Mark’s Writing Samples

Here are a few articles I’ve written — various topics, various lengths — that show versatility in story-telling.

A. She turns a new page

Say you want to write a book about your life. But you can’t read.

That was the dilemma facing Brenda Sue Lee Nelson, who was married at 14, widowed at 15, divorced with two children at 19.

She worked as a cook on an offshore boat, taught physical fitness and tended bar, among other jobs.

There was only one thing to do if she was ever going to write her book: Nelson, now 59, had to learn to read.

And that’s what she’s done, going from a third-grade reading level less than three years ago to college-level now, reading articles on everything from geology to Greek mythology and comedian George Burns. Along the way, Nelson confronted her speech problems; now she enthusiastically gives speeches to impressed audiences.

Thanks go to a nonprofit group, Learn to Read, and a tutor, retiree Barbara Horton. “I was determined to learn,” says Nelson.

“She’s come such a long way,” says Horton, 70.

Faking it

When she couldn’t read, Nelson adapted by scratching out indecipherable orders as a waitress and asking customers to point to the liquor they wanted.

Her predicament is too common. About 20 percent of adults are functionally illiterate — unable to read signs or fill out job applications, according to Learn to Read.

Nelson’s problems go back to her youth, much of it spent in Ferry Pass. She had speech problems and was shunted off to a room set aside for students with troubles. Teachers ignored them.

“They wouldn’t sit down with you and help you,” she said, in the Learn to Read office at Town & Country Plaza, a few blocks from her home.

As a young mother, she had to work to support her children. A few decades ago, it was easier to get a job without an education.

She hid her poor reading skills from coworkers, taking care to copy their actions exactly. But she couldn’t help her kids with their school work. She couldn’t even use a dictionary until Horton showed her how.

Making it

Nelson and Horton hit it off right away, and soon their one-hour classes were extending two or three hours because both student and teacher were so enthusiastic.

“It’s been so rewarding for me, too,” said Horton, who had never taught anyone. “She’s been real good about doing what the program says.”

Nelson was motivated. “I want to write a book. I have a story to tell.”

It’s a story of hard work, an energetic volunteer and triumph over the odds.

— By Mark O’Brien Pensacola News Journal, Dec. 8, 2010

B. Sad truths of a dying business

The two men were on metal gurneys at the morgue. Both were in their 50s. One was obese; the other was skinny, almost gaunt, and his limbs were bent with rigor mortis.

Now Dr. Andi Minyard would perform autopsies on both men to determine the causes of their deaths.

The bodies were deftly cut open, sending a slightly unpleasant smell into the cool air as bacteria was released.

The cavernous room was quiet. No loud music, no jokes, no stopping to eat lunch even though it was noontime.

“Each person deserves respect. We just go about our jobs,” said Minyard, the chief medical examiner for Escambia, Santa Rosa, Okaloosa and Walton counties since 2004.

The job is to investigate any death that involves homicide, suicide or an unknown cause. That’s an average of 400 cases a year, everything from murders to car wrecks to infants who die in their sleep.

Testifying

Minyard’s work day began with an 8:30 a.m. appearance at an Escambia County murder trial.

She told the jury how she did the autopsy on a man gunned down when a west-side bar was robbed.

It was fairly straightforward. The bullet entered the back of his head and lodged in the left side of his brain. Minyard shaved the back of his head to better see the entrance wound and retrieved a projectile from his brain.

Her testimony was clear and crisp, a scientific explanation that gives the same facts to both the prosecutor and the defense attorney.

Lawyers are just one constituency a medical examiner serves. There also are families of the deceased, funeral homes, insurance companies and others.

“We don’t take sides,” she said later. “My job is making sure I produce a report on a death that is as accurate and complete as possible.”

Before an autopsy she is often saddened when she hears the investigator’s account of the person’s death. But then she remembers she has a job to do.

“The scientific part of my brain takes over,” said Minyard, 45, who became a physician in 1992 when she graduated from the University of Louisville School of Medicine.

Still, some cases get to her, like the infant she saw at a hospital a few hours before the child died.

“I didn’t not want to do that baby’s autopsy,” said the Pensacola Beach resident, the mother of two girls.

Saving babies

At 11 a.m. Minyard went to a meeting of a task force that is trying to cut down on the alarming number of babies who die in their sleep.

Some people “co-sleep” with their infants, then unwittingly roll over on them and crush them. Others put infants in playpens where they get tangled up with blankets and stuffed toys that can suffocate them. Or they put infants on sofas, where they may fall between the cushions and be too weak to keep breathing.

This sort of death used to be labeled “crib death,” a polite euphemism that masked the real cause.

Minyard, however, won’t sugarcoat the cause. her photo has been on billboards all over town, part of a public service campaign.

Families sometimes ask her to not list the real cause of an infant’s death, but she won’t budge.

“I don’t like to leave things in the dark … This was one of those things that was being left in the dark,” said Minyard, who calls herself a perfectionist. “If we weren’t tracking these co-sleeping deaths, we’d never know to tell the parents not to co-sleep.”

The truth may hurt someone’s feeling, but knowledge helps the community.

“I’m all about making things better,” she said.

Still, she’s frustrated. Three infants have died in the past week — one from co-sleeping, two in unsafe sleeping arrangements. Two were within a few blocks of her billboard on Massachusetts Avenue; one mother had signed a statement promising not to co-sleep with her infant.

Minyard is clearly eager to find new ways to persuade people to take better care of babies.

Determining causes

In the morgue, located behind Sacred Heart Hospital, Minyard moved between the bodies on the two tables, working smoothly with two aides as they removed organs, weighed and examined them: hearts, spleens, lungs, livers, kidneys, brains.

Bile, urine, blood and other fluids also are collected. They’re especially helpful in determining if deaths are drug-related.

Preliminary indications were that the heavy man probably died of a heart attack, but he never had seen a doctor, so there was no medical history.

Officials suspected that the thin man died of a drug overdose. Empty pill bottles were found near his body when he was discovered about 24 hours after he died.

The thin man had a blood vessel tumor, which Minyard called “an incidental finding” that had nothing to do with his heart.

The heavy man’s heart yielded more direct clues. His blood vessels were tight together.

“There’s no blood going through these vessels,” Minyard said. While part of his heart was healthy and plump, much was discolored and thin.

“He’s had a lot of heart attacks,” she said.

But the man’s failure to ever see a doctor meant he never knew the extent of his problems. Shortly before he died, he had complained of indigestion.

Minyard’s examination confirmed that he died of a heart attack. She chose to not send any items for testing that would cost taxpayers money and yield little new information.

“We try to make our budget as small as possible,” said Minyard, who has 11 employees.

The medical examiner’s budget, cut 17 percent in the past two years, is determined by how many autopsies are conducted in a county.

In Escambia County, that means about $891,000 this year, in Santa Rosa County $220,000. An office in Fort Walton Beach also is used for autopsies. Okaloosa County will pay $487,000, Walton County about $200,000.

The thin man’s autopsy will rely on tests that take several weeks to complete. Some labs conduct tests more quickly, but Minyard uses one that meets her prime test: “I can count on him to be accurate.”

And this is what we want in autopsies: Accuracy, as unpleasant as the findings may be.

— By Mark O’Brien Pensacola News Journal, Jan. 19, 2011

C. Fred Nye: Big voice, big heart

Sgt. Tom O’Neal used plenty of wax and elbow grease to make sure his shoeshine was glowing before he went to Fred Nye’s funeral.

“He always wanted us to be impeccable,” said O’Neal, who worked with Nye at the Escambia County Sheriff’s Office.

That was Mr.Nye, who was a stickler for details when it came to uniforms, but who also could quickly read situations in the field, as he did for 23 years in law enforcement.

Mr. Nye, 72, died last week, seven years after he retired as a captain at the sheriff’s office. It was his second successful career — he served 26 years in the U.S. Marine Corps, where he was a sergeant major.

He was a big man, not just tall, but with big shoulders and a big, booming voice, too.

“You could hear him for three blocks,” Sgt. Rick Frye said.

People skills

“It was a persona,” said Frye, who worked many shifts with Mr. Nye. “Fred could handle people. He knew when to get tough and when to back off.”

“He had a big heart, too,” retired deputy Ray Griffith said.

He and Frye and others laughed at good memories of the former drill instructor, off duty, with two quarts of beer, telling jokes and helping co-workers.

This conversation took place outside Faith Chapel Funeral Home in Brent, where services were held Friday for their co-worker and boss.

“He could be your supervisor and take care care of business but still take care of his people” Frye said.

“He was a leader,” O’Neal said. ”

He could chew you out, that’s for sure,” Griffith said.

Attitude

One big reason for his success: Enthusiasm.

He loved being a Marine and he loved being a deputy.

“I don’t think anyone liked doing this job more than Fred,” Frye said. “He never came to work with a bad attitude.”

He was especially sympathetic to elderly crime victims. “You’d think it was his own mom or daddy,” Frye said.

As a deputy, Mr. Nye had many assignments — field training officer, SWAT unit, traffic division.

“Fred was able to sit back and look at the situation objectively,” Frye said. “That’s why he made captain.”

Soon enough, the funeral was over and it was time for the deputies to escort their old boss and co-worker one last time.

They were headed for Barrancas National Cemetery, where Mr. Nye would be buried with full military honors in his Marine uniform. He loved being a deputy, and he loved being a Marine even more.

— By Mark O’Brien Pensacola News Journal Jan. 31, 2011

D. It’s all about the haul

The watermelon is working. A watermelon is considered bad luck on a boat, but commercial fisherman John Whitworth Jr. likes watermelon, so he defied superstition and brought one aboard the Mary Joyce a few weeks ago, although he never got around to eating it.

Sure enough, the next three trips were very productive, giving him more than 7,000 pounds of fish to unload at Perdido Key Seafood Company on the Intracoastal Canal in southwest Escambia County.

“I told him, ‘Don’t you dare take that watermelon off,'” says his wife, Meiissa Whitworth, laughing before they unloaded the fourth boatload. That was their best haul yet for 2011: some 3,367 pounds of fish.

Their good luck has the Whtworths smiling a lot these days.

The fishing business is a gamble — on wind, tide, weather, fluctuating prices of fish and fuel, oil spills — but John Whitworth and his crew have been hauling in good catches of mingo snapper, a little-known, snub-nosed relative of the red snapper.

It’s long been a big hit in New York and Canada, where people like its sweet taste.

“A lot of people even down here don’t know what a mingo is,” says Whitworth, 46. “They love it up there.”

And that’s a little taste of “the global economy:” People from Pensacola, sometimes using bait from Japan, fish off the Alabama and Louisiana coasts, and then sell their catch to restaurants far away.

On land

Whitworth was just back from five days cruising Gulf of Mexico waters 200 to 700 feet deep in search of mingo. He’d been up for more than 24 hours, so he was eager to return to port and unload his catch.

“I drink a lot of coffee,” he said.

His hands were calloused and nicked with cuts from dropping dozens of weighted fishing lines again and again.

It’s always satisfying to catch fish, but it’s important to be careful bringing up the catch.

“Mingo are a soft fish. The hook will rip their mouth,” says Whitworth, a ball cap over his ponytail of thick hair.

He’s been relieved to see no unusual signs of damage to fish since last year’s BP oil spill, but he keeps watching and worrying.

He uses a “bottom machine” to detect the ridges, reefs, coral and structures that draw mingo and other fish. A worn attache case holds sheets of his notes detailing good sites.

“I’m looking at the bottom machine all the time,” says Whitworth, who appreciates modern technology. “It was a lot harder back in the day.”

Born to fish

Whitworth grew up in a fishing family — his grandfather, Hubert Whitworth, was the bridge-tender at the old Perdido Key Bridge — and he’s been in one aspect of fishing or another almost his whole adult life — mullet, mingo and everything in between.

He’s tried other jobs, but not for long.

“When he’s on land, he’s a fish out of water,” says wife Melissa. “He’s happiest when he’s on the water.”

John agrees. “This is what I do. I don’t want to do anything else.”

Does he ever go on a trip and say this is the last time?

“Every trip,” John says with a laugh. “The best times for fishing are when you’re going out and when you’re coming in — if you have fish.”

Wife Melissa says he’s not alone. “Usually, the deckhands say, ‘This is it,’ but a couple of days later they’re back and ready to go.”

John leases the Mary Joyce from Perdido Key Seafood, which gets 35 percent of the catch as payment. He and two crew members share the cost of food, ice and fuel for the 32-foot-long boat. Its 220-horsepower engine burns marine diesel; top speed is a mere 8 knots.

The boat is plenty sturdy — “made to take a whipping out there,” says Whitworth, who fishes year-round.

Thanks to the uncertainty of fishing, there’s never a sure paycheck.

“Sometimes I may stay out there seven days because the fish aren’t biting the first day or two,” he says with a shrug. “Sometimes you make a very good living. Sometimes you don’t.”

Right now, it’s good enough that John and Melissa plan to take their two teenagers to Universal Studios this summer.

Countdown

Melissa keeps track of the poundage as the fish are taken to a table, where Tom Allen, co-owner of the seafood business, and John sort them into 50-pound buckets.

Like John, Allen too has seen no danger signs from fish caught since the BP spill. In addition, he notes that state inspectors check periodically on fish brought to his shop — another smart precaution.

Allen prefers mingo that weigh 1 to 2 pounds because that’s what restaurants want for fillets, but mingo can weigh more than 4 pounds.

John says some fish are larger than normal now because fishing was curtailed in part of the gulf last year after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon explosion spewed oil into the water.

Once the fish are sorted, workers haul them into a freezer to be carefully stacked in boxes between layers of ice. In a few hours, a team of truck drivers will pick up the load and travel overnight to deliver it.

Like a lot of fishing families, Melissa and John work together. For a while, Melissa went fishing. Now she stays home, although she plans to go back to sea when the children are older.

“It’s so quiet and peaceful out there,” she says.

Which is tougher — raising children or fishing?

“Raising children,” she says without hesitation.

But don’t think that commercial fishing is easy, a sporting way of life. “It’s work work,” John says.

Superstitions at sea

When it comes to superstitions, John heeds some. He won’t allow a banana on board, for example.

But he will break another superstition of the sea and leave port on a Friday, which some fishermen think is unlucky. First, however, John will make “a Norwegian left turn” — circle counterclockwise — before he heads into the gulf.

“That will get rid of the juju,” Melissa laughs.

And John better make sure that watermelon is still on board, too.

— By Mark O’Brien Pensacola News Journal May 14, 2011