Friday was the 20th anniversary of my first day at the Times News, which I celebrated by sitting through three hours of county budget hearings.
I probably would have done a lot better financially working 30 years at my hometown factory Abbott Laboratories or sticking with installing furnaces and air conditioners, which is what I did to pay my way through college.
But I can say without hesitation that although I’ve failed to enrich myself in the material world, in the past 20 years I’ve amassed a wealth of interesting experiences.
In honor of this anniversary, I’m sharing my 12 favorite KTN experiences from the past 20 years. At least the top 12 that I can remember. After 20 years, all the memories start to to blur together.
12. The Christmas miracle/tragedy/miracle.
In the mid-2000s, I did a story about a Church Hill woman raising her three grandchildren on a fixed income, with no extra money for Christmas presents, and a broken furnace in her mobile home. After the story came out, people donated Christmas toys to the kids, someone built a new deck for her trailer, and she got two ceramic space heaters to help keep warm. Unfortunately, the heaters were too much for the trailer’s electrical system, and the mobile home burned down, toys and all, on Christmas Eve. After I wrote the story about the fire, someone donated a newly refurbished trailer and gave her a lot to live on for free in Blountville.
11. Meeting Rev. Jerry Falwell.
In 1999, I covered Falwell’s appearance as the keynote speaker at Higher Ground Baptist Church. I led my article with his assertion that the world would end within seven years, which seemed to me would affect most people. In my second paragraph, I noted that Falwell stated the Antichrist was alive and on Earth today, and was a Jew, which is what the national media keyed on. I don’t think his intent was anti-Semitic, but it was taken that way by the national press, which nailed his hide to the barn door. That was the first of six stories I’ve written while at the Times News that made it onto “The Tonight Show” in Jay Leno’s monologue. At the time it was also reported on every major news network and talk show and was even referenced in Mad magazine.
10. Jay Leno and me.
Not everyone appreciates the humor in some of these dumb crook stories I’ve done over the years. Jay Leno’s writing staff doesn’t fit into that category. I’m sorry if you’re embarrassed by dumb crook news in your community, but as a wise man once said, “Laughter is the best medicine.” Aside from Jerry Falwell, other stories that appeared on “The Tonight Show” include: the Hawkins County Jail beer run, where inmates twice in the same night broke out, bought beer, broke back in and drank the brews; a woman who attacked a Bulls Gap waitress with a fried catfish when the waitress tried to stop her from leaving a Friday buffet with the fish in her purse; the suspects who butt-dialed 911 while planning a burglary, giving the cops the entire scheme; monkeys in a Mooresburg meth lab; and who could forget the woman who stole $5,000 from her boyfriend, hid it in her rear end, and had to be hospitalized to get it removed? Leno did jokes about the $5,000 woman literally every night for two weeks.
9. Helping a lady finish building her house.
In the early 2000s, a Hawkins County Schools teacher’s aide was living in a very dilapidated mobile home with her mother and small nephew, whom she was raising. The residence had electrical problems and was a serious fire hazard. She had been gathering scrap building materials for years and built a house from the ground up by herself, but she ran out of resources before it was finished. After I wrote an article about her, someone gave her a $5,000 credit at Home Depot, and another fellow provided labor to help her finish the house.
8. Living out my Hollywood fantasy.
My former KTN colleague Wes Bunch was well aware of my love for zombie movies, and in 2009 he pointed out there was a local casting call for a low-budget zombie movie that would be shot in the Tri-Cities. I contacted the director, Neeley Lawson, who went on to become a good friend, and offered him my services, which included hooking him up with some neat locations and other resources such as vehicles. I shot behind the scenes footage for my newspaper coverage of the shoot, which was also included as bonus footage in the DVD release. More importantly, I was cast in a small role as a public access TV announcer who is bitten during a live broadcast, becomes a zombie and gets his head blown up with a defibrillator. On June 4, 2010, I attended the premier of that movie in Hollywood on the Sunset Strip where I walked the red carpet like a big shot and got to hear the theater audience go, “Ewww!!!” when my head exploded. The movie’s original title had a naughty word in it. Later it was renamed “101 Zombies” and sold to Japan and South Korea, where apparently it was a big hit.
7. Helping a little boy find his lost dog.
In 2016, it took almost the whole day for rescuers to save a dog that had fallen down a 30 foot hole in the abandoned nuclear plant at Phipps Bend, and I was there with them through the entire ordeal. Two days later, a woman paying for gas at a convenience store noticed my follow-up article on the front page of the Times News and recognized her son’s lost dog that they’d all but given up on finding by that time. A short time later, there was a tearful reunion at the Humane Society between the boy and his lost dog.
6. Bumping into Bloomer.
Not only is Scott Bloomquist the Richard Petty of dirt stock car racing, having won more races and more money than anyone ever, but he’s also a Hawkins County resident. During the 2010 Rogersville Heritage Days Cruise-In, we took the zombie killing car from “101 Zombies” to show at the event because we were promoting a local screening. “Bloomer” walked up and introduced himself. He was very interested in the story behind the 1964 Dodge Coronet decked out with barbed wire, blades, spikes and a human skull on the hood. I told him the story, and he was totally impressed. Every time I tried to ask him about his racing experiences, he wanted to know more about the Zombie car and the movie. For a living legend, he was a super down-to-earth guy and it was neat to meet a hero of mine in such an unexpected way.
5. Living out my NASCAR fantasy, part one.
It’s hard to believe that until around 2000 the Times News had a sports writer who was dedicated almost solely to covering NASCAR and even traveled to most of the races. When he left, they let me cover the Bristol races with a couple of part-time stringers. I covered every Bristol race for about eight years and met and/or interviewed nearly every major NASCAR star. Eventually our sports department decided it wanted to cover Bristol and I stepped aside, which was OK because by that time I was deep into ...
4. Living out my NASCAR fantasy, part two.
In 2001, I bought two fairly competitive Pure 4 (four cylinder) race cars and went racing. After 2002 when Kingsport closed, I went full time at Lonesome Pine Raceway in Coeburn, Va., where announcers “James K.” Kincer and Freddie Phillips nicknamed me “The Racing Reporter.” After my race, I’d be up in the stands doing video and taking notes on the other races for my old racing column, “Behind the Wheel.” That was a very fun time in my life, and I also raced at some historic venues like Hickory Motor Speedway, Nashville Fairgrounds and three times at the granddaddy of them all, Bristol Motor Speedway (2004, 2008 and 2011).
3. Hello, I'm Johnny Cash.
On Oct. 24, 2000, I was the only reporter in the newsroom when someone called and said Johnny Cash was eating lunch at Lynn Garden Restaurant. This was before every cell phone was basically an electronic movie studio. All I had was one of those disposable 35 mm cameras. When I arrived, Johnny was having dessert with one of the Carter boys, and he was kind enough to let me interview him for a minute. I really couldn’t tell you what he said or what I wrote in the article. All I remember is he was very nice, and he was really enjoying his coconut cream pie.
2. Helping find “a new home for Virgie.”
In November of 2008, Rev. Sheldon Livesay from Rogersville’s Of One Accord ministry approached me about doing an article to drum up some donations for an 82-year-old Hawkins County woman living in extreme squalor. She had no running water, no indoor toilet, and her outhouse didn’t have a door. After my article ran in the paper, she received a newly refurbished mobile home as well as donated furniture, septic, waterline hookup and a lot more. She lived out the last four years of her life in comfort. I edited a documentary from the video footage I’d taken, which to date has nearly 700,000 views on YouTube.
1. Bringing home Maggie Mae.
On Saturday, May 19, 2013, I was covering a ribbon cutting for the Hawkins County Humane Society’s new puppy kennel. My beloved companion Festus had passed away the previous September at the age of 16 and a half, and I wasn’t really looking for a dog. But when Maggie looked up at me from her cage with those sad eyes, I was putty in her paws and I decided (without consulting Lynn) to bring her home. Definitely my best decision in the past 20 years.