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.
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.
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.