The City & Regional Magazine Association announced its latest winners this week. The annual prizes are administered by the Missouri School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. Five great stories for your weekend-reading pleasure:
The phone rang near 8:30 one night, and an automated message played: “You have a call from a federal inmate,” and then, patched in, his voice, high and a little singsong, the name “Kermit Gosnell.”
We had only briefly exchanged hellos, our first words to each other, when he made a request.
“I wonder,” he said, “could you send me a picture of yourself?”
“A picture?” I asked.
“They won’t let you send a Polaroid,” he said, “but if you can send some image of yourself, I just feel it would help me get to know you.”
I’ve spoken to many prison inmates in my career, but none of them ever asked for a photo. Gosnell, sensing my hesitation, said, “It’s really just to be able to see who I’m going to be talking to. I want to be very open and answer all your questions, and if we’re not going to see each other in person for an interview, this will help me to do that. If you could send something out in the next day or two, it will help me feel comfortable enough to talk.”
By the time of the phone call, Kermit Gosnell was a familiar figure to me. Last spring, I sat in a Philadelphia courtroom for his eight-week trial, watching as he was ultimately convicted of first-degree murder in the deaths of three babies; one involuntary manslaughter count; and more than 200 counts of violating Pennsylvania’s Abortion Control Act. Following the trial, Gosnell and I began exchanging letters. Eventually I was placed on his phone list—the only journalist he’s spoken with since his trial.
What’s your full name?
Where are you?
What month is it?
What day of the week is it?
Walter Keller tried to speak, but no words came out, only a dry rasp. The man asking the questions had dark, close-cropped gray hair and a kind, level gaze.
Eventually the man left the room. Walt wriggled up in his bed. Someone put a hand on his shoulder and pressed him gently back into the mattress.
Walt—tall and rawboned, with marbly green eyes and muscles hardened by a lifetime of physical labor—tried to elevate himself. An earsplitting noise went off. A nurse came running in and told him to get back down. When she left, Walt found that the nurses had clipped an alarm to his bed that would alert them whenever he tried to get up. He ripped it off and threw it to the ground.
Amelia Earhart drops a blue-and-white Victoria’s Secret bag onto the tarmac at Whittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, grabs a blue pen, and spreads a map of the world across the concrete. It is a humid morning in late July, and the 30-year-old Colorado television personality, pilot, and namesake of the famous aviatrix is wearing white pressed shorts, black Nike running shoes, and a navy polo-style shirt of the kind usually reserved for men trying to close a business deal at the clubhouse bar. Earhart brushes a strand of blond hair from her forehead, leans over the map, and points a manicured nail at a single spot: Oakland, California.
“We start here,” she says.
Imagine, for a moment, that you are seventeen, just a slip of a thing, all elbows and knees but with bright, determined eyes. At the mercy of your mama, you have lived in so many places and gone to so many schools you can’t remember them all. Mississippi, California, Illinois, Nebraska. Sometimes you and your little brother spend all day hiding from her rages at the movies, watching the same show over and over till they shoo you out. Sometimes she’ll gamble with you for your lunch money in a card game, and when you lose, you go hungry.
There are only two things that separate you from the other raggedy kids you’ve seen all your life. One is that you are smart. The other is that you are fast. Your long legs and strong thighs can move you like lightning down a crooked sidewalk or around a dusty track. In high school you win medals for your speed, and the coaches marvel at your gift. But you don’t run for them. You run because you have to, because you long for movement—the sight of tall pines shooting by as you fly down a dirt road. That movement is home.
If I had named the beast I would have called it Dezreen.
Then as I scaled the sidewalks of First Hill, ambulances and scrubs and wheelchairs in orbit around me, I could have said, to no one in particular, that I was there because of Dezreen—a single entity on which to fix my fear as I revolved into one of the dozen steel and glass buildings where I would spend much of the year.
Without a name it felt like a thousand different things. Without a name it felt like madness.
The real Dezreen was not a beast at all, but a woman. A warm, delightful woman who in December 2006 abruptly sat up in bed at her home in Auburn. “My head is killing me,” she told her husband. He brought the 26-year-old, just over eight months pregnant, a children’s Tylenol.