Longform Philly

Black Hawk Down

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Mark Bowden | Philadelphia Inquirer | November 1997

STAFF SGT. Matt Eversmann’s lanky frame was fully extended on the rope for what seemed too long on the way down. Hanging from a hovering Blackhawk helicopter, Eversmann was a full 70 feet above the streets of Mogadishu. His goggles had broken, so his eyes chafed in the thick cloud of dust stirred up by the bird’s rotors.

It was such a long descent that the thick nylon rope burned right through the palms of his leather gloves. The rest of his Chalk, his squad, had already roped in. Nearing the street, through the swirling dust below his feet, Eversmann saw one of his men stretched out on his back at the bottom of the rope.

He felt a stab of despair. Somebody’s been shot already! He gripped the rope hard to keep from landing on top of the guy. It was Pvt. Todd Blackburn, at 18 the youngest Ranger in his Chalk, a kid just months out of a Florida high school. He was unconscious and bleeding from the nose and ears.

The raid was barely under way, and already something had gone wrong. It was just the first in a series of worsening mishaps that would endanger this daring mission. For Eversmann, a five-year veteran from Natural Bridge, Va., leading men into combat for the first time, it was the beginning of the longest day of his life.

Writer bio: Mark Bowden wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 20 years from the late 1970s to the early 2000s. This series about a rescue mission in Somalia in the 1990s earned him national recognition and a book deal. The book was optioned into a movie, which was directed by Ridley Scott.

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Brotherly Glove

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Gary Smith | Sports Illustrated | July 2011

It’s 6:15 p.m. The locusts with pens and microphones have been swept from the Phillies’ clubhouse. It’s their living room again. Creeping to the center of the room, like a seven-year-old in Dad’s pajamas, is their stumpy catcher lost inside their massive first baseman’s uniform and cleats. A half foot of Ryan Howard’s pant legs droop from Carlos Ruiz’s feet. That alone has the clubhouse cackling … but Chooch has more. He has made a career by watching everyone in silence, recording everything. This one’s easy meat.

He lowers his backside like an emperor settling onto an invisible throne, imitating Howard’s setup in the batter’s box, then points the end of Howard’s bat at an imaginary pitcher, sighting on his prey like Howie does. Only now Chooch begins tilting his head and squinting, trying to see around Howard’s big black war club, then yelps, “Hey! Where ees the peetcher? I can’t see him!” and the whole squad’s howling.

Chooch! comes a request. Do Sammy! That’s coach Juan Samuel’s nickname. Chooch flashes those big white teeth, those imp eyes and that mierda-eating grin that make every impersonation double delicious, and nails Sammy’s slowwww, cool-disco-dude signals from the third base box. The boys roar. Chooch winks. Chooch, do Charlie! He takes a few shambling steps and sends his head bobbing and rolling from shoulder to shoulder, just like Manuel when the Phillies’ manager is pissed and heading to the mound to separate the ball from his pitcher’s hand, then drops the cherry on top: Charlie’s Southern drawl strained through Chooch’s Panamanian accent. Chooch, do Shane when Kuroda threw at his head in the playoffs! … Chooch, do Cliff!

Writer bio: Hands off, Gary Smith is ours. We claim Smith, a four-time winner of the National Magazine Award, as our own. He grew up in Delaware, graduated from LaSalle University and covered the Eagles for the Philadelphia Daily News before spreading his wings at Sports Illustrated. He is one of the most celebrated narrative journalists of our time. And he’s ours.

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It’s a Wawa World

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Don Steinberg | Philadelphia Magazine | July 2011

JEREMY PLAUCHE IS A burly, rowdy-looking guy—six feet, maybe 300 pounds, with the bold facial hair of a modern 24-year-old—but he admits that when he was getting the Wawa logo tattooed on his right inner biceps, the second “wa” kind of hurt. It’s just a little more tender in there closer to the torso. Totally worth it, though.

Plauche works night shifts for the rescue squad in Millville, New Jersey, where he also went to high school. It’s a little town about 45 miles south of Philadelphia, with a population of roughly 27,000 and four Wawas within about two miles. He’s made countless Wawa runs. He’s candid about his favorite product: “I’ll be honest with you—the peach iced tea.”

“I’m originally from Louisiana,” he says. “I tried to explain to my friends there what Wawa was and what it means to people who live up here … and they kind of didn’t believe me. Wawa is part of our culture. It’s part of our way of life.”

So he decided to let the body art speak. He photographed a Wawa sign and took the image to a tattoo parlor in Vineland, where they stabbed it into his flesh.

Writer bio: Don Steinberg is a Philadelphia-based writer who freelances for the Wall Street Journal, ESPN.com and Philadelphia Magazine.

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Who Killed Ellen Andros?

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Dan P. Lee | Philadelphia Magazine | October 2006

Here’s Elliot Gross. Sixty-six years old, short barrel-shaped body, big mostly bald head. A tiny, odd-looking man. Hunched over, dressed in a blood-splattered plastic apron and blue scrubs, white surgical gloves gone crimson, a clear plastic shield covering the huge glasses on his large face.

And there, on the metal table in front of him, her body splayed from skull to hips, lies 31-year-old Ellen Andros. It is — it will prove — a somewhat difficult case. But from the start, from the moment a few hours ago when he first approached her still-warm corpse at her home outside Atlantic City, Elliot Gross, the former chief medical examiner for New York City, a man who autopsied Tennessee Williams and John Lennon and many other noteworthies during a 40-year career, thought he was on to something.

What’s going on here isn’t just science. It’s something deeper, something stranger, something at the same time both terrifying and fascinating. With Ellen’s body reduced to parts — organs and tissues and arteries and veins, each one removed and given careful attention — Gross is attempting to communicate with her. He’s asking questions, asking each part of her body a question. And so far, this is all he’s hearing back:

Someone did this to me.

Writer bio: Dan P. Lee, a South Jersey native, wrote for The Press of Atlantic City and Philadelphia Magazine before joining New York Magazine as a contributing writer.

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Differences, Yet a Bond in Reserve

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Daniel Rubin | Philadelphia Inquirer | June 2009

It begins badly.

“Some things never change,” Dad says, sliding into the passenger side and noticing the collection of newspapers blocking his feet.

We’re still at the airport. We are about to spend the next three days in closer quarters than we’ve shared in decades. I’m not sure what possessed my father to want to drive 26 hours with me, sitting shotgun as I retrieve a son from college in Kalamazoo , Mich.

But I am grateful for the company, I tell him.

“I’m not going just to be company,” he says. “I’m going to be helpful. “

We are nothing alike. He’s the soul of practicality. I’m more of a romantic. He believes cars should be cleaned and detailed. I believe they need good speakers.

Writer bio: Daniel Rubin, who teaches courses in Urban Journalism at the University of Pennsylvania, started writing for the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1988. He served as the Inquirer’s European bureau chief, based in Berlin, Germany, from 2000 to 2003.

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A Bird in the Wind

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David Lee Preston | Inquirer Sunday Magazine | May 1983

My mother awaited her bypass operation without complaint. “I have lived 40 years on borrowed time,” she said. “I’m not afraid of open-heart surgery.”

She had survived the longest odds of the 20th century, the Holocaust — a convenient word for the grisly murders of two-thirds of the Jews of Europe, as if all six million had perished in some giant fire. While her world crumbled above her, she lived side by side with rats in a sewer in Lvov, Poland, for 14 months until the Allies liberated the city on July 27, 1944.

From darkness, she came to light, to America, where she married, raised a son and daughter and taught two generations of students in Wilmington. But the years had taken their toll, and now, at 60, her arteries were blocked and her heart was pained.

My father and I watched as they wheeled her into a Philadelphia operating room in December. “I love you,” she said. Smiling and serene, the survivor now entrusted her life to her family. Don’t worry, said the doctors, the risk was only about 2 percent.

But she did not survive. Twelve hours after the operation, her heart stopped beating. On this, my first Mother’s Day without my mother, I miss that warm heart.

Writer bio: David Lee Preston is an assistant city editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Philadelphia Daily News and Philly.com. Preston, who wrote for the Inquirer for 17 years, is a native of Wilmington, Delaware. This is the first article in a trilogy that documented his parents’ experiences during the Holocaust. He was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1986 for the second installment, about a trip with his father to the places of his father’s past. 

Continue reading “Part I: A Bird in the Wind.”

Part II: Journey to My Father’s Holocaust

Part III: A Story for my Mother