It was a tragic wreck, and dramatic, in a rural Maine way. A Toyota Corolla collided with a milk truck. Milk spilled across the interstate. A man was dead. From this bit of news from January, Portland Press Herald journalist Mary Pols developed a 3,200-word Father’s Day feature that pulls readers in from the lead paragraph:
“On a gloomy Saturday afternoon in early May, the Canaan Fire Department shut down Route 2 in Canaan for a steady procession of tractors, dump trucks and vintage farm equipment. Up front was Karen Clark in a 1979 R model Mack truck. The Mack had been sitting in a field awhile — seven years, she figures — but she made sure it would start and had given it a good wash because her dad loved the “iron.” This particular truck, one he’d used in the 1990s, had been his pride and joy because it never broke down.
Her father’s ashes were in a red urn on the front seat next to her.”
“I think that native Mainers often have incredibly beautiful language. And I think there’s a lyricism. It doesn’t get called that very often, but I feel it when I’m talking to people. And they have a real gift with language.”
Pols, who writes about sustainability and the food economy, had become intrigued by the truck driver, Richard “Butch” Clark, and dug into his story over several months. “Death of a Dairyman” is not only a moving tribute to Clark, it also introduces readers to a community of rural Mainers connecting by one thing, Clark’s milk route.
Pols grew up in Maine, and has been a staff writer for the Seattle Times, Los Angeles Times and Contra Costa Times. She was a movie critic for Time magazine before joining the Press Herald three and a half years ago. She is also the author of a memoir: “Accidentally on Purpose; The True Tale of a Happy Single Mother.”
She spoke with me about her story, and the opportunities and perils of reporting in rural Maine.
Did you first envision this story as a Father’s Day feature?
I did not, not at all.
Then how did you decide to do a story about Richards?
The accident was in January, and it happened on a stretch of highway that I am really familiar with. My son was playing hockey at North Yarmouth Academy, and all of the hockey parents were talking about this terrible accident that they had witnessed, that had virtually shut down I-295. It was notable. And the idea that it was a milk truck, I have a huge, huge soft spot for dairy stories. And I just felt like wanted to know more about that man who was driving that truck. And also about that side of the business. Just because we tend to write about the farmers, especially when they’re announcing that they’re selling off the cows.”
Throughout the story, you have woven in this theme that the milk keeps coming, and it has to go. That lends the story some narrative tension, and momentum. Did you plan it this way?
I originally had structured it with each section having a piece of Richards’ last day. My editor, Chelsea Conaboy, felt there was not enough narrative tension in the telling of the accident to spread it out throughout the story. So it was her idea to pull it together in one section. And that kind of went against my instinct. Because I had this last day in my mind the whole time, and I did want to spread it out. Ultimately I very much liked her idea. When I executed it, it felt like it worked.
It sounds like the editing process went as it often does—you had a brilliant idea, and your editor had a different one?
Yeah. So I took a crack at it, but I still had these little shreds of that day in the sections. And then she went through and basically peeled them all out, and I didn’t miss them. You know how that is, when you need someone else to peel things out for you, so that you can see that it’s not actually a terrible tragedy that the story is different from how you originally envisioned it? So that was a really good collaboration with her.
This story was such a nice portrait of the entire rural Maine community that Richards touched along his milk route. But it can be difficult to write about rural Maine without falling into stereotypes.
Yes, it is, definitely.
Is that something that you are aware of, that you have to fight against? Is it also something, for you, that rankles when you see it?
It absolutely rankles. When I was away from Maine for so many years, I always wanted to read the books set in Maine, and I often felt very disappointed with the sort of Cabot Cove-ization of my home state. It is something that I never, ever, ever want to do. But I don’t feel like I fight it, it’s not like it’s trying to seep in there. I think that native Mainers often have incredibly beautiful language. And I think there’s a lyricism. It doesn’t get called that very often, but I feel it when I’m talking to people. And they have a real gift with language. It’s so far beyond, “ayuh,” but that’s what people assume, I think.
It’s sort of the standard shorthand.
Yes, that’s the shorthand. And Karen used this phrase “the milk’s got to go.” And that stuck in my head, I hadn’t thought of it that way, but it makes so much sense.”
Many of us like to think that we can sit down with anyone in their living room, with the scrapbooks and the photo albums, and bring back a decent story. But this story had something more, didn’t it?
“In terms of rhythm, I read everything that Liz Strout writes, fiction-wise, and I had just finished her latest. She has a great way with plain-spoken people. Although she is definitely not a romanticizer. She is just one of our greatest writers.”
I think that everybody has a story, but they aren’t stories that everybody is going to be interested in. What made Butch so intriguing to me, was, in our first news stories about the accident, the mother of the young woman in the other car said she felt like he’d saved her daughter’s life… That was really compelling to me. This idea that we’re all on the road with big, scary trucks, and very often you hear about bad accidents involving them. This seemed to be the case where he had tried to drive not so much defensively for himself, but for others. So there was that. And then there was this idea that he was 70, and he was still out there driving, and wanting to do it.
And getting up at 2:30 every morning.
And not ever complaining about it…. The integrity and dignity of someone like Butch, it spoke to me, at this particular point in our history. It would have at any time, but particularly right now, it felt good to take a deep dive into a really good person’s life.
When you were writing the story, did you have a template in mind, or a writer who inspired you?
I wish I had it together enough to have templates! I typically feel a horrible, hideous sense of panic, and procrastination, and then, you know, just having to write out of desperation. But one thing I did with that story, I was supposed to turn it in on a Friday, and I didn’t, and I was still thinking about it while I did other things. And then I sat down on a Saturday, when nobody was bothering me, and then it just flowed.
In terms of rhythm, I read everything that Liz [Elizabeth] Strout writes, fiction-wise, and I had just finished her latest. She has a great way with plain-spoken people. Although she is definitely not a romanticizer. She is just one of our greatest writers.
One thing about this story is that you clearly had it cooking for quite some time. Is that atypical for you?
Yes, I tend to work a week ahead. And I always have these bigger plans for bigger stories that will unfold over months, but very often I don’t actually get to chip away at them. But this one I had a chance to chip away at over time, which was nice. On the day of his memorial service, I was working on the night shift. I was late to work, and a Navy SEAL from Falmouth had just died in Somalia. And I remember switching gears, thinking “OK, I’ve got to get up to speed on Somalia in an hour.” That was the story of the day, but I had Butch in my brain, and I was very protective of that.”
Well, I really enjoyed your story. Thanks for discussing it with me.
I hope you’re also interviewing that raccoon writer, jeezum!
I’m glad you brought that up. Alex Acquisto did a great job on the raccoon story for the Bangor Daily News, it’s really fantastic.
Yes, absolutely, I was very jealous!
I think everybody was. But it occurred to me that although these are both rural Maine stories, they are actually quite different. Hers was a naturally more dramatic story—Maine woman drowns rabid raccoon in mud puddle. That’s pretty good, right?
While yours was—Maine truck driver had a milk route for many years, got up every day and did his job, raised a family, had some good friends, and died in a truck crash at 70.
It’s a much quieter story, isn’t it? It was definitely one of those things where I had to sell it to my editors, and wondered, are they going to go for it? And there were a few days while I was waiting to hear back about whether there was interest. There was a moment last week when my editor said, “We thought maybe the story would hold, but they read it, and they liked it, and it’s going to run.” I was so glad. I wanted it to be the most understated of Father’s Day stories. And I wanted that family to look at a Father’s Day paper and see that story and see that even though he’s gone, he’s still being recognized in some way.