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Nonfiction Writing Sample #1: The Man On The Overpass

(SAMPLE NOTE: This magazine article was written for a graduate course in the spring of 2009 and never submitted for publication. The subject’s name has been changed, and his employer has been withheld for privacy reasons.)

On a sunny morning in April 2008, a man in black stood on an overpass of I-270 near Washington, D.C.. He had a video camera pointed at the northbound lanes and at times would look intently through its viewfinder. A few miles back, a highway sign told drivers to report suspicious activity. Was this the kind of activity they meant? Was he dangerous?

No. In fact, John Smith was there for the complete opposite reason: driver safety. In his early thirties, Smith is a researcher at [redacted], a contracting firm that provides the U.S. Government with custom research and evaluation studies on multiple topics. Smith works in the Transportation area and specializes in Human Factors, i.e., how humans relate to the world. In his two years at [redacted], Smith has worked on a variety of studies—how to best remind teenagers to wear their seat belts, the best method to monitor the quality of new drivers, the conspicuity of motorcycles, and better methods to improve safety at railroad crossings. While most of Smith’s research can be done in the office, sometimes it takes a few hours on an overpass to capture what is needed. And sometimes people can be a little testy about it.

Five minutes after he began recording, a police cruiser rolled up. The officer ordered Smith to cease taping. “I tried to explain why I was there and even gave him the phone number of our division vice-president, but he was insistent,” Smith explained in his slightly nasal voice. While Smith doesn’t cut the most menacing figure with his youthful face, short blonde hair and beard, perhaps it was his favorite black leather coat, grey jeans, and the camera that brought undue attention his way. He can be charming and self-deprecating too (his t-shirt collection includes one with a circle labeled “the loop” and a dot outside of it labeled “me”), but perhaps it was Smith’s penchant for detailed and long-winded explanations that further annoyed the cop who continued to insist that he leave. Whatever the reason, Smith returned to his office and explained the situation to his boss. Calls were made, and the next day, Smith was positioned on an unfinished pedestrian walkway over I-270, not far from the prior overpass. This time however, he wore more official-looking gear: a hardhat and an orange reflector vest.

Aside from unscheduled run-ins with local law enforcement, Smith enjoys working at [redacted] as a “Macgyver” type individual, coming up with new ways to get reliable data without a lot of expense to [redacted], and by extension, the taxpayer. He likes the job’s technical subject matter that requires an understanding of electrical engineering, physics, and chemistry that employs the critical-thinking skills that he’s had since he was a kid.

Growing up, he liked taking things apart to see how they worked. Smith’s father also likes to tinker, and when Smith was a boy, his father used to build the kids small electrical devices as toys. “One was basically a nine-volt battery hooked up to blinking LEDs, but it was cool because it was something he built himself for us.” Grown up, Smith’s interest in how things work now includes reading books on quantum mechanics in his off hours. And while he can’t recombine items at the molecular level, Smith has a knack for putting things back together.

When he was nine years old, he offered to clean his father’s chainsaw and took it into the basement. Hours later, with no sign of his son, Smith’s father descended into the basement. To his regret, he found his son. He also found the chainsaw completely dismantled with its parts laid out across several tables. “As I was cleaning it, I had to take off parts, which uncovered other parts that needed cleaning. Then my curiosity got the best of me and I just kept going,” Smith says now of the situation.

Resigned to the idea that he would soon be the owner of a brand new chainsaw, Smith’s father walked back upstairs. To his surprise, a few hours later, his son returned with the chainsaw completely rebuilt and working perfectly. “My brother still uses that chainsaw,” Smith says proudly.

Smith says his father, a human factors professional himself, has a very scientific and autodidactic approach to life and that it rubbed off on him. “While I didn’t really mean to follow in his footsteps, he is proud of me,” Smith says. “When I have questions about things at work, it’s nice being able to talk with him about real things instead of just ‘Oh, how was your day?’”

So what was he looking for on that overpass with his video camera in April? Collecting video for training purposes. “We’re doing a massive seat belt usage study, and one of the side studies deals with commercial trucks. For normal passengers cars, being on the side of the road is enough, but for trucks, being above them is the best vantage point.”