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Writer Mark Richard is best known for his fiction and award-winning short stories. But as is often the case, his own story is perhaps equally compelling. He grew up in the 1960s in a racially divided rural town in Virginia. His family was poor. He was born with deformed hips and spent years in and out of charity hospitals. When his father walked out, his mother withdrew further into a world of faith. In a new memoir he details growing up in the American South as a “special child” and how the racial tensions and religious fervor of his home town animate his writing today.
- Mark Richard author of two award-winning short story collections, "The Ice at the Bottom of the World" and "Charity." He is also the author of the novel "Fishboy." He is the recipient of a PEN/Hemingway Award, among other honors.
Mark Richard stayed for a few minutes after the show to answer a few more listener questions.
- Q: “Did you enjoy college? Was it difficult?”
– From Dick
A: “I enjoyed the small classes and the great teachers, but never really fit in with the frat system. Part of this was probably my own rebelliousness – I was pretty angry and wild at the time. In retrospect, I really wish I’d applied myself and paid more attention, but I guess that’s life. I did make some good friends, including Temp Webber, himself an outsider of sorts, and guys like Bob Lutz and Ben Brockenbrough.”
Q: “What a beautiful story. Mark’s simple way of expressing himself brought tears to my eyes…Thank you.”
– From Althea
A: “Thank you. Yes, I have been blessed with a praying mother, and have learned that the best thing one can do as a parent is pray for your children and try to lead them on a spiritual path, and also importantly, to try to be a good example. Hard to do!”
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Mark Richard was considered a "special child." In the south, where he grew up, that was meant there was something wrong with him. He endured painful surgeries for deformed hips and was told he'd spend his adult life in a wheelchair. Some teachers labeled him slow. But he overcame many challenges. He worked as a journalist and he's written a novel, and award-winning short story collections.
MS. DIANE REHMHis new book is a memoir, it's titled "House of Prayer No. 2." Mark Richard joins me in the studio and I'm going to ask you, Mark, right off the bat, if you would read for us from the start of your book?
MR. MARK RICHARDWell thank you. It'd be my pleasure. "Say you have a "special child," which in the South means one between Downs and dyslexic. Birth him with his father away on army maneuvers along East Texas bayous. Give him his only visitor in the military hospital his father's father, a sometime railroad man, sometime hired gun for Huey Long with a Louisiana Special Police badge."
MR. MARK RICHARD"Take the infant to Manhattan, Kansas in winter where the only visitor is a Chinese peeping tom, little yellow face in the windows during the cold nights. Further, frighten the mother, age 20, with the child's convulsions. There's something different about this child, the doctors say. Move the family to Kirbyville, Texas, where the father cruises timber in the big woods. Fill the back porch with things the father brings home, raccoons, lost bird dogs, stacks of saws, machetes."
MR. MARK RICHARD"Give the child a sandbox to play in, in which scorpions build nests. Let the mother cut the grass and run over rattlesnakes, shredding them all over the yard. Make the mother cry and miss her mother. Isolate her from the neighbors because she is poor and Catholic. For playmates, give the child a Mongoloid girl who adores him. She is a society doctor's child and is scared of thunder."
MR. MARK RICHARD"When it storms, she hides and only the special child can find her. The doctor's wife comes to the house in desperation, 'Please help me find my daughter.' 'Here she is, in the culvert, behind a bookcase in a neighbor's paper teepee.' 'Please come to a party,' the doctor's wife sniffs, hugging her daughter. At the party, it goes well for the nervous mother and the forester father until their son bites the arm of a guest and the guest goes to the hospital for stitches and a tetanus shot. The special child can give no reason why."
REHMAnd this "special child" is five years old at the time?
RICHARDAbout five, yes.
REHMYou know, as I look at you, Mark Richard, one would never know you had deformed hips. One would never suspect that you were "special" in the way that the South defined it. What happened?
RICHARDI think that maybe part of the reason you don't see it today is because I became very adept at hiding it. I know in New York I would only cross rooms at parties when I was sure not many people were watching. There are ways to navigate yourself through a crowd so people can't see you lurch and limp around. Cosmically, I think the special-ness made me who I am.
RICHARDI've become a writer instead of a lawyer. I wanted to, I was in pre-law and the things that made me interested in law, I turned them over to writing and I think I mentioned it in the book that an old girlfriend said, "I think your hips are a good thing for you because without them, you would've been a bigger ass than you already are."
REHM(laugh) Now, there were surgeries?
REHMThere were multiple surgeries to correct what was called deformity. To what extent did they help the situation?
RICHARDI think they may have helped to a certain extent but they seem to have been temporary and led to further complications. This was in the days before total hip replacements.
RICHARDAnd as you know, you know a lot about medicine yourself, orthopedics is carpentry and it's only been within my lifetime that they've done a lot of advances, they've had a lot of advance treatments. So they were doing things with, you know, grafting and nails and plates and pins and they were just figuring it out.
REHMSo the surgeries went on from when until when?
RICHARDI think I went in when I was about nine and 10...
RICHARDYes, and then every year or so until I was 17 or 18.
REHMWhoa. That's a lot of surgery.
RICHARDIt was a lot of surgery, it was a lot of time out of the school and I had a tutor, which was a good thing. You know, I look back on it now, I'm not displeased by the experience. I lived in books. My mother would go to the library and bring grocery bags of books, I read the entire library and I had a tutor who, you know, was just my own personal teacher and it also gave me a peculiar world view that I think writers need to have to do their work.
RICHARDA sort of a sense of detachment from the world that, and I've just realized this recently, you know, the book is told in the second person...
RICHARD...and this was a suggestion earlier this week that maybe that's why that second person voice might be more successful because of this sense of detachment in the book.
REHMAllows you to write about yourself...
REHM...in a way that perhaps becomes a little more objective. What were the signs that teachers picked up thinking you were slow? Was it because of the physical problems?
RICHARDProbably the slowness, you know, I couldn't run, was awkward, but then there were some strange, not strange things, but I remember in third or fourth grade they said, draw the pilgrims. You know, having the first Thanksgiving dinner, and I'd just finished reading a stack of old National Geographics, so my depiction of the first Thanksgiving were these Chinese drunks arriving at this dock where Indians were selling bait and beer.
RICHARDAnd the pilgrims were getting off the boat and they were getting gasoline and beer and, you know, those were the types of markers that the teachers were going, there's something very strange this child.
RICHARDStrange and quote, unquote, "special," which in the South is a term that can cover a wide, you know, anything, like I just read from to Downs to dyslexic to being slow to being, you know, what they used to call retarded. So those were some of the markers.
REHMMark Richard, his new book is titled "House of Prayer No. 2." Why do you call it "House of Prayer No. 2?"
RICHARDThere's a real House of Prayer No. 2 in Franklin, Va., which is where I grew up. My mother goes to a white Episcopal church Sunday mornings and then she goes to a black Pentecostal church Sunday afternoons. And we've been going, she's been going for 20 some odd years, and when I'm home, I take her. And she had gotten to know this church when she worked at the local hospital for over 30 years and ultimately in the terminal care ward.
RICHARDBut originally when she was switchboard operator at midnight after my father left the family, that's how she made a living. She was a housewife of the 50's so she had no real skills and that was the job that she could find. She found a community of faith among the other people who worked the late shifts, some of the nurse's aids who were prayer partners and prayer warriors.
RICHARDAnd they would meet in conference rooms, hallways and pray for each other. She began going to this church and taking, you know, Bible classes and when I was home, I would take her to the services. So she would go the Episcopal Church in the morning and this church in the afternoon. And I became involved in the church when I would take her, and the pastor, Pastor Ricks, who's one of my best friends and spiritual mentors.
RICHARDWell, here's what really happened. I'm sitting in the church one cold afternoon and some of the services go on three and a half hours. And we come out and my mother says, oh, wasn't that just great? I'm so uplifted. And I go, actually, no. It's cold, the pews are hard. They have outhouses. It's white cinderblock whitewash, and she said, well, did you like the sermon? It was about tithing and I said, you know what I'll do? I will tithe my next check 10 percent so that they can buy a space heater. And I was, you know, being very snarky.
RICHARDWell, about this time, I was working on a movie, and I got a check for the movie and it was something that I had to decide, is it 10 percent of net or gross? And that started us into the new House of Prayer remodel.
REHM"House of Prayer No. 2," Mark Richard.
REHMWelcome back. And in fact, the author's name is pronounced Richard. Mark Richard is with me. His new book, "House of Prayer No. 2," is subtitled, "A Writer's Journey Home." Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your e-mail to email@example.com. This book is the winner of the PEN/Hemingway Award and I congratulate you on that.
REHMSomeone asked whether, in fact, had you been in the North, you would've been labeled as special. Do you think that the South had that particular method or approach?
RICHARDI think in the South, the designation is -- was mainly gentle and I think that it was not -- to be called special...
REHMWas not to be hurtful.
RICHARDIt was -- exactly. It's not to be hurtful and to almost prepare -- I remember we had the Baptist minister in our neighborhood. They were always having visitors. And general -- there were a couple of families that would come and my friend's mother, who was the Baptist minister's son, said, so and so, they're coming and, you know, one of their children is special, which means put away the things that may get broken. You know, be aware that you may have to spend more time with this child.
RICHARDBe gentle with this child. Be prepared for an outburst or something like that, so.
REHMMark, you talk about a show and tell...
REHM...in the fifth grade class.
REHMAnd a boy brought something extraordinary into that class.
RICHARDYes. I had just gotten out of the hospital and I was on crutches. And I was entering, as I had often during that time, in the middle of the school year. And a boy brought a short board in that had something that looked like a piece of leather with carpet tacks and it had been shellacked or varnished or whatever, passed it around and we had to guess what it was. It looked just like a piece of leather on a board. Well, it turned out that it was a piece of Nat Turner's skin. And Nat Turner led the Slave Insurrection, 1831, in that county in which I grew up. I could not get my head around that as a fifth grader and had not been able to get my head around it to this day.
REHMExactly. I was feeling precisely the same way. And you look as though you're almost in tears thinking about it.
RICHARDWell, yes. I mean -- and I think the visceral response from me immediately, as a fifth grader, was I had just come out of this hospital where most of the other boys were from -- you know, white children from Appalachia and a lot of black boys from inner city Richmond, who -- and we'd all been cut and stitched. And so I had a double whammy of having this piece of skin and then having come from a place where skin was being routinely cut and sewn and...
REHMGrafted, if you will.
RICHARDGrafted, that's right.
RICHARDAnd I think that was the basis for the book because as I went through growing up there, I realized that there were other people who had little pieces of Nat Turner as well. And -- because what happened was, when they finally caught Nat, they hung him, they cut his head off and piked his head in a black part of town. They skinned him and then they boiled him in fat. And then they made -- some people made trinkets out of the skin and -- book covers, et cetera.
RICHARDMy original thought for this book was try to possibly not reassemble Nat Turner, but I would -- I wanted to track down as much of the -- you know, the artifacts and the -- I knew his sword and the rope from which they hung him was in the courthouse in Courtland. I knew a lady in Virginia Beach had his Bible and I would've loved to have seen that. His skull was somewhere in Chicago. And I kind of -- and I thought in my own community, I wanted to find the pieces of Nat Turner and talk to people and how did it come into their possession. Obviously, that would -- that's nearly impossible because I think that the boy who brought it for show and tell, I'm sure his family didn't know...
REHMThat he brought it.
RICHARDThat he brought it to school. It's not something to be proud of. And I remember the principal and the teacher having a conversation out in the hall, who were both horrified, as to what to do about this. And I think they quickly sent the artifact home with the boy. But, yes, you're right. Again, I can't -- I can't get my head around it to this day.
REHMMark Richard, the book we're talking about is titled, "House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home." Tell us about your mother early on in the book. She is depressed, she misses her family and then, of course, your father leaves the family. There's quite a journey there.
RICHARDMy mother, who just called me yesterday, she had read the book and said she's very proud of me, found out some things she didn't know after reading the book. And I didn't ask her because I didn't want to embarrass either one of us because there are some personal details. But she said something that I thought was interesting when she said, I didn't -- she said, the book was so sad, you know. And I don't -- I didn't -- I didn't set out to write a sad book and I thought it was interesting my mother thought it was so sad.
RICHARDMy mother found her way through her faith, that she's been on a spiritual path for at least the last 40 years and calls herself a prayer warrior, has an extended prayer warrior network of friends and women that she prays with. And because she worked at this hospital, she went from -- I was very proud of her -- from midnight switchboard operator to working in the terminal care ward where people of our town would bring them -- would bring their dying or the elderly for whom they could no longer care and would, you know, place them there almost in my mother's hands and go, here's our loved ones. And knew that my mother would take care of them and to, you know, look to their needs. I mean, she's that type of person.
RICHARDAnd even after she's retired, to this day, people show up at my mother's house that she -- people that she doesn't even know and says, will you pray for me? And she gets, you know, phone call -- when I call her, the phone lines are often busy with people she doesn't even know calling her, you know, to talk to her and seeking some type of prayer on their behalf, for their families or for themselves, so very strong spiritual woman.
RICHARDA strange cat. As I'm a father now, have three boys, understanding a little bit better. Super smart guy, top of his class, was being groomed by NASA to go to the space program in the late '50s. Toward the end of his college decided to transfer into forestry so he could be in the woods by himself all day. Was not a very social person and moody, had kind of a dark side.
REHMHow was he with you?
RICHARDWe did not engage much. Yeah, we -- and again, I cut him a lot more slack now that I have my own sons -- we didn't engage much, but his father didn't engage with him, either. That's just how it was at that time. And what I thought was interesting about my dad was he did provide for us and he took me to the hospital when I needed to be taken. And he also had another life, which included doing standup comedy in -- I mean, a man at a post office told me, he said, your dad is a real crackup. I said, well, that's interesting.
RICHARDHe would go to hunt clubs and social clubs out in the county and do standup comedy. He would listen to Justin Wilson Cajun humor records, memorize them and go perform. And he would do a little theater. We had no idea about this at first and it kinda came out that he had this acting, standup comic life.
REHMAnd how were he and your mother engaging at the time?
RICHARDYou know, when my father came home, I generally scooted out the door.
RICHARDThere was a Baptist parsonage across the street. They had four boys and that's where I spent -- and I wrote about that in the book -- the Reverend Hutchins -- well, the preacher, we called him -- that was my home away from home and...
RICHARDA refuge. And they were rowdy boys, let me tell you. When there was things happening in the town, the police called their house first, maybe my house second (laugh). So we weren't -- and all clichés are true, you know. The Baptist preacher's sons are some of the rowdiest in town.
REHMSo you would leave the house when your father came in so that he and your mother could engage or not engage.
RICHARDYes. I mean, I think we all kinda cringed when we heard his car pull up out front. He was just moody and dark. And I think -- I mean, looking back now, must've been very frustrated. He maybe realized too late that he'd thrown away a career. I think he became bored with the forestry. You know, he rose to the top of that fairly quickly. And maybe that's why he went into performing. I don't know.
REHMHow old were you when he left?
RICHARDI was in my 20s and I had a sister -- I have a sister who was a teenager when he left. And it was ugly. And we didn't speak for 20 years.
REHMYou and your father.
RICHARDMy father, that's right. We had a pretty ugly separation in the front yard of our house. And then a mutual friend, an Episcopal priest, called me up when I was in California and said, your father is dying in a small hospital in North Carolina and he wants to see you. And, you know, you get a call like that, you have to go, you have to go. So I went and went down to Rocky Mountain, N.C. and walked in, hadn't seen him in 20 years. He was dying. And he shooed everybody out of the room and said, now, I want you to come sit down here and hear my confession. So we spent a couple of weeks together, but as you know, nothing gets resolved in two weeks. I mean, 99 percent does not. And the most important thing that you can do is just be there.
REHMJust that connection. Mark Richard, we're talking about his new memoir, "A Writer's Journey Home." It's titled, "House of Prayer No. 2." And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to East Lansing, Mich. Good morning, Jason, you're on the air. Go right ahead.
JASONThank you, Diane. Mr. Richard, when you were first reading from your book, it was some of the most moving writing, it made me cry.
RICHARDOh, well, thank you so much.
JASONI worked with people with disabilities. I drove them on a bus for 21 years. And one day, my boss called me into the office and he said, Jason, why do we get so many compliments from -- of all the drivers, you get all the compliments. And I said, you want me to give you an honest answer? He said, yeah. I said, because black people and handicapped people have something in common. You know, we know what it's like to be thought of as the other. We got that sensitivity. And I got fired for saying that 'cause he took it wrong, you know.
JASONAnd I want you to respond to that and God bless you and thank you.
REHMI'm so sorry about that experience.
RICHARDNo, no. You should never -- you should never be fired for telling the truth.
RICHARDNo, that's awful. And, you know, you're absolutely right. I think -- and beyond that, there's an empathy and a sympathy that I think we all share when you are the outsider, when you are disenfranchised, when you are the special person or race. You're absolutely right. I'm sorry that happened to you.
REHMHere is a caller in Dallas, Texas. Hi there, Frank, you're on the air.
FRANKHi, Diane and hi, Mark.
FRANKI'm a psychiatrist and I'm used to working with stories of abuse and deprivation. And, of course, everybody knows that Oprah publicizes stories like that a lot. And people look at dissociative defenses as an outcome of childhood deprivation and abuse, but sometimes the story is not about sexual abuse. Sometimes, if you withhold judgment, you find out that the child had to have multiple surgeries or something of similar nature where their parents have to stand by. And even though it's for a good cause, it still hurts and the child doesn't understand why the people that are supposed to protect him don't. And they're repeatedly subjected to this. And it seems that their only escape, really, is dissociation.
FRANKAnd it serves its purpose and it allows the child to survive, really. But the injury to how they relate to other people is going to be very similar to children in the other circumstances. And so I was curious if you'd ever read the writings of Milton Erickson, a great psychotherapist who focused on using hypnotherapy. Because he had had polio as a child and was in the iron lung and about as dissociated physically from the world of other children as you could get.
RICHARDYou know, I have not read those writings and I would like to. Yeah, you raise a good point. What do we do with this after we've been through these experiences? And, you know, part of my -- and I'm not here to complain about these things that have happened to me. I think that I'm at an age now where I can look back and see how they shaped me as a person. And there was a grace note my -- you know, I have a son who needs some help. And my mother said, maybe you've been through all the things you've been through to help your son who needs to go through some things that he needs to go through.
REHMMark Richard, the book is titled, "House of Prayer No. 2." Short break and we'll be right back.
REHMWelcome back. Mark Richard, just before the break, you were talking about your son and the difficulties he is having now. He's 13. Tell us about those difficulties.
RICHARDWell, you know, I -- wanting to respect his privacy, but he does wear -- he wears a brace and his -- there's something going on with his spine. And, you know, he's going through the same things that I went through a little bit earlier at his age, you know, taking him to clinics, taking him to doctors. And I said just before the break that my mother put her finger on it, she said, maybe everything that you went through was in preparation for being a father to this boy right now. And, you know what? I'll accept that. I'll take that. And if that's the grace and if that's what it's been about, I accept that.
REHMYou were pushed as a child. For example, the high school baseball coach.
RICHARDOh, coach, yeah. Again, here's a situation where our schools were suddenly integrated and it was not a happy experience for anyone, for anyone, really. And there were problems in the locker rooms and the restrooms. And there was a coach at the black high school, Coach Sandage.
REHMWhere you went.
RICHARDThat's -- well, some genius in the school board said, okay, what we'll do first is it will have -- we'll have the kids go to the white high school in the morning and the black high school in the afternoon and they'll bus -- I mean, it was these crazy ideas. They were trying to integrate by not completely integrating.
RICHARDAnd Coach Sandage -- I'd gotten a free pass at the white high school. I was on crutches, canes, you know, you skip phys ed. Well, when I went to the black high school, the coach -- you know, I went to walk over and sit in the stands where play baseball. Coach Sandage said, where do you think you're going? I said, well, I'm, you know, obviously walking on a cane. And he said, well, you're gonna play some baseball today. So I said, well, there's no way I can run around the bases. He said, that's no problem. He said, all you need to do is learn how to hit the ball over the fence and then you walk around the bases. So he had a couple of friends from the old negro leagues who came and taught us how to field...
REHMHit the ball.
RICHARD...and hit the ball. And pretty soon...
RICHARD...and my muscles in my arms were strong from the crutches. And pretty soon, I could put my cane down, hit the ball, put the bat down, pick up the cane and walk around the bases.
REHMWere you hitting it over the fence?
RICHARDAnd I was hitting it -- occasionally hitting it over the fence, so there were times when people stepped in who, you know, needed to step in, you know, to kick my butt a little bit and I appreciated it. Coach Sandage was one of those guys who's just a great mentor. I've been very lucky to have good teachers and good mentors in my life.
REHMWhat about college? How was college for you?
RICHARDI went to a little private college in Virginia called Washington and Lee University. Probably not the best fit for me. I didn't go to prep school. I went to public high school, but I had great teachers there. I had a couple of really good teachers again. I had Jim Boatwright, who's editor of Shenandoah magazine, who encouraged my writing and a couple of maverick teachers, Bob Demoria in the Journalism Department. All you need is one or two teachers.
RICHARDThat's all you need.
RICHARDAnd I've been teaching now for 18 years and I realize that you can't save all the children, but every once in awhile, you can save one or two that come through.
REHMAnd how did you get involved with screenwriting?
RICHARDIt's a strange story. My -- I was teaching at Ole Miss and a woman there was in the writing program. My wife and I moved to Los Angeles and we kept in touch. It turned out she's Robert Altman's script supervisor. And she said, Altman wants me to write a movie. I don't know how to do it. And I said, well, you're a terrific writer. I'll help you break it. So I helped her break a little movie called, "Cookie's Fortune." She said, I can't pay you, can't give you credit, but I can introduce you to Bob. I said, well, that'll be fantastic, he's one of my favorite directors.
RICHARDHe read my first collection of short stories called, "Ice at the Bottom of the World." And he said, the title story would make a great movie, ensemble cast, strong female leads, so I went home and adapted it, brought it back to him. He said, this is fantastic, it'll be my next movie. I thought, well, that's easy. But it turns out Bob always had five or six next projects.
REHMI'll bet. I'll bet.
RICHARDSo it wasn't quite that easy, but that was my introduction into Hollywood. And I got an agent off of that and used that script as a writing sample and was able to get work in Hollywood from that point on.
REHMWhat else have you written for the movies?
RICHARDI did -- my first television job was, "Party of Five." And then I did, "Chicago Hope," "Huff," recently, "Criminal Minds." And I'm always the -- I'm always the oldest writer on staff.
RICHARDAnd I'm the one that has the most problematic scripts. I just got a note. Just before Christmas, I was writing a script and the producer said, Mark, you know, "Criminal Minds," you have an obligatory morgue scene, you know, where they, you know, and he said, Mark, your morgue scenes are too fully realized.
RICHARDI said, well, you know, if people are looking at a body, there should be some -- you know, it's a great opportunity...
RICHARD...to talk about mortality...
RICHARD...you know, what were the images in the eyes. And he said, that's not how these shows work, so.
REHMInteresting. Do you -- you're animated as you talk about screenwriting. Is that a favorite thing or is what you've done here closer to your heart?
RICHARDIt's a good question and one I've thought about. And I think part of it, I discovered when I was writing the book. In those periods of recovery in my town, there was the library and there was the movie theater. And the projectionist lived on my street. And if I would go in with him to help him open up, I could sit in what they call back then the colored balcony. I could sit for free. So I spent a lot of my time in those two places, the movie theater and the library, which is where a lot of children who are sickly or weak or whatever, they spend a lot of their time, so I'm comfortable in both places.
REHMThat's very, very interesting. All right. Let's go to Reston, Va. Good morning, Jeanette.
JEANETTEGood morning, Diane. I'm really enjoying your show and your questions are so good. And Mark, I was Jeanette Purington growing up in Franklin, Va. and went to the public high school and then to Hollins College and majored in English. And you and I have a good mutual friend, George Parker, in Williamsburg.
RICHARDOh, yes, we do.
JEANETTEAnd I just wanted to say that I grew up in the Episcopal Church and my parents certainly knew your parents and...
JEANETTE...the comment I wanted to make is that a place like our hometown, I have realized as an adult, has so many stories that are known by those of us who grew up there. And I have found that we really had a sense of intimacy with the people in that small town to the point that when I go back there where my 94-year-old mother lives, I feel a closeness, almost a family closeness to the people that I've -- that I knew there and grew up with.
JEANETTEAnd I wish there was some way, maybe you can think of how to do this, to arrange some storytelling facilitated group where people from our small town could get together at the library or at the churches and share some of the stories like the one you told about the coach. That was hilarious, so I'm glad you're such a good storyteller and I really...
JEANETTE...look forward to reading your book.
REHMThank you, Jeanette.
RICHARDWell, thank you, Jeanette. I'm so happy that you called in. I know exactly who you are. And yes, I think we grew up in Franklin in a golden age of that town. And there are fantastic stories, but no one is left to tell them anymore. I actually look to our friend, George Parker, who you mentioned, who has a good memory of those stories. He was actually one of my readers. I had two readers for this book to try to keep me honest. I wanted to tell the truth as much as possible and he was fantastic and keeping me on point with the book and is in the book, as is his father, the commonwealth attorney that lived on our street when we grew up.
REHMOne of these stories you tell in this book is about your mother leaving the Roman Catholic Church.
RICHARDMm-hmm. You know, it's almost become cliché that everybody has a priest story who leaves the church. My mother had a priest story. She was on the altar guild to put fresh flowers up on Saturday and went in there to do it.
REHMAt the Episcopal Church or...
REHM...at the Roman Catholic Church?
RICHARDAt the Catholic Church.
REHMOkay. All right.
RICHARDThe Catholic Church. I'm sorry if I was confusing. And she and another lady were putting flowers up on the altar. No one was in the church. And they were wearing culottes, which were like shorts, you know, what they're called at the time, I guess. And the priest apparently came in and saw them up on the altar in culottes and grabbed a piece of rope and chased them out of the church calling them whores. So they didn't...
REHMBecause they had...
RICHARDBecause, I guess...
REHM...entered the church improperly dressed as far as...
REHM...he was concerned.
RICHARDRight. And he -- I think he may have been drinking at the time. So I'm surprised my father didn't go down there and whip some butt, but he didn't. And we subsequently started attending the Episcopal Church after that.
REHMWas your father a big man?
RICHARDNo, he was not.
REHMHe was not.
RICHARDVery, very slender, narrow shoulder, but a strong man.
REHMYou talk about the day you spent with him checking out a peat fire...
REHM...and you say that that was the best day you ever had with him.
RICHARDIt was a very surreal day, so vivid. We were in the Dismal Swamp and there was a fire. It was -- they called a forest fire, but it was literally burning underground where all the -- you know, because it's a swamp, all the compost. And there was mass confusion. There were people running. They didn't know where the fire was coming from. And it erupted out of the ground, smoke was hanging. And the Dismal Swamp is a very spooky place. Lake Drummond in the middle with the cypress trees and the moss hanging down and these roads that seem to twist and wind and we came across -- they had impressed sailors from Norfolk to help put out the fire. It was out of control.
RICHARDAnd I remember my father was just very calm during the whole time. We were driving around in his car and he was giving me, you know, a lesson of history. He said, well, you know, George Washington dug this canal to drain the swamp. And over here is, you know, once where I saw a bear swimming across the canal with a cub on its back. And it was just -- it was so pleasant. And we would come across -- I remember we came across a scene where the sailors were panicking, getting on and off the school bus. And he was -- he told them, he said, there's no reason to panic, you know, gentlemen. He said, the fire is actually burning underneath us.
RICHARDAnd as he said that, a bulldozer disappeared in the ground because it had -- the fire had burned. And he said, see, he said, just, you know, it's burning underneath us, no one panic. And everyone left and we took our time. And the flames were right behind us, I remember. And we would stop and periodically take pictures. And there was a little railroad car and I got on the railroad car, like one of those hand cars where you pump the handles and it moves along. And my father took a picture of me and I was pretending that I was trying to outrace the flames and I still have that photograph. My sister sent it to me years ago. It was just -- it was a wonderful day.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Let's go to Chesterland, Ohio. Good morning, Esther.
ESTHERI just want to say thank you, Diane, for such a wonderful interview. It's just very much of a change from what we usually hear on most interviews. Not yours, yours are all good, but there are subjects that we're so caught up in.
ESTHERThis is a wonderful man and a wonderful story and thank you.
REHMAnd thank you...
REHM...so much for calling. Have you been back to your own town recently?
RICHARDI have been. I go back once or twice a year. Sadly, the paper mill that was the life blood of our town is closed. And of a town of 8,000 or 9,000, to lose that just cut -- just gutted the place. And we lost 1,500, 2,000 jobs or something.
RICHARDSo it's one of those stories of America that are all too common. And, you know, when Jeanette Purington had called in about it, yes, we grew up in the golden age when there was money and the town was vibrant. We had a family -- the Camp family had built that town. And now it's not there anymore. When I go back, it's hundreds of houses for sale. It's a typical story in America.
REHMWhere is your mother?
RICHARDShe's in that town.
REHMShe's still there.
RICHARDShe's still there. And she's going to, you know, hang on and hold on.
REHMHow old is she?
RICHARDOh, she'll kill me for saying this. I think she's 78. She's young.
REHMShe still has friends there?
RICHARDOh, yeah. She wouldn't leave. I think that her -- I think her network of friends and her network of prayer partners and just her community is so strong there that they won't leave.
REHMThat's quite an attachment. You know, I was born here in Washington.
REHMI've been here all my life.
REHMI've watched this city go from street cars to buses to mass transit to crowds on the street. I mean, so different.
REHMAnd it's lost.
REHMYou know, though I've watched it all change, as I know you have watched your town change, it's amazing and yet it's sad to see what was.
RICHARDVery sad. Very sad. And I think we've lost -- when we -- when the paper mill closed, and even before the paper mill closed, it was bought out and, you know, and then outsourced. In its heyday, the great thing about the paper mill is that it brought in people from all over. So for a small town, it was very cosmopolitan. And with people going to New York, people going to Europe, the Camp family made sure that the libraries were well funded and that's all gone.
REHMMark Richard and the book is titled, "House of Prayer No. 2: A Writer's Journey Home." Congratulations on the book.
RICHARDOh, thank you so much.
REHMAnd thank you for being here.
RICHARDBeen my pleasure, Diane. Thank you very much.
REHMThank you. And thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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