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The 2013 Best American Newspaper Narrative Writing Contest is accepting entries. The deadline is May 1.

The contest, co-sponsored by the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference and The Dallas Morning News, honors exemplary narrative writing and encourages narrative nonfiction storytelling at newspapers across the United States.

All entries must have been published in daily newspapers or on the newspapers’ websites between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31, 2013 and may include narratives that are part of a series. The top three winners receive cash awards totaling $8000, and the first-place winner receives free registration to this year’s conference.

For information or to register for the contest, go here.

Last year’s contest was a smashing success. Nearly every major daily in America participated. First-place winner was Eli Saslow, a national enterprise writer for the Washington Post for “Life of a Salesman.” Saslow received $5,000 and free registration to attend last year’s conference. “It’s an honor to be recognized along with some of the writers I admire,” Saslow said. “It’s also heartening to see evidence of so many newspapers supporting narrative journalism.” Saslow also was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 2012.

Second place and $2,000 went to Kelley Benham of the Tampa Bay Times for “Never Let Go,” an emotionally-wrought narrative about the birth of her daughter, Juniper, born more than 12 weeks premature. Benham was also a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature writing in 2012.

Third place and $1,000 went to the Post’s Anne Hull for “Breaking Free,” about a teenage girl’s climb out of poverty. “These awards reflect not only the extraordinary gifts of Eli Saslow and Anne Hull but also the Washington Post’s unwavering commitment to ambitious narrative journalism,” said Kevin Merida, the managing editor of the Washington Post.

Best American Newspaper Narrative judges selected three runners up and four notable narratives for publication in this anthology, The Best American Newspaper Narratives of 2012. The runners-up were John Branch of The New York Times for “Snow Fall: The Avalanche at Tunnel Creek;” Dan Barry of The New York Times for “Donna’s Diner;” and Rosalind Bentley of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for “The Nation’s Poet.”

Four “notable narratives” were also selected by our judges: Mark Johnson, a Pulitzer Prize winning writer for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, for “I Boy;” Monica Rhor of the Houston Chronicle for “Young Houstonians go from Homeless to College;” Louis Hansen of The Virginian-Pilot for “Girl Who Took Down a Gang;” and Martin Kuz, formerly of Stars and Stripes, for “Soldiers Recount Attack.”

“With the focus on narrative journalism that these awards represent,” said Moroney, the Dallas Morning News publisher, “we hope they will encourage more compelling, important and interesting narrative stories that attract and retain subscribers.”

The Best American Newspaper Narratives of 2012 will be released by the Mayborn Conference/UNT Press May 2014. The anthology will go on sale at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference July 18-20. For information or to register for the Mayborn Conference, go to: http://www.themayborn.com/conference-and-competitions

To pre-order the anthology, go here.

Toilets, Plumbed

The Washington Post
April 08, 1996

Toilets, Plumbed
By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer

Toilets will never be great art, not even the expensive ones that look like art modern telephones, or the oddly streamlined ones that look as if someone were about to set a world’s land speed record with them, or the bluff and British “Deluge” made by Doulton a century ago, with a rectitude that reminds one of the Titanic.

Beautiful maybe, sequestered as they are in the pastoral gloom of bathrooms, but not art. They are becoming a motif in the movies — John Travolta’s performance in “Pulp Fiction,” or Patricia Arquette’s bathroom scene in “Flirting With Disaster,” and Elisabeth Shue’s in “Leaving Las Vegas.” But not art. They violate Oscar Wilde’s Law: “All art is quite useless.” Toilets are quite useful. They are also aesthetic pariahs — they are toilets, after all. But they are useful pariahs, in the manner of the untouchables who sweep the streets in India.

Exceptions:

Marcel Duchamp once exhibited a urinal as sculpture.

Every male photographer has urinal pictures tucked away — soft-edged shadows, wandering highlights and the pristinity of porcelain with brand names inscribed in a blue ink whose transparency makes it look ancient, like the ballast china brought home from Shanghai in sailing ships. (Strange: Porcelain furnishes the stations at both ends of the alimentary canal — dining and bath.)

Nostalgia, a pseudo art, is served by recollections of the floor-length urinals in restaurants where your father took you to lunch downtown — huge things, with the ice hissing peacefully at the bottom. Was it put there to cool the smell? To provide visual diversion? Sometimes a deodorant puck lifted its heavy antisepsis into the air, a smell like insecticide.

Urinals are an easy pleasure, though, like Vivaldi or e.e. cummings. They lack the jeopardized, ticklish quality prompted by toilets, commodes, water closets (whatever makes you least squeamish), beneath which a chortling whirlpool waits. There’s the vacuum gasp of railroad toilets with their view of somber tracks below, and the brisk and inauthentic rush of evacuation noise in an airplane, as if on completion of some dental procedure. In Takoma Park a number of years ago, a deliveryman pumped gasoline into a sewer instead of a fuel tank. A man in a bathroom downhill lighted a cigarette and got blown into the air. If you are unlucky, you may recall a newspaper story of a rat rising through the plumbing like an atomic submarine erupting from the polar ice cap. Instead, you expect peace, propriety and privacy — a sense of establishment, as if you’d just locked the door behind you and called to order a one-person convention.

These things are hard to talk about. I met a toilet salesman on a plane and asked him how he describes the problem his products solved.

“Going Gallagher,” he said. “I say, ‘As soon as your customer goes Gallagher’ . . . ”

In “Temples of Convenience and Chambers of Delight,” an Englishwoman named Lucinda Lambton (arguably the best byline since the New Yorker gave us Jamaica Kincaid) exhibits a collector’s passion rather than a critic’s for the finer points of a craft she chronicles in words and in dark, saturated, history-heavy color photographs.

Like so many Britishers she has two obsessions: cloacal reality and an indignation at the passage of time.

“In an act of dastardly desecration,” she writes of Harrod’s department store, “the Ladies Retiring Room was destroyed to make room for escalators in 1980.”

Lambton writes of the 20 Twyford “St. Anne’s Marble” stalls that surround the “Hexagonal Urinal Range” on a pier on the island of Bute: “With their sumptuous splendour, the urinals trumpet out all the triumphs of 19th century taste and technology, and they are to be found, glittering away, on an island in Scotland.”

Doulton’s Improved Pedestal Simplicitas model, with ornamental raised decoration, looks as if it’s about to glide out to a garden party and faint.

Or the final moments of an 1882 Dolphin wash-out toilet with polished mahogany seat: “With sensational sadness, it fell apart in December 1994,” Lambton writes.

(Britain is a land of sensational sadness. America is a land of sad sensation.)

Didn’t we all go to school with a guy who wrote a paper on “The Art of the Toilet” for art class? Or “The History of the Toilet” for history class?

Anyway, the irony of his toilet research kept it a small cut above the old cartoons that took a French phrase, like pied-a-terre, and illustrated it with a picture of a furtive partygoer wetting down the flowers on the terrace. This, in turn, was a cut above “Jokes for the John,” which in the 1950s was wit in the way the carport was architecture. Then we’ve had the immortal sculpture called “Goodbye Cruel World,” which depicts a man inside a toilet, pulling the flush lever. During World War II, English chamber pot makers painted Hitler’s face in them — a curious, stale ritual akin to fliers writing their names on bombs.

I had an ex-Marine friend who once watched a prim little man endlessly scrubbing his hands in a restaurant bathroom. He took the opportunity for a bit of guerrilla theater: When the man turned around, my friend unzipped, then watered down his hands and dried them on his clothes. The last I heard, my friend was living under the Atlantic City boardwalk.

In “The Age of Indiscretion,” Clyde Brion Davis recalls Chillicothe, Mo., in the days when you could see the governor “without his silk hat or frock coat and with his fawn-colored vest unbuttoned and the tab of his stiff-bosomed shirt unbuttoned and hanging outside his trousers . . . looking very thoughtful as he sauntered to the privy.”

How democratic. How American. Marie Antoinette, on the other hand, traveled with a chamber pot that was only six inches across. It was Sevres porcelain, green and gold, decorated by Binet, but it’s the diminution that implies grace and self-confidence of the sort Edmund Burke recalled from seeing her in her youth, “decorating and cheering the elevated sphere she just began to move in — glittering like the morning star, full of life, and splendour, and joy.” As far as the tiny Sevres porcelain went, her grace is unknowable because it could exist only in solitude, an aesthetic of the sort the Earl of Rochester meant when he said of something, “How exquisite . . . how Japan.”

The flush toilet is only about a century old. As historian Daniel Boorstin points out, it was adopted more slowly than bathtubs or wash basins because it wasn’t so obviously a labor-saving device — hauling water for an unplumbed bathtub took a lot of labor. He also notes another peculiarity: “In the older world, the public facilities tended to copy the private. Inns were shaped like large private residences.” But in America, “there were still few rich men and, of course, no ancient palaces. Here public buildings and public facilities made their own style, which gradually influenced the way everyone lived.”

As with all progress, something was lost.

Lucinda Lambton presents photographs of facilities from primitive to decadently ornate. She describes rustic wooden two- and three-holers from two places in East Anglia as “curiously alike.” Clearly she has visited very few outhouses, or she would know that they are all curiously alike. Form follows function, and the function is the same all over. The privy, the jakes, the outhouse is a joke now, or a symbol of ancient horror.

But those who have known the comfort of an outhouse in a piney woods on a cool summer morning will put it with the quiet pleasures of life, like waking up out of sight of land on your first day at sea. Those who knew them in Vietnam, however, remember the smell of the barrels in the pits below being set on fire, and the chalky filth of the smoke that didn’t fill the air as much as coat it.

In search of existential authenticity, passionate young people of the 1950s and 1960s headed for Europe. They found a favorable exchange rate and plumbing just bad enough that they felt authentic, even heroic. Authenticity increased as a function of poverty multiplied by how far east you went toward India. Ultimately, in some oasis town in Iran, or a hippie hotel in Nepal, you found yourself looking at a hole in a concrete floor, about eight inches wide. There was usually a faucet nearby. You said to yourself that you had hit bottom.

Maybe so.

I was stranded one morning in a town in northern India. There was an old fort that could be toured in 20 minutes, if you stretched it out. Then I wandered around, looking for sights. I saw a man with a small can of water, walking up a brown, dirt hill. He walked with the proprietary prowl of a man on a battlefield with a metal detector. People strolled along a road. Kids flew kites. About halfway up the hill the man stopped, and with no hole, no Sevres pot, no Doulton imperialism, no Marcel Duchamp aesthetics, and no Patricia Arquette vulgarity, he honored Mr. Gallagher. Then he cleaned up with the can of water. The onlookers weren’t scandalized, and he was not ashamed.

I saw that this performance was pleasure that verged on authenticity, or authenticity that verged on beauty, or beauty that verged on art.

Running The River

Check out the first chapter of Running the River: Secrets of the Sabine, from the fine Texas writer Wes Ferguson: A man shot at us our first day on the river. Of course he did. You expect that sort of thing to happen on the Sabine.

I met Jacob at his father’s house early that morning. He hitched the boat to his truck, and we drove south and east into the border country where Texas blends into the forests and swamps of Louisiana. Jacob’s father, Henry, rode shotgun. You could tell he was nervous the way he chattered against the quiet. The boat belonged to him, and he was loaning it to us, but Henry swore he didn’t care about the aluminum sixteen-footer. He envisioned the gun-toting types who live along the river, the snags that capsize little boats, and the bewhiskered catfish lurking in underwater dens, and he couldn’t help worrying about his adult son. For distraction, he told jokes.

HE CHASED A FLYING SAUCER, NOW HIS LIFE IS SHATTERED

The Cleveland Plain Dealer,
Sunday, October 9, 1966

by John De Groot

RAVENNA (AP)–In his world of loneliness and twisted nightmares, Dale Spaur wonders if the nightmare will ever end.

It began six months ago with “Seven Steps to Hell” and ended with a flying saucer named Floyd.

In the predawn hours of a gentle April morning, Portage County Sheriff’s Deputy Spaur chased a flying saucer 86 miles.

NOW THE STRANGE craft is chasing him. And he is hiding from it, a bearded stranger peering past the limp curtains of a tiny motel room in Solon.

He no longer is a deputy sheriff.

His marriage is shattered.

He has lost 40 pounds.

He lives on one bowl of cereal and a sandwich each day.
He walks three miles to an $80-a-week painters job. His motel room costs $60 a week. The court has ordered him to pay his wife $20 a week for the support of his two children.
That leaves Dale Spaur exactly nothing.

THE FLYING saucer did it.

“If I could change all that I have done in my life,” he said, “I would change just one thing. And that would be the night we chased that damn thing. That saucer.”

He spit the word out, “Saucer.” An obscenity.
Others might understand.

Four other officers took part in the April 17 [1966] drama.
Police Chief Gerald Buchert of Mantua saw the craft and photographed it. The pictures turned out badly, an odd fuzzy white thing suspended in blackness. Today, Chief Buchert laughs nervously when he speaks of that night.

“I’D RATHER NOT talk about it,” he says. “It’s something that should be forgotten…left alone. I saw something, but I don’t know what it was.”

Special Deputy W.L. Neff rode with Spaur during the chase.
He won’t talk about it.

His wife Jackelyne explains, “I hope I never see him like he was after the chase. He was real white, almost in a state of shock. It was awful.”

“And people made fun of him afterwards. He never talks about it anymore. Once he told me, ‘If that thing landed in my back yard, I wouldn’t tell a soul.’ He’s been through a wringer.”
PATROLMAN Frank Panzenella saw the chase end in Conway, Pa., where he works. He saw the craft.

Now he is silent. Friends say he had his telephone removed because of calls about that April morning.

H. Wayne Huston was a police officer in East Palestine, O. He had worked there seven years. Several months after the saucer passed above him in the night, he resigned… going to Seattle Wash., to drive a bus.

Huston now goes by Harold W. Huston. He tells you,” Sure I quit because of that thing. People laughed at me. And there was pressure… You couldn’t put your finger on it, but the pressure was there.

The city officials didn’t like police officers chasing flying saucers.”

SPAUR AND HUSTON have turned in their badges.

Now Spaur hides in Solon, a fugitive from a flying saucer named Floyd. He cannot escape the strange craft.

Spaur and Neff were checking on a car parked alongside U.S. 224 between Randolph and Atwater. The car was filled with radio equipment and had a strange emblem painted on its side, a triangle with a bolt of lightning inside it. Above the emblem was written, “Seven Steps to Hell.”

Behind them they heard a strange humming noise and turning, said they saw a huge saucer shaped craft rise out of a woods and hover above them, bathing them in a warm white light.

Then it moved off.

LEAVING THE mystery car behind, never to be seen again, the two deputies hopped into their cruiser and chased the object, sometimes at speeds of more than 100 miles an hour. The chase finally ended when the cruiser ran out of gas near Pittsburgh. They said the craft they chased was about 50 feet across and 15 to 20 feet high with a large dome on its top and an antenna jutted out from the rear of the dome.

After the chase, Spaur’s daily routine was washed away in a sea of reporters, television cameramen, Air Force investigators, government officials, strange letters from places like Little Rock, Ark. and Australia that told him what to do if “the little green men” tried to contact him.

“MY ENTIRE LIFE came crashing down around my shoulders,” he said.
“Everything changed. I still don’t really know what happened. But suddenly, it was as though everybody owned me. And I no longer had anything for myself. My wife, my home, my children. They all seemed to fade away.”

Spaur’s wife Daneise now is alone with her two children.
She has filed for divorce and is working as a waitress in a bar at Ravenna.

“Something happened to Dale, but I don’t know what it was,” she says. He came home that day and I never saw him more frightened before. He acted strange, listless. He just sat around. He was very pale.”

“THEN LATER, he got real nervous. And he started to run away. He’d just disappear for days and days. I wouldn’t see him.”
“Our marriage fell apart. All sorts of people came to the house. Investigators. Reporters. They kept him up all night. They kept after him, hounding him. They hounded him right into the ground.”

“And he changed.”

Then one night, Dale came home very late. He isn’t sure what happened. He walked into the living room. There were some other people there. Things were very tense. Very confused.

HE GRABBED his wife and shook her. Hard. He kept shaking her. It left big ugly bruises on her arms. He doesn’t know how or why…

That was the end of July. Daneise filed assault and battery charges. Dale was jailed and turned in his badge.

A newspaper printed a story about the deputy who chased the flying saucer being jailed for beating his wife.

When he got out of jail, Dale ran…left town, turned his back on everything.

BUT THE SAUCER followed him, locked in his dreams.

In Ravenna, Daneise can only say, “Dale is a lost soul.
And everything is finished for us.”

In Solon, Dale said, “I have become a freak. I’m so damn lonely. Look at me…34 years old and what do I have? Nothing.”
“Who knows me? To everyone I’m Dale Spaur, the nut who chased a flying saucer. My father called me several weeks ago.

“A long time ago we had a fight. I hadn’t heard from him for years. Then he calls me.”

“DO YOU THINK he called to ask how I was…To say ‘I love you, son… To see if I wanted to go fishing, or something?

“Hell, no. He wanted to know if I’d seen any more flying saucers.”

“I tried to go to church for help. I went to church and the minister introduced me to the congregation. ‘We have the man who chased a flying saucer with us today,’ he said.”

Dale Spaur wept as he told what the flying saucer named Floyd had done to him.

He calls it Floyd because he saw it once more while he was still working for the sheriff’s department.

THE RADIO operators knew civilians were monitoring their broadcasts. So they agreed to use a code name if the flying saucer was seen again. They called it Floyd…Dale Spaur’s middle name.

Dale was driving east on Interstate 80-S one night in June [1966]. He looked up. There it was.

“Floyd’s here with me,” he whispered into the radio.

Then he parked the car and sat there, alone. This time Barney Neff was not with him. Dale did not look out the window. He lit a cigarette and stared at the floor of the cruiser. He sat there for nearly 15 minutes…not looking outside, not wanting
to see Floyd.

WHEN HE LOOKED up, Floyd had disappeared.

Yet it still follows him. And it has ruined his life. This he believes.

(Thanks to Ed for this.)

The Long Road To New Bethany And Back

Rebecca Catalanello and Kathleen Flynn: She hobbled down the jetway carrying a suitcase, a pillow, a teddy bear for good luck.

At the plane’s entrance she stopped, paralyzed by dread and memories: blood, Pine Sol, broken glass, shame, God – and those barbed wire fences. God, those fences. She hugged the stuffed animal.

What if they say it was my fault? Will they call me a whore? What if I die?

Someone in the line behind her asked, “Is she OK?”

For 25 years, Jennifer Halter, 39, had been living with memories of what happened to her at a religious girls’ home in Arcadia, La. In her mind, the fences towered 15 feet high and stretched for miles, every chain link penning her in with the man she says sexually abused her, destroyed her faith and led her to try to kill herself.

Halter, a mother of five, was dying of a rare cancer-like condition called histiocytosis x. Her body hurt. Her mind was tired. If her doctor’s prediction held, she would have four more years to live. She had made it to the edge of Spirit Airlines redeye Flight 298 from Las Vegas against doctor’s orders. She had come this far because she had decided she was ready to tell Louisiana law enforcement about the crimes she says were committed against her so many years ago.

Haverford Hoops!

Chris Ballard: “You want a story?” my brother said.

“You should write about the Streak.”

This was last year, over a beer. My brother is 41 now, a successful doctor with two kids. And here he was, still talking about his Division III college basketball team.

You know those stories about a wise coach who inspires a group of plucky overachievers to overcome the odds and win state, or whatever?

This is not one of those stories.

In the beginning—before the run at the record, the national media and the fellatio strike—there was just a college basketball team and a coach.

Up, And Away

Michael Graff: He’s sitting on his couch, shirtless, hunched over a hard-earned belly, breathing hard-earned air, in and out, trying to remember. His face droops, and his right side is numb.

“Aw, Christ,” he says. “What the hell am I trying to say?”

We’re attempting to steer around the blotches of white matter on his brain.

“You were talking about the raccoon,” I remind him.

The raccoon. Yes. He remembers this. Back there, somewhere, along about 1967.

He was 23 years old, and on a fine afternoon on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, he was about to throw a dead raccoon from an airplane when something bad happened. The wind caught the pilot chute that was tied to the animal and sucked it into the sky. The chute broke off and fell slowly to the earth. The dead raccoon fell faster.

Fearless Freddie Giraffe, as they called him then, was a skydiver, and a good one. He would soon become the 647th American to earn his gold wings, an award bestowed only on crazy-asses like him who jump out of a plane more than 1,000 times. He was a member of an elite club of sport parachutists, the Pelicans. He could jump from 12,000 feet in the air and land on a ten-centimeter-round target on the ground, dead center. He could do that in the morning, or at night, or hung-over out of his mind. Yet at this moment, Fearless Freddie was scared to death.

To Live And Die In Chiraq

Ethan Brown in Playboy (NSFW, probably): When Lil Reese tells you to get out of the car, you exit the vehicle as fast as you can.

The tension began to boil at breakfast when Brandon, a paunchy white kid and perennial sidekick to Chicago’s hip-hop elite, promised Reese a free necklace from a jeweler friend in Los Angeles who bills himself as “Your Rapper’s Favorite Jeweler.” Now, in the backseat of a Chevy Malibu parked on Chicago’s South Side, Brandon’s generosity has been turned on its head by Reese, a brooding 21-year-old with bushy eyebrows and tattoos that crawl up his arms and onto his neck like lichen on an oak tree. Put simply: If you offer Reese a necklace, he’s going to want it now.

“Let me see that piece for a minute,” Reese says, tugging at the Medusa-head medallion around Brandon’s neck. “No,” Brandon says, pushing Reese away. “This is sentimental.”

A long pause.

“What the fuck is sentimental?” Reese shoots back.

“Reesie,” Brandon pleads, “he’s gonna FedEx two chains to you. I promise, yo.” His voice clears with sincerity. “On my mother.”

Reese is unmoved. “Let me see it now,” he demands.

“Reesie,” Brandon stammers back.

“I’ll give it back when I get those two pieces,” Reese continues, his voice growing cold.

“Yo, Reesie,” Brandon says. “I’m going to New York and I want to wear my piece.”

“Ethan,” Reese’s baritone booms from the back of the car, “step outside.”