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Unlikely stories

This story appears as the prologue in Gary Lloyd’s book, Valley Road: Uplifting Stories from Down SouthGet it here.

 

Prologue: Unlikely stories

Many crime-related articles become commonplace, when you are a newspaper reporter.

You grow accustomed to dialing the phone number of a sheriff’s office, texting with a police captain, refreshing your email waiting on a press release.

You discover what questions to ask and when. You figure out who the best sources are. You learn how to dehumanize the subjects you write about so that you can sleep at night. You determine ways to get through interviews with grieving relatives with a straight face.

I was a local news reporter and editor for just a handful of years, but I saw my share of crazy. In my first week in Mississippi, a county prisoner slipped his arm between metal bars, pointed at me and said, “I know you. You’re that reporter.” I slept with an aluminum baseball bat behind my nightstand for weeks.

In that same town, I watched visitors get arrested for attempting to introduce contraband into the jail. They had stashed cigarettes in a bottle of baby powder. I sipped a Bud Light on my porch one evening, watching my neighbors be handcuffed for possessing marijuana, cocaine and who knows what else. I was told they would likely be deported.

You have to learn to separate your feelings from the subjects of your articles. I snapped photos of a burning home one afternoon, and all I could think about was how heartbroken the family would be when it arrived. It turned out to be a drug house. I sped to a county highway cut between rows of pine trees, where a dump truck had crashed head-on with a large SUV. The occupants had already been airlifted to the hospital. I took pictures of a green vehicle that looked more like a compressed accordion. There was a pool of blood in the driver seat, and flecks of red all over the dashboard. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

In Alabama, I kept a close eye out for an on-the-run career criminal who beat up a cop and stole his police cruiser. I spoke regularly via email with a relative of an elderly man gunned down in his own home. I typed words about a woman in her twenties who was murdered, her body dumped behind a building and burned. I wrote about cold-blooded murders, heinous robberies, dozens of residential burglaries and more cases involving children than I care to think about.

Over time, your senses are shut off to these types of stories. You’ve seen these things, so the next occurrence doesn’t shock you. It’s just another high-traffic generator for your website, more black words on newsprint. I was no stranger to losing that compassion, to dehumanizing the people involved. To write about such coarse happenings, it is a necessity. But one story shifted my perspective.

There was this young guy, not even old enough to buy a six-pack, and he walked to an acquaintance’s home. I don’t know what his intent was, but the story from the sheriff’s office was that he went to sell his friend a cellphone. While facing his “friend,” he pulled out a pistol. The man, much older than the perpetrator, was shot in the arm. The young man fled but was caught later that morning. Authorities threw the book at him, charging him with attempted murder and robbery in the first degree. Your life doesn’t go back to normal after those charges.

At some point after covering the ordeal, the young man’s father hunted down my cell phone number. I have no idea how he found it, but he was not happy. I believe he thought that some bit of information was inaccurate. I assured him that I got all my information from official sources, such as prison records and sheriff’s office spokesmen. It turned out that the man’s anger was simply misguided.

We ended up having a productive conversation. He talked about his son getting involved with the wrong crowd, and how much he had tried to help. Then, we talked about the area in which he lived, a somewhat rundown stretch of roadway, Valley Road, that the city didn’t claim as its own. It was unincorporated. He wanted me to come out and shed some light on improvements the residents were trying to make, to prove that there were some upstanding people there. I reluctantly agreed.

I met him in the parking lot behind an old church that sat atop a hill near the interstate. His New Balance shoes and blue jean shorts were flecked with gray paint, and he wore a yellow bandage on one index finger. He worked hard for a living. We talked about the community center behind the church, where he attended a Head Start Program as a child. We discussed his painting and general construction business. He told me about the desire of the residents in that area to be incorporated into the city, that they were doing their best with not a lot of money to try to raise the bar.

We chatted about outreach initiatives, repairing the community center, July Fourth fireworks shows and recreation areas. It was apparent that these people were somewhat embarrassed by their stretch of roadway, that they wanted to improve it. But how do you pour money you don’t have into something? Regardless, I interviewed the man, and the church’s pastor, spending most of a blazing hot afternoon with them. I quoted the man several times about many subjects, but I remember a few of his words standing out. He mentioned that the residents of that area were “kind of the forgotten ones” in the city.

How piercing of a quote is that? It stuck with me. I applied it to many newspaper articles after that. I wanted to tell the stories that mattered the most to people, and tell them well. I wanted to be their voice. I wanted them to be remembered, not forgotten.

It is the reason this book is titled “Valley Road,” not just because it is the place where some light switched on for me as a journalist, but also because of the road itself. You can look at Valley Road in two ways, depending on your destination. You can come from one direction, and descend a steep hill into Valley Road, from the top to the bottom. Or, you can drive from the other direction, and see the tattered homes first, and climb that steep hill that leads to a beautiful church, and an overlook of a pleasant neighborhood. I choose the latter of the two. For me, it’s a metaphor. You can be in the doldrums, in the valley, but you can climb out of it to something better. There can always be a positive, inspiring ending.

These days, those stories are tough to find. They hide behind many things, such as clickbait, celebrity gossip and the relatively new phenomenon known as fake news. I have seen how many more page views an article about a burglary gets over a teenager defeating cancer, and that stinks. That is the sole reason for this book, and its title. This book is full of short stories that are meant to make you smile and inspire you. This book runs the gamut, from a story of a puppy with asthma all the way to a man in his nineties with dementia who remembers how to play songs on the piano. There are stories of high school coaches, a journalism class and even an eighteen-wheeler ramming through a house, stopping just short of a man taking an afternoon nap.

There are stories of a woman driving people home in an ice storm, a wedding ring lost in a tornado found on Valentine’s day and strangers sticking positive notes on mailboxes.

There are stories of inspiring people, such as the cross country coach who hasn’t changed his home phone number since 1987, so that his runners can always reach him. There are stories of beautiful places, from the historical streets of Boston to the serene river flowing slowly through Ellijay, Georgia. There are stories of the South’s beauty and simplicity, from neighborhood block parties to the sting of selling your pickup truck.

I hope these stories calm you when you’re angry, pick you up when you’re feeling down,  inspire you when you think things can’t get better. More than anything else, I hope you relate to them. I hope you think about a coach you had in high school, a family vacation you took to the mountains, a love letter you nervously penned. I hope those personal stories come rushing back to you, and that you never forget them.

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