Nick Sortal’s formula for finding true-life tales
I still remember, probably 12 years later, hearing a newsroom colleague in his 40s say he had to find another kind of reporting job because he was “too old to talk to strangers.” I knew exactly what he meant: Many of us are programmed as introverts; we approach strangers only because we have to; there’s no other way to get the goods.
Nick Sortal is a reminder of why you HAVE to talk to strangers. He’s a feature writer at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel and he specializes in. . . well, the ordinary. What follows are three of his stories, prefaced by Nick’s brief explanations.
As I read these I thought about how newspapers are killing themselves to give readers “news you can use” or projects that will win an award, and how little attention is paid to the spectacularly difficult task of finding lives that are profoundly interesting–yarns readers will tell each other, stories that will be clipped and posted on high school bulletin boards, tales that make you feel alive, connected to the human race–when in fact, they have no practical advice in them at all, except to pull you out of the horrible isolation that surrounds most of our lives.
Editors desperate to counter circulation losses are aware these kinds of stories don’t have to be in the paper, so they forget about them. Call me naive, but I contend that what will save this business–the only thing left that print can do that the Internet and radio and TV can’t do–is putting more stories in the paper that don’t have to be in the paper.
“First, get out of the newsroom; then, get out of your car. And preferably, go someplace that you haven’t been to before. You’ll likely end up with a good story.
“It takes a little bit of gumption — “What if they don’t like strangers,” or, worse “What if they’ve read my stuff and hate me?” — but in order to write human stories about Everyman, you have to get out and mix it up with them.
” Sales folks call it cold-calling. (Get over the whole “I’m not a salesman” tripe. What are you doing when you’re pitching to get your story onto A-1?) They also use the “one-in-four” mindset: Three rejects in a row only means that the odds are that much greater for a hit on attempt No. 4.
“I’m embarrassed to say it took me five years to get out of my car — in this case, off my bike — and talk to Donald Miller. He’d walk for hours, and he wore the same shirt and pants every day. I waved, he waved back and I continued with my bike ride or jog.
“I watched him walk around my neighborhood and wondered…Did he have some psychosis? Was he a former athlete? Did he missed his wife, who had died years ago?
“Turns out, everyone in the neighborhood wondered the same thing. But no one asked him.
“I thought of myself as the one guy in my neighborhood who stopped to ask him what’s up. Getting paid was a bonus.”
A WALK IN THE PARK
The sun isn’t up yet, but Donald Miller locks his second-story apartment and eases downs the stairs to the ground floor. It takes a few seconds to get the morning creaks out.
He’s an 82-year-old man going on a 10-mile walk.
“Gonna be a nice one today,” he says, but you get the feeling that’s his line every day before going around and through Plantation Central Park. Because he’s consistent.
He has walked every day this year, he says, and in each of the past 17 years he has at least walked the equivalent of Maine to San Diego, Calif.
Just for the fun of it.
About 6 a.m., Miller heads toward Cleary Boulevard. It’ll be about 2 miles to Nob Hill Road. The traffic is just awakening and the RPMs are the lowest they’ll be for the next three hours.
He wears the same blue-gray pants, Kmart T-shirt and white visor. When they deteriorate, he replaces them with the most economical replicas.
He likes it simple.
His walking record was 5,300 miles when he was 72. But even this year, admittedly slowing down and going easier on weekends, he’ll stroll more than 3,500. The 17-year grand journey: about 74,000 miles.
He’s not a slave to his route. He’s not beholden to time. He does not have a family to report to. He even is free enough to step on the sidewalk cracks.
On this day, to get in another mile, Miller doubles back three times along Nob Hill Road. Jack Fisher, a crossing guard for nearby Central Park Elementary School, starts his shift at 7 a.m. and the pair often discuss the Dolphins, the Marlins, the Heat — and the heat.
Fisher has stood at this corner for five years, watching Miller walk through the rain, usually without a jacket, and the humidity, still in his long pants.
“I think the walking keeps him going,” says Fisher, also 82. “He’s here every single day. Unbelievable.”
By 8 a.m. Miller has taken a shady route past a dozen developments, catching Broward Boulevard and heading east. He pulls on his visor as the maintenance crews fire up their mowers and the rush-hour crowd accelerates through yellow lights. His story unfolds with each step.
The details: Mr. Miller was born in South Dakota, grew up in San Antonio, Texas, and played baseball, football and basketball, but wasn’t anything that special, he says. In 1942 he joined the military and left it 12 years later to care for a mother who had a stroke and a father with arthritis. He just never got around to dating, let alone marriage.
He spent about two decades as a USDA poultry inspector. He retired at 52, then moved to South Florida three years later, in 1976, after his parents died. He lives off his pension, savings and investment interest.
And he walks.
He always liked to walk, but only began keeping track of mileage in 1985 at age 65. At his peak, he hoofed it for six hours a day.
“I just found myself with a lot of time and not much to do,” he says.
He enters Central Park (Mile No. 6) from the south, and acquaintances’ waves and greetings invigorate him.
He circles the soccer and baseball fields and meets regulars Vi and Jack Miessau. They’re up to eight miles a day.
“I think he’s a shining example for all of us,” says Vi, 65. “I got my husband walking by telling him that if Donald can do it, so can he.”
Leonard “Pete” Peters catches up for a half-hour and confirms the story: Miller is out here every single day, even in the rain.
“He’s kind of hard-headed that way,” Peters says. “But he’s just a polite, Southern gentleman who likes walking. I’ve never even heard him curse.”
(For the record: Miller says he missed one day last year and he had a six-week spell off, probably in 1997, because his right foot was stressed.)
“But I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been healthy,” he says. The exercise has melted him down from 180-plus to 160 pounds now, thin for a 6-footer.
Miller takes a quick bathroom break, then makes his final meander through Central Park, back to Broward Boulevard. His shoes still look new; he’s good about rotating them. Whenever Kmart or Wal-Mart has a sale, he’ll buy two or three pairs.
“I’d pay $30, $35 for shoes, but never $60 or $70,” he says. “But I look for shoes with a good heel.” He changes them every 500 or 600 miles.
By 9 a.m., starting Mile No. 10, he heads for home. The traffic thins and his pace slows.
“I used to be able to walk 15, 16 miles a day and not even think about it,” he says. “Now after about 10, I need to get in a little rest.”
He walks through the parking lot past his car, a 5-year-old Ford Escort that just crossed 15,000 miles. On foot, he has logged about 19,000 miles since he bought that car.
“That’s astonishing, by any measure,” says Mark Fenton, host of the PBS-TV show America’s Walking, and a former Olympic-caliber race walker. He says elite competitive race walkers in their prime rarely hit that accumulated mileage for a year. Fenton himself aimed for 3,000, although at a faster pace.
But Miller says it’s not all that special.
“You see, that’s all I do, and I go home to an apartment,” he says. “I don’t mow grass or have any chores. I probably don’t work out any more than anybody else.”
And even Donald Miller has his limits. At 9:21 a.m. he heads toward the stairs and his apartment. But they don’t look very appealing.
He takes the elevator.
He’ll enjoy a quick rest, a hot shower and breakfast. Then one aspirin, a multivitamin and a smidge of Bengay to his sore right calf. Later in the day, he’ll likely drive to a local bowling center, to watch acquaintances, socialize and just kill a couple of hours.
“I don’t like staying around much in my apartment,” he says. “I like to get out and see what the rest of the world is doing.” Which is why the next day, before sunrise, he’ll be up and ready, eager to do it all over again.
NICK: About the same time, I decided to enhance a routine story about a city cleaning up a park. One old man, who I had seen before on my drives, always waved at me.
He lived near the park, so he was perfect for adding a human to the story. What I didn’t realize was the story behind the story, but once I got out of the car, the story all but fell into my lap.
I got a bonus, in terms of narrative tension and detail, by holding onto the story for about a year. But it’s interesting how much luckier you get just by getting out of the car.
A WAVE FOR GRANDPA BOB
Down a Miramar side street, the old man sat in a plastic chair, smiling, waving at everyone who passed.
They’d honk and wave back.
“Every single person waves at me, I don’t know why,” he would say. “I have no idea who 90 percent of them are.”
Every day for 10 months of 2002, 82-year-old Robert Parr would travel from his bed to his carport, and no farther, waving at neighbors as he picked up the daily paper.
That is what made him happy.
He’d ask the flow of drop-in visitors how they were doing, and would have a water bowl out for their dogs. Some of the neighbors are original homeowners from 1967, when the houses went for $15,000 and there wasn’t anything but black Angus cattle to the west.
But other visitors were new faces, and like the rest of Miramar, often from another country. Parr befriended the Haitian family down the block, the Dominicans two doors away and the Cubans across the street.
Some children would call him “Grandpa Bob,” but not all. The rest called him “abuelo Robert.”
They may have noticed that his arms were bruised purple — he fell four times last year — and that his legs were giving out. They may even have noticed that he kept a portable phone clipped to his three-wheeled walker, just in case he needed to dial 9-1-1.
But if they didn’t notice, he sure as heck wasn’t going to say anything about it. He wasn’t going to listen to any doctor, either.
“What do I need to go to some doctor for? To find out I’m getting old? I already know that,” he would say. “Really, I’m lucky, because I don’t have any pain.”
His calendar was bereft of doctor’s appointments. His real medicine? The best neighbors a guy could want.
Because Parr lived alone now.
The first big curveball in Parr’s tale came in 1982 when his precious wife, Hazel, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. He was only 62, but he did what he had to do.
Parr quit his job as a warehouse manager. He and his wife would live off Social Security and what they’d saved. “I’d do the same thing all over again,” he’d say. “If ever there was an angel in this world it was her. She never spoke bad about anyone, never. You just had to know her.”
He spent the next 12 years caring for her, first providing encouragement and an occasional drink of water. Then, as her legs gave out, he pushed her for miles up and down a small park near University Drive. Eventually he’d carry her to doctor’s appointments, then stay awake at night gazing at her during the rare moments she could peacefully sleep.
On July 24, 1994, he said goodbye to Hazel.
Parr shared the pain with his adult son, Robert. Not Robert Jr. — the Parrs gave one boy that name but he died very young, so this one would be Robert H. He was a cop, and a good one: lots of decorations from the Broward Sheriff’s Office and kind words from almost every peer. He busted scam artists, the people who rip off the elderly.
But then Robert H. felt a little pain in his mouth. Cancer took his tongue, then his larynx. Still, speaking by voice box, he won officer of the month.
Finally, he was communicating by typing on a computer, still working until the day he died.
On Aug. 17, 1999, Robert G. Parr said goodbye to Robert H.
“You never get over losing a child,” he’d say. “You just don’t.”
But you can go on. Enjoy each day.
“I’ve learned in 80 years to take it as it comes. “It’s bad luck losing your wife, but you wouldn’t want her back here suffering. There’s bad luck to losing a son, but you wouldn’t want him back here with no tongue.”
But here is where his luck turned.
“I don’t have neighbors,” he’d say. “I have family.”
The morning would start with help from Emery, from a few houses down. Robert gave him a key a few years ago, so Emery would let himself in and set up the coffee pot.
Robert would pour a cup, and with the help of his walker, move out to his carport to sit and watch traffic. Three open chairs surrounded him, awaiting the day’s visitors.
His friend Sue would check in daily and buy groceries for him on Thursdays. Her son would do a quick regular cleaning of his pool, which Robert hadn’t set foot in since Hazel died. Another neighbor, Roni, would take his clothes to her house and wash them about once a week.
His daughter-in-law, Robert H.’s wife, called daily. For a birthday present, she hired Maid Brigade to come clean his house monthly, which was plenty because he didn’t dirty it up much.
Another neighbor called Meals on Wheels, and the agency’s weekly delivery filled the refrigerator. The Winn-Dixie Chex root beer that Emery would drop off washed it all down.
Parr was grateful for the basics and for his neighbors, but even more amazed at how others would be so willing to help keep an old man from feeling lonely.
Two Haitian ladies from St. Bartholomew Catholic Church, apparently out on a quiet walk one day, befriended him.
From then on, they delivered a rosary prayer regularly.
And the sister-in-law of the Dominican friend down the street gave him a spiritual boost, too, making his heart beat a little quicker every time he’d see her station wagon pull up.
Out would pour five children, who surrounded him, held his hands and warbled through a quick hymn and a prayer. They’d be back in their car and on their way, but not before he got five hugs and five kisses.
“I really don’t know what they’re saying,” he’d say. “All I know is Feliz Navidad.”
Between visitors, he watched the mail for his Social Security check: $788 went pretty quickly after taking out a portion to pay toward the annual $1,048 in house insurance and $1,300 in property taxes. He asked Medicare to pay for an electric wheelchair or buggy, so he could ride down the street, but no luck.
Yes, he’d heard of old-folks’ homes, where the money goes farther and the care is professional. But he never wanted to go there. “I don’t want to live in a home. I have a home,” Robert would say.
And he would miss his neighbors. Even the ice-cream man, who would turn down the music to shout “hi” out the window. “Someplace in my life I’ve just done something right,” Grandpa Bob would say. “But whatever it is, I don’t know.”
But then, on the first Saturday in November, he called a neighbor, and it was serious. An ambulance came and he was in the hospital with a form of gangrene. A payback for ignoring diabetes.
He lost a little toe. Then a leg. The neighbors steadily came to visit, and in one way his circle of friends grew even larger. People like Amy, the nurse at Memorial Hospital Pembroke, and Tami from Springtree Rehabilitation Center in Sunrise.
Back home, the strangers accustomed to his wave began to worry. They taped notes to the plastic chair in his carport, asking of his whereabouts.
By Thanksgiving, he was back in the hospital, wondering where he’d be going and what would happen next.
“I want to go back to my carport,” he said one December day. But a week later, he said, “I want to be with my wife and my son.”
At 4:11 p.m. on Christmas Eve, Robert Parr said goodbye.
The neighbors and his daughter-in-law made all the arrangements, and it was at this time that Grandpa Bob’s stubborn streak paid off.
You see, he never let them talk him into moving his beloved Hazel’s ashes from his home.
Kept them tucked away in a closet all these years, despite neighbors’ pleas that Hazel deserved better.
So now his ashes will be mingled with Hazel’s in a dual brass urn, with the words “Together Forever” engraved on it. They’ll be kept in a niche across from their son’s, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Oakland Park.
And after Grandpa Bob is put to rest Saturday, almost everybody on the block who he touched — and who touched him — will gather at the spot where they shared their lives: a breezy carport with four plastic chairs and a community dog bowl.
NICK: The city of Pembroke Pines has the Donnith Fletcher Art and Cultural Center, and even a plaque commemorating Donnith Fletcher, the first resident to die in the Vietnam War. I always wanted to find Donnith’s mom and ask what it’s like now, especially since moms with sons in Iraq are getting that same knock three decades later. The clips had a brief mention of Mrs. Fletcher, who had since re-married.
THE PRICE OF FREEDOM
News traveled slower during America’s last unpopular war.
A story buried in the July 1, 1970, newspaper reported that eight unidentified men, aboard two helicopters, were shot down in Cambodia the day before. It took two more days for the man in the car with the U.S. Army license tag to pull into Beulah Kellam’s driveway in Pembroke Pines.
At 7:10 a.m. July 3, he rang the doorbell. He looked at his clipboard, confirmed that the woman at the door was Donnith Fletcher’s mother and began, “I’m sorry, but it’s my duty to inform you …”
The past year has rekindled those memories and she feels a little pang each day the TV reports more young Americans dying in war.
Nobody ever truly gets over the jolt of that visit. But she has the perspective of time — and plenty of advice — for the families of the 850 or so soldiers who have died in Iraq. The ones whose wounds are 34 years fresher than hers. The pain eventually eases, says Beulah, who lost one husband before Donnith’s death and another one after. Faith can carry you, she would advise. And your child didn’t die in vain.
Donnith Fletcher left for Vietnam from his Army training post in Oakland, Calif., on Oct. 3, 1969, and wrote often to his family, reassuring that he’d be back soon.
Beulah believed it. On June 29, 1970, Beulah saw the 6 p.m. news and smiled when the anchorman said U.S. troops were leaving Cambodia and the most dangerous part of her son’s stint was over.
“I was so relieved,” Beulah says. “I thought he was out of there.”
But he wasn’t. Fletcher and others stayed back, about two miles inside Cambodia.
On June 30, Fletcher and seven others were shot down and killed. The soldiers were on helicopters Nos. 3,862 and 3,863 to be reported shot down or missing during the Vietnam War, and Beulah never did find out details — such as who did the shooting or what exactly her son was doing. They were among the 58,000 Americans who died in the 11 years of the U.S. involvement. Beulah says she barely remembers the minutes after the Army official told her Donnith had been killed. She had seen the Army car pull into the driveway, but it was morning and she was groggy.
“I thought they were coming to tell me he was coming home,” she says. “I really thought it might be good news.” Donnith, 21, was buried July 10 at Fred Hunter’s Memorial Gardens in west Hollywood, a mile or two from Beulah’s home, his McArthur High School and their church. The military delivered a posthumous Purple Heart.
She contrasts that time with the deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, where grieving families are photographed within hours of a soldier’s death, and names like Pat Tillman make the TV that night and the front page the next day.
“I can’t say one way or the other is better, because both are sad, but now they have too much information that comes too soon,” she says. “It makes people more frightened and uptight. We see so much and it’s so fast. It’s just right there in your face.”
It always amazed Beulah that her friends tiptoed around saying Donnith’s name, like they would somehow be uncomfortably jogging her memory that he is dead. But that kind of loss never drops out of a person’s head. It just shifts off to the side enough so you can get through the day.
“People didn’t want to talk about him,” she says. “But you want to talk about him, because you don’t want them to forget what happened.”
Donnith was the first Pembroke Pines resident to die in the war, and city officials made sure he would be remembered. In 1971, they named the ball fields and park near Johnson Street and University Drive after him. (In 1993, officials tried to rename the park in honor of Mayor Charles Flanagan, mistakenly believing Donnith Fletcher had been a developer, not a soldier. Flanagan supporters backed off after learning the real details.)
In 2000, the city added Fletcher’s name to a new art center next to the park. The Donnith H. Fletcher Art and Cultural Center displays his photo inside and a framed copy of a 1972 newspaper article detailing Fletcher’s life.
She’s proud that he was a good soldier even as a child. He was a crossing guard in grade school, had a paper route in high school and always did what Beulah told him to, she says. So did his younger sister, Kathy.
“They behaved like children did when I was a child,” Beulah recalls. “They never got into that ’60s rowdiness.” Outside, over by the Fletcher Park ball fields, are a cannon, flowers and a tombstone-style monument. Beulah says it would have been important to Donnith for the park to honor not only him, but also everybody who fought.
So the monument reads: “To the men and women who have given their lives in defense of this country and all who were in conflict.”
Meanwhile, Beulah has carried on as normally as she could. Her first husband died in a car crash when Donnith was 7, and Beulah married William Kellam two years later. But William had a stroke in 1989 and died. Beulah was a widow again. She socialized with friends at the First Baptist Church of West Hollywood, and neighbors often visited, even spending the night.
“I hated being alone,” she says. “I can’t tell you how blessed I am to have the neighbors that I have.” Those friends and her church have pulled her through, says Beulah, 74.
“If I weren’t a Christian, I don’t know how I would have handled it,” she says. “Especially in those first years after Donnith died, I just kept telling myself `He’s with the Lord, he’s with the Lord …’”
Six blocks away, unknown to Beulah, Philip Simons was similarly alone. His second wife had just died and he was resigned to life as a widower.
Even though Simons was Jewish, his daughter suggested he attend a nearby church: Beulah’s First Baptist. He tried it and felt comfortable there. Finding another spouse was not a priority.
“I remember praying, `God, if you’re going to give me someone in my life, you’re going to have to bring her to me, because I’m not going out looking,’” Philip Simons says.
It took a while for that 1994 prayer to get answered. He sat near the front of the large church, and she sat toward the middle. But in January 1996, a mutual church friend did the introductions.
Both were — and still are — smitten. They were married within four months and Philip moved into Beulah’s house.
He wakes her up in the middle of the night to tap into her lifelong knowledge of the Bible, and they talk about America and the need for values. They have no jealousy when one of them talks about a former spouse because their experiences are so similar.
On Memorial Day and Veterans Day, they go to Donnith’s grave site.
“She believes the Lord handles all of our problems. She’ll drop an earring post and ask God to find it. And he does,” Simons says.
They also share a faith and respect for their country. Simons tracks down car-dealership managers if their lot is displaying a tattered flag, and he gets dismayed if he sees a car with the flag on the driver’s side. The proper side is the right, he notes. They put up a 21-foot flagpole in their front lawn more than four years ago, partially as a tribute to Donnith, but for everyone else, too, he says.
“If this country and our freedoms aren’t worth fighting for, why are we here?” she says.