Valley Of Fire

Matthew Teague (thanks, Mark): Wildland fire chief Darrell Willis tore along the highway and turned on his truck’s headlights to cut the smoke. Ash and embers rained down around him.

Over the past two days, a small mountain fire had come to life, a monstrous life. He’d just learned that his team of crack firefighters had deployed their emergency shelters, thin blankets of aluminum and silica they carried as a last refuge.

Now he was careening toward the south end of the fire, down where they were. He grabbed his cellphone and called his wife. “Pray with me,” he told her.

He saw two shapes on the closed highway and stomped on his brakes. As if summoned from a dream, two horses emerged from the smoke and galloped toward him, wild with fear. Then they veered and disappeared into the blackness. Willis stepped on the gas.

He pulled into the parking lot at the Ranch House restaurant, where several dozen firefighters and refugees had gathered. Shock filled their eyes as they stared across Highway 89 at the fire.

Willis’ heart leapt when he saw Brendan McDonough, a member of his 20-man team of wildland firefighters.

But McDonough was alone. Willis’ stomach did the math before his head could. He felt a ball of nausea start to rise.

Together they watched silently as the fire advanced across the valley, leaping from house to house. Huge propane tanks exploded and sailed through the air.

A helicopter hovered over the blackened site where the team had deployed their shelters. “We’ve got 18 confirmed dead,” a paramedic radioed in.

Willis felt himself pull away from the world, as though seeing the scene through the wrong end of his binoculars.

The radio crackled again.

“No, make that 19.”

Alone In Life, Unclaimed In Death

Louis Hansen (thanks, JHD): NORFOLK

Two visitors stretched the security chain on the motel door and peered through the crack. Inside, a man lay motionless on the floor.

Stay back, the motel manager told Andrea Simmons.

Police and paramedics arrived and told Simmons what she already knew: Stanley Hucks was dead.

Simmons owned Billy’s Pizza in Ocean View. Hucks was a deliveryman, soft-spoken but punctual, grumpy with flashes of warmth.

He rarely missed a shift, made great sauce and sliced through the streets of Ocean View as fast as anybody. Simmons had just bumped his pay from $5.50 to $6.00 an hour. Hucks was the best she had.

He rarely spoke of friends, family, past. He lived in a weekly rental at a bayside motel and kept to himself. His boss was his emergency contact.

As the paramedics finished, she caught a glimpse of the gurney and the form of a man draped in a sheet. Hucks died alone.

Now, his frail body and dignity were the city’s problem.

Not One More

Deanna Pan: JUNE 20, 1994 — This is how it all ends: Four gunshots as steady as a heartbeat.

Pop, pop, pop, pop.

The third hits Dean Mellberg in his left shoulder, just a superficial wound. The fourth strikes square between his eyes. The blast sends his body soaring, feet splayed, straight into the air, like a stuntman’s in a movie. He spins counterclockwise and lands on his back in the grass, his left hand still gripping the stock of his rifle.

Seventy yards away, Senior Airman Andy Brown lowers his handgun, a military-issued Beretta M9. Brown gets up from where he’s kneeling and dashes for cover behind a small pickup parked across from the base hospital.

“Don’t move!” he shouts.

When backup arrives, the medics rush to revive the man in the grass. They don’t know who he is or what he did. They don’t know how many lives he ended or how many people he hurt. The radio dispatcher alerts all patrols to a possible second gunman. Someone had called to report a sniper on a nearby building. Brown scans the roof, his sidearm drawn, as medics declare the gunman dead on the scene.

Meanwhile, in the hospital dining hall, 15-year-old Melissa Moe hides underneath a sink in a pool of her own blood, breathing hard, waiting for help. She’s cradling 5-year-old Janessa Zucchetto in one hand. The other clutches her right thigh.

This is it, Melissa thinks. I’m going to die.

Announcement: Mayborn For Free

To help identify and train up-and-coming narrative writers under the age of 40, George Getschow and two of the Mayborn’s literary agents, David Patterson and Jim Hornfischer, have created three scholarships covering conference registration, the contest fee and up to three nights at the DFW Lakes Hilton Hotel and Convention Center. Professional writers working for newspapers, magazines, alt-weeklies, and other digital and print publishers are eligible. So are undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in writing programs (such as journalism, English, history, biography, MFA in Creative Nonfiction. etc) at the Mayborn and other universities around the country. Award winners will be selected by the donors and by three distinguished narrative writers. To be eligible for one of the three awards, candidates must submit two narrative stories (published in print or on-line), submit either a personal essay, a reported narrative or a book manuscript to the Mayborn’s national writing contests and be able to attend the entire weekend of the Mayborn Conference July 18-20, 2014.

Click here for an application.

One Thousand Two Hundred And Fifty-Eight Pounds Of Sons

Chris Jones: Gordy Gronkowski, the patriarch of those very same Gronkowskis, America’s First Family of Smashmouth Football, the man who somehow parlayed five orgasms into 1,258 pounds of relentless physical force—a first baseman, two tight ends, and two fullbacks—the first father in twenty years to see three of his sons play during a single NFL season, and the first father in nearly thirty years with an even-money chance to see a fourth, might have gone after it a little hard last night.

He spent the evening and a good chunk of this morning in downtown Buffalo, watching his alma mater, the Orange of Syracuse, lose by two points to Dayton in the NCAA tournament, and suddenly it’s obvious how his sons learned to shake off disappointment by laying waste themselves and one another and however many blocks of their battered hometown. It’s Sunday afternoon, and Gordy’s still moving a little more slowly than his usual terrifying pace, sipping from a bottle of water, shaking his head at himself and his hangover. “That was rough,” he says. “I don’t know why that kid didn’t drive to the basket.”

The kid in question, for once, is not one of his. His kids would have driven to the basket. He’s referring to Syracuse guard Tyler Ennis, who in the dying seconds launched a long three for the win when he might have driven for the push, dooming the Orange to elimination rather than sending the game and their season into overtime. For most of the people in the arena last night, Ennis’s snap judgment was just a bad call made by a teenager under the clock’s adult-sized pressure. But Gronkowski doesn’t watch sports the way the rest of us watch sports. For him, games are not just games. “They are everything,” he says. They are morality plays, tests of will and feats of strength, definers of men and boys and their good family names for generations. In sports, Gronkowski sees justice and beauty, companionship and teamwork, discipline and sacrifice. He sees blessings earned or squandered, and he sees fundamentals learned or forgotten. Most of all, he sees belief and the power of it, and he sees the terrible blackness that roosts in its absence. And when you see sports and therefore the world the way Gordy Gronkowski does, nothing makes less sense than a divinely talented kid launching a no-hoper when the lane and the universe were wide open to him. “You drive the basket,” he says, and he says it as though he’s expecting not only agreement in this particular instance but a lifelong conversion to the idea: In the dying seconds of every basketball game that remains to be played here on earth, every basket shall be driven.

14

Krista Ramsey and Cara Owsley: Malik Nu’qman says the three things he values most in life are his brothers, his mother and his bike.

His family, in part because they’re the buffer between him and the harsher realities of his Avondale neighborhood. His bike, because it’s his means to get around it.

At 14, Malik feels a constant tension between wanting to venture into his community and the fear he’ll be jumped or shot if he strays too far. It’s not unfounded. This spring, Jashawn Martin and Tyann Adkins – both also 14 – were shot to death within eight days of each other, one in Avondale, the other in nearby Walnut Hills. Malik knew them both.

On a recent Friday afternoon Malik has just ridden his bike back from Bengals Park on Reading Road, where he spends weekends hanging with his friend Jordan until it gets dark and the park is no longer safe because of fights and drug-dealing. He walks the bike up the 24 steps leading to his house, which he says is slowly sliding down the hillside it sits on and will soon force his family to move. The bike can sit on the porch as long as Malik does, but at night it has to be stored in the living room beside the fish tank. In his neighborhood, he says, you don’t leave out what you don’t want to be gone.

Freelance Work!

Spirit magazine is on the hunt for hungry young writers (old and middle-aged also welcome) to breathe some life into our feature well. Think you’ve got the chops and ambition to craft a great narrative? We’re eager to cultivate new talent. (Also, if you’re like Ben and have a great new book out, we can get your byline in front of 3 million captive readers.) Either way, we’re committed to publishing the kind of storytelling celebrated here at Gangrey. Our writer’s guidelines are below. Introduce yourself and/or send along ideas to jknickell@paceco.com.

Spirit, published by Pace Communications for Southwest Airlines, attracts more than 3.5 million readers each month. We typically publish two works of narrative nonfiction each issue, usually around 3,000 to 3,500 words (though we’ve gone shorter and longer). We’re looking for a compelling tale with memorable characters, none of who have to be famous.

What kinds of nonfiction stories do you accept? Personal narrative essays. Profiles. Trend stories (so long as each has strong characters). Story is the key word here. We salivate over a well-spun yarn. We’re less interested in stories about particular places unless they contain a personal angle or remarkable character.

What about tone? We love stories that lift the spirit—we’re suckers for happy endings. At the same time, tension is a must. Also, humor of the un-snarky kind tends to get a positive response.

What do you want in a pitch? Start with a sentence or two that tells us what your story is really about. Boil it down to the guts. Why will our readers care? Then, give us an idea of the story’s arc, and the kinds of scenes you could capture. Lastly, it’s a good idea to let us know why you’re qualified to tell the tale.

The Lucky Few

Mike Hixenbaugh: A 91-year-old man lifts off in a commercial airliner bound for France and for a moment can imagine himself in the cabin of a Douglas C-47, preparing to leap into moonlit darkness.

Norwood Thomas was just a boy, really, the first time he arrived in Normandy. Now he is returning for the last time, once again mindful of his own mortality.

More than 100,000 Americans were there at the start of the campaign to retake Europe from Hitler. Only a few hundred are expected to return this week. Thousands more, many too frail to travel, will mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day back home.

Thomas flew out of Norfolk last week. Grant “Gully” Gullickson isn’t far behind. Cary Jarvis and Eddie Shames wish they could join them; they’ll spend the day with family in Virginia Beach.

None of them knew one another on that day, yet they are forever linked by it. They are among the lucky few – the ones who survived brutal fighting and then the merciless march of time. Almost all of their buddies are dead.

Memories dull with age, but certain moments stick with them: The feel of cool sand against the face; the cries of grown men struggling for air; the smell of exploded gunpowder and burned flesh.

The tales they tell sound improbable and, with few living witnesses, some details are elusive. But these men were there; this is how they remember it.

For at least one more day, the world will pause and listen.

A Life He Never Knew

Lane DeGregory: He didn’t open the first email. He thought it was spam, some memorabilia about World War II. The subject line said: “USCG in Normandy.”

Kirk Vail, 60, is a plumber, like his dad. He knew his dad had been stationed at St. Petersburg’s Coast Guard station, and that he had turned 26 the day his cutter joined the D-day invasion — 70 years ago today.

But that was about it.

The second email arrived two days later, on March 11. This one had an attachment, “Picture taken in 1944.” Kirk clicked open a black and white photo of a young man in a sailor shirt with dark, wavy hair, intense eyes and a Clark Gable moustache. Kirk had never seen the picture, but right away he recognized his dad.

“It was crazy, seeing an image of him from his time at war, which I knew nothing about,” said Kirk. “This old Frenchman had kept my dad’s photo framed on his wall for 70 years.”

With the help of the Frenchman and his friend, and after three months of research, Kirk has learned about a life he never knew his dad had — about an almost forgotten fleet of little wooden boats with climbing nets and blood-soaked hulls. He figured out why his dad sang French folk songs.

And why he never ate crabs.

Tracking Tats

Mike Wilson: Ethan Swan and I couldn’t see the players’ tattoos from Section 217 of the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, but Swan still knew who was inked and who wasn’t. LeBron James? Obviously. Chris Bosh? A swirl of images (musical notes, tiger, skull) on his back. Deron Williams? “He’s got a basketball tattoo,” Swan said — just as at least one player on every NBA team did at one point three years ago. Of the Nets on the floor in this early May playoff game, only Shaun Livingston was a blank canvas.

Except nobody really is — not any of us, and certainly not Swan. For four seasons, he has kept a database of NBA players’ tattoos — every Chinese letter, Bible verse, jersey number, Rolls Royce logo and winged angel. He puts it all on his Tumblr, his way of getting in the game. But “NBA tattoos” is more than a fanboy project; it’s an antidote to an Internet rife with articles, lists and superlatives mocking athletes’ tattoo choices: 11 worst, 22 worst, ugliest. Swan’s blog is a small protest against that kind of reflexive judgment.

“It’s just dumb to have an opinion about this,” he said. “You don’t have enough ways to judge a player, you have to assert this thing that’s totally meaningless.”