Byron Crawford's "Kentucky Footnotes"

The book, as they say, has dropped. Well, at least it has dropped into the lap of its author, and soon will be available to the public, including folks who attend the Kentucky Book Fair on Saturday, Nov. 13, at the Frankfort Convention Center. (The fair runs from 9 to 4:30, admission is free.)

Byron Crawford’s Kentucky Footnotes, published by Acclaim Press, is his third collection of columns from The Courier-Journal. You’ll be reading more about it in the coming weeks, and I’m hardly an unbiased reviewer, but I will share with you the best introduction to the book that I can provide, which is the one I wrote as the book’s Foreword.

For those who do their shopping online, you can order the book at this link.

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When I first went to work for The Courier-Journal as a clerk in 1992, it wasn’t unusual to have people wander up to me and say, “I’ve worked here for years, but I’ve never met your father.”

Indeed, The Courier-Journal building at Sixth and Broadway in Louisville never was a good place to look for Byron Crawford. He never had a desk there. You were better off heading out of town, finding a little general store somewhere off the main road and asking if they’d seen him. Chances are it hadn’t been too long since they had.

In 1979, Barry Bingham Jr. installed him as the paper’s Kentucky columnist with a great commission — to go therefore into the hills and hollows, the forgotten corners and favorite haunts of his home state, and write about his fellow Kentuckians in his own voice, which was also theirs.

For nearly thirty years, he took his readers into places they lived, or never would have gone. Some days he carried them back in time to a Kentucky as it used to be, or would not continue to be for long. Some mornings, if they were lucky, instead of mountains he would walk them through memories, or his own reflections.

He strived to give his subjects center stage and was reluctant to turn the column toward himself. Yet in compilations like this one, now his third collection of pieces from The Courier-Journal to be published, it is hard to miss his unmistakable voice, his sense of a story told right, his feel for expressing the essence of his subjects.

These pieces do tell us something about him. But perhaps they tell me something more. Growing up, I watched him labor over columns on an evolving series of machines, big bulky computers with screens no bigger than today’s smart phones, lugging them out to the truck for another run through the state.

And I watched him later, when we wrote for the same paper, work with the same effort and care. Most of these stories did not shout from the front page of the newspaper, though some did. But he brought front-page dedication to each one.

I know what his work has meant to the state, if only because one by one, people tell me now and again about the time he came to interview a family member, and how they still talk about that day, or have framed the column, or read a portion of it at the funeral of someone he wrote about. He wondered what the interest would be in another collection of columns. I told him if only his friends bought the book, it could take him through two or three printings. Of course, the appeal of his stories is much wider. They’ve been used in schools and college writing courses, and a while back I even heard of one of his books being used to teach English to students in Greece.

Truly, you never know where his stories will take you, or where they might wind up. I suppose my best lesson in his eye for a story came a couple of years ago. He called me to ask about a member of the University of Louisville football marching band who my mother had seen playing his trumpet from a wheelchair. I told him I didn’t know, that I never watched the halftime show.

While I was focused on writing about what I thought was big news, nationally televised football games, I missed something that he was instinctively drawn to. He called several times to ask me if I was sure I didn’t want to do that story, but I passed.

Shortly after he wrote his column about blind trumpet player Patrick Henry Hughes and the moving story of his father, who not only pushed him through band practice and performances, but to every class, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly graciously emailed my dad to ask if he could take a crack at writing it, too.

Soon, Hughes was on the national morning shows, and then the Oprah Winfrey Show. His story culminated in the network program Extreme Home Makeover completely re-doing the Hughes family’s house, and millions of Americans were touched by this tale that was told first in The Courier-Journal, by its one writer who saw the value in such stories the most and told them best.

It was an inspiration for many. For me, it was one more example of dad taking a small story and doing big things.

In the following pages, you’ll see what I mean.

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After the flood

Floods come in different depths and types. This one came from the water heater.

The water rose maybe an inch, then receded into the carpet.

My office was the least-damaged of the basement rooms. Still, today my job on the first day of vacation was to empty it, which meant the evacuation of hundreds of books from their shelves to uncertain stacks in the hallway.

I wasn’t going to write anything on vacation, then I walked down tonight and saw them standing against the wall, waiting as if in a bus station or airport terminal.

What happens when you have to move your books is that you run into people you did not expect to run into. Paul Guest, a poet who is paralyzed, sits in my hands. I haven’t seen him in ages. But here he is with a long, lightning-rod of a sentence that halts the cleanup effort, at the beginning of a poem titled, “User’s Guide to Physical Debilitation.”

Should the painful condition of irreversible paralysis
last longer than forever or at least until
your death by bowling ball or illegal lawn dart
or the culture of death, which really has it out
for whoever has seen better days
but still enjoys bruising marathons of bird watching,
you, or your beleaguered caregiver
stirring dark witch’s brews of resentment
inside what had been her happy life,
should turn to page seven where you can learn,
assuming higher cognitive functions
were not pureed by your selfish misfortune,
how to leave the house for the first time in two years.

But I can’t go to page seven. I am amazed at how many of my notebooks stop when they are three-quarters full. What does that say about me? And then here’s Walt Whitman, “Specimen Days & Collect,” or F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up,” and what business do they have writing better in their notebooks than most people do for show?

Whitman was a newspaperman first. So was Hemingway. That he went undamaged by the waters should be understood. And on another shelf, Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  Somewhere on my desk is a newspaper lead he wrote for El Ecspectador, a Colombian newspaper, in a series about a disease-ridden part of the country. Yes, here it is, “Several years ago a ghostly, glassy-looking man, with a big stomach as taut as a drum, came to a doctor’s office in the city. He said, ‘Doctor, I have come to have you remove a monkey that was put in my belly.'”

That’s a lead.

My daughter, Katie, just the other night was looking at my high school yearbook and saying, “You look funny.” I pick it up now and flip over a few pages to my friend Bill Nelson, who is battling cancer in brain and lungs and God knows where else. Doctors told him his chances were less than ten percent a couple of weeks ago. Try anyway, he told them. He wants to live. I look at his picture and pray for him.

We all look so small in our little yearbook photos. I felt so small then. So many big rooms.

Now, in this small office, I do not feel small. I like little rooms. What does that mean?

I think of New York City hotel rooms, the tiny ones. The Mansfield Hotel, that’s the last one I stayed in. A beautiful place. It was a couple of doors down from the original New Yorker offices, and I liked to think about E.B. White and Co. walking down the sidewalk to work.

In the 1950s, an impeccably dressed man named Maz von Gurach lived in the hotel. Some people think he was the model for Jay Gatsby, used by the aforementioned F. Scott Fitzgerald. Also a painter visited there named John Butler Yeats, whose son, William Butler, was just about to start cranking out some of his best poetry in Ireland.

Yeats (W.B.) is here too, but I’ll be damned if I can find him.

The goal on vacation is not to think much about sports, and certainly not to write about them. But every Monday night at 8 o’clock or so, I go on a local radio sports talk program. Tonight we talked about Tiger Woods. Just a day ago, as a sports columnist, I wrote about Tiger, and said that he needs to adjust his game to his age, to evolve the way the great ones do, whatever that means (and only the great ones really can understand it). But tonight as I talked about him, not so much as a sports columnist but as a guy surrounded by all these impatient books, I felt a voice inside me saying, “Just leave him alone. Let him figure it out.”

Those voices don’t talk too loudly when deadline is approaching and you need a topic. The one thing that pops into my head as I hang up the phone and go back to cleaning the office is that the new home he’s building in Florida is 9,700 square feet. Who needs that much space? His kids could visit and need two days to find him. That’d be my advice to Tiger. Get yourself a smaller room.

The news on the radio says that BP has capped its gushing undersea oil well, but that now the fear is that oil could begin to seep up through the ocean floor. Which sounds about right. There’s always something else. I’ll probably pull up this carpet to find mold. And even once the mold is scrubbed, something will emerge. I’m pretty sure the water heater’s leaking again.

Paul Guest has written a great opening line in his poem, “Audio Commentary Track 2.” It begins: “As you can already see, everything is f- -ked.”

He may know something. His shelf was awfully close to the carpet.