West Virginia. I hear her voice…

I woke up at 4 a.m. in the morning thinking about West Virginia. I could not go back to sleep. The more I didn’t sleep, the more I thought about it. And I thought about it in dreamy, misty, almost spiritual ways, about the people and the life of living there. People that I knew, and the faces of people I did not know but had seen, driving by their home maybe sharing a glance. This meandering post came out of that sleeplessness and waves of imagery that floated in my head in the darkness of our bedroom in Atlanta. 

Most people experience the state driving on the way through it to somewhere else. They can sneak a peek of the beauty from these interstates, cruising along at 70 miles an hour, when the road isn’t bending madly around hilltops, blowing by the farmland, mountains and valleys. Occasionally, if your dad drives close enough to the bridge railing, and you’re sitting on the right side of the car, you strain your neck and look way down to a speck of river hundreds of feet below. You can even imagine being down there on that river looking up at the bridge. Then, you’re gone. Gone to wherever you’re going, but not here. 

Life in West Virginia is not lived on these highways. Life here, the living that John Denver memorialized in “Take Me Home Country Roads,” is lived deep in the ancient crevices cut out by running water flowing through high ground. It’s lived up dirt roads cut out of these hills over a hundred years ago by men with mean tools, horses, mules and will. These roads crawl, twist and turn like the stream beds they follow. Coming around a bend might reveal a house on the other side of the crick, but it seldom uncovers people. People are sparse and hidden in the mists constantly hanging in the air, guarding the hollers like a blanket. These folk are hangers on. Hanging on to a living long past. Hanging on to life by a thread. Hanging on to a memory of the energy fueled by mining the bituminous coal that long ago left town, leaving the poorest conditions in the country. 

If energy drives riches, poverty drowns the fire like a bucket of water.

Living is slow here because there’s little where to go, and even less to do. Unless you farm. But farming is a rugged and meager livelihood. West Virginia isn’t called The Mountain State for nothing. It’s the only state completely within the Appalachian Mountain region.  

So what got me thinking of West Virginia when I woke up at 4 a.m. in the morning? A recent phone call with my friend, John Waller, a proud West Virginian. Determined. Hard working. Smart. Oh, and stubborn. Did I mention that? S-t-u-double b-o-r-n: Stubborn.

He was not happy that President Biden had cancelled the permit for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline by Executive Order, reversing Trump’s Executive Order issuing the governmental approval. John said that Biden killed over 8,000 jobs with that pen stroke. He said he was now “waiting for the windmills to show up.” 

I guess that I should also have said that John can be pretty witty, an only slightly veiled cover for sarcasm with his “waiting for the windmills.”

I realized how little I knew about the pipeline outside of it having been highly controversial for over more than a decade and I said so on the call. I agreed that, on its face, losing any jobs today is not good. I promised to dig into it some. Which I did. More about that later.

Then John asked a question that at the start I thought was more sarcasm until I realized that he was being very serious. 

“Where are the reparations for those generations of hard working West Virginia coal miners who worked those mines at the cost of their health and lives? Where are the reparations for the families that owned the land but not the minerals in the ground?” he asked. He continued to reflect on how all of that coal that powered America and the World, pulled and stripped out from underneath these hills made a lot of people, mostly people not from nor living in West Virginia, rich beyond imagination. “They took the coal, the money and left West Virginia the second poorest state in the country, ranking only slightly higher than Mississippi. 

I had no answer to that. I had never thought of it that way nor heard it put in the form of reparations. And, frankly, it hurt my heart. 

That’s why West Virginia was on my mind. 

John and I go back a long way. He’s been a best friend for 52 of the 53 years I’ve known him. Somewhere in there we took a break. Of course it had something to do with a girl. We met when we were 14 and, believe me, there’s a ton of stories to share about our times together…later, but not now. My dad and John’s father, Cam, worked for the same company. Because of their work in West Virginia, I know something personally about this vast state. I’ve not just seen it from off of the highways, I helped build the highways where there were none. I mean, in a very minuscule way, I did, just as John, my brothers and some close friends of ours did as well. 

There are several major highways that flow through the state of West Virginia today. Interstate- 77 and 79 run North and South. I-64 runs East and West and they all converge on Charleston, the state capitol and largest city. It’s home to 46,536 residents (2010 Census.) And that is the state’s biggest city!

The time that I spent there, the really formative time in my life that I spent there, were the summers jacked in between my college years. Starting in the Summer of 71, following my graduating from Durham High School until I finished at UNC-CH in 1975, I worked on road jobs in Burnsville and Wolf Summit, WV, and lived in West Union. I also spent a lot of time on the Farm in Pennsboro. Look these places up. “Town” is too big of a name for them. They were villages and hamlets by size.

My dad was an executive for Nello L. Teer Company, a Durham-based international construction company. They built roads, highways and dams. We talk today of rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, but it was Eisenhower’s Interstate Highway Act that is the MacDaddy of the U.S. government investing in infrastructure, the largest American public works to that time.  This act, justified as a national defense program tied to the need to be able to evacuate cities in case of attack, became the source that spurred so much more. It redefined travel and shipping from rail to car and truck. It made travel safer, cheaper and more convenient. It created a whole industry of service centers along the way. It also bypassed small towns, stealing their commerce from travelers, broke up farms, led to the flight from cities to the suburbs. It also created more carbon pollutants as a by-product to increased automobile traffic. 

But, for me, it fueled the growth of Teer Company and my dad’s career. It also provided jobs for me, my brothers and sisters, whenever we wanted them. And, once we turned 18, we were old enough to work in the “field,” meaning that we could work on a construction project and make triple the pay of office work. 

So, that’s what I did, joining my older brother in West Virginia. And, that’s how I know villages like Burnsville, West Union, Wolf Summit and Pennsboro. Places that number in the hundreds of citizens, not thousands or hundreds of thousands. Places that are even smaller today than yesteryear, when I lived in them working on I-79 and on U.S. Route 50. 

That’s what took me to Burnsville, my first highway job, halfway between Charleston and Morgantown, the whole way into the middle of nowhere. 

Cam was the superintendent of this job and another operation an hour away. John worked on the job on the pipe crew. My brother, Lin, came up later in the summer too. 

I do have a sidebar to inject here, sort of deep background. 

I had convinced two high school buddies, John Katzenmeyer and Bob Umberger, to join me working on the job, for the money and the experience. Then, at the last moment, I backed out for the love of a girl, my high school sweetheart. I deservedly took a lot of crap from Bob and John. They went up without me anyway. I started the summer working on Teer’s Durham Roads and Streets division, mostly laying curb and gutter on new roads in town. The long hot days left me too spent to spend time with my girlfriend, and I was making a half the wages my buddies were raking in West Virginia. Plus, they were egging me on to come up, telling me how much fun they were having being on their own for the first time.

After just a few weeks, I changed my mind. I moved in with them in a small home they were renting with John on the main road of running through Burnsville. Carl, the elderly landlord, lived in the back room with his own back door entrance, leaving us two small bedrooms, a living area, a one-butt kitchen and one bath. We could occasionally hear the old man but we almost never saw him.

I did not serve in the military, but the Summer of ‘71 became my boot camp and Cam was my drill instructor. He seemed to take personal pleasure in making me miserable, assigning me to the fence crew instead of operating equipment like my brother. He also kept John and me apart on the job, probably so we wouldn’t stir ourselves into trouble together. He was, like the mission of every DI, going to make a man out of me if it killed me. 

Cam said, “If you shake it more than once…”

My first morning reporting to the job, we road with John Waller in his 1966 Thunderbird the few miles over to the parking area at the job site. At 6:45 a.m. I met the other three guys on our crew and we all crawled into the bed of our foreman’s company pickup for the ride up to the day’s work site. As we were pulling out, one of the guy’s started putting something in his mouth and offered it to me. I told him the I didn’t chew tobacco. He smiled and said, “This ain’t tobacco. It’s marijuana. And you don’t chew it. You dip it like snuff, just a pinch between your lip and gum.” 

I thanked him and, surprisingly, declined his offer. Why? Well, “A,” I’m the son of the vice president of the company. And, “B,” well, how about just “No.” The idea of it was too weird. So, weird that I’ve never forgotten that adaptation of getting a buzz.  

We turned off of the hard surface road on to a trail road that dipped through a rocky creek bed, crawling up and over rocky terrain, grinding and bouncing up the steep grade, the engine straining until eventually we climbed to where the cleared land ended and that Ford couldn’t go any farther. 

We jumped out of the back and Bob and I turned away to take a leak over the ridge. Water had just started to flow when I heard Cam’s voice. “Boys, if you shake it more than once, you’re playing with it. Now let’s get going!” 

Caught by surprise, I laughed, put things in their proper place, zipped up and turned around with a smile on my face, to see Cam for the first time since I’d arrived. He…was not smiling. He was serious and stern showing no indication that we even knew each other. “Come on, now. Let’s get going,” he added, all business-like. 

We did.. And I knew things were different on the job between Cam and me. I wasn’t the VP’s son. I was nobody special. Damn it! And, man was I glad at that moment that I hadn’t accepted that dip of marijuana. Would have been a major buzz-kill. I realized later that Cam’s point was to let the other guys on the job also know that I wasn’t getting special treatment.

Our foreman started handing out the tools we’d need for the work ahead: standard issue shovels of different shapes and pick axes for digging. It was also when I first met the spud bar. That thick steel rod about six feet long, one to two inches in width, weighing 15-20 pounds, with a chisel point on one end and sharp point on the other. It’s used to bang and pry through rocks while digging a hole. I grew to hate that bar until I understood it and stopped fighting it. 

If and when you do drive through West Virginia I challenge you to look for the fences on the side of the highway that were mandated parts of the Interstate plan, put there to keep animals off of the highway. In the hill country, those fences tended to be way up the side of the hill around which the road was being cut. We often had to portage our tools, fencing wire and posts up the hill when no truck or bull dozer could make the climb. The worst was carrying mixed concrete in 5 gallon buckets used to secure “pull” posts – the posts that took the most tension in the fence. One full bucket weighed 100 pounds! I only weighed in then at 125!!! 

Needless to say, it was an experience in my life like no other. I learned very quickly just how hard work could be, where everything that you get done goes through your hands, your arms, your legs and your feet. How you felt it in each muscle until you were stretched so far you could no longer feel. I learned how important it was to protect your hands and to watch your step. I found out too quickly how little my work in the flat land of Durham had prepared me for working in these hills. And I wondered if I was a match for it. 

I just realized that I have not properly introduced you to our foreman. His name was Everette Dodson. Everette was a very fit middle-aged man with a big chest and strong, deliberate arms. His hair was cut high and tight like a military crew cut hidden underneath his hard hat. He had clear eyes and a clean spirit. He showed up every morning dressed in crisp work pants and clean boots, ready for the day ahead. 

Bob reminded me that Everette had once run a hardware store in Pennsboro that folded. That’s when he began working for Cam and Teer Company. He also had driven a bus for Greyhound at one point in his life, and was the first to drive a commercial bus across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel when it opened. So, he’s in a record book somewhere. 

Everette was not the smartest person we would ever meet, and he certainly gave us plenty of reasons to laugh about things he did or said. But there wasn’t a mean bone in that man’s body. Looking back, I think about the position he was in, running this small crew mostly made up of local young men, with the added and possibly dicey responsibility for me and my friends.

To his credit, Everette took Cam’s lead, and treated us like we were nobody special in any way other than we were on his crew. His team. And I think he was proud to lead a team, even if it was just the fence crew, to wear a yellow hat identifying him as a foreman, driving a company truck. He enjoyed it. It was hard, honest work.

As affable as he was, he didn’t mince words if we were a minute late for our 6:45 a.m. call time. Even though our shift started at 7 a.m., we had to be present, accounted for and in his truck by 6:45 a.m. in order for him to have us on the job by 7. And when we completed a good hard day’s work, he showed his appreciation as he dropped us back in the dirt parking lot with a “Thanks for the good work today boys. I’ll see ya tomorrow if the creek don’t rise.”

Memory is a funny thing in that sometimes what you remember are the silliest and unimportant moments, like snapshots. Everette had been giving us city boys some good-natured shit about our hair for sometime. One hot day, while we were eating lunch way up on the hill in woods, sitting down around the fence holes we were digging, Everette stared at me for a minute. Then he said, “I bet I could braid that hair of yours.” I laughed, eating my bologna sandwich and said, “Well, give it a try.” He sat on a big rock behind me and commenced to braiding, and by the end of lunch I had two very imprecisely braided pig-tails hanging out of my hard hat. It makes me laugh to this day thinking about what this small town, ex-military fella whose own hair had never been more than a quarter inch in length felt doing that.  

The stars of the show on the job operated the heavy equipment. These were the skilled players running bulldozers, scrapers, motor graders or Gradall backhoes. So much of the work they do from atop these huge pieces of equipment was by feel and instinct because they couldn’t see exactly what their blade was doing. They had to feel it and know it based on experience. They were able to move earth with the precision of a surgeon. Cam, a former operator himself back in the day, loved to say that he could “scratch your back” with Gradall. These men were cultivated by the company and they tended move from job to job with Cam. They lived out of campers that they parked on the job near the parking lot or rented a room with other guys, leaving their families “back home,” wherever that might have been. They didn’t want to drag their wife and kids all around, uprooting them every couple of years.

They had names like Roger Goodnight, Willie Be and Flavius Haynes. And, of course, there were the popular Red, Whitey and Shorty. My favorite nickname was Titty Pie, an older bulldozer operator and one of the best in the business. A quieter man you have never met. He pretty much spoke with his work, and he was very, very good.  

The manual laborers, like the fence or pipe crew, came mostly from local hires, and tended not to have nicknames or legendary stories behind them. They worked hard, but with shovels, picks and spud bars, known more for their strength than skill. They came out of the villages and hollers nearby the job, the job that was cutting their land apart and running civilization right through it.  

I did finally work my way up to running equipment. Here I’m standing next to the D8 Caterpillar bulldozer I ran in 84, PA in 1975-1976.

Us boys from Durham made for a real topic of conversation for the good folks of Burnsville. To them, we were city slickers coming from the big city as we paraded up main street from our house to use the pay phone across from the one restaurant/cafe in town. Our hair and beards were starting to grow out meet the 70’s. We talked and dressed different…when we weren’t working. And, by the way, we knew we were different and we swaggered maybe a bit much.  

It was like living in another country in another time. And, we knew that with the end of summer, we would go back to college. They would not. Not then. Not ever.

So that began my relationship with West “By God” Virginia. I have so many more stories to tell, about working there, yes, but more about living there. The Farm, the Wallers, my buddies. I think it will be a good time. So, I’m going to do that in segments, sort of continuing episodes as they come to me. At least, that’s my plan. None of it is written yet. It’s a kind of a living writing experience. I hope you’ll stay in it with me. 

Back to Keystone XL pipeline. Turns out, I learned what many of you may already knew. There is already a Keystone pipeline that originates in the oil sands of Alberta, Canada. The XL version will be a larger pipe that runs a straighter route to Steele City, Nebraska where it would tie into the original Keystone pipeline. This BBC article explains why it has been so controversial. 

According to this fact-check article from the respected source of the Austin American-Statesmen, the jobs lost by Biden’s pen stroke were temporary jobs, most only on paper, not hired and working yet. Most would only last four to eight months, and, all would end after the pipeline would be finished. After finishing the pipeline construction it would on produce 35 full time jobs to keep it maintained and flowing. Oh, and much of that small number would be in Canada, not the U.S. 

This is when “what is a job” matters and one piece of that definition lies in how long a job lasts. The government counts full time jobs a year at the time. Even if the pipeline does employ 11,000 different workers over the short duration of the project, since they are temporary, it would boil down to 3,400 jobs, not 11,000. And, after the work is done, the company is done with the workers. 

It’s very different than killing full-time jobs that could last decades and provide a career for someone. And, it “killed” jobs “planned,” not jobs of people working right now. It didn’t send thousands of workers to the unemployment line. 

Also, if you have any interest left in you for West Virginia, here’s a very good NYT’s article on how important it has become now that the Democrats have won the House, the Presidency and, by the narrowest of margins, the Senate. And how West Virginia’s Senator Joe Manchin holds a lot of power that could prove very beneficial for the state. At long last, it might actually get a form of reparations. 

Just for fun, here are the lyrics to John Denver’s famous song that just celebrated its 50th anniversary since Denver released it on his album, “Poems, Prayers and Promises.” Side note, it almost was written, not for West Virginia, but for Massachusetts. Here’s some cool background info on how it became the hit of 1970.

Take Me Home Country Roads – by John Denver, Bill Danoff and Taffy Nivert Danoff

Almost heaven, West Virginia

Blue Ridge Mountains, Shenandoah River

Life is old there, older than the trees

Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

All my memories gather ’round her

Miner’s lady, stranger to blue water

Dark and dusty, painted on the sky

Misty taste of moonshine, teardrop in my eye

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

I hear her voice in the mornin’ hour, she calls me

The radio reminds me of my home far away

Drivin’ down the road, I get a feelin’

That I should’ve been home yesterday, yesterday

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain mama

Take me home, country roads

Take me home, down country roads

Take me home, down country roads

Two Marines landed on Iwo Jima 76 years ago today. One lived. One Died.

Today is the 76th anniversary of the day the Fighting Fourth Marine Division landed on Iwo Jima. My father was part of that landing. Eleven years ago he sent me an email that began the the following story which I re-share with you as I have done multiple times over the years. I share it because it makes me feel better re-reading and re-living the story. Maybe you will find it brings you a little joy as well, even though at the heart of it all is tragedy.

Sharing this with you helps me pay tribute to my dad who left us almost six years ago. Also, several others who are named in the story have died since 2010, namely Betty Sue Hutchins Lockhart and her sister, Ophelia. So, now I’m remembering them with this republishing as well and thinking of our dear friends, Dave and Vicki Lockhart, and our connection to Iwo.

Anyway, I just cut and pasted the original into this post so please keep in mind that it was first written in February of 2010. So, instead of “65 Years Ago” it is 76.

65 Years Ago He Was Staring at Iwo – Revisited 2012 

FIRST PUBLISHED February 20, 2010

I was upstairs last night in between a late Friday night dinner and a movie that Julie and I were about to start up. I hadn’t checked my personal email all day and did a quick scan on my iPhone. I saw the message from “Homer Riley” with an scanned attachment. 

Now, Mom and Dad live in a retirement community in Durham, NC. The whole place has been under quarantine for weeks after an outbreak of a virus hit 85 or so of the residents, including Mom and Dad. So an email from them grabbed my attention even more than usual. 

The email subject line read, in all lower case, “iwo jima”. I opened it, thinking the old marine and Iwo veteran had passed on someone else’s pass-along about that historic battle. So I opened it. Written in all caps were these words:






No attribution. No explanation. Just a scanned document from Dad.

I had little sense of Homer’s narrative writing style since he rarely writes more than a few paragraphs at a time, but I felt in my bones that he had written this. 

I stood in the bedroom, stuck in place, reading it over again. I was struck with the immensity of meaning lying in wait inside of each short sentence. The opening put me standing on the side of that ship in his place. I felt the incredible sense of mission and duty which he stated in such a matter of fact manner. Its poignant but clipped ending summed up the force, courage, fear, death, survival, and victory, almost as if to say, “That’s all there is to say about that.” 

Almost as if on queue, my phone rang. It was Dad. I told him that I had, at that moment, just finished reading his email. 

“Well,” he said, “Today is the 65th Anniversary of Iwo. No one has mentioned it anywhere; not on the TV, not in the papers or radio, so I just decided that I would write about it.

“There are more details that I could put in there but I decided to leave them out. It might be too much for most to read.” And then he went on to tell me more.

“One thing I remember was what the captain said that morning before the assault. ‘Men, we’re serving you steak and eggs for breakfast today. You might wonder why steak and eggs. Well, for many of you it will be your last breakfast. We want it to be a good one.’ 

“How’s that for optimism?,” Dad chuckled. 

“Dad, I can’t tell you how glad we are that it wasn’t your last breakfast,” I countered. 

“Well, I just wanted to make sure that you got it because I was getting a kickback on your email address. I tried your .mac account, then your gmail, then Julie’s.”

“I didn’t know you could scan stuff,” I said. 

“Never have, but I wasn’t sure how to get the document into the email, so I printed it and scanned it. It seemed to work.”

That’s my dad in a nutshell. When he needs to, he figures stuff out because he’s just built that way.

I told him how much I loved him and appreciated what he and his fellow soldiers did to save the world. He said, “Well, I just thought someone should write something and maybe it was my turn.” That’s a Marine for you. They don’t wait around for others to act. They “do”.

We hung up. I couldn’t move. For years Dad would not raise the subject of the war. He talked only about the Corp, the unity of mission, the boot camp hard lessons learned that he’s lived by for the rest of his life. But not about the war, not until he’d been retired for a while and was given more to reflection and storytelling. That’s when I heard about his friend, Hutch, who died on Iwo, shot in a foxhole a 100 yards away from him. 

And now, he’s writing about things. And I thank God and Country for him every moment, and for the 65 years of sunrises he’s witnessed since then. Maybe it’s that appreciation of living that gets him up so early every morning. Or maybe he’s just built that way. Whatever. History tells the rest of the story. 

Then, the night that I posted this story, the phone rang. It was our Atlanta friend, Vicki Lockhart. She’d just finished reading it. She knew who Hutch was!

The Coincidence of Living and Dying

It was one word  in the very last part of the Saturday, February 20, 2010 posting about the 65th anniversary of Iwo Jima that sparked a connection that raised Dad’s remembrance of the day to a new level of “small world inside of the biggest of wars”.

For years Dad would not raise the subject of the war. He talked only about the Corp, the unity of mission, the boot camp hard lessons learned that he’s lived by for the rest of his life. But not about the war, not until he’d been retired for a while and was given more to reflection and storytelling. That’s when I heard about Dad’s friend, Hutch, who died on Iwo, shot in his foxhole 100 yards away from him. 

I sent out the email link to my posting at 5:59 p.m. on a self-imposed deadline to get it out that day, one day after Dad reminded me of the anniversary. Julie and I were rushing to leave for a charity event in town, but I kept working the effort it takes to publish to the website in between showering and shaving. 

I verified that it was up and all square even while Julie waited with a slight amount of impatience, sent the link to my blog list of semi-subscribers/conscripted list of friends and colleagues, and off we went. 

Two hours later Julie saw that she had received a voice mail from our friend, Vicki Lockhart. Julie listened to it as we walked to the car on our way to the second event of the night, Val Ashton’s surprise birthday party. 

“Wow!” she exclaimed. “You’re not going to believe this but Vicki read your blog and says that Hutch was Dave’s uncle! We’ve got to call them.” We jumped into the car and I quickly checked my email before we pulled out. There were two from Vicki. 

7:58 p.m. Hutch is David’s Uncle (his Mom’s brother)! His last name was Hutchins.  All the Marines called him Hutch.  He died at Iwo.  His brother (another Hutchins) was on the ship as well.  He survived.  The family is from Hillsborough, NC – they had 10 children.  Betty Sue Hutchins is David’s Mom. 

7:59 p.m. David’s Dad was on USS Fayette.  They have been trying to find out what ship Hutch was on.  See if your Dad knows.

I can’t begin to describe how excited the prospect of this connection made us all. If it turned out to be true, it would make Dad’s remembrance even more special. We called the Lockharts. Vicki’s husband, Dave, got on the phone and retold the small fragment of information that has become the family lore of Hutch’s death in combat. 

Hutch and his brother were both Marines and in the attack on Iwo. All the family knew about how Hutch died was that “he got it” on Iwo. Dave couldn’t wait to call his mother to tell her. He said that we needed to get her and Dad together. 

After I got home I checked a newspaper article from the Durham Herald-Sun paper on Veterans Day 2008 in which Dad told of the loss of his buddy. The article used “Hutchinson” as the last name, not “Hutchins.” And it said that “Hutchinson” was from Durham, not Hillsborough. Too close not to be the same young man, but still, I wasn’t completely convinced. Not yet.

With some mild feeling of disappointment I sent an email to Vicki copying the information from the article with the seeds of doubt.

Sunday morning I found more emails from Vicki. She had been working it already. 

7:44 a.m. His first name WAS Lewis – the other brother was Herbie.  At first I was writing Hutchinson as Betty Sue’s last name – then David reminded me it was Hutchins so that is an easy mistake to make.

A call to Dad erased any doubt. First, I told him that I had shared his memory in my blog and that it taken quite an interesting turn. I asked him if Hutch’s name was “Hutchinson” or “Hutchins.” Dad said that the newspaper got the name confused. His buddy was Lewis “Hutch” Hutchins. That’s when I told him about the direct link to Hutch’s family and our friends, the Lockharts. He remembered that Hutch had a little brother serving as well who was in the battle but Dad couldn’t recall his name. I asked if “Herbie” rang a bell. “Yep! That’s it all right. Herbie Hutchins.” 

“Well,” he said. “My little story has unraveled something hasn’t it.” 

“Yep, it sure has,” I replied. “Dave wants you and his mother, Hutch’s sister, Betty Sue Hutchins, to get together.”

“We’ll have to do that,” he replied. 

“I’ll let you know what develops next,” I said. “Meanwhile, check your email and read the blog.”

We hung up and I started to write this update to, as we call it at Channel 2, a developing story. 

Then, the phone rang and it was Vicki.

“You are not going to believe what I just found out!” she said. 

Shink, Joe, Hervey, Hutch & Homer

“Remember that Dave’s mother, Betty Sue, is one of ten children in the Hutchins family,” said Vicki. “She and Hutch have a sister who lives here in Atlanta and I just got off the most amazing phone call with her. Her given name is Ophelia, but everyone has always called her ‘Shink’.

“I phoned her this morning and before I could  begin to tell her about your father’s story and Hutch, she told me that she was watching Clint Eastwood’s film, ‘Letters from Iwo Jima’, on AMC. She always watched anything that was about Iwo Jima because of her two brothers, Hutch and Hervey, even something from the Japanese point of view. 

“She said that watching that movie made her remember her brother, Hutch, and, are you ready for this? His best buddy in the service, Homer Riley!

“I about flipped when she said that,” Vicki exclaimed, so totally caught up in how this whole story continued wrapping around our families. “I was writing down everything Shink said on scraps of paper, napkins, anything I could find, just to keep up with her conversation. I’ll type it up shortly and send it to you, but I just had to call,” Vicki said like a full pot of coffee.

And now I was the one scribbling down everything Vicki was telling me. I was also fighting back the tears that welled up the instant she said that Shink was thinking of my father. It was like a cosmic connection between people going on without any of them knowing…until now. All that I could muster was a sobby, “You’re kidding me.”

“And,” Vicki continued, “Shink said that hearing about this old friendship so many years later was just a treasure. She repeated it, ‘Just a treasure’ as if she was saying it to herself deep in thought. She often wondered how Homer and Martha were doing. 

“Steve, Shink is just so sweet, so calm, so Southern, with so much to share,” Vicki reflected. “I just loved listening to her talk. Your dad must call her. She remembers your mom and worked with her at Duke Hospital in Durham during the war.”

From what Vicki said, Shink clearly remembered that Dad had returned to his hometown of Durham after the war to his wife and childhood sweetheart, Martha. They had married before he shipped out.

Then Vicki told her all about the story that Dad had written to recognize Iwo on its 65th anniversary and how the brief mention of Homer’s friend “Hutch” who “got it” on Iwo caught her attention, how she and Dave knew Julie and me, of our friendship over the last decade, and that I was Homer’s son. Vicki read the information from the 2008 Durham newspaper article detailing Dad’s life to Shink. 

“That’s so nice,” she told Vicki, “So nice to know that he was able to go on and live such a wonderful life, and to know that he’s still alive and well.”

She said that she had always worried that Homer would not have forgiven her for an act of a teenager. The reason boiled down to a change of heart.

“After my brothers had left for the Marines, I started dating a young man named Joe Cassidy,” Shink explained to Vicki. “Joe was from New England. He was a medic in the Marines and our paths crossed at Duke Hospital. He was very interesting. I liked him but I was too young to really know my feelings. All of those boys wanted a sweetheart or someone back home who would care. We dated until Joe shipped out to serve in the Pacific. 

“One day in the Philippines, during R&R, Joe was showing some service buddies the photograph that I had given him to carry and remember me by. Someone said, ‘Hey, what are you doing with a picture of my sister!’ Joe, who was all of five foot seven inches tall, looked up and met my brother Hutch for the first time. Hutch, a strikingly handsome fellow, 6’ 2” tall, towered over Joe and I don’t think Joe was quite sure what would happen next.

“‘Well, your sister is my girlfriend,’ Joe said. Hutch flashed that smiled that we all loved so dearly and said, ‘Well now, if you’re my sister’s boyfriend, you’re now one of my best buddies.’

“From then on, Hutch included Joe in his circle of friends and that’s how my Joe met Homer Riley,” Shink continued, reaching back into the story she had thought about so many times over the years, remembering just how small a world at war could be. “Those boys watched out for each and did everything together.”

“And that’s why Homer comes to mind when I think of Iwo. He and my brother were such good friends.”

So why would Homer harbor a grudge against Ophelia? 

“We were just kids,” she told Vicki. “Teenagers. And while Joe was overseas I broke up with him. I sent him a “Dear John” letter. I don’t think Homer appreciated the fact that I would treat his buddy that way. I still have a little charm bracelet tucked away in my jewelry box that Joe sent to me from Iwo Jima. I see it each time that I open up that box.

Lewis “Hutch” Hutchins was 19 when he signed up.  He was 6’ 2”, kind of thin and very handsome. He was known as an exceptional young man. The family expected great things of him because he was so highly regarded.  

Shink remembers him as seeming to never make a mistake. He was always caring and thoughtful. Hutch performed a lot of military service before he went into combat. He was chosen to represent the Marines in recruiting and at funerals.  

The family remembers with pride that he was one of the men raising the American flag on Saipan. He was 23 when he died on that first day on Iwo Jima.

Hervey, Hutch’s younger brother, signed up for the Marines when he was only 17. At first his father refused to sign the papers since Hervey was underage. Eventually he relented to his son’s insistence that he was going to serve with Lewis. 

So Hutch, Homer, Hervey and Joe became tight friends as they served in some of the roughest battles in the Pacific together, until Iwo took their strapping brother and brother in arms from them. 

“As the story goes, Hervey was wounded that first day on Iwo,” Shink recounted. “Recovering on a hospital ship just off of the island, the word got back to him that ‘Hutch got it.’ Hervey immediately left his ship against protocol and went back to the island to find his brother.  While he was wandering amid all of the chaos of battle looking for his brother he ran into Joe Cassidy. Joe convinced him to let the medics take care of things and that he needed to get back to the hospital ship.  Hervey’s original ship was headed back to the States with the wounded but he missed that one. He later boarded another hospital ship that stayed in the Pacific until it eventually sailed home to California. 

The Marines offered to give him a medical discharge and he refused it.  The family is not sure of any wounds but believe it was shellshock/trauma.  Hervey stayed in the Marines and was in the reserves when he died.”

This was the only account of what happened to Hutch that the family ever knew. It was all by which they were given to remember their son and brother; a lifetime boiled down to three words that have lasted 65 years. “Hutch got it.” 

It was years later, but the men reunited briefly after the war when Hutch’s remains came home to North Carolina. 

“It meant a lot to my family,” Shink remembered to Vicki, “that Homer and Martha, Joe Cassidy, and another friend in the service, Billy Dickerson, all attended the memorial service at Pleasant Green.” It meant enough for her to carry that memory for 60 some years.

I called my dad again later that Sunday afternoon and told him about Vicki’s conversation with Shink. He remembered meeting her at the funeral. He thought it sweet that she remembered him and Mom. After a quiet moment on the phone he broke the pause, “Hey, I’ve got a funny story about Hutch. We were on liberty in Honolulu, and a bunch of us went out to have lunch. The little girl at the soda shop said they had really good apple pie.

“So I ordered the apple pie a la ode. All of the other guys said they wanted the same. Hutch was the last to order and he said, ‘I would like that apple pie too but would you add some vanilla ice cream on top of mine?’” 

I thought, what a bunch of cut ups, out for a burger in a diner in Hawaii. All just being the young men that they were. All thinking about something as American as apple pie, and laughing at a silly joke a la Mode. None knowing what was to come, but each one knowing that hell lay 45 days away from Honolulu on a seemingly insignificant island call Iwo Jima.

As Vicki suggested, Homer and Martha put in a call to Shink. Dad called me afterwards to say that he’d completed the circle. “She was very sweet,” said Dad. “We enjoyed a pleasant conversation remembering old times. 

“Hey, I just might write something else,” he said and chuckled. “That first one worked out pretty well.”  

Now, two years later, this piece of history rings as true a bell of American fortitude and courage as anything with which I’ve been personally associated. I’m reposting the full story, now 67 years after the invasion on that little island, 650 important miles away from Tokyo. Even if you have read it before, read it again. Not because I wrote it, but because of the debt we owe today to those men and women who saved our country for us and reading and imagining this real account in honor of those who served, lived and died. They are dwindling in number. My dad lives on to carry on the flag. It will be raised today at 16 Aldersgate Court, in Durham, NC. Of that I am sure. And of that I am surely proud. Thank you Mom and Dad.  

     Steve, Sunday, February 19, 2012

Post Script: Dad called me this afternoon, checking to see if I knew what day it was. I answered the phone with, “Do you know what day today is?” He chuckled. “I know. I just wondered if you remembered. I see that you have.” He hadn’t yet seen the email notice of this posting.

We laughed. Then he said, “I woke up at 2 o’clock this morning. The first thing that came to me was that today was the day we hit the beach at Iwo. So, later this morning I called Shink.”

“How is she doing?” I asked.

“She’s fine. We had a nice chat. I told her that Martha and I are thinking of her, her family, and of Hutch. She said that she was thinking the same of us.”

The Story of Tom Brokaw…and Me

Tom Brokaw announced his retirement from NBC News after 55 years on Friday, January 22, 2021. It was a big announcement in so many ways. It brought to a close a long and stellar career of a youngster from South Dakota who made it to the highest position in his field…and held that position for over two decades. Brokaw became one of a triumvirate of big hitting network anchors at the time competing with ABC’s Peter Jennings and Dan Rather at CBS. Back then these men wielded quite a lot of editorial power in their national newsrooms. They had a very hands-on approach, deeply involved in the story selection, story telling and the direction of the coverage, down to the words they spoke introducing the story coverage. In other words, their fingers touched almost every part of the coverage. And they were each exceptional writers in their own way. 

Brokaw’s retirement announcement caught me by surprise. I actually thought he had already retired back in 2004 when he departed the anchor chair at NBC Nightly News, turning it over to Brian Williams. Despite the fact that he was often on NBC and MSNBC after 2004, I figured those were guest appearances in post retirement “special assignments” that tapped his long lens of political and historical context. Which, they were, but he just hadn’t retired yet.

That said, Brokaw’s announcement and subsequent reviews and appreciation for his career reminded me of my one experience with Tom. And, since this blog is “The Life of Riley,” I want to share my experience of one full day once upon a time in the mid-90’s in my life as the director of creative services for WPXI-TV, NBC’s local affiliate in Pittsburgh.

Since it occurred 25 or so years ago, I reached out to the key people involved in the project to corroborate my memory and add other color to the story. I wrote to our news anchors, David Johnson and Peggy Finnegan, our general manager, John Howell, Howard Zeiden, director of sales, Mark Barash, programming director, and, of course, Karen Lah, my promotion manager.

NBC News execs had reached out to the local affiliates saying that Brokaw wanted to get into the markets in a more personal way. They invited us to pitch a reason and a plan for why he should come to our city and broadcast NBC Nightly News from our location. 

At Channel 11, we were already in the throes of producing a project on crack cocaine, which was devastating the city of Pittsburgh, particularly the African American neighborhoods. NBC responded with interest on the topic and asked for more details. 

The station put together the plan that would weave Tom into our coverage: Channel 11 News would produce a series of special reports on the highly addictive and debilitating drug and how it was ruining people’s lives and communities in Pittsburgh. These reports would run over a week leading up to a live town hall. To heighten the awareness of the project, Brokaw would co-host the live, one hour prime time special with Peggy and David. We called the project and live town hall “Pittsburgh Crackdown.” Of course, my team was in charge of marketing the expansive project and taking full advantage of the cache that Brokaw brought to it.

NBC confirmed his involvement. Our team turned to pulling the plan together, from the news, programming and overall marketing strategies. It became a major station project that required all hands on deck. 

Obviously, bringing the attention of NBC Nightly News to Pittsburgh was a big darn deal for the station, the city and for bringing attention and understanding to the horrors this drug was bringing into our communities. It was the opioid of its time. 

From the moment that Karen and I met him and his assistant at the gate of the Pittsburgh airport we could tell his mind was somewhere else … 

When the big day arrived, it started early. Karen and I waited at the airport gate as the first ambassadors for the station and the day ahead. Shortly after the plane docked at the flight ramp, Tom was the first passenger to walk out of the gate door carrying a light book bag over one shoulder. He saw us without “seeing” or really acknowledging us, but he walked straight over to us and our welcoming smiles. He saddled up next us, turned back to the gate door. Without introduction, because, well, he could tell we were there for him, and he knew that we knew who he was, he said, “My assistant was sitting back a few rows in coach so she’ll be a minute. We didn’t check any bags so we’ll be ready go when she gets off.”

Quite a few passengers deplaned before his female assistant came out.

“There she is,” I remember him saying and then I understood how he was traveling so lightly. She was carrying a fairly potent but overhead appropriate suitcase in which I’m sure she had everything he needed for the road trip. Her name escapes me now but she was cordial as we introduced ourselves. I offered to help her with the bag but she declined.

The only other thing I remember about that early morning was the four of us riding in the limo to the station. Karen and I were riding backwards, facing Tom and his assistant. Most of the conversation was about the day ahead of course, but Tom did mention that he had just helped his daughter move in to her college dorm…at Duke. 

Aww crap, I thought. Really? Duke?

I swallowed hard before saying, “That’s great for her. I grew up in Durham about a mile from Duke campus.” 

“Really,” he said matter of factly. “Where did you go to college?”



Then he turned to his assistant and moved on with the business of the day. 

Tough start.

I don’t remember what was going on in the country and world at that time, but Brokaw’s mind was always on the upcoming NBC Nightly Newscast. His 6:30 p.m. deadline pressure was always there. Although we had our huge list of deadlines for the day as well, we could readily imagine the gravity of difference between doing a live remote national news broadcast and a local newscast. It was a notch or two or three higher than the daily pressures our local news team faced. 

In thinking back, David put it this way. Brokaw “had to do an interview with us, a photo shoot…plus a big speaking engagement, and THEN, he had to anchor the Nightly broadcast live from our mezzanine,…THEN that crazy live town hall at Allderdice.

“So, a VERY busy day. I can understand why he was a tad grumpy. Mr. Friendly though, he wasn’t. I do wonder if I’d met him under less trying circumstances how it would have gone.”

Bearing all of that in mind, I would describe Brokaw’s demeanor that day as all business. As David said, he certainly wasn’t warm and friendly, but he wasn’t hurtful, just very matter of fact, to the point and very aware of the ticking of the clock in his day. He wasn’t on an ambassador of the network mission. He was on a let’s get her done and get out mission.

All in all, the occurrences of that day added three memorable moments to the legend and lore of the TV station. Things that we share and laugh about through the misty eyes of the past whenever we get together. For the Brokaw and Pittsburgh Crackdown day I would parse them into “The Big Window,” “The Photo Shoot” and “Live Almost Mayhem.”

The Big Window

Days before Tom ever set foot in the station, an NBC advance crew came to town to spec out the best location from which to anchor the show. They were very impressed as most are with the view from our second floor lobby of the city, the rivers and Three Rivers Stadium. It was a view that I never tired of seeing. Channel 11 was situated then high atop Television Hill on the Northside of town. A bitch to get up or down when it snowed, but one of the best views for a TV station in the country, a view perfect for Tom’s background.  

They decided, why fight it. They wouldn’t find anything better, or more convenient for the efficiency of the day. There was only one problem and that was the reflection off of the window glass that stretched floor to ceiling and twenty feet wide. They determined that the window needed to come down for the show. Now, the glass was over an inch thick, and like I said, about twenty feet wide by nine or 10 feet high. The crew asked us if they took care of removing and replacing the window at NBC’s expense would the station be okay with it. 

Sure. Why not.

Well that spread throughout the building like the new variants of COVID19. It was all our crews could talk about for days on end. The decision showcased the bigness of the network. Huge plate glass window twenty feet up in the air on the front of our building causing reflection! No problem. Just remove it for the day. Spare no expense if it was for the good of the show. Damn, they’re good.

So, the morning of the big day, local crews came to the front of the building with their truck cranes and for hours worked on taking this huge plate glass window out. Turns out it was in sections, but still each was immense. 

That was already underway when Karen and I arrived in the stretch limo with Tom at the front entrance. We escorted him past all of the commotion, into the building and introduced him to our management team. Then we showed him to an office all set up and wired for him to to communicate with NBC News, read and write scripts and keep up with the day’s coverage. 

I didn’t see him again until early afternoon when we had scheduled David and Peggy’s interview with him. Following that, we would take photos of the three of them. Our video and still photography crews had pre-lit their positions in our second studio and were ready and waiting at the scheduled time.  

The Photo Shoot

At the appointed time, Tom and his assistant came to the studio. After their brief interview, we moved on to the photo shoot. Peggy recalls, “The still photographer, Bob Suder, was trying to get a shot of the three of us. And, as Bob was prone to do, he was taking quite a long time and making micro adjustments; ‘Chin up Peggy.  Slight tilt right Mr. Brokaw. David, lean in an inch to the left….a little more.’ Mr. Brokaw eventually got impatient.”

David added, “Bob didn’t understand that you don’t make the network anchor wait for you to take a million Polaroids before you actually start shooting real film.

“I think you’ve got it.” The cover of our magazine, “Inside 11” and the infamous photo, pieced together.

Eventually, as David tells it, “Tom stood up, said “I think you’ve got it” and just walked away!”

We were all left standing there looking at each other thinking, did that just happen? And wondering if we did, in fact, ‘have it.’ 

“But Bob DIDN’T have it” David added. “And the best shot of Brokaw had to be superimposed between me and Peggy for the magazine cover!” 

The final photo was used as the cover photo on our station magazine, “Inside Eleven,” that we direct-mailed to over 250,000 homes in our market. It was pretty important for us to get that. And, to get it right. Thanks to the new digital technology of the time, our graphics designer was able to piece together the best shot of each person and made for a great cover. 

That five word statement, “I think you’ve got it,” has lived on ever since. It’s a memory that stitches us together all of these years later.

Live Almost Mayhem

“THEN,” David continued, “that crazy live town hall at Allderdice.”

We had put a lot of work into gathering a diverse audience that mixed in station people, local leaders, VIPs and community activists involved in fighting the spread of crack cocaine in their communities. We had secured the auditorium at the historic Taylor Allderdice High School in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood for the live telecast. 

Howard volunteered to head the station’s security side of the event, collaborating with local police. He had performed this role in quite a few projects at his prior station in Baltimore. I contacted Howard to see how much he remembered. He wrote me back saying that he “remembered that evening like it was last night” and he gave precise bullet points on his responsibilities and actions:

  • Coordinate all access points with the Pittsburgh Police prior to event to limit access to the venue and review their procedures and who would be there…Uniform and undercover.
  • One hour before the doors opened, we had a walk through with the Police and the dogs to check for explosives.
  • And close and lock doors so we only had one open entrance, but doors still had to be able to open from the inside for the fire code.

So, per Howard, we were very buttoned up for almost any occasion. And then…

“Approximately 30 minutes before the start,” Howard said, “one of the sales people acting as security, contacted me on the two way radio, saying that a lady saw a man with a gun sitting in the front row. I immediately went to the lead detective in plain clothes and gave him the information.

“We (he) took two uniforms and I just followed.  We went to where the young man was sitting.  The plainclothes cop asked him to take his hands out of his pockets slowly… and to follow him.”

They went into a room off of the auditorium. It turned out that he did, indeed, have a gun and it was loaded. He also had a couple of joints. 

“He was arrested for the marijuana and given a summons for carrying a concealed weapon without the proper permit,” said Howard.

And that was before the telecast had even begun. Rumors of this circulated between us all as we counted the clock down to taking the air. By the time it circled through it had spun into “Howard brought a gun.” Of course, he did not. Needless to say, we were on edge.

The town hall was produced with all of the best intentions: 1) Define the Crack problem for the TV audience. 2) Discuss solutions with experts, and 3) Open up the floor to the community to comment. 

We were in control of the intentions #1 and #2. It was the “open up the floor to the live audience” that got more than uncomfortable. GM John Howell remembers, “One woman wouldn’t give up the mic.  She was pissed!” As she talked about the way crack was killing people in their community, the anger steamed up. It was very real. For us in charge of the event, it was becoming too real and very scary. We didn’t want anyone to get hurt. And, of course, we were in charge. WE had invited everyone to be there, including our special guest, Tom Brokaw. 

Backstage, our concern grew as the hour ticked towards a close. We snatched Tom off of the stage and led him out of the back door to a waiting limo. As he left he deadpanned, “Well, there’s your town hall!” He didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to the station team. He and his assistant hopped into a waiting car with John and zipped off to the airport to catch the flight home to New York. 

Meanwhile, Dave and Peggy landed the show, the crowd calmed down and dispersed as did we. 

I’ve wondered since what Tom said the next day when he reported back to work at NBC HQ at 30 Rockefeller Center. Who knows how he answered when someone asked how it went in Pittsburgh. I’m hopeful that he said something like, “They really have their shit together at WPXI. They had it well organized, everything came off without a hitch. Oh, and I thought I was going to die thanks to some guy who went to Carolina.”

But, more probably he answered, “I think they got more than they wanted” and moved on with his day. 

As I read back through this it doesn’t paint a great picture of Brokaw that day. It doesn’t square up with the many wonderful things that people have been saying. But, we all have days, and I don’t mean at all to say that this was what he has been like every day. I can’t believe that to be true. But it is an honest depiction of that day. 

I will say that I have a deep respect for him and the work he did over 55 years in a business that I loved, and one that provided information to the American public at large, reporting what was going on at the time while innovating with new technologies to bring that information to the air as fresh, accurate and as close to the action as possible.

I think about what this story means to me and why I spent so much time remembering, writing, rewriting and sharing this with you. Well, it turns out that it gave me a reason to get up with some great friends and former colleagues, and join together again in memory of one day in our lives as broadcasters. Brokaw’s retirement was just the catalyst. And, when you write these things down, they are immortalized in some way. I guess that I wanted to do that, more for me than you. But, hopefully, it was worth your time.

Since I finished my career with 20 years at WSB-TV here in Atlanta, I would like to add that Tom got his first big break when the news director at Channel 2, then the NBC Affiliate, recruited and hired Brokaw back in 1965. “It was a transformational moment for me,” he said of the experience, “because it was all hell breaking loose in the South.” It’s a fact for which the station remains very proud of to this day to claim Tom Brokaw as an alumnus in our long history. 

Here’s a five minute interview with Tom as he describes the importance of that opportunity in his career. He speaks about what it was like for a young man who had never been to the deep South to get a call to come to “one of the best TV stations in the country.”  How he took that leap against the advice of others, packed up his car and jumped into covering the very heady stories of racial discrimination and the Civil Rights movement. The stories he covered for WSB-TV brought him to the attention of NBC News and he was off to New York within two years.

Tom has been honored many times over during his career. Here’s a link to a video of the night he received the “Great Americans” award from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Go to 4:30 minutes into the presentation and you’ll see the video that they prepared to introduce Tom. It’s formidable and worth watching. 

I close with this note. In 1998, when Tom published his book, “The Greatest Generation,” I was given a chance to snatch a few copies from NBC. Tom was gracious enough to autograph three copies, one for me and Julie, one for Julie’s mom, and one for my mom and dad. I had let him know our parents were that generation. They had lived through the Great Depression and WWII, and Dad had joined the Marines and fought in some of the fiercest of battles in the Pacific, including Iwo Jima. Tom wrote an extra personal note for them, thanking Dad for his service. 

We’re very proud of those books and his autographs.  

As always, thanks for reading. Hope that you enjoyed the time you spent.