Michael Kruse Redux

My dear friend Michael Kruse let it be known today that he’s leaving the St. Pete Times to work for Politico. We’re sad and happy, which exist on the same end of the emotional spectrum. So, I’ve been drinking, and reading Michael’s old stories, and wanted to share a few of my favorites. Cool? (PS: I’m terribly sad. Don’t go, Michael.)

Pin Boy’s Job Is In The Pits: Shohola, Pa. — Across the Delaware at the Barryville bridge, behind a creaky door and through a smoky bar, up some dusty stairs and at the end of a shiny wood lane, there’s a kid with a buzz cut named J.C. Sommers.

Some call him Jerry. Others just call him J. But everybody calls him the pin boy.

And what he does is a job that all but no longer exists.

Sad Man Smiled: Miami — It was late Tuesday night in the Yankees’ clubhouse, after — in the morning, when Derek Jeter, wearing a long-sleeved shirt and navy satin-shiny shorts, walked by Hideki Matsui.

The team’s Japanese star was still talking to a handful of reporters.

“Hey hey HEY!” Jeter yelled on his way to the shower area.

“Mot-sooooooooo!

“Whataswing WHATASWING!”

Hideki always looks sad, someone said the other day, and it’s kind of true, if you really look, but here, in the early-morning hours after the Yanks’ Game — World Series win, Sad Man smiled.

A friendly young twentysomething named Roger Kahlon is Matsui’s personal translator, and he’s a huge help, but Roger wasn’t really needed right then.

What’s the Japanese word for clutch?

The Frog and the Cheese: TRINITY – Brian Utaski and Dave Epperson were drinking late the other night on the patio outside Buffalo Wild Wings Grill & Bar when they decided to try to feed fried cheese to a tree frog.

The frog was sitting on a small gray electrical box on the brick wall of the restaurant. It was green and brown with stripes on its sides and was maybe an inch long or just a little longer.

Brian, who’s 25, pinched a small piece off a breaded cheese stick, dipped it in the marinara sauce and set it in front of the frog.

“Go ahead and eat it, my friend,” Brian said.

The frog was quiet.

The frog seemed to consider the cheese.

Jessie’s Story: HOMOSASSA

Before Feb. 24, 2005, before she was taken from her room in her home in the dark, before she was kept and raped and buried alive in black plastic trash bags, before her name and her face conjured a crime and a law and a cause, she was just Jessie.

Jessica Marie Lunsford was born Oct. 6, 1995, at Gaston Memorial Hospital in Gastonia, N.C. Her grandmother, Ruth Lunsford, said she wasn’t “red or wrinkled or nothing like that,” and her grandfather, Archie Lunsford, said he got butterflies in his stomach “the first time I seen her.” It was 11:41 p.m.

She started crawling at 5 months old.

She started walking at just under a year.

She moved to Citrus County the first time when she was 3, then went back and forth from North Carolina for a while, but mainly she lived here with her grandparents and then also with her dad when he moved down for good in 2004.

Mark Lunsford drove a truck and got divorced when Jessie was 1. She was known as a grandma’s girl.

Buddy Johnson is a Salesman of Himself: Buddy Johnson feels most comfortable in restaurants. He visits four a day sometimes. The chatter and the clatter of cutlery offer the illusion that he’s less alone. The restaurant he goes to most these days is BuddyFreddys, where the waitresses greet him by name and he eats for free. Sitting at his table, he can see the sign outside with his name on it, and inside, in a frame, his tiny blue and gold Cub Scout uniform hangs on the wall. “To this day,” he said one afternoon this spring, “people still say, ‘You’re the Buddy of BuddyFreddys?’ And I’m very proud of that.”

This restaurant remains the site of his best success. It is also now his most reliable refuge.

For most of the last six years, up until November, when he was voted out as Hillsborough County’s supervisor of elections, Buddy was in charge of an office that became notorious for botched elections and mismanaged budgets. His personal real estate deals were ill-advised, at best, and maybe illegal.

He has been called a horror and his own punchline. That’s from the headlines. He has been called inattentive and incompetent, careless and unfocused, sneaky and paranoid. That’s from some of the people who know him and have worked with him. He’s also been called affable and intelligent and friendly and winsome. Same people.

Buddy Johnson says he is who he has always been.

“At the end of the day,” he said, “I’m a salesman.”

The product never changes. The product is Buddy.

And that’s never been harder to sell than now.

Meet the Most Marketed 12-year-old in the World: The photographer from People magazine pointed his camera at Julian Newman. Stripped along one side of the basketball court by the gym’s few rows of metal bleachers was yellow tape that said CAUTION.

“Big smile,” the photographer said.

This kid over the last 14 or so months has been on local TV and national TV. He has been on ESPN and Conan O’Brien. He has been on the front of the sports section of the Sunday New York Times.

He plays on the varsity team at small Downey Christian School in Orlando even though he’s 12 years old and in the sixth grade. He’s 4 feet 9, weighs barely more than 90 pounds, and wears midshin, multicolored socks and size 6 Nikes.

So here was People, celebrity culture’s ultimate arbiter. A smiling Julian dribbled furiously, between his legs and back and forth, the sounds of the bouncing ball mixing with rapid camera clicks and brief, blinding bursts of flash.

“Turn yourself in toward the light,” the photographer said.

The next night, on the same court, Downey lost for the third time in four games. Julian hit one of his two free throws and one of his three 2-point shots and one of his six 3-point shots to finish with 6 points. It was a statistical output similar to that of the previous week’s losses.

“Way to play,” Jamie Newman, Julian’s coach, and also his father, who had put up the CAUTION tape for People, told his team.

A Brevard Woman Disappeared, But Never Left Home: Last year, a week before Thanksgiving, a man in Cape Canaveral bought in a foreclosure auction a two-story stucco run-down townhouse on a short, straight street called Cherie Down Lane. He went to see his purchase he hoped to fix up and sell.

He found in the kitchen dishes stacked so high on the counter they almost touched the bottoms of the cabinets. In the living room on the carpet was a towel with two plates of mold-covered cat food. Empty orange pill bottles were everywhere. In front of the couch, open on a single TV tray, was a Brevard County Hometown News, dated July 24, 2009.

Both bedrooms were the same: stuff strewn all over, clothes and fake flowers and plants and a dusty treadmill pushed into a far corner, a mattress propped against tightly shut drapes, and stacks and stacks of books, about religion, about weight loss, about wiping out debts and making fresh starts.

Next to the door to the garage was a bulletin board with a 13-year-old receipt from Home Depot and an inspirational quote: “I may not be totally perfect, but parts of me are excellent.”

He opened the door to the garage.

The Last Voyage of the Bounty: In the dark, in the wet, whirling roar of Hurricane Sandy, on a ship tipping so badly the deck felt like a steep, slick roof, the desperate, damaged sailor searched for a spot from which to jump. Close to the stern, he gripped the helm, now all but touching the water’s high black churn. He let go and paddled and kicked in the buoyant but clumsy blood-orange suit he had wiggled into not long before. The ship spat up a heavy wooden grating, and it landed on his head. Crack. His adrenaline surged. He thrashed, straining to get away from the heaving ship, her three masts of tree trunk heft rearing up and slamming down like lethal mallets, her thinner, sharper spars piercing the surface like darts, the ropes of the rigging like tentacles, grabbing, yanking. Pfffffft. The tip of a spar sliced down, catching the sailor, pushing him below. He gasped, choking on water, struggling back to where there was air.

His focus narrowed.

Next breath.

Breathe.

Why we stay in journalism

From Mark: Anyone else beaten down by this season of newspaper layoffs? I think I’ve heard enough crap about “right-sizing” and dying industries to last a lifetime. I’ll admit it. I need something to feel good about. Here’s the best idea I could come up with: Let’s start a conversation about reasons for hope — some great work, something innovative, something inspiring. “This makes me want to stay in journalism…”

I’ll toss in two to start:

1. C.J. Chivers’ expose of America’s hidden casualties of chemical weapons. http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2014/10/14/world/middleeast/us-casualties-of-iraq-chemical-weapons.html .
The kind of work that makes all journalists proud.

2. My former colleagues at The Providence Journal who are willing to fight for the quality of their newspaper. I admire the way they have taken the battle to the community: http://www.riguild.org/2014/09/projo-staffers-turn-to-community-in-campaign/ .

Finding Marlowe

Daniel Miller: It was hot and I was late for lunch. I was feeling mean, like I’d been left out in the sun too long.

We were meeting at a joint on La Brea, the kind of place where the booths have curtains you can pull shut if you need a little privacy. I slid across cool leather and got my first good look at Louise Ransil, a wisp of a redhead with high cheekbones and appraising eyes.

She sat with her hands folded on the worn table, a stack of old paperbacks next to her.

Ransil had a script she’d been peddling to the studios. I’d started reading it — a detective caper set in 1930s Los Angeles — and wanted to find out about the claim on the title page.

“BASED ON A TRUE STORY: From case files of P.I. Samuel B. Marlowe.”

Ransil didn’t waste any time.

Marlowe, she said, was the city’s first licensed black private detective. He shadowed lives, took care of secrets, knew his way around Tinseltown. Ransil dropped the names of some Hollywood heavies — Clark Gable, Jean Harlow, Howard Hughes.

But it got better. Marlowe knew hard-boiled writers Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, she said.

The private eye had written them after reading their early stories in the pulp magazine Black Mask to say their fictional gumshoes were doing it all wrong. They began writing regularly, or so her story went. The authors relied on Marlowe for writing advice, and in the case of Chandler, some real-life detective work.

So his name was Samuel Marlowe … and their most famous characters were Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.

That was no accident, she was sure of it.

Maybe, maybe not. At the very least, it was a hell of a coincidence.

But the letters that would prove it all had gone missing — if they even existed.

The Deepest Dig

Brooke Jarvis: On the nights before a dive, Cindy Lee Van Dover likes to stand on the deck of her research ship, looking down into the water the way an astronaut might look up at the stars.

She’s preparing herself to do an extraordinary thing: climb into a tiny bubble of light and air and sink to the bottom of the ocean, leaving the sparkling waters of the surface a mile and a half above her.

She makes the trip in a three-person submersible called Alvin, famous for discovering the underwater hot springs known as hydrothermal vents and for exploring the wreckage of the Titanic. Alvin sinks for more than an hour. The view from its portholes moves through a spectrum of glowing greens and blues, eventually fading to pure black. The only break from the darkness comes when the sub drops through clusters of bioluminescence that look like stars in the Milky Way. They’re the only way for Van Dover to tell, in the complete darkness and absence of acceleration, that she’s sinking at all.

At last, as Alvin approaches the seafloor, the pilot turns on the external light. Van Dover peers hard, eager for her first glimpse of a strange land of under­water volcanoes and mountain ranges, of vast plains and smoking basalt spires.

The Flight Of The Glory Eagles

Michael Kruse: Earlier this fall, someone posted a question on reddit.com: Are there two fake schools operating on the periphery of college football? One was called the College of Faith, in Charlotte, N.C., and the other was called the University of Faith, here in St. Petersburg.

The websites looked hastily made. The teams were losing lopsided games. How could just-opened, online-only institutions be participating in intercollegiate athletics?

Sometimes it’s hard to discern what’s real when tethered to a computer.

Not quite a month later, though, on an evening in Lakeland, in front of a few thousand ticket buyers at Southeastern University’s Victory Field, the host team called the Fire received the opening kickoff from its opponents from the University of Faith.

Up in the press box, rosters listed the names of 56 Faith players, and corresponding positions, heights, weights and hometowns, all but four in Florida, most of them around Tampa Bay. There were no class years.

Down on the new AstroTurf field, the Faith players wore gray uniforms with green helmets that said UFaith on the back and jerseys with “GLORY EAGLES” on the front.

The score quickly was 14-0, Faith losing, and then 24-6, and then 38-9, and it got worse from there. At some point the slender kicker looked up into the stands at his family and made his right hand into the shape of a pistol and pointed it at his temple and pantomimed pulling the trigger.

“Nobody listening to the coaches!” shrieked one of the assistants. “Everybody doing they own thing!”

The head coach, meanwhile, stood still on the sideline, arms crossed, lips pursed. He had on a white Faith polo shirt and a black Faith visor. On the right side of the visor, in silver script, it said “GIVINS.”

A Girl Falls For Her Teacher

Weston Phippen: TAMPA — Addison Allen was 16, about to start her senior year at Tampa’s Robinson High School, when the police called. They wanted to talk about the rumors.

Several students had said she was having sex with her European History teacher. One told an officer he’d seen text messages between the two and they’d gone on a date to see The Avengers at WestShore Plaza.

Impossible, thought Lynn Allen, Addison’s mother, as the officer stood near their dining table that summer day in 2012. They’d seen the movie as a family.

“So nothing happened?” the mother asked her daughter.

“No,” Addison said and walked upstairs to her bedroom.

The officer left. Her mother and father went into her room. After a long silence, Lynn asked her husband to leave. She looked hard at her daughter.

“It’s all true,” Lynn said, “isn’t it?”

A Father’s Scars

Stephanie McCrummen: HE WAKES UP, and even before he opens his eyes, he can see his beautiful, delusional son.

Gus, Creigh Deeds thinks.

He lies in bed a few minutes more, trying to conjure specific images. Gus dancing. Gus playing the banjo. Gus with the puppies. Any images of Gus other than the final ones he has of his 24-year-old, mentally ill son attacking him and then walking away to kill himself, images that intrude on his days and nights along with the questions that he will begin asking himself soon, but not yet. A few minutes more. Gus fishing. Gus looking at him. Gus smiling at him. Time to start the day.

He gets out of bed, where a piece of the shotgun he had taken apart in those last days of his son’s life is still hidden under the mattress. He goes outside to feed the animals, first the chickens in the yard and then the horses in the red-sided barn. He leads the blind thoroughbred outside with a bucket of feed, the same bucket he was holding when he saw Gus walking toward him — “Morning, Bud,” he said; “Morning,” Gus said, and began stabbing him — and then he goes back inside.

Breakfast, shower, shave, mirror. Almost a year. He is 56 now. He looks at the scars across his face, around his ear, along his upper chest and right arm. He gets dressed and goes outside to his truck, and there’s the fence that he somehow managed to climb even though he was bleeding, and there’s the field he staggered across to a rutted road where he was found.

This is how most days begin for Creigh Deeds, a father who had a son with mental illness, who struggled to understand him, tried to get help for him, and was ultimately left alone to deal with him, and who now looks over at the barn where he had so suddenly dropped the feed bucket.

“I lost a tooth over there somewhere, a gold tooth,” he says, shaking his head a little, and then he goes to work.

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.

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.