Zack Harold

writer/editor

Silver Bridge tragedy still haunts river city residents

This story originally appeared in the December 11, 2012 edition of the Charleston Daily Mail.

Ben Cedar crossed the Silver Bridge three times on the day it fell.

He was working as a Kirby sweeper salesman back then, and crossing the bridge was the fastest way to get across the Ohio River from his home base in Ravenswood.

“I was worried about that bridge every time I crossed over,” he said. “If you got stuck in the middle of that bridge, it would wave back and forth, back and forth.”

He crossed the Silver Bridge for the final time just before 5 p.m. on Dec. 15, 1967, headed for Gallipolis, Ohio. Once there he stopped at a Kroger store and used a payphone to call his office, just to check in.

As he was in the store, he overheard other customers talking about a bridge collapse. “I didn’t have any idea what they were talking about,” said Cedar, now 75. He asked someone what had happened, and they told him the Silver Bridge had fallen. “I said, ‘I just crossed that bridge 15 or 20 minutes ago.'”

Cedar headed back toward the span. He remembers seeing a large truck stuck on the Ohio side of the bridge, its trailer hanging down into the water. One of his co-workers was supposed to meet him in Gallipolis but had not yet arrived. For all Cedar knew, the man was on the bridge when it fell.

About the same time, 31-year-old State Trooper Rudy Odell was standing on the West Virginia side of the river. He also was surveying the damage. Odell, now 76, might have been the first law enforcement officer to respond to the disaster.

He was in downtown Point Pleasant when the bridge collapsed. Earlier that day, a man from Hutchinson Insurance called the local State Police detachment office wanting to talk with Odell, but he wasn’t at his desk. The secretary radioed Odell and asked him to stop by the man’s office. He parked his car on Main Street, just two blocks from the bridge’s on-ramp. He got out of the cruiser and had started to walk inside the insurance agency when he heard a low rumble. “It sounded like someone upstairs moving furniture,” he said.

Odell stepped back onto the sidewalk. A man across the street hollered at him, saying someone had gone through the bridge. Odell ran toward the river and up the bridge’s ramp, where he found a “very pregnant” lady standing beside her car. Her name was Charlene Clark. She had been on the bridge as it began to fall. Seeing the road collapsing before her, she shifted into reverse and sped backward toward land. Odell said Clark was “shook up,” but otherwise fine. “I would have been shook up, too,” he said. “It sheered off right at the water line on the West Virginia side.”

He left Clark and continued toward the collapse. It was a dreary, murky day, so Odell couldn’t see much of the wreckage. Some trailers had broken loose from their trucks and were floating downstream.

The murkiness did nothing to quiet the cries coming from the river, however. “I could hear them hollering for help. I didn’t know how many there were at that time,” he said. “There was absolutely nothing I could do. It was a long way out into the water. Nobody could get to it.”

Odell headed back to his car and radioed the State Police headquarters in South Charleston. He doesn’t remember what he did for the rest of his shift, but for the next few weeks he was stationed on a river barge helping recover vehicles and bodies from the river.

Forty-six people died in the disaster, but Cedar’s coworker was not one of them. He was one car back when the bridge collapsed, right behind Charlene Clark.

* * *

Opened in 1928, the Silver Bridge connected Point Pleasant and Gallipolis and was the first bridge in the United State to forgo a wire cable suspension for an “eyebar link” suspension, according to the West Virginia Encyclopedia. The bridge was held above the water using a series of flat metal links joined by steel “eyebars.”

These eyebars were about 12 inches wide and 2 inches thick, resembling giant-sized automotive wrenches. A crack in eyebar number 330, on the Ohio side of the bridge, brought the entire structure down. Odell said as the bridge collapsed, the deck turned upside down, dumping cars and trucks into the water. The bridge fell moments later, crushing many of those vehicles.

Workers had to remove pieces of the bridge from atop the cars before they could bring the vehicles out of the water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers leased 50-ton cranes to make the work easier, but the process was painfully slow.

Odell’s primary job was to tag victims found inside the cars with the location and approximate time of their deaths before sending them to the morgue. He said police weren’t attempting to identify the bodies at that point, but often could.

The State Police had received calls from people all over the United States concerned their relatives might have been on the bridge when it collapsed. When one of those loved ones arrived home safely, Odell said the families often called back so police could remove their names from the list of the missing. “We never brought up a vehicle or a person that we didn’t know was there before they came up,” he said.

Once, when the Army Corps of Engineer’s crane brought up a car, Odell found a father and the man’s young son. “He had one of those little winter suits on, with the fur around the collar,” he said. “And I knew the little boy. I knew his mother. You don’t get used to it.”

* * *

The Point Pleasant River Museum will have a special memorial service at 2 p.m. this Saturday to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the Silver Bridge Disaster and remember the 46 people who died.”

This is a part of history. A lot of people have been affected by this,” said Ruth Fout, who works at the museum and helped organize the event. “If they didn’t have a loved one on the bridge. . . they knew someone, or maybe their best friend’s father was on the bridge.”

Three of Fout’s neighbors died in the collapse. She was working as a clerk at Mason County Insurance at the time, just a few blocks from the bridge. “We were getting our coats ready to go home, and we heard a large noise. I can’t exactly explain how it was; I can just remember it sounded like a swoosh. Then the lights went off in the office. We didn’t know what had happened,” she said.

Then Steve Darst, her supervisor’s husband, came into the office. He always picked up his wife, Virginia, from work. As he was driving to the office that evening, he got held up in traffic near the bridge. While he waited, he watched as the bridge began to shake.” He said the eyebars looked like clapping hands,” Fout said. “He saw it fall.”

Fout was parked near the base of the bridge, but a floodwall blocked her view of the river. She could have walked another block to look in the water but did not want to. She got in her car and went home.

When she returned to Point Pleasant for a hair appointment the next day, Fout said the town was very quiet yet busy with activity as recovery efforts began. She continued to avoid looking at the river. “I never went back there during the time of the recovery,” she said.

Fout no longer averts her eyes. Beginning last year, she and her sister Ruth helped Hartford College professor Stephan Bullard and student Bridget Gromek write a new book, The Silver Bridge Disaster of 1967.

The book, which contains 200 photos and a history of the bridge and its collapse, debuted Oct. 1 and has been an instant success.”We’re trying to keep it alive for the future generations because, as time goes on . . . the story gets fainter and fainter,” Fout said. “It is something we don’t want to forget.”

And even a half-century later, parts of the story are left to be told.

About three years ago, Bill Needham, a former truck driver from North Carolina, came into the river museum and told Fout he was on the bridge when it collapsed. Needham said his rig quickly sank to the bottom of the Ohio River. He held his breath until he was able to roll down a window and swim out.

Fout said Needham told her the water was pitch-black when he finally escaped his truck but as he got closer to the surface, “he could feel the water getting lighter.” He grabbed onto some floating debris, and after 15 minutes in the water was pulled onto a rescue boat.

Needham’s driving partner, Robert Towe, did not make it out of the truck. Towe, of Cana, Va., was a husband and father of three small children. He had just built a new home and purchased a farm.

It was to be his last day as a long-haul trucker.

In Search of the Stone Man

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

Russ Jones navigates the woods with an ease that only comes through vast experience. His running shoes do not lose their footing on this steep, unmarked trail in Kanawha State Forest. As a certified Master Naturalist, he readily spots animal tracks and identifies birdsong, and he can name just about any plant he finds while also ticking off the bugs that like to munch on it. He’s seen just about everything there is to see in the woods. But this morning, Jones is in pursuit of something he’s never seen.

Russ Jones is looking for Bigfoot.

He doesn’t really expect to come nose-to-nose with Sasquatch in broad daylight in a popular state park. It’s more accurate to say he’s looking for evidence of Bigfoot. Jones is a local investigator for the Bigfoot Field Research Organization, a 20-year-old group made famous by Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot. The group has received several reports of encounters in Kanawha State Forest, so Jones is looking for places to stash his top-of-the-line field cameras to catch photos of the fabled beast.

The trail levels off, giving us a brief respite from the steep climb. Then Jones notices something a few yards in front of him. Something that shouldn’t be there.

For the Record

Russ Jones has never seen a Bigfoot, but he has on five occasions found what he believes are Bigfoot tracks. “I don’t mean a smudge in the ground. I mean a clear track, with toes,” he says. The first time, he was a boy in southern Ohio and knew nothing about Bigfoot. He was walking in the woods with his uncle shortly after a snowstorm. They came to a cave and found a print in the snow that looked like it had been made by a human’s bare foot. “We thought maybe some druggie found that cave to get out of a storm.” Years later, after Bigfoot research became his passion, Jones saw it differently.

He also thinks he has heard a Bigfoot a few times. Recently, Jones was hiking with his wife, Cheryl, near Thurmond in the New River Gorge. He heard four “wood knocks” from across the river. Bigfoot researchers believe the creatures bang pieces of wood together to communicate. There were no Bigfoot to be seen, however, when Jones reached the location of the noises an hour and a half later.

Most of his Bigfoot experiences have come vicariously. Following up on reports of encounters in West Virginia or Ohio on the BFRO website, Jones has talked to policemen, teachers, nurses, and prominent politicians. “If someone said, ‘What’s the most shocking thing about Bigfoot?’ I’d say it’s the witnesses. They’re so ordinary,” he says.

Scrolling through recent reports in his Dunbar chiropractic office during a lunch break, Jones finds one witness who reports working on a deer stand deep in the woods when he noticed something odd—banging noises rang through the air long after his hammer stopped. Later that day the man heard something large moving through the trees, although he was certain no other humans were anywhere near, and he smelled a musty, body odor-like stench.

Jones decides this account is credible, as much for what the witness wrote as how he wrote it. “This guy knows how to spell. His grammar’s really good. He knows where to use commas. I think it’s important to evaluate the context of a report.” Jones’ standards for credibility have risen over time. And for good reason. “When you make a remarkable claim, remarkable evidence is required,” he says.

Burden of Proof

The woods are quiet as Jones approaches a faded blue object near a sapling, now just a few feet away. It’s a Dora the Explorer sippy cup. He picks it up, sniffs the contents, and throws the cup back on the ground. Farther up the hill Jones finds something else: a gleaming white golf ball sitting on a bed of dark, decomposing leaves. To me, the discovery feels significant—what are these things doing here, on a steep hillside in the middle of the woods with no marked trail anywhere close? When you’re looking for Bigfoot evidence, everything seems like it could be Bigfoot evidence. This is a common amateur mistake, Jones says. “I think having an experience is an exciting thing at first but after a while, when you’re sure something exists, you’ve run out of interest in experiences.”

Jones admits the cup and ball are odd finds, but the hard evidence he’s looking for eludes him. He attributes this to the animal’s primate intelligence and its high wariness of humans. Unbelievers say evidence just doesn’t exist, but Jones believes most of them simply have not reviewed the evidence. That’s why he took it upon himself to plead Bigfoot’s case.

Earlier this year Jones released his book, Tracking the Stone Man. The title is taken from the Cherokee name for the mysterious, hairy creature the tribespeople sometimes encountered in the woods. The book is part memoir. It’s also a field guide, detailing common beliefs about Bigfoot and its behaviors, with tips on running an expedition. He discusses DNA tests on alleged Bigfoot hair and scat samples and includes several witness reports, the best of the best. “I put the ones in the book I know are true.”

Jones poured two years of his life into the book, yet he knows it isn’t enough. Only one thing will ultimately prove Bigfoot exists: a dead Bigfoot. “Eventually I think that’s going to happen. A coal truck is going to go around a curve and hit it,” he says. “Then the university people are going to come out of the universities and act like they know stuff.”

If they are someday proven correct, Jones and his fellow believers will be in good company. Up until the late 1920s, many Westerners believed the giant panda was just a myth—until Teddy Roosevelt, Jr. and his brother Kermit went on an expedition to China and shot one.

But let’s admit, even if Jones will not, there is a very real chance he has spent a significant portion of his life and a large amount of money pursuing a falsehood. What will Jones have lost?

Less than you might think. Real or not, this obsession has colored Jones’ life with a rare sense of adventure. “People have this idea that we’ve explored and found all there is to find. I just don’t think that we have. Maybe it’s romantic at heart to believe there’s something left for man to discover. But I think there’s a chance.”

And when you look at it like that—who doesn’t want him to be right?

How Gillian Welch Created an Americana Touchstone in ‘Revival’

This is an excerpt of a story that first appeared online at Rolling Stone Country on November 10, 2016. Read the rest of the story here.

Early afternoons were pretty quiet at the Lyric Springs Country Inn. The previous night’s guests usually left in the morning, headed for home or into Nashville about 20 miles away. The next guests would not arrive until evening.

This gave the innkeeper – a tall, waifish 24-year-old redhead from Los Angeles – all day to make the beds, dust the oil lamps and horsehair chairs, and tend to Jubal, her boss’s 200-pound English Mastiff. That’s one reason she liked this job. With only Jubal to keep her company, the innkeeper could spend all day composing songs aloud as she mopped the floors and pruned the peony bushes.

One morning, on her 40-minute commute from Nashville, the innkeeper was listening to a cassette tape of the Stanley Brothers. She decided to write a song the Stanleys might enjoy singing in their high lonesome voices. She reached over, switched off the cassette deck, and began to sing.

“I am an orphan, on God’s highway / But I’ll share my troubles if you go my way.”

The innkeeper continued to work on the song throughout the day, her voice ringing off the wood-paneled walls of Lyric Springs’ barroom and the porcelain of its toilets.

“I have had friendships pure and golden / But the ties of kinship, I have not known them.”

The song was finished by the time she got back in her car and headed home. What started as an idea a few hours earlier now had four verses and two choruses.

“I have no mother, no father / No sister, no brother / I am an orphan girl.”

When she got home, the innkeeper grabbed a guitar and her duet partner, an equally skinny guitar picker she’d met while attending Berklee College of Music in Boston. She played him the new song, but he didn’t say anything. “I thought, ‘Oh well, he doesn’t like it.’ But he says he didn’t say anything because he thought it was perfect, so what was there to say?” she recalls.

It wouldn’t be long before many people shared the guitar picker’s opinion. This song, “Orphan Girl,” would open lots of doors. It would launch a career that would make the innkeeper one of the most beloved figures in a new music genre called “Americana.” And it would take her away from scrubbing other people’s’ toilets forever.

Casts of Character

This story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

 

The Native American hunter, all bulging muscle and sinew, lies close to his horse’s neck as the beast reaches full gallop. He clutches a flint-tipped spear in his right hand. With his left he holds a buffalo hide, draping the skin over himself and his pony.

We are witnessing a “buffalo jump,” where a disguised horseman drives a herd of bison into the path of a hunting party. In milliseconds the hide will fall away and the stunned herd will be doomed. But the climax never occurs. The whole scene is frozen in time.

This is the work of sculptor Burl Jones. He takes characters and scenes from the adventure magazines he read as a kid growing up near Charleston and—with clay, bronze, and an eye for detail—hits the pause button.

Like so many young West Virginia boys and girls, Jones spent his childhood was outdoors. He remembers thrilling over the rabbits and squirrels his father brought home after hunting trips and began accompanying his father on those trips as soon as he was old enough to hold a gun. He fantasized about the American West—the Rocky Mountains and the badlands of Montana that he read about in Jack O’Connor’s stories for Outdoor Life magazine.

Jones finally got a chance to see those landscapes himself when, after finishing dental school at West Virginia University in 1966, he went to Montana for two years to work on an Indian reservation. It was during this time in Big Sky Country that he first encountered the bronze work of renowned artist Robert Scriver, who had a gallery on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. He began seeking out other bronze artists after that, but only as an admirer. Jones had an artistic bent—he’d carved a few gunstocks, and he’d tried painting for a while until his colorblindness made the exercise too frustrating—but did not consider himself an artist. “I was intrigued by it (but) it never registered in my mind that it was something I’d do,” he says.

He returned to West Virginia in 1968 and set up a dental practice in Sissonville. His artistic impulses continued to goad him, but it wasn’t until 1980 that Jones finally tried his hand at sculpture, making little figurines from dental wax. He learned by observing other artists and asking questions, but it was largely an effort of trial and error. “Mostly error,” he says.

He tried to cast his miniature sculptures in copper and bronze, the way he was taught to make dental prostheses in dentistry school, but was not satisfied with the results. “I didn’t know enough about the casting process. I discovered if I’m going to do this, I’m going to have to enlist the aid of a professional foundry,” he says.

After a lot of shopping around, Jones finally found a foundry he liked and began having his sculptures turned into bronzes. He had no intentions to sell the pieces—sculpture was nothing more than a creative outlet at the time—but his work started attracting attention from friends and, eventually, from art galleries in Montana.

In 1982, Jones sold his dentistry practice in West Virginia and moved with his wife to Livingstone, Montana where he spent half his time tackling cavities and root canals and the other half sculpting birds, bears, horses, fish, Native American warriors, and coonskin-capped mountaineers. He eventually opened his own art gallery and, in 1992, decided to quit dentistry and give his full attention to art.

No matter what he’s making, each of Jones’s sculptures begins with in-depth research. Jones is a stickler for detail. “I’ve got shelves full of books that show profiles and dimensions on hawks and eagles. They have a certain number of feathers. They have a proportion of wing to tail to body.” For living human subjects, he’s been known to make exhaustive photographic records and even measure the person’s facial features.

Small pieces can take up to a month to sculpt, plus two or three months at the foundry. For portraiture projects, he prefers to have at least a year. To date, Jones has created more than 225 limited edition sculptures. His work is a mainstay at Tamarack, West Virginia’s art and craft showcase in Beckley, and prized by collectors who share the artist’s affinity for the outdoors. His reputation for intensely detailed work has led to larger projects including a monument outside WVU’s Alumni Center, a statue of a coal miner on the state Capitol grounds, and the bust outside Marshall University’s Joan C. Edwards Stadium commemorating players killed in the 1970 plane crash.

Jones plans to do three or four sculptures this year. Now 74, he says he doesn’t get as much time to sculpt as he’d like. He splits his time between a home in Huntley, Montana, a “medium-sized” ranch in the northeastern part of the state, and a residence back home in Kanawha County. Between his grandkids’ ballgames, marketing his work, tending to his ranch, hunting, and fishing, there’s not as much time to spend in his art studio. But sculpture remains Jones’ favorite pastime. “I could work at it every day and be happy doing it,” he says.

He’s currently finishing work on a small eagle, its wings canted and tail feathers spread as the bird turns in midair. In life, this moment would be over in a split second. But soon the sculpture will go to the foundry and the eagle—along with a small piece of its creator—will be frozen in time, forever.

A Job You Wear

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of WV Living magazine.

On June 15, 2015, elected officials, members of the public, and journalists crammed into the dark wood-paneled council chambers at Charleston City Hall to watch Kanawha Circuit Judge Todd Kaufman administer the oath of office to Mayor Danny Jones. He had been reelected just a few weeks earlier, carrying 62 percent of the vote over Democrat candidate Paul Monroe and independent challenger William Carpenter.

Although the swearing-in ceremony carried much less pomp and circumstance than a presidential or gubernatorial inauguration, it was a historic occasion for Charleston. Once Jones said “so help me God,” he officially began his fourth term as mayor, the longest tenure in city history. It was a milestone for Jones, too. With 13 years under his belt—and three more to go—he has spent more time as mayor of Charleston than at any other job in his life.  

Since he returned to his hometown after a two-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps, which included some time driving a truck in Vietnam, and a yearlong stay at Marshall University, where he studied political science, Danny Jones has worked as a bartender, bouncer, cook, waiter, gravedigger, bottled water salesman, restaurant owner, public relations man, county sheriff, state delegate, and radio talk show host, among other gigs. By his count, Jones has held 35 jobs in his 65 years.

Political opponents criticized him for this when he first ran for mayor in 2003. They said Jones, the Republican nominee, wouldn’t have the attention span necessary to run a city government. After he won that race with more than 57 percent of the vote, his Democratic opponent Chris Smith came to congratulate him and offer a word of advice. He told Jones, “I want you to stick with this.”

Little did Smith—or anyone else—realize how well the mayor’s office would fit Jones. “Some people are suited for a job, and some people aren’t. This is a job that he is more than suited for,” says Charleston Councilwoman Mary Jean Davis. “It’s one he can get out and move around, or sit behind a desk and face a challenge. He loves challenges.”

There have been lots of challenges since Jones took over. His administration has faced budget problems, legal battles, and deadly tragedies. Jones was mayor during one of the worst environmental disasters of the century—when Freedom Industries dumped thousands of gallons of industrial cleaner into the Elk River, contaminating Charleston’s water supply and leaving its residents without potable tap water for days. While some government officials shrank from the ensuing media attention, Jones rose to the occasion, giving voice to the frustrations of his residents and demanding action against the perpetrators.

There have been personal struggles, too, which were often lived out in the local media. During his time in office Jones has been married, had two young sons, got divorced, battled prostate cancer, and dealt with the multiple drug-related arrests of his eldest son Zac, who was 13 when his father took office. While he might not have handled all these challenges perfectly, he has earned a reputation for addressing any situation with unwavering candor. “The one thing I like about Mayor Jones is, I know where I stand. He is honest and direct with his thoughts,” Davis says. “It’s politically incorrect, but it works.”

This is Jones’ modus operandi. “What else is there but the truth? The truth is to be used. The reason we don’t get to the bottom of issues is because people won’t tell the truth,” he says. It’s difficult to believe such a figure exists in our cynical age: a politician who speaks the truth for truth’s sake. You might even be inclined to believe he’s lying, but Jones is not blowing smoke. He’s not that kind of politician. He’s a mayor.

Occupying the space

Most mornings you can find Jones at the only Starbucks in city limits, located in the center court of the Charleston Town Center mall. He reads the newspaper over a small breakfast: a cup of coffee, a PowerBar, and maybe a pastry from the counter. Jones says he comes here to look at women. True to his politically incorrect nature, the mayor is a notorious flirt. But that’s just a bit of his barroom days showing through. Sit and talk with him, and you begin to see what is really on his mind.

Sitting on a stiff couch at a shopping mall coffee shop, Jones is surrounded by his city. He often stops mid-sentence to shout a greeting to a federal judge, lawyer, police officer, journalist, or taxi driver. Sometimes he greets people he doesn’t know. The strangers inevitably return the greeting. Jones calls this “occupying the space,” a concept he picked up from a political science professor at West Virginia State University, where he took a few classes while serving as Kanawha County Sheriff. “You’re mayor every moment you’re awake,” he says. “It’s not a job you work. It’s a job you wear.”

Danny Jones is a performer. During his time as county sheriff, he acted in local productions of Li’l Abner, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, The Music Man, and Annie Get Your Gun, which also featured a young Jennifer Garner. He considers playing the titular character in Abner the highlight of his life—besides, of course, his children. What was the attraction? “The power. You’re onstage. There’s 750 people in the audience and you can raise your eyebrows and they start laughing.”

But having your name perpetually on a marquee isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Jones’ insistence on wearing his job and occupying his space often causes his critics to attack the man as much as his decisions. Not long after taking office, Jones pushed for a $1-per-week user fee on anyone who worked within city limits. The fee generated $2.5 million in its first year, money the city used to pave roads, hire maintenance workers, and put more than 20 new officers on its police force. Yet many people—particularly those who worked in Charleston but lived elsewhere—balked at the fee. Some still have not forgiven Jones for dipping into their paychecks. Back then, commenters on local news websites gave him the disparaging nickname “Dollar Danny.” The name stuck and still gets regular use in some circles today.

But perhaps nothing has drawn more anger than Jones’ efforts to stop a 2014 state law that repealed all municipal weapons bans on city-owned properties. The mayor lobbied hard against the legislation, publicly calling on lawmakers to kill the bill. His efforts drew vicious criticism from gun rights supporters, and he eventually gave up the fight. “I don’t really fault them at all. I was basically a strawman. It was a tactic,” he says. “But nobody was there to help me. I was fighting that battle alone. I didn’t want to spend my last few years fighting something I cannot win.”

Either of these episodes, spun in the right way by opponents, could have ended his political career. Fighting to raise taxes and ban guns certainly would not work well for most candidates running on a Republican ticket. And yet he remains unrepentant about the battles he has picked even when, as with the gun ban controversy, he lost. He says being mayor brings you “nose to nose” with issues that affect your community—leaving little time for blind partisanship. Nanya Friend, former editor and publisher of the conservative Charleston Daily Mail newspaper who has followed Jones throughout his political career, knows what he means. “When you’re running a city it’s hard to be a pure ideologue, because of the issues that come up,” she says. “When you’re dealing with gun crime on the West Side, or need to make sure kids are safe in community centers, you get a different point of view.”

Amazingly, Jones’ habit of following his gut instead of the party line does not seem to have hurt him politically. If anything, it might have helped. Councilwoman Davis says this is because city politics are decidedly nonpartisan. “If you asked me to tell you who is a Democrat or Republican, I’d have to stop and think. When you come to the city level, you’re working for your neighborhoods. You’re working to make your city stronger. You don’t have time to think about who is what,” she says. “You don’t stay in office unless people feel you have the passion and they’re seeing change.”

Davis, for the record, is a Democrat. She was elected in 1999 and served for four years with Mayor Jay Goldman before Jones took office. “When I first went into City Hall, there was an area where there were hundreds of plans. Each administration makes its own plans of what it would like to see in Charleston,” she says. The plans in that room had never come to fruition. There’s only so much a mayor can accomplish in one term—and Charleston voters only allowed one of the five mayors before Jones to serve a second term. “Inevitably, what you have is a lot of plans gathering dust,” Davis says.

There aren’t many plans gathering dust now. Jones says he originally planned to end his mayoral career in 2011. But as he approached the end of his second term, he started to rethink his decision. “I thought eight (years) would be enough. But … there’s so many things that couldn’t have been done.”

Making a mark

Driving into Charleston at night, heading east on Interstate 64, the first thing that will catch your eye is the gilded dome of the West Virginia State Capitol. If it’s a summer night, another very impressive structure will come into view just seconds later. Appalachian Power Park is home of the Charleston Power, a Pittsburgh Pirates farm team. Their games are a favorite social occasion for Charlestonians of all stripes, even those who don’t really like baseball.

But Appalachian Power Park almost didn’t happen. Early on, the project was incredibly unpopular. According to a Charleston Gazette article at the time, a poll found 75 percent of voters opposed the new park. Democrat mayoral candidate Chris Smith promised in his 2003 campaign to divert the $12 million state lawmakers set aside for the project to other needs like sewer system upgrades or a new library. Jones also expressed doubts about the project, but promised to see it completed. Over the following two years his administration oversaw the demolition of an old factory and grocery store on the site, and dealt with lawsuits that temporarily tied up the state funding. In the end, a modern, $23 million complex rose on the city’s East End and Power Park opened just in time for the 2005 baseball season. “It’s one of those amenities that make Charleston a better place to live,” Jones says. “It makes everything look better.” Now businesses and apartments are moving into a side of town that once contained little more than abandoned warehouses.

As you leave the ballpark, make your way toward the Kanawha River and turn right on Kanawha Boulevard. After a few blocks, you’ll spot another spectacular bit of architecture: Haddad Riverfront Park. What began as a simple concrete amphitheater along the Kanawha River is now covered with a sweeping white canopy, a little reminiscent of the Sydney Opera House. Down front, the stage has its own arching canopy, designed to look like the paddlewheel of the sternwheeler boats that once frequented the adjacent waterway.

This park is also a monument to Jones’ tenacity. In 2008 he secured $2.4 million in federal earmarks from then-Senator Robert C. Byrd to build the roof at Haddad, which paved the way for additional donations from local philanthropists. The park, where spectators once blistered in the sun, is now the centerpiece of almost every summertime celebration in Charleston’s downtown.

By the beginning of 2018, Jones hopes to have completed another ambitious improvement project for the city. Workers have begun construction on a nearly $100 million revamp of the city’s Civic Center, largely funded by a half-cent sales tax passed by City Council in October 2013. It’s a project he has wanted to tackle since he first took office. “When I was in a show (in the Little Theater) in 1986, I was performing and the lights went out. It was a worn facility and needed work,” he says. “We don’t know how many events we lost, but we lost some.”

Now the aging, utilitarian Civic Center will be updated with a towering glass façade and an overhanging roof, a stylishly updated interior, and an outdoor plaza along the Elk River. Jones believes the project will attract bigger conventions and other events to the city, which will boost the local economy as a whole. “I’ve been in some world-class venues and I think this is definitely going to be one,” he says.

There have been other big changes since Jones took office. Businesses are growing on the city’s East End and West Side. Capitol Street in the heart of downtown was once a derelict row of boarded-up storefronts with a bad reputation; now it’s the city’s main cultural thoroughfare. But the accomplishment Jones is most proud of—the thing he hopes will define his legacy as mayor—is something you can’t see. It’s something visitors, as well as most residents, will never consider. “Barney Frank once told me you never get credit for what you prevent,” he says.

In 2009, the Pew Charitable Trusts named Charleston as one of worst cities in America for unfunded pension liabilities. At the time, the city had  saved only a quarter of the $270 million it owed in firefighter and police pensions. Jones knew that kind of debt could bankrupt a city—pension debts are what drove Detroit, Michigan into economic disaster—so he began looking for ways to pay down the debt. The city instituted hiring freezes on its fire and police departments, then made deep cuts to the city budget in 2010, removing across-the-board raises for city employees for the first time since Jones took office. In 2015, the city instituted a half-percent sales tax, expected to generate $13 million a year by 2029. Although the city still has hundreds of millions in pension debts on the books, Charleston is now on track to have its accounts settled within 25 years.

Jones did not tackle any of these challenges alone, and he admits that. He’s proud to have built a team of smart people who know how to get things done. But he can be credited for creating an environment where good things can thrive. “Like him or not, you have to respect that he wants to push Charleston and make it move forward,” Davis says. Ric Cavender, executive director of Charleston Main Streets, says this will be the legacy of Jones’ administration. “He’s somebody that’s up for new ideas. His vision will have a residual effect. These aren’t changes that will go away.” Friend, of the Daily Mail, agrees. “I’m not sure I’d want to be his successor.”

Vacating the space

Danny Jones’ great-great-grandfather, Henry Clay Dickinson, was the sixth mayor of Charleston. His administration has only one notable accomplishment: Dickinson was the city’s shortest-serving mayor, lasting only a month in office before he unexpectedly died.

Dickinson’s great-great-grandson is now the city’s longest-serving mayor. But he has no intention of dying in office. When Jones announced he would seek a fourth term as mayor, he made it clear it would also be his final term. Will he change his mind? “That ain’t gonna happen. We need to have younger people in these positions,” he says.

He believes leaving office in 2019 is best for the city. But you also get the feeling the job is wearing thin for Jones. He finds being mayor an inherently lonely job. “It is, by nature, selfish. You have to base everything around yourself because that’s whose name is on the line.”

In the meantime, Jones is content. In January, he made his return to local airwaves as the host of “580 Live with Danny Jones,” an hour-long news talk show on AM station WCHS. On a snowy morning in February, he arrives at the station a few minutes before the start of the show. He exits his black Toyota and heads into the building without feeding the parking meter. The blue and yellow “Danny Jones, Charleston Mayor” sticker on his rear bumper ensures he won’t be ticketed.

Inside, Jones makes small talk with the receptionist and says hello to news director Jeff Jenkins before stepping into the subterranean broadcast studio. He carries no notes or other preparatory material other than the newspaper he had at Starbucks earlier in the morning. “When I go on the air, I never know what I’m going to talk about,” he says.

He has no difficulty filling the silence. In the radio studio, Jones is animated behind the microphone. He shakes his head, swivels in his chair, and talks with his hands. He muses about the recent death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia and the U.S. Senate’s promise to block any appointee from the Obama administration. He talks about the sentencing of executives from Freedom Industries. Owner Dennis Farrell and CEO Gary Southern each received 30 days in jail, while other officials got probation. “They should’ve gotten a lot more time,” Jones tells radio listeners. “The damage those people did to this community is incalculable when you think about it. Three hundred thousand people were affected by what they did … and it lasted for days and days and days.”

He also talks about the political battles being fought at the State Capitol a few miles away. Jones, who served two years in the House of Delegates before leaving to run a barbecue restaurant full-time, says the state is in the worst financial shape he’s seen. He criticizes lawmakers—of both parties—for not doing more to fix it. “This is conviction-driven government. They have no new taxes. That is what they believe,” he says. “Where’s the money going to come from?”

Jones holds up Charleston as a model of effective government, touting his town as “a sea of certainty.” “A place where we give great service. A place that has good finances, unlike the rest of the state. I’m so glad we planned for 13 years. We put things in order. We did things the way they needed to be done,” he says. But he doesn’t spend too much time congratulating himself—he wants to hear from listeners.

Throughout the hour Jones asks again and again for calls. Two people phone in wanting to talk about medical marijuana. Jones isn’t against the idea, but is skeptical state lawmakers would legalize pot. Someone else calls in to ask why the city hasn’t sued over the Freedom Industries spill. “Can I answer that? We have,” he says.

He continues pushing listeners to call in. He wants something to sink his teeth into. Danny Jones wants a challenge. “We’ll take your calls and talk about any issue you want to talk about,” he hums into the microphone as the show draws to a close. “We have about four minutes left if you’d like to call the show. We’d like to hear from you if you’d like to ask me anything. You know, I am the mayor.”

Late Edition

This story was originally published in the September/October 2015 issue of West Virginia Focus magazine.

GZAround 3 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, the newsroom staffs of the Charleston Daily Mail and Charleston Gazette were called to the front lobby of their shared headquarters at 1001 Virginia Street East in downtown Charleston. Employees immediately knew something strange was happening. Although situated on opposite sides of the same hallway, the newsrooms seldom had contact with one another—and certainly did not hold mid-Sunday afternoon meetings by the front door.

Workers walked down the stairs from their second-floor offices and stood around the perimeter of the high-ceilinged lobby. Only about 30 people were in attendance. The newsrooms ran bare-bones staffs on Sundays, mostly just the sports departments along with copydesk staff, who edit stories and design the next day’s paper.

When everyone was assembled, recently named Gazette publisher Susan Chilton Shumate spoke up with an announcement: Effective immediately, everyone worked for the same publication, the Charleston Gazette-Mail. The brand-new publication would go to press in just a few hours. After more than 100 years as fierce competitors, the Gazette and Daily Mail were no more.

A flurry of confused activity consumed the newsrooms, according to several employees who spoke with West Virginia Focus. They asked not to be named, for fear of losing their jobs. Both papers had been planning their respective Monday editions since the week before—now Daily Mail editors had to send each story and photo to the Gazette. Daily Mail copy editors went to the Gazette newsroom to help lay out the paper but had trouble accessing the computers since they did not have log-ins for the Gazette’s system. Someone cobbled together a new Gazette-Mail flag for the top of the front page. Charley West, the cartoon punster who had appeared in every issue of the Daily Mail since 1958, was nowhere to be found.

Copies of the reborn newspaper arrived on newsstands and doorsteps Monday morning. The front page featured a story about a domestic violence pilot program from crime reporter Tyler Bell, of the former Daily Mail, and a story about the Public Service Commission of West Virginia by business reporter Andrew Brown of the late Gazette. Both were listed as “staff writers.” A photo spread of public murals took up the middle of the page—although copy editors, in their haste, had forgotten to include an accompanying story by Gazette city reporter Rachel Molenda.

But the big news on that Monday’s front page—the “play” story, as it is called in newspaper lingo—does not feature a byline. The headline simply reads: “Announcing the Charleston Gazette-Mail.”

The text of the article was the same as an email sent to staffers around 5 p.m. Sunday. The statement also was published online around 8 p.m. Sunday night. “Beginning today, the two newspapers are combining newsroom functions with the exception of editorial page content,” it read. “Welcome to the Charleston Gazette- Mail.”

The story assured readers the new Gazette-Mail would retain two independent editorial pages—a conservative Daily Mail page and liberal Gazette page—and the new, larger staff would be able to cover more news than ever before. “This is not one paper gobbling up the other. It is a combination of the two newsroom staffs working in cooperation to produce the most comprehensive news product in West Virginia.” What the story did not mention was the interesting timing of this change.

Paper Route

The Gazette and Daily Mail had shared the same printing press, advertising, circulation, and business operations under a joint operating agreement established in 1958, but the newsrooms had remained independent. The Daily Gazette Company owned the Gazette, while MediaNews owned the Daily Mail. Each company held a 50-percent stake in Charleston Newspapers—the legal name for their joint operations—until 2004 when MediaNews sold the Daily Mail to the Daily Gazette Company for a reported $55 million.

The deal drew scrutiny from the federal government, and in 2007 the U.S. Justice Department filed an antitrust suit alleging the Daily Gazette Company “planned to deliberately transform a financially healthy and stable Daily Mail into a failing newspaper and close it.” Three years later U.S. District Judge John Copenhaver issued a final judgment in the case, requiring that the Daily Mail remain a daily newspaper and returning control of the paper to MediaNews Group. No changes could be made to this arrangement without federal approval for as long as the judgment was in effect. Copenhaver set the ruling to expire five years from the date it was issued: July 19, 2010. It seems no one outside the newspapers’ upper management noticed as the fifth anniversary approached.

In the meantime, the world became an increasingly inhospitable place for newspapers. Especially after the Great Recession, publications all over the country folded as a result of diminishing advertising revenues and faltering subscription numbers. Charleston’s newspapers were not immune.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I spent five and a half years working at the Daily Mail, leaving in January 2015 to become managing editor of West Virginia Focus. During my final months at the Daily Mail I watched as the company made efforts to cut costs, raise revenues, and shore up its finances. Some of these changes were relatively small, like replacing expensive comic strips with less expensive ones. Others were more pronounced.

In January 2014, the Daily Mail sold its longtime domain name, www.dailymail.com, to the Daily Mail of London. The much larger London newspaper had coveted the web address for years, and the sale netted Charleston Newspapers around $1.6 million, according to news reports from the time. In October 2014, the Daily Mail and Gazette increased their newsstand prices from 50 cents to 75 cents Monday through Saturday, and from $1.50 to $2 for the Sunday paper. The newspapers also began producing joint editions for holidays. Subscribers received combined papers on Thanksgiving and Christmas 2014 as well as on New Year’s Day and Memorial Day 2015.

The company got rid of its in-house custodial staff, allowing some of those workers to move to other departments, and began contracting with an outside company for janitorial services. In January 2015, employees were required to begin using a new time clock and automated payroll system, which the company installed to replace its retired payroll clerk. Charleston Newspapers also switched to a thinner-weight newsprint in early 2015. This initially caused some headaches, as the paper had a tendency to break while passing through the printing press, leading to multiple delivery delays.

But the biggest indicator of Charleston Newspapers’ financial distress would not be made public until 10 days after the merger was announced, when the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corporation (PBGC) filed a federal lien against the company. It turns out Charleston Newspapers had fallen behind in payments to the PBGC to the tune of $1.34 million. So as the clock counted down on Copenhaver’s final judgment, executives had begun eyeing the company’s biggest cost-saving measure of all: combining the two papers.

Press Release

At 3 p.m. Monday, July 20, staff members of the newly combined paper gathered in a conference room to hear from top executives and editors about the future of the company. A staffer who attended the meeting provided West Virginia Focus with an audio recording. Shumate began with a brief statement, echoing the story in that morning’s paper. “We’re not losing one newspaper … we’re combining them together to make the best possible news product we can for this area, for this size paper.” She said the new, combined newsroom would be “considerably larger,” allowing reporters to write “deeper stories” and “take a different or more creative look.”

But Shumate made clear there would not be enough room for all existing employees. At the time of the merger the Daily Mail had around 33 full-time positions while the Gazette had 44 employees. The newly combined newsroom would only have room for 67 people. Every member of the newsroom staff—with the exception of former Gazette executive editor Rob Byers and former Daily Mail editor and publisher Brad McElhinny—would have to reapply for his or her job. The newspaper would offer severance packages for those who chose not to reapply and those who were not rehired.

McElhinny encouraged employees to view this as a positive step. “If you feel stuck in a beat or stuck in a role, there are going to be new opportunities,” he said. “This is not newsroom versus newsroom. This is, I swear, an attempt to find the best possible personnel moving forward.”

About halfway through the meeting, staffers began to ask questions about the merger. One asked why the change was so abrupt. “There’s no real easy way to do something like this,” said Trip Shumate, president and chief financial officer of Charleston Newspapers and Susan Shumate’s husband.

Another staffer asked how long the merger had been in the works. No one answered. Susan Shumate only said, “It’s a necessity. I know that’s not the answer. But unfortunately now, it’s an economic reality.” She said the company planned to send out a press release to “make a positive spin” on the situation. The statement drew a few rueful laughs—the papers were usually in the business of deciphering “spin,” not publishing it.

The meeting did little to allay some staff members’ concerns about the future of their jobs. For some, it seemed to add insult to injury. “They didn’t have answers to legitimate questions,” said one former Daily Mail reporter following the meeting. “There’s just so many I-don’t-knows.”

But others were optimistic, excited about what a larger newsroom might be able to accomplish. In their minds a larger staff would give reporters freedom to cover stories they couldn’t before, give copy editors more time to work on pages, and make photographers’ schedules a little less hectic. “I think the Gazette-Mail is in a position to do great things,” one editor said.

In the intervening weeks, the two staffs grew steadily more comfortable working together. The copy desk staffs divvied up pages, while editors worked together to assign stories. Erstwhile Daily Mail reporters went on assignment with former Gazette photographers, while former Daily Mail photographers shot photos for ex-Gazette reporters.

The competition between the two papers did not completely cease, however. Although they were no longer jockeying for stories, staffers were now competing for jobs. Some employees cranked into overdrive, determined to prove themselves before the rehiring process was over. “It’s easy to spot somebody that’s going to an interview,” one staffer said. “They’re dressed better than they have been all summer.” Others became listless. Suddenly unsure of their roles in the newsroom, their bylines began appearing less and less frequently.

Employee interviews began on Monday, August 10, conducted in the same conference room where employees first learned about the rehiring process. Tables were arranged to resemble a capital letter I. Shumate, Byers, and McElhinny sat at one end with large binders full of resumes. Employees sat at the opposite end. One employee said the three-judge panel reminded her ofAmerican Idol.

Each interview took around 15 minutes. McElhinny or Byers led the conversation, depending on which newsroom the employee came from. They asked why the employee wanted the job and quizzed them about their work experience. Shumate mostly remained silent, staffers said, only occasionally chiming in with a question. Almost every employee West Virginia Focus interviewed described his or her interview using the same word: “awkward.”

Some opted to avoid the process altogether. Like several employees, Gazette reporter Rusty Marks opted to take severance. He spent more than a few sleepless nights mulling his options. “I’ve been at the Gazette more than half my life,” he says. “I had intended to retire from the Charleston Gazette. I’d say it’s one of the four toughest decisions I’ve had to make in my life.”

But Marks, 50, says he expects the newspaper will see more layoffs in the near future. “I just wasn’t willing to take the chance the paper would still be around in some kind of form I could live with in 15 more years,” he says. “I don’t want to be 55 or 60, laid off, and much more unemployable.”

Although he knew there was a chance he would be laid off, Daily Mail photographer Bob Wojcieszak wasn’t too worried. He’d first arrived at the newspaper in the early 1990s and had proved himself as a more than capable photographer. His photo essay about a local homeless shelter won Best Photo Feature at the 2015 West Virginia Press Association awards ceremony, held August 15.

But when Wojcieszak arrived at work on Tuesday, August 18 he quickly noticed something was amiss. He tried to log onto the paper’s computer system to check his assignments for the day but couldn’t. He rebooted the computer and tried to log on again. This time there was an error message. “It said my account had been deleted,” he says.

A few minutes later he received a call on his cell phone. It was Crystal McIntyre, Charleston Newspapers’ human resources director. She instructed him to report immediately to her office. “There’s Crystal, and Susan, and Rob, and Brad. Basically, they told me I didn’t ‘fit their vision.’ Whatever that means.”

Wojcieszak was asked to forfeit his parking garage keycard and key to the photo lab. McIntyre offered to escort him from the building and box up his possessions later. He balked. “They weren’t even going to let me say goodbye to anyone.” Wojcieszak walked back to the newsroom, shook a few hands, and collected his things. He already had everything packed up, assuming he would have to move to the Gazette newsroom sometime soon. His recent West Virginia Press Association award was still lying on the desk.

Reporter Tyler Bell learned of the layoffs over the phone. He got a call that morning from the newspaper but ignored it. Then his girlfriend, a copy editor in the former Daily Mail newsroom, called and said she was let go. Bell realized what the missed call was probably about. He called back and reached McIntyre, who put McElhinny on the phone. “I just start laughing because I know what’s coming,” Bell says. His time at the Daily Mail had ended after only seven months.

In all, seven people were laid off, including four employees from the former Gazette newsroom and three from the Daily Mail. An additional eight opted to take severance or left for other jobs, while three—the Daily Mail’s Charlotte Smith and Craig Cunningham, as well as Paul Nyden from the Gazette—decided to retire. All told, the rehiring process cost the Gazette-Mail 18 staffers.

West Virginia Focus asked Shumate for comment after the rehiring process was completed. She declined our request for an interview but sent a press release that also appeared in the Friday, August 21 newspaper. “Unfortunately, we said goodbye to a number of employees who were talented, dedicated members of our newspaper family,” she wrote. “The Gazette- Mail will miss them.” Shumate also repeated her assurances the combined papers would “provide deeper, stronger local coverage.”

Hard News

Rob Rabe has heard all this before. “The hair on the back of my neck always stands up when I hear publishers talk about streamlining and efficiency,” says Rabe, a journalism professor at Marshall University who specializes in the history of American newspapers. “That’s what they always say when one of these happens. Then a year, two, three years out, that doesn’t always happen.”

When papers merge, Rabe says, it’s common for publishers to tout a bigger, better paper. But as advertising and circulation continue to decline, it usually isn’t long before another round of layoffs. “I’ll be surprised if in three or four or five years the combined newsroom isn’t substantially smaller. That’s the way it seems to go,” he says.

Democratic political consultant Tom Susman says he feels the Gazette-Mail is living up to Shumate’s promises, so far. “It appears the paper’s thicker, there’s more content in it. It seems like they’re maintaining a writing staff and covering more stories.” But Susman, also a former newspaperman, predicts it will be more difficult to pitch stories. In the past, if one paper didn’t bite on a story, there was a good chance the competition would. Now, you get one shot. Conrad Lucas, chairman of the state Republican Party, wonders how the newspaper will handle political endorsements in the coming election year, with the newspaper’s dueling opinion pages. “Is every candidate going to be endorsed by the Gazette-Mail?”

There is some effort to postpone the inevitable. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey is now pursuing a possible suit against Charleston Newspapers, alleging executives violated Copenhaver’s judgment by planning the merger while the judgment was still in effect. “This conduct, if proved, is a violation of the Antitrust Act,” Morrisey wrote in a petition filed in Putnam County Circuit Court on Aug. 13. The attorney general asked the court to cease “further merging” of the newspapers until the company complies with his subpoena. At press time, judges have not taken any action on Morrisey’s request.

It’s difficult to imagine what “further merging” might be left. All around Charleston, at gas stations and fast food restaurants, it is common to see two newspaper vending boxes sitting side by side. There’s a blue one for the Gazette and a green one for the Daily Mail. For years, the newspapers in these boxes often looked extremely different. There were different stories on each front page, different photos, different bylines. Now the boxes are sometimes filled with the same newspaper, but most often one box— usually the green one—is left empty.

This is the unfortunate history of American newspapers. It’s a story that has played out again and again throughout the country, in Cleveland, Denver, Seattle, Tuscon, and innumerable smaller cities and towns. As with most things, the news just took a little longer to reach West Virginia.

A Boy and His Bird

This story originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of Wonderful West Virginia magazine.

For more than a millennium, people in Japan and China have used aquatic birds called cormorants to help them catch fish. Fishermen tie hemp snares around a trained bird’s throat so that, when the animal dives into the water after its prey, big fish remain stuck in its gullet. The fisherman then brings the bird back onto his boat and makes it spit up the trapped fish.

In West Africa, the Boran people of Ethiopia have for centuries worked alongside a bird known as the greater honeyguide. The bird leads tribespeople to honeybee nests using its calls and flight patterns. After the humans smoke the bees away and rob the honey, the bird gets to eat the leftover wax and insect larvae.

In Randolph County, West Virginia, Collin Waybright and his red tailed hawk Ace have been hunting together for about a year. Ace flies from tree to tree as Collin walks below. “He knows I’m going to flush something out,” Collin says. When a critter eventually does emerge from the underbrush, Ace dives from his perch and—usually before Collin knows what is going on—overtakes the prey and quickly dispatches it with the crushing grip and razor-sharp tips of his talons.

This bird isn’t much interested in fish or honeybee larvae. He prefers to hunt chipmunks, although he and Collin caught their first grey squirrel together last November. Ace once caught a king blacksnake, too, which gave Collin quite a scare. “They’ll take anything they can catch. You never know what you’re going to get if you go hunting with a hawk,” he says. “It’s never a boring time.”

Never boring and almost always successful. Collin says Ace catches something almost every time he goes into the woods—which is more than any other hunter can say for his prized shotgun or rifle. This is probably why ancient humans got the idea of hunting with birds in the first place. “I think at some point early man realized these birds were catching the quarry he himself was pursuing,” says Matthew Frey, co-founder of the West Virginia Falconry Club.

The origins of falconry are hazy. The practice likely goes back before the written word, but historians know the Mongols practiced falconry between five and six thousand years ago. It spread throughout Asia and the Middle East—there is even a mention of the sport in the Quran—but did not take hold in Europe until the Crusades, becoming extremely popular during the Renaissance period.

It was more than an entertainment, however. “Way back when, it was a viable way of bringing meat,” says master falconer Paul Fowler. Reliable firearms were not available until the 1700s and even then the weapons were not very efficient or accurate. “Even then, falconry was one of the only reliable ways to take winged prey,” Paul says.

The sport declined in popularity as weapons improved. It is relatively obscure today, with only a few thousand licensed falconers in the United States and fewer than 20 falconers in West Virginia. Matthew says he has seen increased interest in falconry over the last few years, but he also knows the sport likely will not and maybe should not become totally mainstream. “It’s really not for everybody. And, in fact, the people that are successful are a small, esoteric few,” he says. “You really have to be an expert in it, and to be an expert you have to be passionate about it.”

At 15 years old Collin is, as far as he knows, the youngest falconer in the state. He got his apprentice falconer’s license when he was 14, after being introduced to the sport at West Virginia’s Celebration of National Hunting and Fishing Days at Stonewall Resort State Park. At an age when most boys his age are thinking about learner’s permits, Collin began the long process of becoming a licensed falconer.

West Virginia law requires beginning falconers to pass a huge multiple-choice test and have all their equipment inspected by the Division of Natural Resources. Applicants must then spend two years under the tutelage of a more experienced falconer. Collin didn’t know any falconers when he started but contacted the DNR and found, as luck would have it, there was a guy about 10 minutes away who could help him get started—Paul Fowler.

Once he passed his test and had all the necessary equipment, Paul helped his apprentice catch his first bird. State regulations only allow apprentices to hunt with red tailed hawks or American kestrels, and each student must catch their own hunting birds.

Paul loaned Collin a Swedish goshawk trap. The device features a hinged A-frame design so when it is set, the sides stand straight up to expose a bait animal in a special compartment at the bottom of the trap. When a bird swoops down after the bait, the sides of the A-frame snap together and enclose the raptor.

In early January 2015, Collin and Paul dropped the trap along a back road and drove away, hoping a bird of prey would come along and be hungry enough to take the bait. When they returned a short time later, the trap was closed. Collin’s pulse quickened but he tried not to get his hopes up. “I thought the trap had been blown shut or something. We drove closer, and there he was.”

Inside the box was a red tailed hawk—the bird soon to be known as Ace.

He was a little on the small side and missing one of his toes, likely from a bad encounter with some would-be prey. Paul helped Collin put a hood on the hawk to calm the bird down, then taped Ace’s legs together and wrapped a towel over his wings to keep him from hurting himself or someone else. Back at Collin’s house they placed the hawk in the eight-foot-square “mew” Collin and his dad built to house the bird, and hooked anklets and a leash to his feet.

Collin and Ace began training the next day. The first step was to get Ace to eat from Collin’s glove, a way to establish trust. Food is the only thing that motivates a bird of prey. Raptors used for falconry do not desire the approval of their human partners, and do not consider hunting as a means of play. This means falconers must keep an extremely close eye on their birds’ weight and food intake, keeping them hungry enough to cooperate but not so hungry they become malnourished.

Once Collin earned Ace’s trust—and established himself as a reliable source of food—it was on to the next step: getting Ace to jump from his perch onto Collin’s leather glove. The more they practiced the farther Collin moved from the perch, giving Ace the confidence to jump longer distances. Soon they moved this exercise outside the mew. With Ace attached to a creance—a cord falconers attach to their birds’ feet to keep them from flying away during training—Collin started jumping the little hawk from 50 feet away, then slowly progressed to 150 feet. Once he was comfortably flying 150 feet to Collin’s fist, it was time to give Ace his first free flight.

Collin walked to a field near his home with Ace firmly planted on his gauntlet. It had been only two weeks since Collin first trapped Ace, and he was nervous about what would happen once he allowed the bird to take off on his own, with no tethers on its feet. “It was nerve-wracking. Some people’s birds just up and go.”

Standing with his arms and legs apart, Collin turned at his waist and stretched his arm toward Ace’s target—a large trailer filled with hay bales. The bird took off, fast. The tracking bells on his feet jingled as his wings flapped, and in a few seconds Ace was perched atop one of the bales. Collin blew two sharp chirps on his whistle and Ace came off the perch, soared across the snowy ground, and lighted back on Collin’s forearm.

His nerves dissolved into a heady rush. He repeated the exercise a few more times, and each time Ace found his perch before returning gracefully to Collin’s arm. It wasn’t long before they took these newfound skills into the woods. There is a video on Collin’s Facebook page, showing him flushing an animal from a big brush pile with a large stick. Ace sits atop the heap with his eyes peeled for movement. In an instant, he drops off his branch and onto the ground—his talons wrapped around a chipmunk.

The power dynamic is fascinating. We humans are so used to being at the top of the food chain and yet, when Collin goes hunting with ace, he is mostly relegated to the sidelines. He is the bird’s assistant—and it’s exhilarating. “I have this relationship with this wild animal that not very many people get to have. He actually comes to me when I call him,” he says. “And you’re hunting with it. You’re working with it cooperatively.”

Falconry creates a unique, rewarding relationship between birds and mankind, but it’s nothing like most relationships humans forge with animals. Although they work closely together, Ace does not seek Collin’s approval and does not express love. Some days Ace will allow Collin to pet him but on other days he’s skittish and does not want to be touched. Some days he’s ready to hunt. Other days he’s not interested. “They’re always going to be wild, no matter how long you’re with them.”

But the boy and his bird do share a special bond. The longer Collin hunts with Ace, the more he understands his hunting partner. “You figure out how it thinks.” Collin believes Ace is learning about him, too. He has seen the way the hawk reacts to his body language and emotions. Ace is learning how Collin thinks, too. “He trusts me.”

* * *

As we were readying this story for publication, I got a call from Collin’s mother Marsha. “I have some bad news,” she told me. Just a few days after our interview, Collin found Ace on the floor of his mew, dead. “It looked like he had just dropped. My heart just sank to my stomach,” Collin says.

There were few signs the hawk was sick. He was a little sluggish a few days before but seemed fine otherwise. “He had performed awesome. He was coming to the fist even before I whistled,” Collin says. Then all at once Ace stopped eating and wouldn’t hop on Collin’s glove.

The family called the West Virginia Raptor Rehabilitation Center in Fairmont for help, and made arrangements for Ace to see one of the center’s veterinarians if his health did not improve. The hawk took a turn for the worse before that could happen, however. Collin is still working with the center to figure out what killed Ace but they believe it could have been a congenital condition. His time with Collin might have even lengthened his life—captivity has been known to double or even triple the average lifespan of red tailed hawks.

Ace’s death hasn’t affected Collin’s interest in falconry. He plans to get another bird, he just doesn’t know when. “It’s just part of the sport. You get a bird and you like it and you keep it, it’s going to happen eventually.”

But that doesn’t make losing Ace, his first bird, any easier. This was the animal whose willing cooperation inducted Colin into a fellowship that predates recorded history. But more than that, Ace was a huge part of Collin’s everyday routine. “It’s a way of life. You’ve got to plan everything around the bird,” he says. “I’m having a hard time just believing he’s gone.”

 

 

The curious case of Sherlock Holmes and the Norwood Building Inspectors

This story was originally published Jan. 3, 2013 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

In a mostly empty room off the South Charleston Public Library’s DVD section, Nye Clinton stretched his arms across a plastic folding table and gripped the edge for dear life.

He was trying to determine if a cleaver-wielding attacker could cut his thumb off.

Short on props, Clinton used the table as a stand-in for a windowsill. He reasoned that if a man was dangling from a window and gripped the inside of the sill, his thumbs would be completely exposed to his assailant.

“If you’re on the inside, your thumb’s a perfect shot,” he said.

Other members of the Norwood Building Inspectors – that’s what members of Charleston’s Sherlock Holmes society call themselves – disagreed.

They reasoned the dangling man likely would be hanging from the outside of the window, leaving his fingers, but not his thumbs, exposed to an attacker’s blade. Perhaps, they reasoned, Dr. Watson was confused about the details when it came time to report “The Adventure of the Engineer’s Thumb.”

Fletcher Adkins sided with Clinton, however. He pointed out that in Victorian architecture, windowsills were quite wide.

“That would lay his hand out across it, as if it were on a cutting board,” he said.

There are other problems with Dr. Watson’s account of the mystery, however, and none escaped the scrutinizing eyes of the Building Inspectors.

“The Engineer’s Thumb,” first published in The Strand magazine in 1892, chronicles the adventure of a young engineer recruited by a mysterious German to do maintenance work on his hydraulic press in Berkshire, about 60 miles west of London. The German turns out to be a counterfeiter who tries to kill the engineer with a cleaver once the young man discovers the true nature of his work.

The engineer escapes with his life but without one of his thumbs, and he returns to London to recount his strange tale to Dr. Watson and Sherlock Holmes.

“They’re having a little discussion, and obviously he’s bleeding through his handkerchief, and Watson isn’t concerned,” said Mille Clinton, Nye’s wife.

Bill Crockett scoffed at the hour of the young man’s appointment with Dr. Watson.

“I can’t imagine getting a doctor at 7 in the morning,” he said.

Crockett also was concerned with Watson’s initial prescription of brandy and water.

“We imagine most doctors would recommend a hot drink, rather than alcohol,” he said.

“My Irish grandmother cured everything with a whiskey tonic,” Crockett’s wife, Bunny, added.

You may have deduced that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock’s creator, is not mentioned very often in these gatherings. That’s because “Sherlockians” like the Building Inspectors prefer to imagine Doyle did not write the stories, but instead served as Watson’s literary agent.

It’s a game played by Sherlock fans all over the world. Devotees pretend the great detective, his sidekick, Watson, and all their adventures are real.

Any inconsistencies or inaccuracies in the stories are Watson’s fault because he didn’t write things down correctly. In those cases it’s up to Sherlockians to figure out what really happened using clues from the stories.

That’s why Nye Clinton was so concerned about the windowsill. The game, as Sherlock once said, is afoot.

The Case of the German Bible Scholars

Sherlock Holmes, Watson and their famous 221B Baker Street address first appeared in the 1887 novel “A Study in Scarlet.” The characters did not gain a wide following until four years later, however, when The Strand magazine began publishing short stories featuring the duo.

Doyle’s fan base grew with each new story he published, but the author was not entirely comfortable with his newfound acclaim. Fearing his detective fiction would overshadow his other work, Doyle killed off Sherlock in 1893, just two years after his debut in The Strand.

“People were hysterical,” said Andrew Gulli, a Michigan publisher who revived The Strand in the United States in 2000. “There were protests.”

Women apparently cried in the streets. Men wore black armbands to show their solidarity.

Doyle eventually caved to public pressure in 1901 and wrote a new Sherlock novel, “The Hound of the Baskervilles.” He eventually penned three more collections of short stories, where it is revealed the detective actually faked his death.

In-depth study of Doyle’s work began in 1911 as a joke among Bible scholars.

English theologian Ronald Knox published a paper in 1911 titled “Studies in the Literature of Sherlock Holmes,” in which he lampooned German Bible scholars of the day by using their study techniques on Doyle’s stories.

“He was very good at irony,” said Nicholas Utechin, longtime editor of The Sherlock Holmes Journal in Oxford, England. “These German biblical scholars were doing all sorts of extraordinary serious studies. ‘Did Paul really write that? If Peter did that, why did John do that?'”

Knox applied this same super-serious scholarship to Sherlock Holmes stories and attempted to, among other things, place all the stories in chronological order and guess which college Sherlock attended.

“To write fully on this subject would need two terms’ lectures at least,” he wrote. “Some time, when leisure and enterprise allow, I hope to deliver them. Meanwhile, I have thrown out these hints.”

He ended the essay with a paraphrased quote from “The Hound of the Baskervilles:” “You know my methods, Watson: apply them.”

Although Knox’s study of Sherlock was meant only to be a good-natured jab at his fellow scholars, Utechin said all modern Sherlock societies can trace their history to his paper.

Knox’s essay was republished in 1928 in a collection called “Essays in Satire.” In 1931, S.C. Roberts, a professor at Cambridge University, wrote a reply to the paper pointing out “the Watson problem” in Sherlock scholarship: details in the stories do not always match up, so Watson either wrote things down incorrectly or he left details out of the stories.

Utechin said literary societies soon began cropping up on both sides of the Atlantic to solve “the Watson problem.” And so the game began.

The United States’ largest and longest-running Sherlock society, The Baker Street Irregulars, was founded in 1934, growing out of male-only dining clubs in Philadelphia and New York. The group began publishing The Baker Street Journal, a magazine for players of “the game,” in 1946.

A short-lived Sherlock society also sprang up in London in the mid-1930s, but it lasted only for two dinners and one official meeting. England would not get its own Sherlock society for nearly 20 years.

The “Festival of Britain,” held in 1950, featured a variety of exhibitions highlighting the history and accomplishments of different parts of the country.

Community leaders in the Borough of St. Marylebone, where Baker Street is located, formed a council to come up with ideas for their exhibit. Some members suggested an exhibition about slum clearance. The council eventually picked an idea from the Public Libraries Committee for a Sherlock Holmes tribute.

The exhibit included a recreation of Sherlock and Watson’s rooms at 221B Baker Street, featuring mementos from Holmes’ “life.” More than 50,000 people visited the display.

Inspired by this enthusiasm, the Sherlock Holmes Society of London was formed in January 1951. The society soon began publishing its own periodical, The Sherlock Holmes Journal.

Other societies eventually sprang up across Europe, including large societies in Switzerland, France and Germany. Utechin said Sherlock became extremely popular in Soviet Russia.

Back in America, enthusiasts started establishing branch societies of the Baker Street Irregulars, including the Amateur Mendicant Society of Detroit, the Nashville Scholars and the Noble And Most Singular Order Of The Blue Carbuncle, located in Portland, Ore.

Societies now exist all around the country, gathering Sherlock fans for the singular purpose of discussing – and occasionally arguing about – Doyle’s stories.

Tales of the Norwood Building Inspectors

The Sherlock Holmes Society of Charleston, otherwise known as the Norwood Building Inspectors, was founded in September 1999. Members conducted their first meeting in a basement meeting room beneath Taylor Books on Capitol Street.

The group also met for a time at Trans-Allegheny Bookstore. Each meeting during these early years included a champagne toast to “the woman,” Sherlock’s nickname for Irene Adler, his one-and-only love interest.

The imbibing ended a few years later when the society moved its meetings to the Kanawha County Public Library’s main branch in downtown Charleston. The library doesn’t allow drinks, even symbolic ones.

“We’ve been teetotalers ever since,” Jerry Summers said.

The society moved to the South Charleston branch, which has better parking, four years ago. Sherlockians have come and gone through the years, but the Norwood Building Inspectors now boast about a dozen members.

The group takes occasional field trips (members watched both Robert Downey Jr. “Sherlock” films in theaters) and holds a birthday party for Sherlock each January.

This year’s gathering will be at Mayberry’s in St. Albans. Sherlock, who was born Jan. 6, 1859, will turn 159.

Most meetings are casual affairs, however. Members munch on light refreshments while one Sherlockian delivers a short talk about a story of his or her choosing. Bill Crockett chose “The Engineer’s Thumb” for November’s meeting because he is a retired Union Carbide engineer.

Crockett was first introduced to Sherlock Holmes around 1959 while he was in graduate school at West Virginia University, studying chemical engineering.

He and his wife, Bunny, had been married for a few years and were trying to have a child. Their first attempt ended in a miscarriage. When they conceived again, Bill resolved they should be much more careful with Bunny’s health this time around.

She was still completing her bachelor’s degree in English at the time, and all her classes were in Armstrong Hall, which, like much of WVU’s campus, is built into a hill. Crockett, worried about his wife, would walk to meet her and help her up the hill.

He often arrived before class dismissed.

“I got captivated by the discussions going on. Finally, I asked her prof if I could sit in on the class,” he said.

Bunny’s professor, excited that an engineering student would take an interest in literature, readily agreed. The professor also invited Crockett to a meeting of the Bakers Street Irregulars.

“They were true believers. God forbid you should mention Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It was always, ‘Watson wrote those things,’ and that was it,” he said.

Utechin said it’s a testament to Doyle’s writing that 125 years after his detective fiction first appeared in print, fans are still able to study and analyze Sherlock’s adventures.

“There’s always more juice to squeeze out of the orange,” he said.

A Sherlockian once concluded Watson had five wives, given the varying marriage dates listed in the stories, but others contend he was married twice. Others are still debating whether Sherlock attended Oxford or Cambridge.

Some Sherlock fans never play “the great game,” but prefer to read the stories or watch the films and television shows they inspire. Some collect original editions of Doyle’s books, which often bring astronomical prices at auction.

“You can have this extraordinary enjoyment of Sherlock Holmes on so many levels,” Utechin said.

Characters reason for lasting appeal

When Andrew Gulli revived The Strand, he said most of his original subscribers signed up because of the magazine’s historical association with Sherlock Holmes.

The Strand now has around 50,000 subscribers. And while it publishes new fiction, interviews and book reviews, each issue contains a Sherlock Holmes story.

“People love superhuman figures. They love people who are larger than life,” Gulli said. “In Sherlock Holmes’ case, he was not cartoonish.”

Gulli pointed out the great detective is often cynical to women and was known to use cocaine when he got bored.

“That’s where the appeal lies. He was a larger-than-life person but had a lot of human weaknesses,” he said. “He was not Captain America. In many respects, Sherlock Holmes is not the kind of person you’d want to have as a next-door neighbor.”

Utechin said most of Doyle’s stories do not contain a lot of action, as only a few tales contain actual crimes. In many cases, Sherlock becomes involved because he is intrigued by the quirkiness of the situation.

Like Gulli, Utechin said he believes the strength of Doyle’s stories are his interesting, realistic characters. Those characters have appeared in hundreds of stage and screen adaptations, dating back to 1899, making Sherlock the “most portrayed detective” according to the Guiness World Book of Records.

Despite legendary portrayals by actors like Peter Cushing and Basil Rathbone, newer actors have not shied away from reinterpreting the great detective. Director Guy Ritchie recently produced two blockbuster films starring Robert Downey Jr. as Sherlock and Jude Law as Watson.

In 2010, the minds behind the British Broadcasting Corporation’s science-fiction series “Doctor Who” debuted a new television show called “Sherlock,” which updates Doyle’s stories for the 21st century. Instead of telegrams, Sherlock sends text messages. Instead of keeping a journal, Watson writes in a blog.

CBS debuted its own update of Sherlock last fall with “Elementary,” starring Jonny Lee Miller as Holmes and Lucy Liu as “Joan Watson.”

Utechin said these adaptations are all part of Doyle’s legacy. Although his first detective stories were written in the 1800s, the last were not published until 1927.

“By which time there were cars in the stories, and there was a telephone and a record player,” Utechin said. “Conan Doyle knew how to move things along. Anything that keeps the brand alive and is of good quality, I’m all for.”

Members of the Norwood Building Inspectors agree. None of them like the new BBC series, but all enjoyed the Robert Downey Jr. films.

For them, the lasting appeal of Sherlock lies in his personality and cleverness. No matter how fantastical the situation, Sherlock eventually cracks the case and explains everything.

“It’s always logical,” Bunny Crockett said.

She compares reading a Sherlock story to her visit to the Galapagos Islands, where Charles Darwin once walked and developed his theories for “The Origin of Species.” Bunny said she saw all the same things Darwin did but never could have come up with the same theories.

“I’m just smart. Darwin was a genius. Sherlock is a genius, too,” she said.

Although Doyle gives Sherlock and his readers all the same clues, only Sherlock can reveal the solution.

Dr. Watson often expressed similar fascination with the great detective. At the beginning of “A Scandal in Bohemia,” Holmes immediately deduces that Watson has recently walked in the rain and hired a clumsy and careless servant girl.

“When I hear you give your reasons,” Watson then told Holmes, “the thing always appears to me to be so ridiculously simple that I could easily do it myself, though at each successive instance of your reasoning I am baffled until you explain your process.”

Holmes then lights a cigarette and flops into an armchair.

“Quite so,” he tells his friend. “You see, but you do not observe.”

 

Poet finds peace after long struggle with addiction

This story was originally published April 24, 2014 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

On Aug. 6, 2006, Larry “Ace” Boggess walked into the McCloud Family Pharmacy in Lavalette dressed in a long black hood and cape, intending to steal some Oxycontin.

He was armed with a pair of steak knives and a crowbar, although he now says he never intended to use them.

Nevertheless, Boggess soon found himself in a scuffle with pharmacist Jim McCloud.

According to media reports at the time, Boggess cut McCloud several times during the fight. A state policeman was nearby when the 911 call came through and was able to subdue Boggess and take him to the Western Regional Jail.

Boggess had never been arrested before. Never even had a speeding ticket. Now, he was fingerprinted. He had a mugshot. He was headed into the state correctional system.

He was a law school graduate and a widely published poet. But Boggess also was a drug addict, and had been for years.

Boggess plead guilty to first degree robbery and was sentenced to 25 years in prison, although he would only serve five.

It saved his life. Boggess got clean and stayed that way.

Prison also saved his writing.

Once convinced he couldn’t write without a painkiller coursing through his veins, Boggess eventually proved he did not need opiates to make good art. He produced an entire volume of poetry, “The Prisoners,” during his time behind bars.

The book was released in February and this Friday, Boggess will return to Taylor Books for his first Charleston reading in nearly a decade.

***

Boggess never considered himself a poet. From the time he was a child, he wanted to write novels.

Poetry was just a quick way of committing ideas to paper.

“It’s faster when you’re getting started,” he said.

After graduating from George Washington High School in 1989, Boggess headed to Marshall University, where he studied journalism. He got a job with the Herald Dispatch, and found writing poetry was also a good way to kill time between stories.

The newspaper industry didn’t seem like a good fit, however, so he moved to Morgantown and enrolled in West Virginia University’s College of Law.

At the same time, his dependence on prescription painkillers was steadily increasing, even though those closest to him never knew.

Boggess says he avoided even ibuprofen and aspirin as a young man, but got his first taste of the painkiller Loratab following a wisdom teeth extraction at age 19.

“It was like a bomb went off in my head,” he said. “It erases everything, or at least you think it does.”

He dabbled with painkiller for the next several years, but his habit took a turn for the worse in his last year of law school at West Virginia University.

That’s when he discovered Oxycontin.

Boggess found a bottle of the high-powered opiates while rifling through his deceased grandmother’s medicine cabinet.

The high was the same as with other drugs, he found, but Oxy’s packed a bigger punch. One Oxycontin felt like a hundred Percocet.

He was soon hooked on the drug but, realizing he had a problem, Boggess kicked his habit cold turkey during finals week of his last semester of law school. But the sobriety would not last long.

Boggess wound up back in Huntington after law school. He never took the bar exam (“I knew I would never make it as a lawyer,” he says) but paid the bills with freelance writing jobs and editing projects, as well as a few fellowships he received from the state.

He had completed 10 novels by this time, but although he was having poems published “left and right,” Boggess still could not find a publisher interested in his fiction.

“I’d probably put 15 years of my life at that point into writing and they wouldn’t sell,” he said.

Boggess was rudderless and depressed. He also became convinced he needed drugs to write.

He had never purchased pills before — he usually got his fix by stealing family members’ prescriptions — but friends in Huntington introduced Boggess to drug deals with a steady supply of prescription painkillers.

Now, Boggess’s ability to get drugs was only limited by his financial resources.

His addiction was worse than ever and, over the next eight years, would destroy his entire life.

***

Boggess said the hardest part of addiction was not being high or sober, but the state in between.

“Picture the worst flu you’ve ever had. The shakes, the fever, the twitches, things you can’t even put into words…and multiply that by 100.”

The sickness is made worse, Boggess said, because addicts know they only need one pill to make the sickness go away. So they take the drug and enjoy the temporary relief, only to start the process all over again.

“You keep going through this day after day and eventually your mind just goes.”

His friends were aware he had a drug problem, although they underestimated how severe it was. His family, however, had no idea about his addiction.

“Never underestimate a junkie’s sense of control,” he said.

Boggess drove to Wayne County every day to visit his drug dealer, scrounging up money where he could to feed his habit. And every day, he drove by the same pharmacies.

“Eventually I started wondering, would it be easier to go in there and just get the drug?”

In June 2006, he walked into a Rite-Aid in Lavalette with a long kitchen knife. He left with “a lot” of Oxycontin.

“I don’t think I ever counted them. By that point I was out of my head. I was just taking pills left and right.”

Boggess somehow got away with the robbery and, emboldened, decided to try again.

“I was completely insane. I had no idea what I was doing for the most part.”

That’s when Boggess made his failed robbery attempt at the McCloud Family Pharmacy and found himself facing his first night in jail.

He chronicled the experience in his poem “What Was Your First Day of Incarceration Like?”

“In a medical isolation cell, I paced and cursed and purged, bent over the steel john as if I lost something: a wedding band or matched set of dreams. Left alone, buried alive.”

He recalls laying face down on the concrete floor, peeking through a crack underneath the door.

“Praying any human foot would pass: an angel of mercy, invisible friend, a stranger’s voice in the wilderness of night,” he wrote.

***

Boggess spent a month and a half in jail before he was released on bond. He then spent the next six months in a rehabilitation program, returning home clean and sober.

He plead guilty to first degree robbery in July 2007. Four months later, a judge sentenced him to 25 years in prison.

He was immediately taken back to the Western Regional Jail, where he waited for six months until being transferred to the Martinsburg Correctional Center in March 2008 for classification.

“Same spare walls, spiritless meals, but new clothes and a new view,” he wrote in the poem “Prison View.”

Boggess spent the majority of his time as an inmate at the Stevens Correctional Facility, a medium security prison in Welch.

“It was complete misery but at the same time it was a whole world I’ve never seen before,” he said.

He was scared but fascinated. Boggess said the environment was much less ruthless or violent than he’d expected.

“Prison here isn’t like what you see on TV,” he said. “They’re all just people. A lot of them are screwed up. I was screwed up. But a lot of them are just overly rambunctious children.”

He began pouring all his experiences onto the page.

“I’ve always considered myself a kind of journalist-poet. I try to describe what I see,” he said.

The poems in “The Prisoners” capture everything from prison chefs (“they could cook the delight from a birthday cake”) to the day room, where inmates watch a movie about prison.

“Not the classic where Tim Robbins escapes, or Clint Eastwood escapes, or Tom Hanks puts the innocent man to death. Instead it’s Eddie Murphy who can’t escape Martin Lawrence.”

There is humor in the book, but there is also despair.

In the book’s title poem, Boggess writes the prisoners “have seen too much, smudged the flush from embers of memory’s freedom, covered them up with ash.”

He asks “what does it mean to hope? To want more than this? To dream of the outside, then forget?”

Boggess even dedicates a poem to McCloud, asking for his forgiveness in the poem “Letter to My Victim.”

“I’m deeply sorry in you I saw nothing human, just a door through which hell is exited…If I could, I’d take back the knife, return the blood and fix your wounds,” he writes.

Boggess had 75 poems published in 50 different magazines while he was behind bars.

He compiled them into the book that would later become “The Prisoners” and, on the day he was released on parole in December 2012, received an acceptance letter from Brick Road Poetry Press in Columbus, Ga.

The publisher released “The Prisoners” in February of this year, just as Boggess was finishing up his parole.

***

Boggess has been sober for nearly eight years now, but his body still craves the drugs that ruined his life and took away his freedom.

“The desire’s always there. Once you’re an addict, it never goes away.”

He stays clean because he realizes the consequences of using drugs again.

“I destroyed my whole life and probably a few other peoples’ as well,” he said. “I wouldn’t take pills if you threw them at me and ran away.”

He also has no desire to return to prison. Boggess is enjoying his freedom, even if it sometimes overwhelms him.

“The best thing about being free is there are so many choices. But the worst thing about being free is there are so many choices,” he said.

Behind bars, he never had to think about what to eat, what to drink or what to wear. Now, even choosing a utensil can be a profound experience.

“You spend five years eating with a rubber spoon…when you’re grateful for a fork, imagine what the bigger things do to you,” he said. “It’s fascinating. Coming back out is a whole new experience, too. I’m seeing everything I saw before, but it’s all different now.”

It hasn’t been easy. Boggess cannot find work, even though he has two degrees and has filled out 50 job applications in the last year.

He is publishing poems and short stories, but the novels still are not selling.

But instead of turning to drugs, Boggess is channeling everything into his writing. He is finishing another volume of poetry inspired by his release from prison.

“Even when things are bad I feel okay with it,” he said. “Really for the first time in my life everything is good. Even when it’s not.”

Ace Boggess will be at Taylor Books on Capitol St. this Friday at 6 p.m. to sign copies of his book “The Prisoners.” He also will read some of his poems beginning about 7 p.m.

Bluegrass gospel group The Easter Brothers still saying “Thank You”

This story was originally published July 3, 2014 in the Charleston Daily Mail.

There aren’t too many living people who can say their songs are in hymn books, but James Easter is one of them.

His song “Thank You Lord For Your Blessings on Me,” co-written with brothers Russell and Ed, is sung in congregations all over the world.

And the brothers, now all in their 80s, are still singing that song. They will perform it live this Saturday night at the Milton Opry House.

James, 82, said he still sometimes cries when he sings “Thank You Lord” because he remembers the man he was when he wrote it: a recovering alcoholic and convicted felon, fresh out of prison.

He had a wife and young child, a job that paid next to nothing and a tiny house he rented for $10 a month.

“I didn’t have no wealth whatsoever. I was right at the bottom but I knew I had something in my life that made me happy.”

James sat down and wrote the words that would find their way into gospel music history:

“There’s a roof up above me, I’ve a good place to sleep, there’s food on my table and shoes on my feet. You gave me your love, Lord, and a fine family. Thank you, Lord, for your blessings on me.”

It’s a simple declaration of faith that fans have come to expect from the Easter Brothers, who also have contributed songs like “Lord, I Can’t Picture Me Without You,” “He’s The Rock I’m Leaning On,” and “A Heart That Will Never Break Again” to the southern gospel canon.

Their success might be a little surprising to those who grew up in Mount Airy, N.C., in the 1930s, however. The Easter brothers were singing a very different song then.

Russell, the oldest of the Easter boys, taught James to play guitar when he was eight years old.

A few years later — when James was 10 and Russell was 12 — the boys started playing in beer joints together. And before long, they were doing more than just playing in beer joints.

James said he and Russell were full-blown alcoholics before either of them could legally drive a car.

The addiction almost killed Russell when he was 14. He got a bottle of bad whiskey and would have died from alcohol poisoning if James hadn’t carried him to a doctor.

Russell’s life was spared when he met and married a girl from Danville, Va. She got him into church and away from the bottle.

James, meanwhile, was still in Mount Airy.

“I got in with the wrong crowd,” he said. “You had to do mean things if you got to run with them.”

That quickly got him into trouble. By age 16, James was stealing cars with his buddies and taking them for joyrides.

“We called it borrowing cars,” he said.

The court didn’t see it that way. James was found guilty of felony theft charges and sentenced to 10 years in prison.

But like Joseph in the Old Testament, James believes his time behind bars was just part of God’s plan.

Rev. C.S. Grogan, writer of southern gospel classics like “Jesus Signed My Pardon,” came to speak at the prison a few months after James arrived.

James reluctantly attended the service and sat in the back of the mess hall, hiding behind the heads of the other inmates. But then he looked at Grogan.

“I saw some tears coming out from under his glasses. He pointed straight at me and said ‘I know somebody that loves you.’ I punched my buddy and said ‘He must know my mama.’

“I’d never heard about Christ. None of us had ever been to church, never heard preaching,” James said.

“From that moment I wanted him in my heart. I didn’t get him right then, but I wanted him right there.”

James would not convert to Christianity for several more years.

He was released after five years for good behavior, returned to Mount Airy and, before too long, was running with his old group of friends.

“I was well on my way back to prison,” he said.

Russell came to James’ house and talked his little brother to move to Danville, where both he and Ed now lived in an effort to escape their reputation back home.

“We were three alcoholics in Mount Airy,” James said.

Once in Danville, James found himself wandering into a little church.

“I don’t even know the name of the church. I couldn’t wait for them to give an invitation because what brother Grogan said kept running through my mind.”

His life finally on track, James joined his brothers in their group the Green Valley Quartet, which they eventually changed to the Easter Brothers to avoid confusion with another local group.

They started off singing religious songs by country and bluegrass artists like The Stanley Brothers and Roy Acuff as well as old hymns.

But their popularity really took off when the brothers began writing their own tunes.

Russell wrote a song called “The Darkest Hour,” which got the attention of bluegrass duo Don Reno and Red Smiley, who got the Easters a recording deal with King Records.

Not long after that, James said a New York magazine interviewed Elvis Presley about his favorite records.

Presley mentioned he listened to a lot of southern gospel, and one of his recent favorites was a song called “Darkest Hour” by a North Carolina group called the Easter Brothers.

When the magazine hit newsstands, calls started flooding into the Easters’ record label.

“All of Elvis’s fans wanted our record,” James said.

As their star began to rise, the brothers were offered opportunities to get back into country music.

They always declined, however, worried returning to secular music might drive them back to alcohol.

Once, a record label executive promised to put them at the top of the record charts if they would record some love songs.

“We told him we were already singing the greatest love songs we could sing,” James said.

The Easter Brothers have now been on the road for 60 years. And even though Russell is 84 years old, James is 82 and Ed is 80, they are showing no signs of stopping.

James said it feels like they’re just getting started. They are still writing songs — they have more than 100 now — and the brothers hope to record at least one more CD.

“We’re called to do it. That’s why the Easter Brothers are still out here,” he said. “It ain’t the money. That disappears real quick.”

The Easter Brothers will appear this Saturday at the Milton Opry House along with the Easter Family, a bluegrass group of Russell Easter’s grandchildren.

Doors open at 5 p.m. and the concert begins at 7:30 p.m.

Tickets are $15 for adults, $12 for seniors and $5 for children. Concessions will be available.

The Easter Brothers and the Easter Family also will appear at Rumble Community Baptist Church in Ashford on Sunday at 10 a.m.

The groups will perform at Stanaford New Beginnings Christian Church in Beckley at 6 p.m. Sunday.