All That Land

Meant to post this a while back. Michael Kruse: FORT PIERCE — Bud Adams, slim and dressed in blue jeans and a blue button-down shirt and cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, drove his Ford Explorer around his ranch in western St. Lucie County, looking at his land and his cattle. His truck, with manure caked in the tires, jounced in the ruts of rough paths. He’s been the president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association. He’s been named landowner of the year by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conversation Commission. He’s a member of the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame. Now he showed his guests his bounty, pointing to heifers and calves, herons and hawks, egrets and turkeys, baby gators and boxes of bees, centuries-old hammocks of cypress, pine and palm. He stopped the truck. A hot breeze blew through Spanish moss. He plucked a fat grapefruit and knifed off its top and sucked on a juicy wedge.

This land, unpolluted and pristine, was here before he was here. All he has done, he explained, is keep it intact.

“So far,” he said.

What Adams wants, here near the end, coming up on 89 years old, is for the ranch land that bears his name, some 40,000 acres spread over four Florida counties, to remain the way it is — for his children, for their children, for the children’s children.

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.”

How the Colombian army sent a hidden message to hostages… using a pop song

Jeff Maysh: Colonel Jose Espejo was a man with a problem. As the Colombian army’s communications expert watched the grainy video again, he saw kidnapped soldiers chained up inside barbed-wire pens in a hostage camp deep in the jungle, guarded by armed FARC guerillas. Some had been hostages for more than 10 years, and many suffered from a grim, flesh-eating disease caused by insect bites.

It was 2010, and the straight-talking Espejo was close to retirement after 22 years of military service. But he couldn’t stand the thought of quitting with men left behind enemy lines. He needed an idea, and when he needed an idea, he always went to one man.

Juan Carlos Ortiz was dunking his kids in the pool at his home in Coconut Grove, Miami, when he got the call from Colonel Espejo. With his easy charm and seemingly natural talent for creating clever commercials, the 42-year-old advertising executive had earned himself a Don Draper-like reputation in Colombia.

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.

The women living in Chernobyl’s toxic wasteland

Holly Morris: Outside Hanna Zavorotnya’s cottage in Chernobyl’s dead zone, a hulking, severed sow’s head bleeds into the snow, its gargantuan snout pointing to the sky in strange, smug defeat.

The frigid December air feels charged with excitement as Hanna, (above) 78, zips between the outlying sheds wielding the seven-inch silver blade that she used to bring the pig to its end.

‘Today I command the parade,’ she says, grinning as she passes a vat of steaming entrails to her sister-in-law at the smokehouse, then moves off again. In one hand she holds a fresh, fist-sized hunk of raw pig fat – there is no greater delicacy in Ukraine – and she pauses now and then to dole out thin slices to her neighbours.


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.