Updated February 2, 2011, 12:41 p.m.
Chris Jones dials a number in Scottsburg,
Indiana, and Gail Bond answers with her slow Midwestern twang. “My name is
Chris,” he says. “I’m a writer with Esquire and I’d like to write a
story about your son’s journey home.” Gail’s voice tightens and she begins to cry.
Then Chris cries, too. “I’m a stranger to you, you’re a stranger to me. Just trust me. I’m not going to stain the
memory of Joey.” Gail likes that the reporter calls her son Joey. They share a
tearful, hour-long conversation.
He tells her about a news story he read on
CNN.com about American forward operating bases in Iraq. Members of Sergeant
Robert Joe “Joey” Montgomery’s unit had carried him back to base after an
improvised explosive device killed him. Montgomery was just a regular guy who
ended up a casualty of war, and Chris wondered about his journey home from the
But Gail doesn’t want to be the first person
he interviews. She doesn’t want to lay bare her sorrow if no one else will
talk. Chris agrees, and then does what he always does: he reports the hell out
of the story. He logs thousands of kilometres tracking down every hand that
touched the body, speaking to 101 people in all. With each source, Chris
repeats the mantra: “I just want to talk to you about your role in that
journey—what you did that day, how it affected you. I’ll ask you some strange
questions because I want to get it right.”
Five months later, in January 2008, Gail
offers a home-cooked meal and Chris heads down Interstate 65 to Scottsburg
(population 6,040). He gets to a little ranch-style house on the corner of Elm
and South streets. The eight-foot-tall stone slab that marks Joey’s grave is
steps away at Scottsburg Cemetery. Gail answers the door, her eyes damp. They
embrace. Gail likes Bud Light, one of Chris’s sources told him, and he brings
bottles. Turns out she likes cans.
Inside, everything is neat and in place.
Chris sits down at the round kitchen table. Gail serves pot roast with potatoes
and carrots. It’s rich and hot. She smokes as she watches him eat. Chris wants
to tell Gail he felt like he’d come to know Joey during the reporting. Neither
fit in when they were in high school, and they would have been friends. But he waits.
Instead, he asks her how she found out about Joey’s death. She asks him about
Joey’s journey home. It’s not really a formal interview, just two people
talking. Gail tells Chris she thinks of him like a son now. Chris tells Gail he
feels just like another person helping her son come home.
“I wanted to do right by Joey,” Chris Jones
now says of "The Things That Carried Him" which Esquire published in
May 2008. In 17,000 words, he told the story of one soldier’s return home,
structured backward from his funeral to the moment an IED broke his body. He
sprinkled details—a girl in a flowered dress and the two yellow ribbons tied to
a tree on Elm Street—that act as emotional cues and lend lyricism to the
The piece won the 2009 National Magazine
Award for feature writing. (In 2005, he had won the same prize for “Home,” a
story of life inside the International Space Station after the Columbia shuttle
disaster in 2003.) Jones spent eight months travelling and interviewing for
“The Things That Carried Him,” and as with most of his stories, its strength
lies in accumulated detail. While he layers just about every sentence with
facts, literary flourishes are few, and he rarely indulges in metaphor. His
prose is powerful because he draws close to a story, learning intimate aspects
about important characters and moments. “In journalism, objectivity as this
ideal should be replaced with truth,” he says. “As long as your story is 100
percent accurate, no one can question you.”
Although authenticity is paramount, Jones
uses facts to portray a binary world without shades of grey: good-bad,
life-death, truth-lies. He might sound judgemental, sometimes even pretentious,
but Jones insists he wants readers to feel the human texture of everyday life.
To read the rest of this story, please see our ebook anthology: RRJ in Review: 30 Years of Watching the Watchdogs.
It can be purchased online here.