Saying goodbye to my 2013 story beacons: RIP Mary Thomas, Eddie Wall and Charlie Pullen

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She sewed at Bassett-Walker Knitting mill. She cleaned in the Bassett Furniture corporate offices. She took care of middle managers’ kids and cleaned people’s homes and, judging from her recent funeral, Mary Thomas took care of the rest of the factory town of Bassett, Va., too.

We should all be blessed to experience the kind of  jam-packed sendoff that Mary Thomas had on November 24, where funeral attendants wearing white nursing uniforms handed out cardboard fans, and the choir blew the rafters off. Friends spoke hilariously about Mary’s “Let’s Make a Deal” purses (“She had whatever you needed in that thing”) and her home remedies — including her secret cure for taking the sting out of a burn. She could do it in person and over the telephone. “You could just feel the fire comin’ outta you,” one speaker recalled.

Mary Thomas, 81, and her husband, Junior (aka, Joon), are two characters in my forthcoming book, “Factory Man,” which recounts the rise and fall of factory work in a small Southern town. They were some of my favorite story beacons — connectors who helped me understand the place I was trying to describe, beginning with the curvy, snake-filled holler where Mary and Junior were born and where they lived the entirety of their lives (previously named Snot Holler, Carver Lane and Chigger Ridge). They also went out of their way to introduce me to other people I needed to talk to and know.

They were astute interpreters who didn’t shy away from controversy or raw truths about race, class and sex. They understood the gray nuances of life in a company town. After everything that had happened to Bassett, and to their friends and families, they wanted the story, finally, to be told.

And they were kind, never once letting me leave their home without handing over an icy bottle of water and a pack of Nabs for the road, thinking my hour-long ride home to Roanoke from Bassett was fraught with danger at every turn. Junior insisted on driving my Subaru down his winding driveway, both of them admonishing me to “be careful” and “have a blessed day!” as I drove away.

They helped me research family stories, volunteered for fact-finding errands to save me the drive, and once, during a visit with our mutual friend Naomi Hodge-Muse, they literally had me in tears and collapsed on the floor. The stories featured William “Porkchop” Estes — a neighbor who was Naomi’s stepfather and Ruby Bassett’s longtime driver — and another relative of Naomi’s who once blew out his television set with a shotgun after watching a wrestler take a slam in the privates. (“Just because he didn’t like what he saw on TV!”)

The stories had nothing to do with furniture-making or the global economy. But listening to them made for the single-most entertaining afternoon of reporting my book.

I think of the Thomases every time I look in the obituaries and learn that another member of the Greatest Furniture-Making Generation has passed. These were men and women who helped construct a rich industry (as well as a rich family dynasty) while making a modest but upwardly mobile life of their own.

Eddie Wall, a Bassett native and longtime factory manager, died in August at 73. Like his grandfather and his father before him, Eddie worked for Bassett Furniture for more than three decades and was happy to describe the cutthroat and pain- and prank-filled world of American furniture-making in its heyday.

eddie wallHe gave me names and phone numbers of other people to call, and described what it was like to watch a worker die right in front of him one day at the J.D. Bassett plant. A saw had worked itself loose from a machine and flew into the main artery near the man’s groin. “You could follow the trail of blood where he was trying to get to the nurse’s office,” Eddie recalled. “I’ve often wondered if I’d thought to grab a rag and put my knee on there and hold it, maybe he could’ve made it.”

Early in my research, Eddie schooled me in both furniture lingo and southside Virginia accents. Back when I couldn’t tell whether my interviewees were calling the area where the dried lumber enters a plant the “rough end” or the “rough in,” Eddie set me straight on the rough-and-tumble rough end.

Finally, my heart goes out to 97-year-old Mabel Pullen, who lost her husband, Charles, earlier this week — at the age of 95. Their stories aren’t included in “Factory Man,” because I only met them recently while reporting another story related to food insecurity, prompted by cuts to the federal food stamp program.

But we spoke about what it was like to be born into a sharecropping family in the Jim Crow South, and they reinforced many of the stories I’d heard from others. About not learning to read because you were too busy working the fields when the tobacco came in and couldn’t go to school. About the pros of factory work (buying property, a family first) and the cons (discrimination and tough working conditions).

It was a privilege to meet Charlie Pullen, though he was no longer lucid enough to talk. Still trim at 95, he displayed a hearty appetite as his daughter, Janet Johnson, whipped up four eggs and a skillet full of gravy on a late-October morning, and he lapped up every bite.

The couple would have qualified for food stamps but they were too proud to apply, Janet explained. One reader was so moved by the newspaper story that he sent me a very generous check for them. So back to Truevine I drove  the week before Thanksgiving to deliver the gift. When Janet saw it, she showed me the Thanksgiving dinner wish list she’d just jotted down. She said she’d had no idea how she was going to buy the food.

“God bless you a double potion,” she said, hugging me and saying she’d put the donor’s name on her church prayer list.

I often tell people that working as a reporter is like getting paid to get a graduate degree in whatever you’re interested in.

But the even bigger gift is getting to know people like Charlie Pullen, Mary Thomas and Eddie Wall.

May their souls rest in peace, and may my words do them the justice they deserve.

Janet Johnson, 70, feeds her parents breakfast most mornings at their Franklin County home in Truevine. Roanoke Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis

Janet Johnson, 70, feeds her parents breakfast most mornings at their Franklin County home in Truevine. Charlie Pullen (right) passed away earlier this week at the age of 95. Roanoke Times photo by Stephanie Klein-Davis

Prologue to the prologue: The agony of organization

I’m sure I’ve written 90,000 words before in my career, but never all in one contiguous line. I’ve just signed my name to a legal contract with Little, Brown & Co. swearing to deliver nine-ty freak-in’ THOU-sand words by  June 3, 2013. Lord help me.

I feel like I did when I returned from cholera riots in Haiti in November 2010 and could not stop obsessing over my three notebooks full of interviews. If I didn’t type them up immediately in my sleep-deprived state, the house might burn down and I would lose them. (As if I wouldn’t then have a slightly bigger problem at hand.)

All my life I’ve wanted to write a book. It took me two decades to find the right big subject — globalization of the furniture industry — and the right main character, John Bassett III, the man from the storied furniture-making family who fought to keep his Galax workers employed.

If all goes well, “Factory Man” will have historical heft and contemporary relevance. Heroes will appear, and villains, too, along with my usual cast of underdogs — barbers, librarians and filling-station attendants; men and women who toiled in finishing rooms, glue stations and a place furniture folk call the “rough end.”

My book will come to a rough end if I don’t figure out how to manage the growing stacks of archival pictures and interviews and clippings I’m amassing by the day. Before I wrote my first word, I felt exactly like I did post-Haiti: freaked out about my material — how to keep it safe and manageable, how to remember what it is I already know.

Like most anxiety episodes, this one made little sense but did serve a purpose. Fretting over how to organize my stuff gave me pre-writing focus, something beyond, holy crap Batman, how am I going to write 90,000 words?

Luckily, my editor, John Parsley, suggested I call another of his journalist/authors, Annie Jacobsen, for tactical advice. Annie’s writing her second book, on the heels of her bestselling “Area 51,” and she didn’t answer my strategy questions so much as she intuited exactly what I needed to hear, beginning with: “You’ve got tons of time!” and “Take a deep breath!” and “Trust me, you’ve got the absolute best editor in the world.”

Organizing the material would come to me organically, she promised, and it was OK if I didn’t take the time to transcribe every word of every interview I recorded (but it’s good to notate my handwritten notes with recording time stamps for fact-checking later ).

Those books I’m reading and Post-It noting to death? It’s OK if I don’t type up every underlined word. Annie spends 12 hours a day in a room with Nazis — the subject of her current book — who appear to her in marked-up books, inside file folders of declassified military documents and on a screen full of digital rectangles. As with my project, some of her material is in computer files (she raves about Lion, the new Imac search engine), and some of it’s in the swarm of papers surrounding her desk. Among her tips:

• Footnote the hell out of your material as you write — whether you plan on keeping them in the final product or not — so you remember from whence every fact came.

• Break down the number of words you need to write weekly and assign yourself mini-deadlines, leaving a full month pre-deadline to edit and rewrite.

• By the time you get to chapter 18, you’ve been writing for so long that “all that typing pays off and you’re writing really well, and all your experience catches up with you, and it’s a gift from the heavens,” she told me. “In that regard, the rewriting and editing becomes actually really joyful.” Oh, how I hope.

Most importantly, she said: The more you write, the more you know where you’re going. The more irresistibly original facts you uncover, the better the bones of the book. “I’m constantly charging through my material looking for the single detail that’s going to make my chapter. Then I reverse-engineer from that.”

Upon Annie’s advice, I stopped reporting and started writing, after spending a fruitful couple of weeks in Bassett, mostly at the fabulous Bassett Historical Center, where librarian Pat Ross is  my new best friend. (Who else would know that the large building on the right of this picture is the old Riverside Hotel, and that innkeeper Miss Mattie Smith used to sell bag lunches for the train passengers when they stopped at the Bassett station?)

I also took time to set up a chapter-by-chapter filing system for notes, sources and text, suggested by my Nieman Fellow pal Shankar Vedantam, who wrote “The Hidden Brain.” I owe Shankar a huge debt for suggesting a work strategy I have come to think of as “Shankar Five Years From Now” during one of our Nieman seminars in 2010. It involves waking up at 5 every morning to work on personal projects before you go to your day job — the idea being that, if you work very hard, the personal projects will become your day job. That method echoed loudly last fall when my Roanoke Times colleague Ralph Berrier (“If Trouble Don’t Kill Me”) baited me into writing the proposal for this book, explaining that he’d written his while working full-time and with a newborn baby in the house. “Write the damn thing, Macy. Just do it!” (We Midwesterners are mightily swayed by guilt.)

I’m only halfway through my second chapter. Not that I’m counting or anything, but I’ve written and rewritten 4,000 words. Many of them will get deleted and reworked, I know, and there’s a good chance I’ll get to the end before I realize that the beginning is glaringly wrong. E.L. Doctorow once said that book-writing is “like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

In other words, focus only on what’s in front of you, do that, then do the next little bit.

My groovy financial planner Tom Nasta e-mailed a version of the same advice last week. When we bought our first-ever new car last year, Quaker Tom reassured me the money was well-spent: “It’s OK. Jesus would have driven a Subaru!” Tom’s latest nugget is a quote from the writer R.H. Blyth: “Think of Zen, of the Void, of Good and Evil, and you are bound hand and foot. Think only and entirely and completely of what you are doing in the moment and you are free as a bird.”

Now that I’ve stopped fretting over where to put stuff, I’m actually writing my book. The recipe is sure to change, but for now it’s deep breath followed by juicy detail followed by deep breath. Repeat 90,000 times.

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