The Thirteenth Man

Kevin Robbins: COLLEGE STATION — Long tables draped with maroon linens held the portraits of the dead. Other photographs were displayed Tuesday at G. Rollie White Coliseum, including images depicting the progression of the Texas A&M University sacrament known as Bonfire: cut, stack, burn. One section of pictures portrayed the events of Nov. 18, 1999.

But John Comstock was drawn to the portraits in the black frames. He gazed at the eyes looking back.

“Hi, John.”

Comstock turned.

“Darrin Allen. I found you in the stack.”

Comstock searched the man for signs. The eyes. They were blue. Did Comstock recognize those eyes from that morning in 1999? Maybe he did.

People change in 10 years. Comstock was a dark-haired and mischievous 19-year-old freshman who liked being around people — at parties, on campus, at Bonfire — in November of that year. He still had his left leg. His right arm worked. So did his right foot. He could walk and swing an axe. At stack he wore a bandana under a black military surplus helmet — Aggies call them “pots” — indicating his residence at Moses Hall.

The last time Comstock used his pot was back then, when the 90-year-old tradition of burning six tiers of timber before the annual football game with Texas also changed forever.

The Ballad Of Billy Ray

Wes Ferguson: LINDEN — Whatever happened to Billy Ray Johnson?

For years, the middle-aged, mentally challenged black man was a familiar face around town. But on a September night in 2003, four young white men gave Johnson beer at a pasture party and told him to dance while they laughed and used racial slurs. Then one of them beat him.

The beating and dumping of Johnson’s unconscious body and the town’s reaction drew national outrage.

“Old South racism lives in Texas town,” read one headline in the Chicago Tribune. High-powered civil rights lawyer Morris Dees took up Johnson’s case, and in April 2007, a civil jury awarded Johnson $9 million.

The Father

Hey, Gangrey friends,

The Wichita Eagle has an unusual story project set to launch Dec. 6.

It will include an 8-part serial narrative and our first-ever hour-long narrative news documentary. We spent six months on it; we even put a musical score to the documentary.

Father Emil Kapaun was a priest who died as a U.S. Army chaplain in the Korean War. The peg for this is that there is a good chance Kapaun will become the first person awarded the Medal of Honor, and sainthood
in the Catholic church.

The story describes the last 7 months of Kapaun’s life, but the sub-purpose is to explore various shades of belief in miracles. For example, the church in studying Kapaun has asked former Korean War POWs whether there were “miracles” associated with Kapaun, and by that they seem to mean Lazarus-style miracles.

The POWs said no. But they said he did many amazing things(see below) — the sort of everyday miracles we all could do if only we had his character.

Conventional thought says many newspapers (including in mid-sized markets like ours) are no longer able to think big or do long narrative, in video let alone in print. But we’ve got leadership.


Roy Wenzl

Here’s the video trailer we put together on the documentary. (only about 90 seconds long)

Point A To Point B

Paul Farhi: Bob Marbourg never wanted to spin records or read the news on the radio. One thing, and maybe only one thing, fascinated him: the mad struggle of a few million people trying to get from Point A to Point B each day.

And so for 30 years — he celebrated his on-air anniversary this week — Marbourg has sidled up to a microphone at radio station WTOP and narrated the breakdowns, slowdowns and fender benders that make up Washington’s so-called rush hour (not much rush, and a lot longer than an hour now).

Killing Time

Dan Barry: COLUMBIA, S.C.

In the down time before another head count, two prisoners play cards. One inmate shuffles and the other flicks his hand, a mystical cutting of the deck. The dealt cards land on the lid of a garbage can used as a table, falling on top of one another, face down.

A form of gin rummy breaks out in the courtyard of the Campbell Pre-Release Center as the inmates, Mark and Mario, toss their unwanted cards into the discard pile. But from deuce to ace, nearly every card is a face card, looking up in silent appeal.

The cards ask: Do you know who killed me? And they ask: Do you know where I am? And they ask: Do you know something? Anything?

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Can One Man Redeem A Nation?

Tom Junod: On December 7, 2006, a new jail opened in Guantánamo. It was, and is, called Camp 6. Guantánamo is located at the arid eastern end of Cuba, plagued with iguanas and surrounded by the endless indigo desert of the Caribbean. The detention center there, opened in 2002, had always been a provisional thing, defined by its infinities of razor wire and its guard-towered skyline. Camp 6 was different. Built by the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root to duplicate a jail in southeastern Michigan, it was made of concrete as gray as wastewater, and its facade was not only windowless but featureless, a dungeon for an era of diminished expectations. Camp 6 was built for permanence, and by the time the first detainees walked through its iron doors, it was a maximum-security memorial to American prerogative. The detainees who were held in Camp 6 were the ones whose fates were both open-ended and predetermined, the ones who would not be charged, not be tried, and, most important, not be freed. They would stay, extrajudicial guests, until the cessation of hostilities in a war with no end, or until America elected a president who decided that a policy of preventive detention presented a risk to his country greater than the risk of dangerous men going free.

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I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

–Jeffrey Eugenides, first sentence of Middlesex

The big man lived in the janitor’s closet behind the bar, and through the night you could hear him building birdhouses.

–Christopher Goffard, first sentence of Snitch Jacket

Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.

–Gabriel Garcia Marquez, first sentence of One Hundred Years Of Solitude

What’s your favorite first sentence of a novel?