Distress Signal

Mike Hixenbough: Wes Van Dorn slipped out of bed around 4 a.m., pulled a green flight suit on over his boxers, then brushed his teeth and kissed his wife before driving to work. Both of his young boys had woken up crying the night before, and although he needed to be up hours before sunrise, he had been the one to sing and cuddle them back to sleep.

Later, once she had strength to process the events of this day, Nicole Van Dorn would count that as a blessing.

Wes hated to leave her and the kids each day for a job that frustrated him. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2007, the former rugby star had taken a run at becoming a SEAL. But after surviving the infamous Hell Week at basic SEAL training, he was cut by the instructors, who found that he was unwilling to sacrifice an individual for the survival of the group. The Navy instead sent him to Milton, Fla., for flight training.

Wes never wanted to be a pilot; he had always been scared of heights. So when it was time to choose a career path, he picked a little-known helicopter program that had a reputation for a slower work environment and less frequent deployments. A friend had told him flying MH-53E Sea Dragons was the most family-friendly job in naval aviation – and Wes was a family man.

Not long after joining his Norfolk-based squadron in 2010, he began to question the decision. Something wasn’t right. Months later, after he took over as the division officer in charge of maintenance, he began to realize the depth of the problems. The aging helicopters weren’t getting the care they needed. Maintenance protocols were being skipped. Replacement parts were scarce, and when they were available, it was usually because they had been plucked from another Sea Dragon. At any given time, only a few of the squadron’s helicopters were ready to fly.

Whenever Wes tried to correct the problems, he felt as if he was bucking a chain of command that had grown accustomed to business as usual. He learned that a 20-something-year-old lieutenant has only so much power. Finally, a little more than a year ago, Wes told Nicole he was ready to get out. Maybe he could fly for the Coast Guard, he suggested.

“Wes, obviously there’s a problem,” Nicole remembers saying. “Maybe you’ve been put in this position because you’re the one who needs to fix it.”

Homeless and Hoarding

Leah Sottile: Fear meets Sarah Wolff in the elevator.

It’s standing beside her as she rides to her third-floor apartment. Taunting her. Tapping her shoulder and whispering in her ear.

“When I get off the elevator up here, I panic,” she says. She can’t see her apartment door from the elevator. “Is there a note saying ‘You’re evicted, you can’t live here anymore?’ I have that panic every time I leave the apartment … I’m like, ‘Oh please don’t let there be anything on the door. Dear God. Please.’”

Wolff, a 29-year-old formerly homeless mother, is haunted by that fear. She thinks about loss constantly. Losing her apartment. Losing her things. Losing Aiden, her 9-year-old son, again.

Sometimes those fears are so great, she doesn’t leave her apartment at all. Safe in her home, she surrounds herself with the things she loves: balls of yarn for knitting blankets and scarves, books, movies. There are toys and books for Aiden, too.

“I’ve always been one to hold onto stuff,” she says. She thinks that’s because she lost so many people in her life when she was young. Now she holds everyone, and everything, close.

She wonders if all that loss is why she has so much “crap.” That’s what she calls it. Wolff literally surrounds herself with possessions. Before visitors come over, there’s a skinny path she and her son walk to navigate the apartment—a path that carves through piles of dirty clothes, shopping bags overflowing with balls of yarn and knitting needles, through books, shoes, DVD cases, and empty soda cans. Tidying up means she crams piles of dirty clothes into a closet and hopes the door stays shut. She shoves some things into a plastic garbage bag, but leaves the bag in the middle of the living-room floor. Dishes are piled on every surface in the kitchen. Jumbo packs of toilet paper are crammed under a desk.

A Good Thing Turns Bloody. What Next?

Michael Brick: It was our ball when the fight started, game point. Oscar was giving some unsolicited advice to Curtis, who was on his team. Curtis was describing the adequacy of his own basketball knowledge.

We were standing on an asphalt court near Interstate 35 in East Austin, not the only place where I play pickup but the one that matters most. For three years, in temperatures ranging from 30 degrees to 100, we’ve been running half court threes and fours. We start early in the morning. We pass the ball. We pick and roll. We call few fouls, usually on ourselves. I’ve been knocked down hard but I’ve always been helped up, or at least handed the ball.

The guy who started the game, Chris, grew up in the Woodlands, made some money in corporate law and dropped out to, I don’t know, follow his muse. Among his priorities, curating the purity of this weekly ball game seems to rank somewhere below raising his son, but not far.

Most of the middle-class white dudes he invited have dropped out, other than me and his brother-in-law and a real estate agent named Steve. For the last year or so, the game has been us and some guys from the neighborhood, which is called Blackland.

In Muck City, Football Serves As A Way Out

Lane DeGregory: PAHOKEE — On the day he thought would change everything, Fred left home early while his siblings, nieces and nephews slept. He skipped breakfast, not even a Pop-Tart. His stomach was tight with excitement.

As he waited outside for his ride to school, a slate sky blanketed the black muck behind him. Ahead, the sun climbed above the clouds, casting a golden glow across the projects.

Dontrell “Fred” Johnson, 19, pulled the flip phone from his shorts: 7:28 a.m. Then he shouldered his flowered backpack, which was stuffed with hope.

All year, college football coaches had been sending him letters telling him how much they wanted him. Wake Forest, Youngstown State and Mars Hill. Schools he had never heard of, in states he had never seen.

Like most of his teammates in Pahokee, a tiny, impoverished town on Lake Okeechobee, Fred had never flown in a plane, had barely been out of Florida. He had spent his life between two water towers, in 5 square miles surrounded by sugar cane — and shadows of players who had come before him. Guys from Pahokee High whom he watched on TV, playing for the Detroit Lions, Baltimore Ravens, Atlanta Falcons.

Football is the story Pahokee loves to tell about itself. The team won five state championships in six years, from 2003-08, and in the past half-century has produced 25 professional players. This year five former Blue Devils are in the NFL, the second most from any high school in the country.

Fred was one of five Pahokee seniors being scouted in 2013; all the guys had played together since elementary school. On the square of grass in Fred’s subsidized-housing circle, they had learned to pass, hit and run plays. And every winter, when workers burned the cane fields, the boys chased rabbits that dashed from the flames. Catch a cottontail, the old men said, and you can cut it at an NFL draft combine.

But first, the boys had to play in college.

The Favor

Christopher Goffard: graciously shaded neighborhoods where they see him still. As a toddler, throwing bread to the ducks. As a sixth-grader, on a razor scooter. As a lanky teenager with a cocky sideways smile.

Fred Santos, the father, steers his Toyota Prius into Oakmont Memorial Park in the Bay Area suburb of Lafayette and follows the road to the summit. He parks amid the pines and oaks. He carries sunflowers as he and his wife, Kathy, walk to the spot.

June 27, 1986 — October 4, 2008
Mr. Personality
Family first and lots of friends

At 57, the father is a slightly built, unassuming man with thinning black hair and the hard-to-place accent of his native Macau, a former Portuguese colony off mainland China.

Pequenitates, people called him. “Little guy.” It was more than just a physical description. It seemed, in the world of his childhood, an apt description of his place.

Down at the bottom were families like his, scrabbling for a living on the tiny island. Up at the top were the deep-pocketed Tai-Pans, a Cantonese term for “Big Men.” Nobody was surprised when, in a collision between the two classes, power prevailed. It was the order of things, as inarguable as the grave, or a father’s need to die before his children.

In America, he learned, people were not resigned to this outcome. They built superstructures of law to prevent it. They railed against it. They told him things were different here. Mostly, they convinced him.

Being Bad Luck Brian

Jessica Contrera: Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio — The phone call that made him famous came at 4 a.m. on Jan. 24, 2012. He was very much asleep.

Ring ring. Ring ring.

Actually, it vibrated, and because this is a story about the age of the Internet and the way technology can change our lives, it’s important to get the sound right.

Vibrate vibrate. Vibrate vibrate.

Murray’s Problem

Mark Johnson: Murray Blackmore stood at the lectern and tried to take in the dark conference room, the men and women in wheelchairs waiting for him to wrest a little hope from science. But in his preoccupied state, the room was a blur and hope a struggle.The 39-year-old researcher took a deep breath.

An assistant professor at Marquette University, Blackmore had looked forward to addressing the symposium on spinal cord research in Boston. Work filled his daylight hours; interrupted his dreams at night. Often he would wake at 2 or 3 in the morning, pitched from sleep into the scientific puzzles of a broken spinal cord. Ideas in the midnight hours seldom bore fruit, but his mind churned through them just the same.

He felt a responsibility. The National Institutes of Health had awarded him a $1.6 million grant. He ran a lab outfitted with cutting edge equipment. He pursued the newest ideas in the field.

But in the fall of 2013, the researcher with the short, black hair and slim cyclist’s build was facing a year that would test the balance in his scientific life.

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.


“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.


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/ .