Bible Belter

Bible-Belter-500x500The midday sun has finally emerged from behind the top tier of the Circle Tower in downtown Indianapolis, and gradually, it starts to lift the building’s broad shadow. Sunshine slowly pours into Monument Circle. The old cowboy grins.

Bending forward over the guitar strapped to his torso, the cowboy drags his guitar case onto a newly illuminated patch of brick sidewalk. “I follow the sun,” he says, gruff through a mouth of mangled yellow and brown teeth. “It’s nice in the sun.”

Today the sun, a steaming cup of black coffee and the Doral Ultra Light he’s pulled from his coat pocket are his only sources of warmth. It’s March 22, the second day of spring on the calendar, but a bitter breeze reminds the red-faced man that winter still holds sway. With one callused, wind-burnt hand, he flicks the flint of a lighter while shielding its flame with the other. The temperature flashing on the Emmis Building marquee across the way says 43 degrees, but damned if it doesn’t feel colder to the cowboy. He’s hungry. Hasn’t eaten since early this morning, and he’s fighting a cold. But “as long as the sun’s out,” he says, “I’ll be okay.”

After a couple drags, the cowboy checks his watch. Break’s over. He swipes off the lit end of the cigarette and sticks the remainder back in his pocket. He clears his throat, hocks phlegm from the back of his esophagus and spits the wad onto the sidewalk, smearing and spreading it out with his boot so as not to offend the passersby. He caresses his guitar, checking the tuning of its strings to make sure the cold hasn’t warped them, then looks up at the sky, the sun gleaming on his smudged sunglasses. Pulling a pick out of his hatband, he strums a slightly sour D chord. Then, in a deep, soulful vibrato that should belong to a much bigger man, the cowboy sings. He is Lord, He is Lord, He is risen from the dead …

At that instant, as his distinctive baritone moan sounds strong and true, bouncing off the buildings and filling the Circle, he becomes what he is to most people: an element of the downtown environment almost as familiar as the Monument itself. As the words of the old spiritual spill from his chapped lips and rise into the air, he becomes visible to the people of the city street as the “Christian Cowboy.”

Read the rest at Indianapolis Monthly

Mike Tokars: What happened to the boy who witnessed his mother’s murder?

tokarsMike Tokars was four years old on November 29, 1992. Yet he remembers the events of that night clearly, and he recounts them with an almost unsettling calm.

He recalls waking up in the back of his mother’s 4Runner, which was in the garage of the family’s East Cobb home. A strange man emerged from the house with a sawed-off shotgun. The stranger kicked the family’s Springer Spaniel, Jake; jumped into the backseat beside Mike; and ordered Mike’s mother, Sara Tokars, to drive to a vacant residential development about a half mile away, where she pulled over. Then a gunshot. The stranger fled. From the passenger seat, Mike’s six-year-old brother, Rick, leaned over and turned off the ignition. Seeing their mother slumped over the steering wheel, Rick told Mike they had to go for help. But Mike sensed she was dead. The two boys ran about a hundred yards through the dark, through bushes with thorns that cut them, their blood mixing with that of their mother. The next morning, over a breakfast of their uncle’s waffles, the two boys kept saying: If only Dad had been there with his gun.

The brothers moved in with their maternal grandparents in coastal Bradenton, Florida. Their father, Fred Tokars—a high-profile Atlanta criminal defense attorney—would call and occasionally visit. He phoned on Mike’s sixth birthday, but when Mike tried to pass the phone to his brother, Rick refused. They both knew their father had been arrested, but Rick knew the implications. Back in Atlanta, Fred Tokars was charged with hiring the stranger, Curtis Rower, to kill Sara in an attempt to cover up his secret life of drug trafficking and money laundering. Mike never spoke to his father again. “At that point, he was no longer a good guy in my eyes,” says Mike.

Fred Tokars’s 1997 trial and conviction was broadcast nationally on Court TV. Mike did not attend. Family and friends shielded the boys, but “sometimes it would come up,” says Mike. “And when it didn’t, I knew that they knew.” Eventually public memory of the tragedy faded. “As we got older, we had more control over who knew,” says Mike. “I was always open about it with my close friends. I wanted to explain—talking about my parents made me feel like a normal person.” Mike says that wasn’t the case with his brother, who was much more guarded. “I can’t remember a single instance of us talking about it,” says Mike. “We didn’t need to.” On the 10th anniversary of their mother’s murder, Mike tried to broach the topic; Rick cut him off, and the two went surfing.

Rick went to college in San Diego and is now an avid surfer and traveler. Mike stayed closer to home, attending Tallahassee Community College and then the University of South Florida, where he majored in history and English literature. But he devoted more time and energy to touring the South by van and playing guitar in punk rock and ska bands. Reading “The Rum Diary” by Hunter S. Thompson inspired him to become a reporter and writer, so he moved to New York, where he interned and freelanced. On a whim, he applied to the Master of Journalism program at Columbia University and was shocked to be accepted. He plans to graduate this spring.

Reporters occasionally contact Mike about his parents; from inside prison his father has become a prolific prosecution witness, having helped solve six murders. Mike says his experience gives him insight into and empathy for the people he writes about who have suffered loss. More than anything, facing evil at such an early age has shaped the way he has approached his own life. “I don’t take anything for granted, don’t expect to be comfortable or safe,” he says. That’s not necessarily negative, he explains, using a surfing analogy: “When you’re in the water, you always worry that there’s a shark. But there’s a calmness when you actually spot a fin—you know the evil is there.”

—30—

Published in the March 2015 issue of Atlanta

Life After Lee

GSU2Allison Webb parked on the side of Charles Allen Drive as she had done dozens of times before.

But this time it took her five minutes to talk herself out of the car. The familiarity of this Midtown neighborhood was bittersweet. Lee had lived in a ground-floor apartment just down the road. Together they had shopped at Trader Joe’s and eaten at Woody’s CheeseSteaks, snapshot memories of her son that could one moment comfort her and the next send her spiraling into despair.

Crossing the street to the campus of Henry W. Grady High School was especially surreal. It was 11 a.m. on a Thursday in mid-December, and the classrooms were bright and bustling. As Webb passed each window, she could imagine Lee sitting at his desk, cutting up with friends, flirting with the girls. Flashing that perfect smile. She approached the old brick entrance, climbed the stairs, and stopped before the heavy gray doors. She pressed the intercom button and told the voice in the box her name and that she was there to see the counselors. As she waited to be buzzed in, Webb remembered the countless times she had stood in that very spot holding the lunch or the book that Lee had forgotten. More than once, she had paced there, empty-handed, worried, wondering what he had done to get sent to the office this time.

This time, Webb was here to help other kids in trouble. She had an appointment to speak with the faculty about the Lee Project, a non-profit initiative that partnered with the Georgia State College of Arts and Sciences to provide scholarships to high school students who’ve dealt with tragedy or extraordinary adversity.

The program began as a way for Webb to memorialize her son’s life. It became a reason for her to go on with her own.

It’s hard to remember her life before Lee.

She was 22, a student at Guilford Technical Community College in North Carolina, when she got pregnant. She and Lee’s father split when Lee was 11 weeks old. Webb got a job at a dry cleaner. She left college, but promised herself she would go back once Lee graduated high school.

Read the rest at magazine.gsu.edu

History and “Hate Ashbury”

GSU1Kristina Graves was sure she was mistaken.

She was in the arena at the Yaraab Shriners Temple on Ponce de Leon Avenue, cheering on the Atlanta Rollergirls, the local flat-track roller derby team, and from her trackside seat she could have sworn she recognized one of the skaters zipping by.

That looks just like Dr. Brattain!

Graves’s former history professor at Georgia State and the “jammer” in question did share the same compact build — muscular shoulders squared atop a petite, wiry frame. The dark brown hair creeping from beneath the rim of the skater’s black helmet matched as well. Still, the idea that the same sweet woman who had once lectured Graves on Nixon and Kennedy and the Vietnam War and gently nudged her to pursue a master’s degree would be spending her Saturday nights gliding around in circles, exchanging elbows and body checks with sweaty, tattooed women twice her size seemed, at best, far-fetched.

The program offered little help — the “67” written in marker on the jammer’s arms was registered to Hate Ashbury, a skater alias.

There was only one way to be certain. After the final buzzer had ended the bout, Graves worked her way through the scattering crowd to the floor, toward the home bench where Hate Ashbury was greeting fans, grinning, celebrating her team’s victory. Even as she drew closer, Graves couldn’t shake her uncertainty. But by the time Graves was within shouting distance, before the former student could work up the courage to say anything, Michelle Brattain spun around on her skates, eyes widened with pleasant surprise and cried, “Kristina! Oh my gosh, you’re here!” Teacher hugged student and asked what she thought of the bout.

A few years prior, it was Brattain sitting trackside, wondering if she could see herself out there on eight wheels.

Read the rest at magazine.gsu.edu

Next Step: Literacy

GSU3Early County is a remote patch of southwestern Georgia bottomland pinned against the Chattahoochee River at the Alabama border. More than half of the county’s 11,000 residents are scattered across the countryside, many on farms — peanut and cotton, mostly. Cell phone reception is spotty, and those who can afford Internet access get barely enough bandwidth to check their email account, if they have one.

Blakely, population 5,000, is the county seat, centered on a domed and columned courthouse built in 1904 in the middle of the town square. It is the home of the county’s lone school district — 2,200 students, nearly 70 percent of whom qualify for free or reduced-cost lunch. The city also hosts the county’s sole library, though it is not really a part of most citizens’ daily lives. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 22 percent of residents over the age of 16 lack basic literacy skills. One survey found 30 percent of households with young kids reported owning fewer than four children’s books. Some had none at all.

Based on some of these factors alone — higher levels of poverty, illiteracy and limitations in technological access — one might think this rural corner of Georgia had too many educational challenges. Georgia State Regents’ Professor of Psychology Robin Morris thought it was perfect.

Morris is a founding member of the Global Literacy Project, a partnership among Georgia State, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Tufts University built around the idea of helping at-risk children learn basic language and literacy skills by connecting them with technology. The plan, simply put, was to load a tablet with interactive reading and language-rich software and hand it to a child in undeveloped Africa and India where there are no schools or teachers. The pure curiosity of youth, the researchers theorized, would lead the kids to figure out the reading-related games and puzzles on their own and, thus, they would essentially teach themselves to read.

That was the theory, at least. Before they could secure the money and resources to start the initiative on a global scale, reaching 170 million illiterate children in some of the poorest parts of the world, the Global Literacy Project had to see if the tablet would actually work. And what better, more accessible testing grounds than with at-risk children in the American South?

In late fall 2012, Morris and his team drove three-and-a-half hours down from Atlanta, set six Motorola Xoom tablets on a table in front of a pre-kindergarten class of 4- and 5-year-olds, and stepped back without saying a word. Many of kids had never seen such devices before. They approached with caution and handled the tablets with awe-inspired care. Without receiving a breath of instruction, they soon figured out how to turn on the display and quickly started scrolling through the applications and playing the reading and language games. A promising start.

But were the children actually learning?

Read the rest at magazine.gsu.edu

Re: Fredi

re-frediAll my boss does is complain about the Braves’ manager. To shut him up, I proposed a story showing him how lucky he and Atlanta baseball fans actually are.

Date: October 8, 2013
To: sfennessy@atlantamagazine.com
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Condolences—and a story idea

Steve,

Sorry about your Braves. I’m sure you watched to the bitter end, right? I mean, it was the playoffs, after all.

They had it. Up 3–2 on the Dodgers. Game 4. Six outs from tying the series. Then David Carpenter gives up that double to lead off the eighth. Camera cuts to Braves dugout, Fredi Gonzalez chomping on his sunflower seeds. Then a shot of Craig Kimbrel, only the game’s best closer, in the Atlanta bullpen, just waiting for the call. A call that Fredi wouldn’t make. You’re probably screaming, Jesus, Fredi, put in Kimbrel! Instead, Juan Uribe parks Carpenter’s hanging curve in the lot beyond left field. Etc., etc. Braves choke again. I swear I could hear the chant in my neighborhood: Fire Fredi! Fire Fredi!

Sorry. Didn’t mean to mock your misery. (Well, maybe a little.) I’m still relatively new to town, not a Braves fan. But I’ve followed baseball most of my life, and I’ve gotta say that some Braves fans seem to have an inflated sense of their own suffering. You’ve had, what, two losing seasons in the past twenty-three? Fifteen division championships? Five pennants? C’mon!

And what has Fredi done but continue that success?

Since taking over the Braves three years ago, he’s won more games than any manager in major league baseball except the Rangers’ Ron Washington. Fourth-best record in the majors in 2012, second-best in 2013. But you guys still hate him. The sarcastic Twitter handles. The Fire Fredi Facebook page. The whining about his one career playoff win.

Look: Fredi’s fifty years old, and he’s been a big-league manager a total of seven seasons. In their first seven seasons, Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa, and your own Bobby Cox combined got only one playoff win. Fredi has the sixth-highest career winning percentage among active managers and more wins in his career than Torre, LaRussa, or Cox had at the same point in their careers.

Anyway, my story idea: It would be about Fredi—sorta—but would actually be about the baseball fans around here who need to stop complaining and appreciate what they have.

Let me know.

Best,

Tony

Date: October 10, 2013
To: sfennessy@atlantamagazine.com
From: Tony Rehagen
Subject: Fredi

Steve,

Quick follow-up: Any story would have to look at what a baseball manager actually does. Sure, he makes the lineup, shifts the fielders, calls the bullpen. But much of the game is out of his control. Hitters have to hit. Pitchers have to pitch. There’s this sabermetrician, James Click, who studied manager-driven statistics like bunting, intentional walks, and stolen bases. He couldn’t find a single manager who consistently helped his team win more by trying these things. So, this infallible tactician you’re looking for? Sorry, he doesn’t exist. And let’s say we get to July and you’re more tired of Fredi than ever. Firing him won’t work either. Analysts have found that midseason managerial switches have negligible impacts on winning. Maybe you should ask yourself who built the team you have? That would be general manager Frank Wren, using money from Liberty Media. In 2003, when Time Warner still owned the Braves, payroll was $106 million, third-highest in the majors. In 2013 it was $89 million, which ranked sixteenth. News flash: The sixteenth-best team has never made the playoffs. Meaning that Wren has spent the money pretty well—except when he hasn’t. Nearly a third of last year’s payroll went to B.J. Upton (.184) and Dan Uggla (.179), who combined for 322 strikeouts. All Fredi’s team did with the rest of the money was win ninety-six games.

And you’re blaming him?

Read the rest at atlantamagazine.com

Dying For An Appointment

DONALD HAMON HAD WORKED CONSTRUCTION all his life. Every weekday for about 45 years, he would wake up, grab his tool belt, and drive to a work site where he’d labor and sweat beneath the sun until it set. Then he’d return to his home in rural West Harrison, Indiana, to enjoy his children and eventually his grand­children. It was on one of those evenings, in early 2005, while Hamon was wrestling around with his grandson on the living­-room floor, that the 9­-year­-old made a discovery.

“Grandpa,” said the boy, “you have a spot behind your ear.”

Sure enough, as Hamon ran his finger behind his right ear, he could feel the tiny raw patch of skin. It was hidden, so he couldn’t see it in the mirror. Nor could he remember ever feeling any pain. His wife confirmed the spot, no bigger than a punch hole, and told him he should have it looked at. So the 63-­year-­old Hamon did what many men do: He cleaned the wound, let it scab over, and promptly tried to forget about it.

Except the patch never healed. The scabs kept coming off, usually as Hamon slept. Almost a year went by. The spot grew to nearly the size of a nickel. Hamon couldn’t wait any longer. He picked up the phone and called a dermatologist in Aurora, Indiana, about 17 miles south of his home.

The doctor booked him for an appointment the following week, and it was then that Hamon learned the patch was cancerous—an aggressive form of squamous-­cell carcinoma that had spread to his parotids, the body’s largest salivary glands. A team of doctors first removed almost a quarter of his right ear in an emergency surgery to head off the cancer. Later they took out his parotids, along with lymph nodes. Then began the radiation therapy. After 32 grueling treatments, Hamon was finally pronounced cancer-free.

That should have been the end of the night­mare. But then, in May of 2010 as Hamon was mowing the lawn, a tree branch clipped his right ear. It started to ooze blood and never stopped. Having learned from his potentially fatal mistake 5 years earlier, Hamon phoned his dermatologist in Aurora and was told the doctor would be able to see him—in 4 to 6 months.

Four to 6 months? No, no. This was Donald  Hamon, Ham-on, he told them. A former patient with a history of cancer in this very ear.

This was an emergency.

Sorry, they said. The doctor’s appointment book was packed.

He called another dermatologist in the same building.

Four to 6 months.

He called a couple of specialists at the Western Hills campus of UC Health Dermatology, 19 miles away.

Six months or longer.

Cincinnati, 25 miles east?

Booked solid into next year.

Hamon went to his family practitioner, but all the doctor could do with his limited dermatological training was assist in trying to find a time, a cancellation, anything with an area dermatologist. Days became weeks that stacked into months without an opening. Hamon’s physical state didn’t improve. His mental state worsened. All he could envision was a tumor barnacled to his skull. He began to prepare himself for the idea that he might not be around much longer, that he was going to die in the distant, solitary waiting room his life had become.

HAMON WAS LUCKY HE DIDN’T FACE A similar wait back in 2006. That same year, two researchers at the University of California at San Francisco’s school of medicine decided to conduct an experiment. Posing  as worried patients, they phoned 851 dermatologists across the country for an appointment to have a suspicious “changing mole” checked out. The average wait time: 38 days. In some cities, like Boston, the wait was as long as 73 days. That would have provided a 10­-week head start for what could have been aggressive cancer.

Read the rest here at Men’s Health

Do You Need More Salt?

more-saltWHEN AN EARTHQUAKE HIT JAPAN BACK IN March, tremors triggered seismographs more than 6,000 miles away in Texas. But what the quake really rattled on this side of the globe were the nerves of Americans: Once the news came out that the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactors had been damaged, people in the States began worrying that a killer plume of radiation might waft across the Pacific.

Within days, poison-control centers and state health departments as far east as Pennsylvania were fielding calls from people wondering about protection from an oncoming cancer cloud—specifically, questions about potassium iodide, a form of stable iodine that can guard a person’s thyroid gland against harmful radioactive iodine. The same pills that the U.S. government had issued to its employees in Japan were soon being hoarded by a public suddenly obsessed with iodine.

Of course, a nuclear storm never did sweep across the country. Somewhere between Fukushima and Fresno the danger dissipated, and gradually, so did our obsession with iodine.

But beyond this happy ending, another danger lurks. The risk of radiation may have vanished, but a national health threat remains. And we still need iodine to save the day.

LOCATED IN THE FRONT OF YOUR NECK, JUST below your Adam’s apple, the thyroid gland is often described as the thermostat of the human endocrine system. It regulates your body’s use of energy, and creates and stores hormones that control everything from your metabolism to your growth rate. The essential chemical for all these functions is iodine. Without enough of this element pumping through your thyroid, you may begin to experience fatigue, depression, lethargy, cloudy thinking, and weight gain. Left untreated, an iodine deficiency may potentially cause thyroid cancer and, some doctors theorize, even heart disease.

Fatigue? Lethargy? Cloudy thinking? Right: This pretty much describes the symptoms of every man in America on any given workday. But what if what you’ve come to consider just a case of the Mondays is actually an out-of-whack thermostat? And what if the belly fat that so many men can’t seem to shed exists at least in part because of a metabolic malfunction?

Read the rest at Men’s Health

The Blink of an Eye

mattwhite500The gear is gathered on the lanai—a half-dozen7-foot spinning rods, lined and hooked, along with a pair of dusty tackle boxes stocked with lures and weights. Down at the dock behind the house, a wide-decked, 23-foot Carolina Skiff bobs in the canal; in the kitchen sits a cooler packed with snacks and sandwiches. In the master bedroom, just off the lanai, Matt White watches SportsCenter highlights of last night’s Butler basketball game with one eye on the sky. Yesterday, the weather report said there was a 30 percent chance that a front moving toward Cape Haze from the Gulf of Mexico would produce rain—an event that would end Matt’s day before it begins.

Matt has been fishing the brackish Florida waters south of Sarasota since he was a boy on his family’s yearly vacation. His parents moved here from North Manchester, Indiana, while Matt was at Butler, and in the summers, he would often take his pole and go out alone. When Matt retired to Cape Haze seven years ago, he would fish at least twice a week, landing trophy specimens of just about every species that swims these parts. Shark and tarpon are the only prizes he still dreams about.

But it has been more than a year since Matt, 44, last got out on the water. He can’t just grab his gear and walk down to the dock. For the past decade, much longer than anyone, including himself, thought he could survive, he has lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease—which damages the nerves that control voluntary muscle movement. Today’s excursion has required a week of careful preparation.

The mechanical boatlift that Matt and his father, Howard, designed and modified had to be tested to make sure it could still lower Matt’s 600-pound motorized wheelchair into the skiff. The batteries for his portable ventilator had to be charged, along with those that power the machine that his wife, Shartrina, uses to suction his saliva. The laser-triggered contraption that runs his specialized reel, enabling Matt to fish using only his eyes—the sole part of his body he can still control—needed to be checked as well.

In his mind, Matt has it all laid out: captain booked, schedule set, supplies inventoried. Everything down to what he will wear. All he has to do now is relay that last bit of information to Shartrina.

She emerges from the walk-in closet, frustrated. She bends to look into her husband’s bright blue eyes. “Wind shirt?” she asks. “What is it, a jacket?”

He stares back at her.

“A pullover?”

He blinks once.

“What color is it? White?”

He doesn’t blink.

“Blue?”

No blink.

“Black?”

Blink.

She goes back into the closet for about a minute and reemerges with a plain black windbreaker. “Is this it?”

No blink. Matt then shuts his eyes three times to signal that he wants to initiate their system. Numbers represent groups of letters: 1=A-D, 2=E-H, and so on. He found it on the Internet. Shartrina begins to count, “1, 2, 3, 4, 5.” Matt blinks on 5. Q-T. Shartrina recites, “Q, R, S …” Matt blinks on S. Slowly, number by number, letter by letter, he spells out S-T-O-N-E-H-E-N-G-E.

“It says ‘Stonehenge?’” she asks. “I don’t see anything like that in here.”

He just looks at her.

She rolls her eyes and turns back to the closet, muttering to herself: “He remembers everything he’s ever owned.” Matt’s mother, Connie, joins the search, and the two scour every closet and drawer in the house. It is almost 9 a.m. The sun is out, the sky is clear, and the boat captain will arrive any minute.

Shartrina returns with a white pullover. “I cannot find it, and I don’t have time to look,” she says. “Will this do?”

The two lock stares, and for a moment there is silence, broken only by Matt’s ventilator beeping and huffing and releasing. After about 30 seconds, Shartrina exhales and throws up her hands.

“All right,” she says, marching out of the bedroom. “I’ll look one more place!”

 

ALS attacks the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Slowly, the motor neurons that send and receive impulses wither and die, cutting off communication between brain and muscle. Symptoms start as weakness, usually in an extremity, like an arm or a finger. Then the disorder spreads, killing nerve cells as it works its way through the body. No one knows the cause. Most patients live only two to four years after diagnosis. There is no treatment or cure. After a decade with the disease, Matt’s frame is a long, gaunt twist of skin, atrophied muscle, and bone; his hands, feet, and face limp and elongated.

But the disease does not impair the nerves that carry sensation. Matt can still feel the heat of a Florida summer, or, more often, cold, due to his drastically decreased body mass. He can feel the tickle of his little Maltese, Abby, licking his feet, and the warmth of a good-morning kiss from Shartrina.

Read the rest at Indianapolis Monthly

A Lot To Lose

spreadHere comes Rich Burd, emerging from the rows of gleamingautomobiles, extending his hand in your direction as if he’s been expecting you. You’ve seen him before, in his cheesy TV commercials—“Haven’t you heard? Burd’s the word!”—and here he is in the flesh. He’s a bit shorter than you expected, but there’s that same round face with heavy eyelids, the same blond buzz-cut standing motionless in the breeze, the same knowing smile. He wants to welcome you to his kingdom of freshly washed and waxed coupes and sedans, half-tons, full-tons, SUVs and hybrids, if that’s your thing, each adorned with a bright-colored balloon and priced to sell. He grips your hand firmly, looks you in the eye, and asks if he can show you something, as if he already knows exactly what you want, what you need, and what you can afford.

Rich is a salesman, after all, a pro, a closer who built the shimmering white 55,000-square-foot Burd Ford showroom and service center looming behind him brick by brick, sale by sale, starting at age 19. And he is more than owner and namesake. He is the father of this place, this supermarket of cars, and its salespeople and mechanics are as much a part of him as his wife and kids. Everything—from the classic rock on the sound system punctuated by thunderous, distorted pages to the lightbulbs behind the blue B-U-R-D sign—runs on his unbridled horsepower. Shake that hand, take those keys, and drive off in a Burd Ford, and you’ll become part of that extended family for life.

So what can he put you in? Need towing power and hauling capacity? There are some F-150s hot off the line. Packing the family around? How about a roomy Expedition, like the one Rich’s wife drives? Concerned about the price of gas? Friend, who isn’t? It’s 2009, and pretty much everyone is hurting. Rich knows you’ve been up late at the kitchen table, bracing for the worst. He understands that at the top of every household’s list of resolutions is squeezing a few thousand more miles out of the family car.

But what you may not realize is that Rich has been up nights, too. He has spent hours in his office, sweating beneath mounting piles of red numbers. The office window is one-way tinted glass. Rich can look out on his fleet of unsold cars, but you can’t see in. You don’t know that Rich once sold more than 130 cars a month from this lot. Or that there have been months this year when he has moved fewer than 80. That in order to build this state-of-the-art facility, Rich Burd gambled big, $8 million–big, just before the crash, when the car business bottomed out. You don’t know that he is still waiting for his $300,000 Cash For Clunkers check. You can’t see the framed photos on the shelf above his desk, a wife and four children looking down, counting on him to pull the family through.

Even they can’t see how bad it has gotten. His best friend, Chris, his spouse of 22 years, can’t guess the weight of the burden Rich has lately felt bearing down upon him when he shuts that office door. No one sees what this economy is really doing to Rich Burd. No one knows it will kill him.

Rich Burd was born a car man. His father, Gill Burd, was an auto wholesaler who moved his business here from Kentucky when Rich was 11. At local auctions, Rich observed his father’s skill at sniffing out a deal, watched him bid on clunkers to be hauled back to the family shop and refurbished and sold to dealers for a tidy profit. The elder Burd imparted his knowledge to his son, but he was a stern boss. “His dad was a pretty hard guy no matter who you were,” says Jon Parson, a childhood friend of Rich’s who also worked for Gill. In his early years, Rich toiled in the shop, detailing cars. When he was old enough, he ran rehabbed Oldsmobiles, Fords, and Cadillacs on the highways and back roads between auctions and dealerships all over Indiana.

Read the rest at Indianapolis Monthly