Diagram of Death A Detective Harper Stowe Mystery is a quick read. But, at 200 pages less than The Lost Lantern, my epic, 500-page second novel, it was not a quick write. If you cared to deduce on Amazon, nearly a complete 48 months – four trips around the sun – went by in this process.
I must admit, part of the delay was because of the subject matter. My villain is a sexual serial killer. As a fairly well-adjusted husband and father of two, at the time, nearly-grown daughters (and one son), I often had to set the project aside, take a break from the images, question my motivation. You see, to attempt to make the novel unique, every fourth chapter or so, I wrote first-person insights from the mind of the killer. Here’s Chapter 1:
My experience has taught me that the most important first strike of the abduction – since a scream in a residential area is so out of order — is to silence the victim. I don’t want to bloody my new partner, nor do I want her groggy or asleep. I want her wide awake. I want her eyes screaming. She owes me that.
And, I have big hands. The Admiral always mentioned it. My “big mitts,” he’d say. They’re so large, in fact, I can secure two strips of duct tape in my palm with just a quarter inch of overlap, turned under and taped to the heel of my hand and to my fingertips. The second piece affords me a little extra coverage in case I’m slightly off. It’s not always easy, depending on my approach. Covering the mouth of an unwilling female isn’t like slapping a butt. If I have to peel a little back off her nostrils, it’s okay. I want her breathing to the end. Once I have her quiet, she’s mine. The physical domination has never been a problem. When they see the gleam of the hunting knife I pull, their eyes begin to beg. That’s when the thrashing stops. That’s when she realizes the stakes. I can cut away the necessary clothing without so much as a nick to her skin. That part gets me going. I find it so erotic I can hardly breathe.
Choosing my next victim isn’t difficult either. Not around here. If they’re running the trails or walking the beach alone, chances are their neglectful old man is playing golf, maybe deep-sea
fishing, or possibly still back at the ranch busting it to pay for their beach house. Not always. Sometimes you follow one back to find a home full of fellow-travelers, with ten screaming kids in a twelve-foot pool, her walk but a brief reprieve. No matter. This place is a delicatessen. A smorgasbord of delectable treats. I can stand at my kitchen sink and through my windows watch them run, walk, or ride by from dawn till dusk. I can sit on the beach and they’ll approach me and ask what book I’m reading. If I’m walking Dexter, my lab, they’re putty in my hands. I have that wholesome, trusting look about me. One stopped me at my garage and asked if I could please put air in her bike tires. Twenty-five minutes later, she was gone. I can’t remember a feature of her face, but I can still taste the salt on her skin. But that was before, when we still rented our house to tourists through summers.
I’ll admit in the beginning I wasn’t perfect. Along the way I recognized the need for some tricks. I learned to muddy the water, leave false clues. Part of a shoe string from a work boot – this place is deluged with laborers daily — a hair sample I’d pick up from my barber’s floor, a receipt from some touristy spot I’d find somewhere, from a golf cart or a restaurant barstool. But the true genius of it all was the dumbest luck. I hadn’t even considered it. My first here was discovered on a Saturday morning. Saturday around here is getaway day. To police detectives, that meant ten thousand suspects just crossed over the Wilton Graves Memorial Bridge from the William Hilton Parkway, back to mainland, USA. And that, my friend, is a hopeless feeling.
Effective, I believe, in a creepy sort of way. I hope you’ll give it a try, or please tell a reader about it.
When a sexual serial-killer chooses one of Hilton Head Island’s most prominent communities to create a symbolic message to his former employer – the United States Navy – it’s the brilliant and beautiful Detective Harper Stowe who must go undercover to entice the murderer into selecting her as his next victim. What follows is an intriguing game of cat and mouse that has law enforcement and city government pushed to its limits as the body count rises.
With first-person insights from the killer, Diagram of Death A Detective Harper Stowe Mystery is a unique, quick-hitting thriller that will keep the pages turning. The third novel penned by author Andrew Spradling, following The Long Shadow of Hope (2016) and The Lost Lantern (2017), Diagram of Death A Detective Harper Stowe Mystery is now available in paperback and electronically on Amazon.com at:
Author’s note: In July and August, 35 years ago, I tagged along with Jody Jividen, a great friend and award-winning journalist, on a three-week tour of the western United States. We packed in as much living as we could in those 21 days. But it wasn’t the beginning, or the end, of our history. Links to the first two installments of our story are below. View additional photos in my Photo Gallery and as always, thanks for reading. A.S.
I’ve dropped a few clues. Music was a huge part of Jody Jividen’s life. I mean, I love, appreciate, play, and write music. It was concerning songs and music – not necessarily fiction or prose – that he gave me the continuing advice and mantra, “Just keep writing.” But for him music was a lifeblood, a driving force. The drums, the bass in perfect unison, the screaming guitars, the band of players. Didn’t have to be rock, or southern rock, he appreciated great music, and he played it LOUD.
He’d given me as a Christmas present Jackson Browne’s debut album, Saturate Before Using, as much for study as appreciation. He was quick to point out the link between Browne and the original Eagles, as he was quick to point out the link between Bob Dylan and The Band. We saw Dylan together twice, the first time in an intimate setting at Virginia Tech, just Dylan and (later Saturday Night Live band leader) G.E. Smith, a rare and excellent show in which I had the pleasure of hanging with Yode’s college buddy Kenlee Smith. We saw Bruce Springsteen at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky., (’88 Tunnel of Love Express tour) with a tour-de-force group of our own in Mike Cherry, Dan Kay (on crutches), one of the Bailey brothers(?), and Chip Ellis. He and I saw B.B. King in Charleston, WV, and of course, Jimmy Buffett in San Diego. All these artists, and many more, were with us on our trip. Jody, like any of his passions, was meticulous about making cassette tapes for the car from albums, the print large, neat, and distinguishable. A few others on the trip: Pure Prairie League, Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band – What I most took from the latter two: The Ballad of Curtis Lowe and Rippling Waters, respectively.
Now I must admit that my memory concerning portions of the trip are muddled. I’d had it in my mind these 35 years that two days after the Grand Canyon we hiked up Mount Whitney. What we did, I believe now, is get up from Grand Canyon debacle, and drive to visit the Hoover Dam, which was certainly a massive site to see, daunting, and still not too taxing on our recovering bodies because we didn’t tour it.
That seen, we drove into Las Vegas, had a good meal, rested awhile, then hit the casinos. I’ll admit to being wide-eyed as a 21-year-old in Vegas, and wanting to jump in with both feet if I could stay even with my limited funds. Yode, on the other hand, may have been treating it more as a scenic overlook than a hard destination. His blanket statement for the night was, “Remember, we have to get up at 5 a.m. to drive to Death Valley.”
After testing a few cold slot machines I found my way to the blackjack tables, learned the procedure as I played – with only slight disdain from my attractive, female, Asian dealer – and was actually having a little bit of luck. I’d certainly not lost any money. It was only after a half hour or so that I learned the drinks were free if you were gambling. Eureka! Suddenly Death Valley at dawn was as vital as rebound position on a teammate’s swished jump shot. I was having fun, catching a free buzz – and winning – who cares about Death Valley? But Yode had an agenda, and this was his trip. I ultimately folded and adhered to his wisdom of waking hangover-free. I always said for laughs he had to drag me out of the casino kicking and screaming, but it wasn’t that severe. I do remember being relatively annoyed.
The flipside of his persistence was, the next morning, I insisted that he NEVER turn off the car while we were perusing the random side roads of Death Valley, tiny thoroughfares that would come to abrupt ends, hidden by ridges – if not mountains of – sand and rock. I’m sure Yode believed he could run his way out and back to safety if anything happened, but it seemed extremely isolated and dangerous to me. It was beautiful and endless – though I was NOT having any “Horse With No Name” epiphanies – Death Valley was certainly no place to have car trouble. Of course, it was a national park, and had a headquarters we eventually came to, with green grass growing from water being pumped in I’m sure, and, without fail, overpriced T-shirts for sale.
After surviving Death Valley, we drove to Lone Pine in Central California, where Mount Whitney awaited. We stayed at a hotel with an outdoor pool, and for the first time, with a six-pack or two in a makeshift cooler, took a few hours to relax. It is there I realized that Jody swam freestyle like Frankenstein might – stiff-limbed and furious – creating a wake worrisome for the mothers of small children and nearby wild animals. He was hilarious. “Whitney” loomed inside Sequoia National Park, and we could see it from our poolside lounge chairs. It was a Clint Eastwood “Eiger Sanction” moment.
The next morning, a little better prepared with food and drink – knowing we weren’t going to face desert heat, we sat off to ascend Mount Whitney and her trails and switchbacks. It was a great day. Seeing Jody Jividen happy and in his element was memorable. We talked at times but also didn’t have to. We could be lost in our own thoughts without awkwardness. At 12,000 feet he decided this would be the place to stop, hang for a bit, then turn back. We could have gone the last, more-harrowing 2,000-or-so feet, but doing so really called for an overnight tent stay, and we weren’t that prepared.
It was certainly cold when we reached the standing snow on that July day. Out of necessity we both wore the sweatshirts we had tied around our waists at our start. There were lavender flowers, green vegetation, a crystal-clear creek, from which one could certainly contemplate and better understand its origin, rocks, and the hard-packed snow, still resilient to summer and the sun’s failing rays. The perfect spot for a self-timed picture. I believe I did the running. Film. No checking and deleting back then, in 1985. Eleven years later, when I was hired to serve under Jody as a Charleston Daily Mail sportswriter, digital photography was becoming mainstream. That transition, like the one just a few years before it, from manual to computer layout of the newspaper, ran some excellent old-timers out of the business. Technology was changing at a rapid pace. In my tenure as DM beat writer for Marshall University football and basketball, the advent of the internet, email, then texting made information so readily available. When I started in 1996, the Thundering Herd’s last year in NCAA Division I-AA, a year in which the team would go 15-0 and win the National Championship with Randy Moss as a freshman receiver, and Eric Kresser, the Coach Bob Pruett-encouraged transfer from Florida at quarterback (with Chad Pennington waiting in the wings, taking his redshirt season after playing as a true freshman in ’95), team and Southern Conference statistics had to be faxed to the office, usually a blurry mess. But it would all get easier, better – and infinitely worse.
Happy Thanksgiving! 2020 has been a year nobody will forget, a year with many trials, tribulations and tests of the human spirit. Because of all the uncertainty, it humbles and amazes me even more that so many of you were able and willing to help me in my cause of raising money for kids’ cancer research through the Great Cycle Challenge. In all, $14,830,926 was raised nationwide for the cause, which took place in September (moved from June). My statistics are below my list of incredible donors, which I grouped so I could put in paragraph form. There are proud St. Albans Red Dragons that I put in other categories, some twice mentioned, and I’m hoping I didn’t overlook anyone. My most heartfelt, sincere thanks to ALL willing to contribute to this important cause! I am truly blessed with incredible friends, family, and neighbors! God Bless!
Heroes who donated and have sadly departed since September: Pat Paxton and Uncle Al Taylor, both SAHS graduates, ’78 and ’66, respectively.
My friends and spouses of my Fallen Inspirations: Carrie (Cherry) Knapp & Hollis Claypool.
Family: Ruth & Alan Spradling, Lisa (Parsons) & Bruce Lawson, Cheryl (Barnes) & Bobby McClain, Kelli (Gillispie) and Eric Smith, Aaron Johnson, David & Robin Young, and at home: Myssy, Evan, Audrey & Claire Spradling.
Lakewood Pool Family: Michael & Rachel Ervin of Coal River Coffee Company, Coach Rex & Diana Thaxton, Robin & Guy Turturice.
Shelton College Review Writers Group (and guitar, riding partner): Larry and Jenny (Andrews) Ellis.
SA Hall of Fame and Library Board Committees: Dr. Randy and Randi Robinson, Mike Eakle, Dale Withrow.
Gateway Christian Church Family: Jennifer Hall, Bette Hilbert.
Epic Athletes: Bill Posey, Steve Vorholt.
Treasured UC Golden Eagles friends: John Carroll, Sandy Manou Rohr.
Always Supportive Riverbend Neighbors: Art & Loraine Postelwaite, Leanne & Matt Holley, Barbara & Rodney Holley, Pam Billups, Bertha & T.H. Bellamy, Bud Newbrough, Tara & Craig Lane, Jim Carpenter, David & Robin Young.
SAHS Classmates and friends of my sister Kelly (’79) AND MINE: Tina Slavin Tape, Terri (Johnkoski) & Mark Phipps, Joe Armstrong, Derek & Anita Watson, Dana & Lisa Miller, Jimmy Gilmore, Dave DeCarlo, Susan (Keene) Bowling, Carrie McGrath McCormick.
Red Dragons (and SA teachers) before and after me: Doctor John Burdette, Lynn McGraw, Amy Duncan, Kim & Jason Rogers, Emma Hindman.
Parents of Classmates and Teammates: Susie Shope, Pam Billups, Richard Vincent.
Friends and fellow Red Dragons while I was in the building: Carin Miles, Jane Weiford Sneed, Karen Fulmer Cebular, Whitney & Scott Vincent.
Mighty St. Albans High Class of 1982 – Barry & Beth Thaxton, Ray & MaryBeth Epperly,Tim (Andy & Bruce) Moss, Eric & Becky Minsker, Pat & Lu Ann Austin, Stephanie “Robin” Shoemaker, Cindy Shope-Strock, Kelli (Hill) & John Kukura, Carla (Slack) VanWyck, Lisa (Sayre) Mollohan, Erica (Wilder) & John Boggess, Kelli & Eric Smith, Jennifer (Hawkins) & Daryl Smith, Diana (Lilly) & Mike Kitts.
3 anonymous donors.
Total raised: $5,319.76, 1st in West Virginia (second year running), 102nd in United States. Goal was $3,000. Matched on match day: $308.74. Miles ridden: 777.7. Goal was 750. Rides in September: 27. Longest: 38.5. Shortest 20. Rides on flat-assed Hilton Head Island: 10. Rides over 30 miles: 12. Hours in the saddle: 57. Two-year GCC totals: 1,404 miles ridden, $8,330.39 raised.
Jody Jividen and I were, on one hand, similar and likeminded: both fierce competitors who loved basketball, and on that same hand we both had a deep affinity for music. On the other we were polar opposites. He’d known what he wanted from an early age. He was born to be a sportswriter. He was passionate. As a youth, he would write about games he watched on T.V. – unfortunately he was a life-long Detroit Lions devotee. As a Dunbar High scribe, Chuck Landon took him to the Charleston Daily Mail newsroom for his indoctrination into real journalism. He knew the Marshall J-School was the place for him. There he could run cross country, attend class, and work at The Parthenon – day and night, driven, focused. He, like so many of his friends there, immersed himself into that world: running, writing, and “occasionally” drinking a beer. Nothing else mattered.
I was a walking contradiction. A couple months after accepting a position at the DM, hired by the great Sam Hindman for the 5 a.m. obituaries shift, I gave up my basketball scholarship at The University of Charleston. Three knee injuries before my 19th birthday, one on each leg as a freshman, left me, in my mind, less athletic than I needed to be to continue. I wish I’d talked to Yode about it before I threw in the towel. I was frustrated, but not finished. I imagine now one of those classic scenes with him, where he’d been mostly quiet for an hour or two then suddenly a topic would strike a nerve in him and he’d begin pontificating loudly, animated, long arms flailing. Then as quickly as he started he’d stop. You’d be sitting there wide-eyed, hair blown back from his outburst. “You only have one window, one chance. Dig deeper,” he might have said. I was a Secondary Education/English major because I wanted to coach basketball. Basketball was my only passion to that point. Without it I spiraled out of control.
I’d worked at The Ghost Ship Restaurant in Murrells Inlet, S.C., the summer before being hired, and turned down an internship with the DM to go back to the beach life in ‘84. I returned to the Daily Mail by late August. In early September, after covering a Friday night high school football game, followed by obits on early Saturday, I sped back weary and bleary-eyed to Garden City for a weekend visit but the world grew eerily overcast. I was in the evacuation traffic line and then, prompted by DM Managing Editor Bob Kelly saying “Hell no don’t leave!This is the biggest story of the year,” I chased Hurricane Diana up the coast to Wilmington where she touched down the next evening. Hurricanes were apparently few and far between back then, it had been twenty years since one had hit the coast, and thirty since Hazel. The effort earned me my headshot and some front page bylines “above the fold,” and for a few days, some teeth. That wouldn’t continue. “You’re only as good as your last story,” Yode would tell me.
That fall and winter Jody and I began playing basketball together, and I started dropping by the famed-garage apartment for games on T.V., or to listen to music: any excuse to have a brew. I couldn’t guess how many dozens of times I – many of us, I’m sure – stood outside his door as the stereo blasted, waiting for the song to end so he could hear the knock. He’d be at the kitchen table punching out a story with the volume on ten, the windows and walls vibrating. Then he’d have to turn it off, and quietly, gingerly tip-toe around to send his story on one of those early model, sound-recognition modems. He’d have it, a lamp, his phone, the laptop, perched on a flimsy, metal T.V. stand. His living room had two full-sized couches, both completely covered with stacks of magazines, books, albums, running shoes – the floor equally covered. Yode would laboriously bend and move a few mounds so a game could be watched – he had to do it, there was a system. I remember at some point in those months him telling me, “When I meet someone I ask myself the question, ‘Could I take a long car trip with this person?’ “
I guess I met his criteria. As winter turned to spring, and because he was taking three weeks off and none of his college mates had that luxury at 26 years of age, 27 by trip time – I’m sure one of his weeks was saved comp time, a DM reward for killing yourself seven days a week as a beat writer during football season – we began talking about me going with him. Even for someone as blessedly-disheveled as me, you can’t just jump into the car for a three-week trip morning of. There has to be some planning. As a student doing in-school class observation that year, I helped Gary Osborne coach basketball at Hayes Junior High AND advised the St. Albans High School yearbook staff. I decided I wouldn’t go back to the beach with my friends because I’d have to quit my job soon after July 4th, which I didn’t think would fly, although it would have made raising the cash for the trip easier. Plus logistically it didn’t bode well for leaving with him. Not that my scenario mattered to him. He was going alone if necessary. He just wouldn’t have been able to do as much without a second driver – or, knowing him, he would have pushed himself beyond safe limits. So, I earned money – we figured we needed at least $500 each – off by hundreds – working small construction jobs for a cousin, Johnny Johnson. One of my former teachers, and my pastor, Ross Harrison, who also got me the yearbook gig, which continued well into June, coached me into my first major non-essential purchase. I’d bought my Alvarez six-string and my Mazda truck (which he also sold me) – both priorities. For the trip I acquired a Cannon A-E1 Program 35-mm camera, two lenses, flash, bag, 30 rolls of film, by applyingfor a Montgomery Ward credit card and charging it. It was that June that I created the oft-used double exposure pic of Jody, taken in his apartment, created in the SAHS darkroom due to my yearbook affiliation.
Jody was a national park buff, I learned, and seeing as many as possible was his goal. He had the major stopping points picked out. Others we ad-libbed. As always, with him, I usually learned something. I really didn’t know that there were so many giant redwood trees out west – trees you could drive a car through – or that there was a Mount Whitney in California, and that it had “The highest elevation – 14,000 feet – of the lower 48 states,” as he pointed out to me. I’d been on six AAU trips west, the farthest to Oklahoma. But like so many young men who came to the newsroom before and after me, I gobbled up his words as gospel, soaked them in like a sponge. He was a mentor, through and through, willing to the share pearls of wisdom he acquired through astute professionalism. As the date approached, July 20, with a scheduled return date of August 10 – seven days before my sister was to be married (August 17, 1985, Happy 35th Anniversary) – we were all set. First leg, no agenda, a sprint to and through Texas and New Mexico to the Petrified Forest and Painted Dessert, Arizona, approximately 1,776 miles. Quite patriotic-sounding, I believe, to begin our tour of America. After our symbolic “Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona” stop, we headed northwest to the Grand Canyon, to hike the seven miles in to observe the cause, the mighty Colorado River.
Maybe it was naivety, maybe it was his belief in our strength, but from the South Rim we headed down the switchbacks in the July sun armed ONLY WITH A CAN OF COKE EACH. Yode was a Coke man. No food. Not a Slim Jim or a bag of peanuts. So excited to get there, we hadn’t planned. So eager to start, we couldn’t drive back out for supplies – the guest amenities were not as sophisticated as they are now. Thankfully there was a water fountain down at the bottom, five miles in, a little oasis of hope with some greenery, and a stretch oftrees, around it. Proof something could grow in the desert with enough water. Unlike running down an asphalt hill, descending the dirt trail was easy. Which probably gave me false confidence – me and my low top Chuck Taylors, probably no socks, shorts, T-shirt and a North Carolina Tar Heels hat.
The only other souls down there were two French-speaking young men who we avoided. They weren’t going the additional two miles to the rim, as we were, anyway. And it was awe inspiring. Truly breathtaking. However, with the late-afternoon sun beating down on us, the switchbacks became grisly. I tried to ration the can of water I carried but I soon realized I was drier than the dirt we were dredging through. Completely dehydrated. I stepped off the trail behind a rock to attempt to vomit some bile. Did my pointless retching echo through the canyon? No. But in my mind, I imagined how embarrassing and humiliating it would be if they had to pick me up – dead, or near it – and haul me out, slung over a donkey’s back. And THEN I began to lose it. Five miles, switchbacks, uphill all the way. Finally, the sun began to wane, and as the temperature thankfully dropped into the 90s, I was able to catch my second wind and make it back to the top. Yode was stoic. His long strides unfailing. He was a runner, tucking pain away like a sweaty bandana. Somewhere on the last few switchbacks a park ranger stood. He saw me, shook his head, and began to laugh.
Author’s note: In July and August, 35 years ago, I tagged along with Jody Jividen, a great friend, on a three-week tour of the western United States. We packed in as much living as we could in those 21 days. But it wasn’t the beginning, or the end, of our history. This is the first of several installments of our story. Thanks for reading, A.S.
It was 2:35 a.m., a spark of adrenaline – maybe from the Eagles’ Desperado album in the tape deck, an acoustic whirling dervish – I’m seeing the Tasmanian Devil – juxtaposed by its slower-paced, soulful lyrics – was giving me a much-needed rush. I was pushing Jody Jividen’s Toyota Corolla to the limit, teasing time with my miles per hour – a MINIMUM of 150 miles every two hours – from rural Montana into South Dakota. On that leg it was probably more like 190 miles – or 85 mph. Open road. I was “21 and strong as I could be.” We were invincible. Bulletproof.
I was just digging for my next tape, maybe CCR’s Greatest Hits, maybe Jimmy Buffett’s One Particular Harbor, when word came over the radio that the two-day Major League Baseball strike was over. “Yod,” short for Yoda, and I were nearing the completion of what would be a 21-day, 8,500-mile circle-the-country jaunt. I woke my long-legged, slumbering friend with the news.
“The strike is over.”
He squinted, then swallowed as the news sank in.
“Kansas City here we come!” was his response. Followed by, in his drawn, Eeyore-of-Whinnie-The-Pooh-voice, after getting his bearings from the road signs whizzing by, “Damn. You’ve covered some ground.”
I was broke, we were exhausted, and probably beginning to tire of each other’s company, but we plotted a course to the border of Kansas-Missouri through Nebraska for the onset of the 1985 MLB season. The Royals were hosting the Detroit Tigers. It was Thursday, August 8, 1985.
Significant to this was that on July 28, we watched the St. Louis Cardinals defeat the Padres in San Diego, 4-2. Despite Steve Garvey going 3-for-4 at the plate, effortlessly flicking two doubles with his “Popeye” forearms and wrists, and Tony Gwynn quietly getting two hits, the Cardinals used their speed and their slap-bunting ability to leg out hits and keep the bases occupied for the winning margin. Centerfielder Willie McGee (three hits, two runs, a stolen base), catcher Darrell Porter (home run, three RBI), Lonnie Smith, Terry Pendleton, Ozzie Smith provided the highlights of the day. Vince Coleman was unusually quiet at leadoff (0-5). John Tudor earned the win to improve to 12-8 on the season. The game was played on grass and dirt, on a perfect southern California Sunday afternoon.
Before and between those two dates we’d made a lifetime of memories, some of which I will return to: Painted Desert, Petrified Forest National Park, a corner in Winslow, Arizona, the Hoover Dam, Las Vegas, and Death Valley. We hiked seven miles into – and seven miles out of – the Grand Canyon; climbed to 12,000 feet of Mount Whitney, California, visited Sequoias National Park, Giant Redwood National Park, San Diego Zoo, crashed a Jimmy Buffett at San Diego State, visited Charleston, West Virginia native and Los Angeles Rams All-Pro lineman Denny Harrah’s bar in Long Beach, and gravitated to UCLA’s on-campus Basketball Museum. We swam in the Pacific Ocean, hiked to the Falls of Yosemite National Park, traveled the Pacific Coast Highway, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, posed with a John Steinbeck Cannery Row road sign in Monterey, knocked some brews back at Clint Eastwood’s original Hog’s Breath Inn at Carmel. Yod ran Pre’s (Steve Prefontaine) Trail in Eugene, Oregon, we drove into Washington State for our United States top-left-corner-turn, then on an eastern trek Yellowstone and Old Faithful, Little Bighorn Battlefield and Custard’s Last Stand.
That’s a tough paragraph just to write. Imagine doing it all in three weeks.
As we rolled into Kansas City, bought our tickets (I did have my parents’ credit card for emergencies) and watched batting practice – we didn’t know, how could we know? – that we were seeing our second World Series team of that year – the participants of the 1985 I-70 Series.
I first met Jody in December of 1980. in the minutes following my third high school basketball game, the opening round of the Capitol City Classic, a Christmas Tournament. I’d come off the bench to drop in 10 points in a low-scoring affair, helping to seal a 54-51 victory over rival South Charleston. I did it with some deft, long-range shooting (4-for-5 from the floor). He was covering the game as a Charleston Daily Mail sportswriter (article at bottom).
Everything about Jody was memorable. His long legs, the lumbering, giraffe-like gait, his thick-plastic, teardrop glasses, his black hair, his tenacity, his humor, his ability, on that evening, to get a 16-year-old to open up, and the next day, upon reading his story, his incredible writing talent. Not that I was a proper judge. I was a junior and had sat out the previous season with a serious knee injury. He capitalized on the obvious angle, and also somehow opened me up – had me speaking in similes.
Three years later I would be working with him as an hourly employee in the Daily Mail newsroom, obituaries, and then on to sports. Our cubicles weren’t ten feet from each other. But my world took many turns. I didn’t finish college until I was 31. But after sixteen years of trials, in 1996, he was the sports editor – the Boss – of the DM sports department. I was hired as one of his beat writers, covering his alma mater, The Marshall University Thundering Herd, at the most pivotal point of their history since the ’70 plane crash. So much water had gone under our bridge by then, our friendship continuing to grow. We had much history already, but there would be plenty more.
Looking back, it was a situation comedy writers would struggle to dream up, wrought with “No Luck” humor and tragic undertones. But, from it, I made a more-than-memorable acquaintance.
Myssy and I were invited to spend four or five days in Atlantic Beach, North Carolina, at the oceanfront home of my brother-in-law’s new wife’s father. Let that sink in: my brother-in-law’s new wife’s father. We lost my sister, Kelly, in 2000. She and Chip have two kids, Chloe and Logan, who were nine and six when she passed. A couple of years later, Chip was remarried to Marcy. At the time of the invitation, we had three small children: Evan, Audrey, and Claire. Chip and Marcy had a new boy, Brooks, and another on the way.
We love Marcy. We attended their intimate wedding on Daufuskie Island, and tried to keep the kids familiar and seeing each other as much as possible, though we lived four hours apart before they moved to Texas. Still, crashing the beach house was bringing the relationship to a new, potentially-uncomfortable level.
We arrived around noon on Saturday, meeting out for a casual seafood lunch. “Cappy” Cox, Marcy’s father, was spending the weekend on one of his boats up-coast, we learned. That evening I manned the grill, and we team-fed our large group – one of Chip’s sisters, Cindy, and her two daughters were there as well – a fun, relaxing dinner. I consumed a couple of beers, nothing to speak of for me.
Except that after we all went to bed – they’d given us Cappy’s master bedroom and bath – I became violently ill. Repeatedly ill, throughout the entire night. What was going on? I wasn’t food-poisoned – no one else was sick. Dawn came and I was empty but in excruciating discomfort. I couldn’t move without pain. I was given Phenergan to relieve my nausea symptoms, which were long passed, though it did help me get some rest. But by noon or so, yes, Mys touched my abdomen, vaulting me off the bed in pain. “Get your flops on” was her response.
Why, in all the days of my life – and they multiply out quickly – why this one day for an incident of this magnitude to occur? It couldn’t have been a more disruptive, un-fortuitous time.
Forty-five minutes after entering the doors of Carteret Medical Center, my appendix was being extracted. It was described as “gangrenous and ready to burst” by the doctor who removed it, a near-miss that could have led to weeks in a hospital bed. I felt so much better afterwards I would have kissed the man, given the opportunity. Chip and the kids came to visit me. Sitting by my bed, he was giddy with relief, the shared affection sort of forgotten territory for us both. He and Kelly were high school sweethearts, and he was like a big brother to me.
But, I was forty-four years old. Why, in all the days of my life – and they multiply out quickly – why this one day for an incident of this magnitude to occur? It couldn’t have been a more disruptive, un-fortuitous time. I pondered the trip down. My back was twinging with a little pain, but nothing more. I wrote it off as driving fatigue. No signs of what was about to happen.
I was released on Tuesday and had to gingerly keep myself dry for the rest of our stay. Sitting poolside with my legs in the water was my only plunge. Cappy, a quick-witted, lover of good times, had returned and ultimately found great humor in my condition. We toasted future health. I was able to join him and the group on a bumpy boat ride for lunch the following day, observing the majestic wild horses of the Outer Banks on the way.
As we packed to leave, Cappy assured me I was welcome to return, as long as I had a thorough physical examination before I came. Chip, Marcy and the kids ran out and had the above T-shirt made for me, “I left my appendix in Atlantic Beach.”
Cappy was his grandfather’s tag, for being the larger-than-life captain of his boats. It fit his personality well. I saw him a few more times through the years. He was always quick to smile, and to make others laugh. He lit up the room. He loved his daughters and all his grandkids immensely. On this day, he is being memorialized in his hometown of Greenville, North Carolina, gone at 71. Richard “Cappy” Cox, you were one of a kind, and you will be greatly missed.
With the current racial issues dominating the headlines following George Floyd’s murder and funeral, and now the weekend shooting of Rayshard Brooks, I’m reminded of a scene from my second novel, The Lost Lantern, a book ultimately about racial harmony.
The novel takes place partially in the 1960s, but mostly in mid-1980s Myrtle Beach and Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina. In the scene, William McMillian, a black man, takes his white friend John Gates to a coastal point on government-owned wetlands for an important discussion. William has often come to the spot throughout his life to contemplate issues and consider important decisions. There is a single tree along the shoreline, its branches all growing to the west, the result of a perpetual ocean wind. William has just received the most devastating news of his life, the aftermath of racial injustice.
Here’s the excerpt:
“I’ve done a lot of thinking here, John. I know I’m not a great philosopher, but I’ve had some good moments at this spot. Times when I just had to get away from our neighborhood, or get away from Danny’s (restaurant), from cleanin’ it and keeping the kitchen running right. I’ve been here late at night, with a full moon out there over the water… so beautiful, stars so clear and bright. And all I could think about was how great God is, and how wonderful this world could be.
I’ve thought about those branches. The branches of that tree… as black people. And the wind is white people. Whenever a branch starts to grow into the wind, or fight back, the wind picks up stronger, or shifts, until over time, the branch can’t do nothin’ but turn and join the other branches… defeated. If it doesn’t turn, eventually it’ll break. And it will fall and die.” – William McMillian, The Lost Lantern.
When I wrote this I believed that the prevailing racial winds had changed since 1987. And I still do. Opportunity – and oppression – are becoming colorblind. In my opinion there is a small percentage of whites living in the past, unfortunately with the ability and position to exercise incredible ignorance and stupidity. I still believe we live in the greatest country in the world, that we will continue to grow and get through all of this – together. We need faith, hope, kindness, and love. Maybe that’s naïve and not hard-hitting. But it’s fundamental. With fundamentals, you need repetition.
Last June I was humbled by the generosity of a great number of friends and family members who supported me financially and with continued encouragement in The Great Cycle Challenge. Nationally over $8 million was raised by some 15,000 riders for children’s cancer research, and personally, after riding a bicycle 603 miles for the month, we raised just over $3,000 – No. 1 in the state of West Virginia and in the top 230 in the nation!
Those totals came after more modest goals – 500 miles and $1,000 – were originally proposed. Because, after returning to work in March, I rode a total of only 62 miles in March, April and May in (lack of) preparation – no base from which to build upon. Ol’ friend Matt Mandeville shamed me into upping my mileage goal (putting his money where his mouth is), even though I was essentially starting from scratch and having to ride little chippy 14 to 20 milers initially while I got my legs, lungs and big arse in better shape. In truth, I had no idea what to expect concerning donations. My brother Barry Thaxton got it started – maybe the donations rolled in more heavily when it appeared I could actually exceed half my goal. LOL.
Why did I do it? One, WE ARE BLESSED! How can I not do something? Two, eradicating all cancer is the true goal – my sister and three of my closest friends have been taken from us – but a child suffering and losing that battle is especially heart-wrenching and incomprehensible. We’ve seen that the fear and uncertainty involved in a child being diagnosed is beyond devastating. I pray this can help end that. We need hope! Three, I was gifted a worthy bike by a special person – Rich Harper, proprietor of John’s Cyclery. I feel I must continue to do what I can to pay his generosity forward. If you care to read that story, please click on: https://andrewspradling.wordpress.com/2016/08/20/immeasurable-kindness/
This spring, I was able to ride 476 miles in March, April, and May – the last six on Hilton Head Island yesterday – and am prepared to attempt 188 miles a week to reach 750 for the month (800 would feel REALLY good). Optimistically, I set my fundraising goal where we left off last year – $3,000. To put the mileage in perspective, I flirted with these numbers 28 years ago (at 28-years-old), when Derek Watson got me hooked and we rode nearly every day – and were occasionally joined by fitness legends Rick Robinson and Dave Walker.
Unfortunately, like everything else, due to Covid-19, The Great Cycle Challenge has been postponed until September. This creates a degree of uncertainty for my participation at that level. Myssy suggested better lights and 4:30 a.m. starts – not the worst idea safety-wise. I will keep you posted and with the help of health-purist Larry Ellis, keep pedaling over hill and dale with lofty goals, songs, and suspenseful tales in mind. Have a great summer!
When I reminisce about my junior high school days, so joyous at the time, a handful of educators stand out above the others. Some because of what they taught and how passionately they did it. Others, for who they were – for what they were.
Sam Owens was my Spanish teacher for three years. More importantly, he was a pillar of integrity, professionalism, and kindness in a place that, it turned out years later, had a despicably-dark underbelly of the worst kind.
Though he was a tremendous teacher, I was not a student of Spanish. I saw it as credits I needed to get through high school. I did what I could – sang songs with vigor, participated as much as possible, to offset my inept conjugating of verbs. He took pity on me. Once, when the coaches I most wanted to please – and for whom I became a two-time all-conference player – were subtly bullying me for playing another sport, Mr. Owens was the person this 13-year-old went to crushed, confused, and emotional. He didn’t console me, he resolved the issue. It was something he probably wouldn’t even remember. For me, it was an illogical, few-day hiccup in an otherwise blissful stay – including with those coaches – over forty years ago. But, that I went to him, speaks volumes to me now.
That Sam Owens, an author himself, read my second novel, The Lost Lantern, and took time to write a favorable review, also means the world to me.
The Secret of the Lost Lantern May 1, 2020 5-stars
The story of a shocking murder lingers beneath the myriad of events detailed throughout novel. Waiting to be exposed to the reader, the facts relating to this horrendous crime remain concealed among the intense compassions of human nature, the evil racism lurking within the local culture, and the diverse concerns of sophomoric teens. The surprising solution to the disappearance of a beloved resident of Myrtle Beach is at last revealed in the secrets of The Lost Lantern, the extraordinary title of this novel. A worthy read for anyone, but especially for those beach-loving natives of Appalachia, whose people and home play an intriguing role in this sun–drenched community.
The Lost Lantern, and The Long Shadow of Hope, are available on Amazon.com