him in lieu of payment for a funeral service.

He has written and re-written an unpublished novel that he describes as "a northern Gone With the Wind." Twelve hundred poems he has composed, too, "six of them good" (in a more modest mood, he might admit to only five). He has memorized about one-tenth of the Bible's million words, including most of the Psalms.

He takes pills for the pain in his hips and back. Diagnosis: sciatica. Cause: toppling backwards off a chair he was standing on while trying to reach up high and kill a spider. He no longer Scotch tapes envelopes in his diary containing the bodies of dead spiders.

Shields would like to type the last entry in his diary on the day he dies. He says: "It's gotten to the point that if I don't write it down, it's as if it never happened."

MONDAY, JANUARY 31, 1994.

3:35-4:05 Klara called. Well, I am getting to be a celebrity in my own right. I am no different than anybody else. I keep a diary. Thousands keep a diary. Mine just happens to be longer than anybody else's.

Three reference librarians at Seattle Pacific University fielded so many questions from students looking for diaries that they decided to compile their own reference book. "American Diaries: An Annotated Bibliography of Published American Diaries and Journals to 1980," stands as the authoritative guide, as well as making an excellent leaf press. It covers some 7,000 entries.

Published diaries of the world include those of Franz Kafka, George Washington, Hans Christian Andersen, Paul Klee, Tchaikovsky, Christopher Columbus, Thomas Edison, Lawrence of Arabia, Anais Nin, Anne Frank, H.L. Mencken, John Quincy Adams, Virginia Woolf and Mario Cuomo.

Diaries have been written as an aid to memory, a confession of sins, a souvenir of travel, an apology to posterity and an account of the everyday. Seldom have they exhibited Shields' attention to detail: I shared a few pages of Shields' work with Thomas Mallon, who wrote "A Book of One's Own," part of the surprisingly small corpus of books about diaries. "I don't think I've ever seen anything like this," Mallon marveled. "This is sort of the diary as electrocardiogram."

The best-seller "Zlata's Diary," kept by a 13-year-old girl in Sarajevo, is the latest example of the diary as popular literature. Not yet on the shelves of the Library of Congress but of keen interest is the private diary of Sen. Bob Packwood. The most famous diary of all-time, though, probably remains the scribblings of Samuel Pepys, an Englishman who recorded his 1.25 million words of coded shorthand entries between 1660 and 1669, when he was a bureaucrat in the Royal Navy. Pepys could be frank, funny, and randy. Some consider his diary the best bedside book in the English language, after the Bible.

Among the diaries noted for their tonnage but relegated to also-ran status by Shields' output:

At approximately 20 million words and still growing, the diary of Edward Robb Ellis, 83. Ellis, a former newspaperman, started the diary at age 16 and continues to add to it. A Japanese publisher plans to print excerpts of the diary in a volume tentatively titled "Diary of a Century;" New York University will eventually house the entire work, including Ellis' entry from July 22, 1980, upon learning he had made the Guinness Book of Records: "I have been forced to realize that my life was not lived in vain, that when I die I leave something of value, that my name may be known 200 years from now."

At 17 million words, the diary of Arthur Crew Inman. Inman, an invalid who died in 1963, hired strangers to visit his Boston apartment and tell him stories for 75 cents an hour. He recorded everything from an eye-witness account of an abortion to the price of sausage to his favorable impressions of Hitler. Inman's diaries repose in the archives of Harvard University. Mallon, in "A Book of One's Own," observed of Inman: "He lived something like a life, but it was a poor enough thing compared to the 155 typed volumes he put it into."

THURSDAY, DECEMBER 24, 1992.

4:15-5:00 I took Cornelia to Waitsburg to get her car. Denver Page said that it looked to him like a used part had been installed in her ignition lock, that went bad . . . He fixed my tail light while I was there and did this for nothing. I bought 14 gallons of gas for $1.319 @ $18.48 and put it on my Chase Manhattan card. It has the highest rate of interest, but I want to keep it active. I returned to Dayton.

The corresponding credit-card charge slip is pasted alongside the entry. Other documents fastened in the diary include coins, business cards, newspaper articles, letters, acupuncture needles, toenail clippings, fruit stickers and nose hair.

"For DNA purposes," Shields says.

John Harris, former principal at the local high school, calls Shields, whom he hired to teach English, "a great keeper of records. Meticulous. He could look in his grade book and tell you just about everything a kid did."

Harris has never perused the diary, but, like most people who have heard of it, he cannot help but ponder it.

"The content I don't think is the important thing. He likes records. You can't say that's bad. The diary may be a little more record than is necessary."

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 9, 1994.

GOD (Genesis of the Day)-12:10 I retired on the front porch with Grace, wordless. I was over my belly ache, but enervated, exhausted, bushed.

Grace sleeps on the screened-in front porch, even in winter. Shields usually begins the night there, too. Then, after a few hours of sleep, he arises to record a dream, or to "void urine," then retires to his own private bedroom.

He met Grace when she was still a teenager, too young to think about marriage. Her first memory of him involves this: him sick in a bed but wanting to borrow a typewriter.

They married 13 years later, a week after he proposed and she didn't put up enough resistance to dissuade him.

"He had energy and optimism and go-aheadness," Grace recalls.

Eventually, Shields forged ahead with his diary, never once asking what Grace thought about it.

"It's just what he did," she says. "He was always back in the study. He could be writing the great American novel, or the diary. I have no way to know."

Meanwhile, she reads her large-print Bible, delivers the Walla-Walla Union Bulletin and cracks the daily cryptogram. Usually, the solution to the cryptogram takes the form of a saying or quote. A recent one was attributed to Elbert Hubbard, a prolific writer who went down with the Lusitania: "It does not take much strength to do things, but it requires great strength to decide what to do."

Regarding her husband's decision, as in all else, Grace is durable and quiet. Considering that she is joined to this eccentric undertaking by a wedding band, her lack of outright skepticism can pass for support. She listens patiently when her husband is telling a story he has told often. And when he talks about his "posterity," she smiles and says: "Good old posterity."

She does not, as it happens, keep a diary of her own.

THURSDAY, JANUARY 27, 1994.

3:25-3:30 A British journalist called me from Oregon . . . He asked if I was doing the work for my own satisfaction, and I said No. I hope the diary will prove to be of use to the human race as a psychological, sociological and historical document, and that it might be of some religious value.

What could the Shields diary tell our children's children? Would they stop to listen? No one but the man who wrote it has glimpsed more than a fraction of the paper corpse, since all but the most current volume lay in state on Shields' back porch, mummified in cardboard boxes and plastic bags and strapping tape.

"The use for it may be entirely different than what we conceive of, what we can even dream of," Shields thinks. "Maybe by looking into someone's life at that depth, every minute of every day, they'll find out something about all people. I dunno. No way to tell."

Historians have a saying: No source, no history.

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian at the University of New Hampshire who used a diary as her source to reconstruct the life of a 18th-century Maine midwife, said this of the Shields diary: "There are better ways to tell the price of hamburger."

Having said that, though, she thought for a moment. These days historians are scouring turn of the century New England farmers' diaries for clues about the weather. Who alive at the turn of the century would have guessed it?

"I don't suppose we can project ourselves into the future," Ulrich went on. "It's a pretty difficult task to look at any given artifact or document and say `Is this worthy or is it not?' Because, who knows?"

THURSDAY, MARCH 17, 1994.

10:30-10:40 I registered this morning's mail receipts.

Office supply catalogs. Political campaign circulars. Open palms from televangelists and credit-card companies and home video clubs.

Today, a letter from an unknown admirer in Santa Monica, Calif., floats atop the junk. "You are truly an amazing man," the letter says.

"I myself am a writer as well as being a salesman for Mayflower." The salesman-author wants to write a book about the diarist. In fact, he is "obsessed" with the idea.

"I am a bit of an obsessive-compulsive myself," the letter continues. "Of course, I couldn't hold an Underwood to you. I wonder what future scientists will discover from your nasal hairs. That Shields, man, he was born to type."

At the bottom of the letter is affixed a short, curly hair. "Nasal extract - 3-13-94."

The diarist takes out a three-ring binder and a red felt-tipped pen and carefully registers the letter. The diarist closes the binder, caps his pen, and prepares to live the next five minutes. It may or may not involve a can of cling peaches floating in their own juice.

Kit Boss is a writer for Pacific. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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