Here it is. Let me know what you think. It is my Christmas gift to you. Hope it is not the written equivalent of coal.
By Dan Smith
“The tiny pink ear, a child’s ear, rested on the broad leaf of the mature fiddle fern, about six inches off the forest floor. It was streaked with fresh bright crimson blood, which glinted in the morning sun. The ear looked like a presentation piece, lovely in the abstract.”
Managing editor Nat Osborne looked up from the four-page story into the ashen face of young Eb McCourry, the boy he’d sent to write about this major airline disaster only hours ago. Nat’s brow was wrinkled, his blue editing pencil poised and scribbling.
“Nearby a man’s arm, sleeved in an expensive charcoal wool suit, its stiff white shirt cuff pushed up, lay at the base of a large pin oak. A white tan stripe around the wrist showed where a watch rested before someone stripped it and ran away.
“At a distance of nearly 50 yards, the small white board and batten cabin appeared to have two chimneys. One was a chimney. The other was the lower half of what must have been a Piedmont stewardess in a straight navy skirt, hose and glossy black high heels. Her legs reached straight for the sky as if she were posing in a water ballet. She had been thrown from the falling, gutted airplane through the roof of the house head first and buried up to her waist.”
Nat stopped again, shaking his head and he emitted a sound … a groan, Eb thought. He made several sharp, swift marks across the page.
“All around there were bodies, most of them not whole, none of them alive, some piled on top of one another, several strapped into airplane seats, one tangled hopelessly in a barbed-wire fence, a fence used to keep the cattle in. Curious cattle sniffed at the body.
“The acrid air was filled with the smells of motor oil and burning tires, jet fuel and death. The air burned eyes and nostrils. The emergency workers—firemen and policemen—wore aqua-colored surgical masks. Newspaper and late-arriving TV reporters, huge cameras atop their vans, covered their faces with whatever they could find. A photographer moved in close to bodies and workers, getting shots of emotion, chaos, swirling smoke, desperate searches for life, aftermath.
“It was a scene of war …”
Nat Osborne, the veins in his brow swollen and red, picked up the pages and slammed them down on his large green metal desk, looked straight into Eb McCourry’s vacant eyes and shouted, “You stupid sonofabitch, we can’t run this shit! What the hell do you think we have here? It’s a goddamn newspaper and it’s read by people who don’t want to get this close to anything in their lives.”
Nat, a World War II Marine who knew war looked like this, threw the four-page story—one he specifically ordered in the morning rush to get a team on the scene—into the gray metal trash can beside his desk. With police response codes toning on the newsroom scanner at 9:30 that morning, he had instructed Eb to “get in that van and write what you see when you get to the crash site. I want it clear and plain and I want detail. Your skinny young ass is the best writer we have and I want that crash on paper so everybody can see it. Capiche?”
Eb didn’t know what “capiche” meant, but he figured it out quickly. He wasn’t sure whether to be mortified, terrified or flattered. He was a sportswriter, a rookie sportswriter who had never covered anything more violent than a football game. He had no idea how to cover a real news event, no hint of what questions to ask, what details to gather, whom to approach, what to say, what to report. And for gruff, crusty Nat Osborne to call him “the best writer we have” when he’d only been a newspaper man—a sportswriter—for six months was hard to chew at this moment.
“Get your ass back to your desk and rewrite something I can run,” Nat barked to the shellshocked 21-year-old whose nose was still covered with freckles and whose short red hair and muscular body said “jock”. “Now, kid! We’re on a deadline here; this is not an annual.”
Eb’s knees were on the verge of buckling. He turned away, a hangdog posture outlining him, and trudged slowly toward the close-quarters sports department and his 1917 Remington typewriter, the oldest one in the Depression-era building, the one always assigned the rawest rookie. He had put plastic racing stripes on the back of the old machine and called it his “Remington GT,” his youth and enthusiasm spilling into even the most mundane.
Eb didn’t know what else he could write, how to approach an event of this magnitude: 97 people dead, all those families missing loved ones, a story of huge national significance, one that won small papers Pulitzer Prizes. He wasn’t old enough or experienced enough to have even the most cursory understanding of its width, breadth and depth. And Nat Osborne was demanding an account. Right now. This minute.
His heart was smashed on that paper now in the trash can and his stomach was in his throat, filling his mouth with acid. His hands shook uncontrollably as he recalled the scene’s gruesome details. He wanted to throw up again, as he had several times at the scene. There was nothing left in his stomach except bile.
Eb had never seen a dead body before 10 o’clock this morning and now he had seen an entire acre of them, mostly dismembered. He hadn’t known the smell of death, the horror of seeing people’s lives suddenly and violently erased.
The baby’s ear folded him up, as he sobbed and vomited until gangly 6-foot-7-inch photographer Hanson Pinder grabbed him by the right arm, pulled him to his feet and said, “Get to work, rookie. This ain’t no fuckin’ pajama party. We got stories to tell, not bawling to do. Save it for later.” Pinder ran his fingers through a mop of scraggly hair, combing it off his face and put the Nikon eyepiece in place. The camera snapped and whirred, its motor advancing the film instantly. His long fingers constantly adjusted the f-ring as he shot, bracketing for light, not wanting to take time to use his light meter, lest he miss something—a vital instant.
Eb was working with experienced professionals, some of them award-winners. They were covering the biggest story of their careers. He was attempting to type a coherent sentence through the overwhelming emotion of the moment.
Eb McCourry sat at the Remington and wiggled his fingers on the keys for a moment, like a piano player warming up. Then he began to type:
“At 9:30 on a steamy Thursday morning in the western North Carolina mountains near Hendersonville, a Piedmont Airlines Boeing 727 was split open along the belly like a gutted rainbow trout by a two-engine Cessna 310. Ninety-seven lives ended and many hundreds more were transformed in that instant. It was a savage moment, one far beyond the comprehension of all but combat veterans …”
“No, Eb, my name’s not ‘E-L-L-A,’ it’s ‘E-L-O,” she said sharply, leaning into him, shaking her finger. “It is pronounced ‘Ella,’ though because the root of it is pronounced that way.”
Eb looked at her for a moment, confused. “What the hell is ‘Elo?’” he said without even the attempt of delicacy, mispronouncing it, and looking into a long, thin face framed with dark hair, fully explained with brown eyes that left no doubt.
“It’s ‘Eloise,’” she said, “Ella-Weeze’, and if you ever call me that, I’ll cut off your balls and call you ‘Elbert’ until your head explodes. Deal?”
“How’d you know my name’s Elbert?”
“Everybody knows it. When something is that ridiculous it gets around.” She grinned, flashing big teeth as he turned scarlet.
“Deal.” He was embarrassed. “Sorry,” he said, meaning it. “I’ll forget Eloise even exists, but you’ll need to turn back the clock to before you ever heard ‘Elbert.’”
Elo smiled. Their eyes shook on it.
She spun around to go back to her desk and Eb looked at her round bottom, tiny waist, dancer’s legs and feet that turned slightly outward. He almost said something else, but knew she wouldn’t hear it. Boy, she’s pretty, he thought. Then he caught himself. She’s not Lizetta.
Executive Editor Dick Chapman had received orders from the publisher nearly a month ago, dictating a plan of action for integrating the staff at the paper. He was all over it because he believed in creating a workplace that mirrored the community he lived in. It would lead to a better newspaper, he insisted, if a wide variety of communities was represented among the 400 people who worked at the Citizen. Chapman was an old-line Democrat, a war veteran and a Southern Liberal, the kind that acted more than it talked. Southern liberals were real, not the bullshitters who told you what you wanted to hear if you were a different color, ethnicity or from another community. They didn’t patronize, didn’t talk down and would fight for you when they weren’t fighting with you.
He’d been on the road three days a week looking for recruits and on his trip to D.C. the first week after he got the memo, he found Elo at Gallaudet College in D.C., the only college for the deaf in the United States. She’d been pointed out to him by an Asheville used car dealer and long-time Citizen advertiser who had a son at Gallaudet. Chapman played golf with Rex Belmont and the last time they were on the course, Chapman brought up the memo. Belmont told him straight-out, “There’s this kid in my son’s class in college—you know he’s deaf—who is a whiz of a journalist. She’s editor of the newspaper at Gallaudet and the Washington Post has picked up several of her stories and they even had her work with their reporters on one of them; story about a girl who got raped at the school. She did some incredible reporting. Embarrassed hell out of the school, but made quite a name for herself.”
Two days later, Dick Chapman offered Elo Sikorski a job. He didn’t even have a job to offer her, but he placed her awkwardly into the Society Department where she couldn’t possibly be anything but unhappy. He made a promise that she’d get the first newsroom vacancy. He wanted her that much.
She was born deaf in a poor family in New York City. Her early life was a struggle with poverty, neglect and abuse, but she educated herself–all informally–and is one of the brightest, most creative and resourceful people I’ve ever met.
She talks like a deaf person who’s had extensive speech therapy–she has–and a lot of people mistake her deafness for not being bright. As she says, “I’m deaf, not dumb.”