Will To Win

From our pal down under, Konrad Marshall: The horizon here is a craggy ridge of open cut coal mine, the blue sky above and the Muswellbrook Race Club below. Magpies arc on the breeze this recent Monday morning, warbling at nothing in particular. A whipper-snipper whirs near garden bed of sweet peas. No roses.

This is where Robert Thompson will ride on the first Tuesday in November. He won’t saddle up for the Melbourne Cup (as he did in 1986 on Reckless Tradition, finishing seventh to At Talaq). He will ride in the Muswellbrook Cup.

“He’s won it four times,” grunts a bookmaker. “He’s won everything four times.”

Thompson describes Muswellbrook on a Monday as having “no atmosphere at all”, but he is wrong. Small chestnuts and big blacks and the odd grey step from floats and clip clop to the “stables” – one long orange brick wall with a tin visor for shade.

There are perhaps 100 people here from this hardscrabble town, a mixture of diehard punters and befrocked ladies celebrating a 60th birthday.

Trainers, strappers and owners flick through race books filled with advertisements for backhoes and skid steel loaders. They scan posted sheets to find out which horses are wearing blinkers, pacifiers, tongue ties, bubble cheekers and lugging bits.

This is not the image you see on spring racing carnival commercials but this is what racing looks like. There are 992 jockeys in Australia, along with 3678 trainers. They race at 368 tracks, hosting a grand total of 2725 race meetings.

The nation stops for one race, yes, but throughout the year there are 19,510 others.

‘You Are So Loved’

Maybe I’m missing out on some good ones, but I feel like I don’t see a straight-up narrative news story that often lately? This one’s from yesterday’s shooting in my hometown.

Laura Eggertson:

Lawyer Barbara Winters was headed to a meeting Wednesday near her office at the Canada Revenue Agency when she passed the National War Memorial, stopping to snap a few pictures of the two honour guards standing soberly at attention.

Moments later, after passing by a Canada Post office at Elgin and Sparks streets, she heard four shots. For Winters, a former member of the Canadian Forces Naval Reserve, the sounds were unmistakable.

Turning, she saw people on Elgin Street ducking. She began to run – not toward safety, but toward the shots, and the wounded soldier lying at the foot of the memorial.

As Winters ran, she looked for – but couldn’t see – the two soldiers. Her mind went to the hit-and-run death in Quebec of Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent two days earlier, and she instinctively knew the honour guards had been targeted.

Personal essays replacing journalism?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, as I see the stories being shared by contacts in social media circles. It’s rare to see a piece of journalism make the rounds – recent exception: CJ Chivers’ NY Times piece on WMDs in Iraq – but there are times when the same essays show up over and over again.

And I’ve got a lot of journalists in my friends list. Some of them promote their own best work, others consciously share spectacular or interesting stuff they find. But outside that group, among my non-industry friends, it’s almost always an essay that gets shared.

I’m apparently not the only one who has noticed the shift. Eve Fairbanks wrote about it for the Washington Post, in a link I found shared by Creative Nonfiction.

From Fairbanks’ piece:

They’re everywhere these days: stories along the formula “I Am an X, and Y Happened to Me!” These kind of confessional articles long constituted the barbarians lurking around the gates of traditional newspaper culture, appearing on XOJane or blogs or niche columns like Modern Love, while the serious journalistic real estate remained dominated by authority figures like Larry Summers or Aaron David Miller pontificating on the economy or Israel-Palestine.

 

Now, though, they’re in the citadel. CNN has announced a new “First Person” project, a “series of personal essays exploring identity and personal points of view that shape who we are.” BuzzFeed has put out a call for first-person essays. This magazine, PostEverything, has excelled at the trend, promoting first-person takes from an undocumented immigrant who went to Harvard, a cop who advised civilians not to challenge him if they didn’t want to get hurt, and a Mercedes owner who found herself relying on food stamps. (I was schooled as a traditional political reporter, but I’ve written these pieces, too, musings on my experiences cooking and growing plants on a balcony.)

 

Fairbanks wonders if slashing newsroom budgets and cutting staff has left little time for in-depth reporting, and the personal essay is filling the void, allowing writers to bring a lifetime of personal experience with them into the piece.

 

The Long Captivity of Michael Scott Moore

Joshua Hammer:

Two years ago, when I began researching a piece for Outside about Moore’s abduction, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, which had given Moore a grant to report from Somalia, as well as the German newsweekly Der Spiegel, which had once employed Moore on its English-language website, asked us to stop pursuing the story. David Rohde, who had been in touch with Moore’s mother, also requested that we respect the blackout. “The family and both news organizations think publicity at this time will increase the captors’ expectations and complicate negotiations,” he explained via email. Outside respected the family’s wishes and published nothing. In 2013, the Daily Beast assigned a freelance journalist to go to Somalia to investigate the Moore kidnapping, but the reporter backed off when he became aware of the family’s objections. Updates on Moore’s abduction did appear from time to time in Slate, the Huffington Post, Medium, and L.A. Weekly, and on surfing websites like The Inertia and The Cardiff Kook, but for the most part, the blackout held.

As Moore’s captivity dragged on, however, some close to him began to question the wisdom of the policy. “The American government needs a kick in the ass,” one journalist who knows Moore well told me about a year into his captivity. Frustrated at the pace of the negotiations, and suspicious that the U.S. was blocking efforts to pay a ransom, he believed that a magazine piece would increase pressure for a rescue mission or a deal. Moore’s mother wavered as well. “There were moments when she seriously considered lifting the press ban,” says a source close to the family. At one point, the source says, Saunders contemplated making a public cry for help—possibly a video addressed to her son’s kidnappers. The FBI, sources say, was camped out at her home, monitoring the negotiations between her—or, more likely, a private security contractor representing her—and a Somali negotiator hired by the pirate gang. Those close to the situation speculate that the FBI talked her out of going public.

Stories That Stay With You

Driving back from our annual Georgia get-together this week, Kruse started talking about interviewing our friend and just-retired TB Times colleague Jeff Klinkenberg for a what-I’ve-learned blog post. Somehow the following story from 1987 came up, and I asked Kruse to read it out loud in the car. He struggled through it. We both cried and sat in silence for a few long miles. What is it that makes certain stories unforgettable?

Jeff Klinkenberg
St. Petersburg Times

I liked to climb to the roof at night and throw water balloons at passing cars, and when that lost its novelty I hurled guavas, a common tropical fruit. One night, a couple of teen-agers whose car I smashed with a guava chased a friend and me over fences, through bushes and into back yards where dogs snapped at our heels. We somehow escaped.

One night, a friend and I built a dummy, and, hiding behind a bush, threw it in front of a passing car. The car screeched to a stop, and an elderly man got out, shaking, certain he had killed somebody. I am still ashamed.

By the time I was 14 I was a fishing fanatic. I fished for snook in a canal that passed through a golf course in Miami Shores. I had to trespass to fish, but I was good at climbing high fences, and I didn’t mind running from the cops. The cops would take you to the police station, call your parents, and confiscate your tackle. They never caught me.

Sometimes I wish I had been caught. If I had, maybe I would have stayed away from the golf course once and for all. Maybe Keith still would be alive, and on those nights when I lie awake in a cold sweat I would no longer hear him screaming for his mother.

I went back last week. In Miami for business, I had a couple of hours to kill and drove to the golf course. I walked along the first fairway, crossed a bridge that spanned the canal, passed under the railroad trestle — and then stopped when I saw the dam.

I was staring at the dam when a golf course ranger drove up in an electric cart. “What are you doing?” he asked. I told him I’d come back to the scene of a tragedy that has haunted me for 23 years, a tragedy my mind continually dredges up whenever I am depressed or I start worrying about the safety of my own sweet children. Death is no abstraction to me. That a lot of people live to old age is, I know, a matter of luck, of being in the right place at the right time. I am afraid to trust happiness.

“I remember it,” the golf course ranger said. “I lived across the street from the 16th fairway. I remember all the excitement. It was awful.”

“I was there,” I said.

“Kids still sneak on the golf course to fish,” he said. “I chased 10 away already this afternoon.”

“Take it from me,” I said. “It’s no place to fish.”

I walked along the 11th fairway and looked at the sign hanging from the fence at the dam.

“Danger,” it said. “Automatic Gates Open Without Warning.”

I introduced the twins, Keith and Kent, to fishing. We were 14 and in ninth grade. Kent was tall, thin, and, like me, a nerd who didn’t know how to dress and blushed whenever a girl approached. Keith was short and built like a bulldog, with big bones and a neck about as wide as his shoulders. He got into a lot of fights at school, and when we played football, he always wanted to play tackle instead of touch.

Nobody could bring him down.

It was a Sunday morning. My parents were at Mass. I met Keith and Kent at the golf course fence, and we climbed over. It was March, a little early for snook, but we wanted to try anyway.

Kent did his casting from shore; Keith and I stood together on a little walkway at the front of the dam. From there, you could cast under the dam and reach the spot where water and minnows trickled in from the other side.

Keith threw his yellow Creek Chub Darter lure under the dam. It got snagged on the floodgate, the mechanism that opens and closes to regulate the flow of water. Keith cussed and said, “I’m going to unsnag my lure.” It was the last thing he said to me.

While I continued casting, Keith climbed over a guard rail, to the other side of the dam. He lay on the floodgate and reached inside to recover his lure. There should have been nothing to it: Just lean in, get your lure, get out.

The tide, at that moment, must have reached its highest point.

Suddenly, the dam roared to life. Gears turned, machinery rumbled and the floodgates began opening. That was when Keith screamed.

Actually, it was a shriek. I still don’t know how this happened, and I don’t know if I can adequately explain it to you, but what happened was his upper body somehow got pinched between the floodgate and the rest of the dam. He could go neither forward nor back. As the gate came up to allow water to flow from below, life was squeezed from his body. I’ll tell you what he said, though it doesn’t mean as much unless you can imagine how he shrieked.

“Mommy, mommy, mommy. I don’t want to die. Oh, God, I don’t want to die.”

Kent and I leaped the railing and tugged on his legs, which were kicking, but we couldn’t haul him out. Pretty soon his legs stopped kicking.

Kent sprinted to the clubhouse a half mile away for help. I stood crying at the dam, until two doctors, playing golf, ran over to see what happened. One reached into the dam and took Keith’s pulse. “He’s gone,” he said.

A doctor told me to go home; there was nothing I could do. At that moment I wanted nothing more than to go home and cry in my parents’ arms. I pitched my tackle over the fence, jumped on my bike and pedaled home as fast as I could, my lungs almost bursting with effort. In my front yard, I jumped off the bicycle, while it was still rolling, and ran into the house screaming for my mom and dad. They were still at Mass. I went into their bedroom, fell to my knees and prayed loudly for a miracle I knew was not going to happen.

Keith, my friend, a boy my age, was dead.

Nothing would bring him back ever.

“Serial,” the podcast

Is anyone else listening to this? What do you think?

If you haven’t heard of it, it’s by the same crew behind This American Life. In it, Sarah Koenig recounts her reporting on a 1999 Baltimore homicide, bringing listeners along as she investigates what happened. Here’s how they describe the first season:

On January 13, 1999, a girl named Hae Min Lee, a senior at Woodlawn High School in Baltimore County, Maryland, disappeared. A month later, her body turned up in a city park. She’d been strangled. Her 17-year-old ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the crime, and within a year, he was convicted and sentenced to spend the rest of his life in prison. The case against him was largely based on the story of one witness, Adnan’s friend Jay, who testified that he helped Adnan bury Hae’s body. But Adnan has always maintained he had nothing to do with Hae’s death. Some people believe he’s telling the truth. Many others don’t.

I’m really enjoying how they are opening up the reporting process in each of the episodes. She brings the audience along, step by step, which I don’t think reporters often get the chance to do.

 

She Said ‘No’

Writing fro Oklahoma State’s student newspaper, Kassie McClung: Ashley sits at a wooden table and tucks a strand of hair behind her ear with a sweaty palm. Her eyes shift nervously from the officer to the floor. OSU Police Officer Colt Chandler places his folded hands on the table and looks at her, waiting for her to say something.

Ashley wishes she was alone.

Chandler slides a document in front of her.

“All I need from you is a signature right there,” he says in a video provided by OSU Communications. “You can read through there and see what’s going on.”

But Ashley knows what the document says. As soon as she signs the paper her case will be closed, so she scribbles her signature on the bottom line without hesitation.

“Is there any particular reason why we chose to do this?” Chandler asks.

Ashley pauses for a moment.

“I just don’t think it’s a strong case,” she says.

It was the alcohol, the lack of evidence and the little support she felt that shaped her decision to not press charges against her rapist.

It crushed her.

“I felt like I didn’t matter, and what happened to me didn’t matter,” Ashley said in a recent interview with the O’Colly. “I felt like a statistic pushed under the rug.”

Vape Life

Leah Sottile: Two men in flat-billed hats and baggy t-shirts stand back-to-back on a dimly-lit stage. On cue, they bend at the waist, draw their e-cigarettes to their mouths. Wisps of smoke gather around them. And then, slowly, they straighten upward as they inhale. Finally—like human fog machines—the men blow thick, billowing clouds of bright white vapor into the air.

These guys are called “cloud chasers,” the name for e-cig hobbyists who pride themselves on blowing bigger, thicker, longer plumes of smoke.

The win goes to a guy calling himself “The Push,” who bested an entire bracket of cloud chasers during a three-hour livestreamed event in late September. The announcers, two other guys also wearing flat-billed hats, thank everyone who came out to the watch.

“Thank you very, very much,” one says. “Wanna give a big shout to … all the companies that were out here supporting the event, supporting the cause … the cause being fuck Big Tobacco.”

“FUCK Big Tobacco,” the other announcer concurs.

It’s a scene from AmeraVape Technologies’ cloud-chasing competition (you can watch the whole thing here) in Carlsbad, California, the first “pro-vaping circuit” event. AmeraVape Technologies is a manufacturer of vaping equipment, particularly for folks who want to modify their devices to produce more smoke. A few days before, over the phone, AmeraVape’s CEO Erik Hutchinson told me he’s organizing competitions like these in order to bring greater awareness to vaping.

Shadow Of Doubt

Part I, from Cary Aspinwall and Ziva Bransetter: Prosecutor Tim Harris stood before jurors deciding Michelle Murphy’s fate and told them police found someone’s blood near her slain baby’s body — blood he implied could be hers.

“Ladies and gentleman, beyond a reasonable doubt this woman killed her child,” he told them.

What Harris didn’t tell jurors is that as the trial started Nov. 14, 1995, he possessed a report from the Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation that said Murphy’s blood type was different than the type found at the scene. That test determined DNA found at the scene was not hers, contradicting Harris’ implication to jurors about what the Tulsa police lab tests showed.

A Tulsa World investigation shows the state of Oklahoma relied on faulty blood analysis, the dubious testimony of a troubled 14-year-old neighbor and an unrecorded, incriminating statement to convict Murphy. All three elements were so problematic they should have been challenged in court. Also, jurors never heard other evidence that might have given them reasonable doubt about convicting Murphy, who spent 20 years in prison.

‘I’ll Never Forget That Day’

Baxter Holmes: ON ALCATRAZ ISLAND, Calif. — John Hernan dug through memories from six decades back when he patrolled this rock as a correctional officer. And his 93-year-old blue eyes lit up at the mention of basketball.

“If I would’ve known that you were going to be here today,” said Hernan, pointing at the reporter from Boston, “then I would have brought with me a photograph.”

A heartbeat later, Hernan was presented with a black-and-white photo, dated 1956.

“That’s it!” he said.

In early August, Hernan ferried over to this windswept 22-acre island dotting San Francisco Bay for the 80th anniversary of the federal penitentiary’s opening, an event organized by the National Park Service, which runs Alcatraz as a historic site. Hernan was joined by fellow former officers, ex-convicts, and family members who lived here when America’s most notorious prison operated from 1934-63.

But in the infirmary ward on the second floor of the ancient cellhouse, where park rangers served lunch, Hernan found himself discussing two Celtics Hall of Famers and a moment that has all but slipped through the cracks of time.

He eyed the photograph, recognizing the faces: Bill Russell on the left, in the hat, and K.C. Jones in the middle, with the picturesque smile, both of them baby-faced, just weeks removed from winning a second straight NCAA title with the University of San Francisco Dons. And on the far right, a Jesuit priest, Father Richard Scannell.

Then Hernan unspooled an improbable story that even his son had never heard; a story that historians, researchers, archivists, and others associated with the prison, the college, and the area had never heard; a story that some USF players on those teams had never heard; a story that, for some reason, never made the newspapers back then and stayed below the radar since.

It is a story that has faded as those who were there when it unfolded fell ill or died. The few tied to Alcatraz who are still alive — many in their 80s and 90s — refer to themselves as an “endangered species.” But Hernan, who worked at the prison known as “The Rock” from 1955-58, was there. And he remembers.

“I’ll never forget that day,” he said.