Category Archives: deaths

What. a. week

I didn’t expect one of the biggest stories of my career to happen this week; after all, isn’t today (June 1) the second anniversary of my leaving the Washington Times and full-time journalism? But in less than one week’s time, I’ve put together articles for the Wall Street. Journal, Washington Post and CNN.com and my byline has gone seemingly, well, everywhere.

From a serpent-handling service in Tennessee

It all started when I was at Home Depot Monday morning, buying some new flooring for my rotting porch. I happened to glance at my iPhone and was shocked to see a note from Lauren Pond, the photographer with whom I’d worked with for the Post and Journal stories on serpent-handling pentecostals. Mack Wolford, she wrote, had died.
Mack was a superb guy who all the journalists at the Jolo church over Labor Day weekend last year fell in love with. While many of the folks there were uncomfortable around media, Mack sought us out to help spread the message of serpent-handling. I ended up making him the focus of a Washington Post story I wrote last fall. Many of my quotes came from a two-hour phone interview I did with him where I picked up all sorts of background on why people allow snakes into church services and what purpose they serve. Mack was a normal guy; had gotten into trouble in the earlier parts of life but had reformed and now, at the age of 43, was planning to travel beyond Appalachia to tell people about the “signs following” religion.
And now he was gone. I got through to Lauren on the phone but the connection was horrible. Mack had scheduled an evangelistic service on Sunday the 27th in some isolated park not far from Jolo with the hope that non-Christians would be interested enough to come by and hear about God. But in the first half hour, he got bit by one of his snakes; an old favorite of his that was a yellow timber rattlesnake. They are quite lethal. Apparently he was also ingesting strychnine as well (trying to follow Mark 16:17-18 to the letter) and the combination of the two must have done a job to his insides because he had to be carried to his car. He was whisked some 80 miles to his mother-in-law’s home in a trailer park near Bluefield, the closest large city. And then for the next eight hours, he went through agony, vomiting blood and fighting for breath. At the last minute, his family called paramedics, but he was already dead by the time he got to the Bluefield hospital.
I was so shocked, I could hardly think. Arriving home, I saw the news was all over Facebook. I had a bunch of things to do that day, but eventually I emailed one of the Sunday magazine editors at the Post, telling her what had happened to the man we profiled last fall. She wanted me to put together a blog post, so I worked all late afternoon and up until midnight trying to find some relatives, talking with a reporter at the local paper and calling any serpent-handling contacts that I knew.
Tuesday morning, I was off on an unrelated assignment for the Journal, so it was not til I’d picked up Veeka from school and gotten to my computer around 2:30 pm that I learned the Post wanted me to develop this thing into a full-fledged story for Style, their feature section. It had to be done in three hours so with the help of Beth, my editor, I managed to turn around a blog post into a decent story. The Post put it on their web site at about 9 pm and immediately it was number three in site hits. My story quickly climbed to no. 1 and stayed there for the next 36 or so hours.
It was on the top of the print edition of Style the next morning and my phone didn’t stop ringing the whole day. There were radio interviews, emails – it didn’t stop. The story really went viral when Drudge picked it up. I got more than 1,300 comments on my story (they are still coming in), as I basically had the field to myself; Lauren and I were the only people who had written on and photographed Mack Wolford (there were some other people who had taken videos that were posted on the Internet) so every media outlet had to quote my story. (My parents were delighted to see my byline even made it to the Seattle Times). Many of the comments were beyond disgusting and awful and I could not believe how sick some of them were. I remember some of the handlers telling me how they are hated by the world and I began to understand how right they are.

from a video of serpent handling

Then today, Lauren ran a story about what it was like as a photographer to be in the same room while Mack lay dying. I sure wish I could attend Mack’s funeral and you can bet everyone in the serpent-handling community will be there tomorrow. I got an assignment from CNN.com to do a walk-up (journalistic parlance for a story that runs the day of an event – in this case, the funeral), which I just turned in.  It is posted here. But actually driving there meant a seven-hour drive to Bluefield and a seven-hour drive back with Veeka in tow. I have to fly out of town Sunday and didn’t think I could cram that and a 14-hour round trip into one weekend. (Later note: by the evening of Saturday the 2nd, my CNN story had 6,531 responses).

What went almost by the wayside this week was a lovely review of my “Knights, Maidens and Dragons” book that the Louisville Courier-Journal published on Wednesday. I am hoping to use that as a way to get some bookstores and B&Bs in the area to stock it. Unfortunately, I had no time to even think of calling some of those establishments on Wednesday to call their attention to it.

Farewell Felicity

It’s been a week, now, since I woke up to find my oldest kitty, Felicity, an orange and white tabby, in much distress. She tried to get up and walk but her legs would not support her. I had noticed she had not eaten at all the day before and that she had looked quite wobbly. She was 20 1/2, quite a long life for a kitty and she was my first pet, found at an animal pound in eastern Pittsburgh during my seminary years. (I had grown up with kitties but had never taken on one as an adult because I traveled so frequently). It was March 2 and I was getting Veeka ready for school and I had a sad feeling this was it, so I told Veeka to pet her and essentially say good-bye. You can see Veeka stroking the kitty as she lay, collapsed, by the water bowl.

Veeka says good-bye to Felicity

After Veeka left, I managed to get some fluids into the kitty but it was tough going. I called the vet to say my cat was dying and could I come in. By the time the poor thing was lying on the table at the vet’s office, she was breathing shallow breaths. Her body temperature was so low, the vet tech could not even get a reading. I had gone through this with my little Tenacity, who died six years ago and I knew that when the body temperature drops like that, it’s a matter of hours. We discussed options but it was clear the kitty was fading fast. And so at 9:35 a.m., Felicity died.

When Veeka came home from school, we buried her in the back yard with an appropriate song and daffodils cast on her grave. It had just started to rain. I do have one more kitty, Serenity, age 19 1/2, left, but my little tortoiseshell has kitty dementia and tends to howl at various hours of the night for no discernible reason. She sleeps 90 percent of the time, curled up behind the harp and I don’t doubt her journey over the rainbow bridge will come within the next year. I do miss Felicity, who was far more sociable and would often in recent months beg to be taken into my lap for some human comfort.

Veeka at the Naval Academy

Two days later on a Sunday, I went to the morning service at the Naval Academy chapel to hear a visiting speaker and to show Veeka the grounds. As a military family, we used to drive about the grounds all the time 40+ years ago and it was so strange to be back there. Veeka and I loved walking along the waterfront in the cold but sunny weather. Afterwards, we attended the baptism and celebratory party for Ashton Louis, the newly adopted son of Grace and Jeff Kuhner and it was a bash to end all bashes: More food, wine, champagne, balloons, party favors, a DJ, prizes and guests than anything I’ve been at for some time. Kind of took my mind off my little kitty. Veeka was voted the best dancer there – she never stopped bopping about the dance floor and everyone was amazed at her talent. Pretty good for a six-year-old.

The little one jams away on the dance floor

This past week, I’ve dug out my old brown book of Hans Christian Anderson fairytales and today got her started on “The Wild Swans” and “The Ugly Duckling,” two of my favorites. Up til now I’ve always had to have pictures for Veeka to be interested in a story but now she’s able to listen and taken a story sans illustrations. She’s about to lose her fourth tooth, so my little moppet continues to get bigger.  This weekend is being spent hard at work on a pile of freelance assignments that came in all at once plus try to keep to a strict diet I’m on (conveniently during Lent) to get off some pounds that have crept on over the years. One of the things I have do without is caffeine (!) as the Fat Flush plan makes you go off anything that keeps your liver from metabolizing fat and apparently all that morning joe slows those processes down. It’s all protein, fruits and veggies and lots of flaxseeds, flaxseed oil and cranberry juice I’m buying in bulk from Trader Joe’s. It’s stricter than South Beach! But the weight going down, am glad to say.

Rain, rain, go away

Had to attach this photo of Miss Veeka with her new umbrella which I bought in Nova Scotia. She adores it and loves walking in the rain underneath it. It is a perfect size for her. Just today we took a walk through the puddles as she tried licking water off the leaves of the bushes. Strange child.

Veeka with her new umbrella

Yet another death, unfortunately; this time the genial host of a classical music program for the Roanoke NPR affiliate. The obit is here.  I met Seth Williamson while researching the snake handlers piece about six weeks ago in West Virginia and we had just started a rousing email correspondence about the matter. Seth won his way to my heart real fast when he told me he had been following my work for years (and liked it!) which of course got my attention. I still have emails from him in my in-box but unfortunately, he died a week ago after what was thought to be a routine operation. He was only 62 which at this point in my life, doesn’t seem that old!