Mitch Ryals: Chuck Lawrence is breaking Rule No. 1: Don’t get too drunk.

You can’t really blame him. He’s been sleeping under a bridge in Missoula, a second coat wrapped around him like a blanket. Under his head is a backpack with all his worldly possessions: ramen noodles, a pocket knife, an old watch, a weed pipe, a can opener, bottled water and copies of his birth certificate and Social Security card. He’s come to Montana looking for work, hoping to earn a quick buck to buy a proper bus ticket home to Minnesota. At 39, he’s tired of this life, hitchhiking and hopping trains, town to town, circling the country counterclockwise for the past 20 years.

“The hell with this,” he tells himself. “I’m goin’ home.”

He buys a bottle of Skol vodka at a corner store. Vodka’s not usually his drink — he prefers beer — but it’s going to be a long haul home, and vodka lasts longer. He takes a pull from the bottle and waits in the shadows of the Missoula train yard. He scans the tracks for rail cops, known by train hoppers simply as “bulls.” Gusts of wind whip at his scruffy face as the sun dips below the horizon. When his train finally pulls in hours later, it’s already too late: He’s half shitfaced.

Chuck staggers toward the hulking steel box, as he’s done countless times before, and hoists himself onto a grain car near the front of the train — his second mistake. He settles in for the ride with the twang of country music beating through his earbuds. The train kicks to life with a jerk, and he’s on his way. Or so he thinks. Unbeknownst to Chuck, this particular train is headed west to Spokane.

He finishes the last of the vodka and shoves the empty bottle into his pack. Propped against an inside wall, he snuggles into his Carhartt jacket and pulls his stocking cap low. He drifts off to the train’s hypnotic rumble. Things will be better in the morning.

Suddenly, he’s jolted awake.

Braking hard just east of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe yard in Spokane Valley, the train flings Chuck, face first, toward the tracks below. His backpack explodes against the ground as he lands with a thud. His left leg doesn’t clear the track.

Like a dull table saw, the train rips off his leg just above the knee. It’s quick, but it isn’t clean. Blood spurts from his mangled stump as Chuck writhes on the ground, screaming. Rolling on rock and in his own blood, Chuck’s mind flutters in and out of darkness as he peers down at his nub, the wrong train continuing west without him.

Contest: Best Newspaper Narratives

From George Getschow at UNT:

Have you submitted your narrative to Mayborn’s third annual The Best American Newspaper Narrative writing contest?

In an effort to foster narrative nonfiction storytelling, The Dallas Morning News and The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference are inviting submissions of the best narrative nonfiction published in a daily U.S. newspaper or a U.S. newspaper website in 2014. I hope you’ll be submitting what you consider your best narrative to this year’s contest. Deadline is June 1.

Writers and editors can submit one to five narratives, including narratives that are part of a series. The Best American Newspaper Writing Contest jurors will select three winners and three runners-up. Jurors will weigh everything from the originality of the idea to the strength of the storytelling to the quality of the research.

Our first place winner will receive $5,000 and free registration to attend the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference July 17-19, 2015 in Grapevine, Texas; our second place winner will receive $2,000; and our third place winner will receive $1,000

For information and to register, to go:

The three winning narratives, along with the runners-up and notable narratives, will be published by the University of North Texas Press/Mayborn Graduate Institute of Journalism in both a print and e-book called The Best American Newspaper Narratives, Vol. 3  

 UNT Press will release Best American Newspaper Narratives, Vol. 2, June 2015.

The Ghosts I Run With

Matt Tullis: “Creech.”

The name escaped my lips somewhere in the third mile of a five-mile run. It was a name I had been trying to think of, off-and-on, for the better part of a decade, the last name of my nurse Janet from Viking Street in Orrville, Ohio.

Janet brought me sausage biscuits from McDonald’s just about every morning because it was the only thing I would eat. She was typically my nurse on first shift. She had short brown hair and was about the same age as my mom, and so she felt very motherly to me.

Those things I could remember, but not her last name. Until now.

She died sometime after my initial 70-day residency at Akron Children’s Hospital, which started on Jan. 3, 1991, but during my more than two years of chemotherapy and radiation as an outpatient, time spent eradicating all the leukemic cells in my 15-to-17-year-old body. She died of cancer after years of caring for kids with cancer.

Surviving A Hike

Kevin Koczwara: A sense of dread has hung over Jason Spare’s life.

Spare’s father was 33 years old when he had his first heart attack. It almost killed him. Spare’s mother had breast cancer and complications related to the chemotherapy haunted her. They both died in their late 50s.

“I always had in the back of my mind a sense of mortality and urgency in life from being in that kind of situation so early on,” Spare says.

Spare, 46, looks worried. He’s digging through his stuff and reorganizing his backpack on the cold concrete floor of an ancient feeling ski lodge. He’s getting ready for what will be the hardest thing he has ever done: a 50-mile, 36-hour hike through the wilderness of Vermont in the middle of January. The hike, which will follow the Long Trail over the state’s highest mountains, is called Extremus.

The Rookie And The Zetas

Joe Tone: It was a matter of seconds, closer to six than seven, before what was happening became obvious, the colt masked in pink kicking up clouds of red on its way into the lead. It was late November, 2009. This race, the Texas Classic Futurity, was among the last of the year at Lone Star Park, the last chance to watch the 2-year-olds run. The last chance at a payday: $1.1 million up for grabs, a half million to the winning owner.

All eyes were on that horse in pink. The muscular sorrel colt, with a white racing stripe tracing the bridge of its nose, had first edged into the lead several weeks earlier, catching many in the crowd off guard. It had never raced in the United States, let alone placed. But it won that first race, and the next, and the next, and by the time it burst from the gates of the Classic, it was the odds-on favorite.

“Tempting Dash has been invincible!” the announcer bellowed as the horse cruised to the finish line, winning by three lengths and breaking its own track record. “Untouchable!”

Tempting Dash bounced along the track, 4-0, a future lucrative stud preening for his eventual suitors. Down in the winner’s circle, a family gathered around the horse’s owner, which only fueled the bleacher chatter. When the horse had first raced that fall, it was owned by a guy well known in racing circles. But since then it had been quietly sold to José Treviño Morales, the stocky, jocular man who was down there with Tempting Dash.

A few of the old-timers were suspicious. But for the most part, they just didn’t know anything about Treviño. He was, to them, like Tempting Dash a few weeks earlier, a mysterious newcomer, totally unknown but coming on fast.

Before I Go

Paul Kalanithi: In residency, there’s a saying: The days are long, but the years are short. In neurosurgical training, the day usually began a little before 6 a.m., and lasted until the operating was done, which depended, in part, on how quick you were in the OR.

A resident’s surgical skill is judged by his technique and his speed. You can’t be sloppy and you can’t be slow. From your first wound closure onward, spend too much time being precise and the scrub tech will announce, “Looks like we’ve got a plastic surgeon on our hands!” Or say: “I get your strategy — by the time you finish sewing the top half of the wound, the bottom will have healed on its own. Half the work — smart!” A chief resident will advise a junior: “Learn to be fast now — you can learn to be good later.” Everyone’s eyes are always on the clock. For the patient’s sake: How long has the patient been under anesthesia? During long procedures, nerves can get damaged, muscles can break down, even causing kidney failure. For everyone else’s sake: What time are we getting out of here tonight?

The Strawberry Queen

Anna M. Phillips: PLANT CITY — In a strawberry patch thirty minutes outside of Tampa, just past the exit for a dinosaur-themed amusement park, Maria Zuñiga pulls on her mud-covered rubber boots and ties a bandana under her dark, quiet eyes.

Now in her third season of strawberry picking, her latex-gloved hands know the most efficient choreography. Her body knows to stay bent at the waist, like a runner frozen mid-toe-touch. If you were to pass her from the road, you would see only the curve of her back silhouetted against the sun.

On this morning, she puts in earbuds to fill the silence of forty other workers picking fruit. There is no conversation, save for a polite exchange as the laborers near the ends of their rows and turn to see whose flats are nearly full. “Cuántos le falta?” they ask each other. How many are you missing?

100 Years

Joe Kovac Jr.: On the evening of July 14, 1915, a couple went into the Southern Railway station in Macon and tried to give away a baby. The blond-haired, blue-eyed girl was almost 5 months old, and she wasn’t theirs.

Salvation Army Capt. G.B. Austin was across the way at the Brown House hotel when someone told him. Austin hardly believed it, but he hustled to the station at Ocmulgee and Fifth streets. Built in the 1880s, the depot, replaced by Terminal Station a year later, featured a brick spire that overlooked the tracks.

On a bench in the waiting room, Austin saw a woman with a baby and sat down beside her. The man supposedly with her wasn’t around. Austin told the woman what he had heard.

“I guess I am the one you are looking for,” the woman said.

“Tell me about it,” Austin said, according to an account in the Macon Daily Telegraph.

The Martyr’s Son

Brendan Meyer: John Reeb plodded down the cracked pavement of Washington Street, his thick white beard and frizzy gray hair glowing orange in the setting sun. His feet ached as he moved slowly past the white-brick café on the right, his first footsteps in Selma, Alabama, shadowing the route his father took 50 years earlier.

Sixty-four strides from the café was a 3-foot-wide memorial with a man immaculately carved on the front. John weaved between photographers, reporters, tourists and locals, and faced the front of the monument.

There, just as he remembered him, was a bronze version of the man he hadn’t seen in 50 years. There was the dimple on his left cheek. There was the greased hair, always slicked to the left, the rimmed circular glasses and the bow tie.

There was his father, James Reeb.