The Happiness Quotient

#85 - John Branch, Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist and His New Book, Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life From the Back Roads of Sports

June 15, 2021 Thom Pollard Episode 85
The Happiness Quotient
#85 - John Branch, Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist and His New Book, Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life From the Back Roads of Sports
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The Happiness Quotient
#85 - John Branch, Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist and His New Book, Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life From the Back Roads of Sports
Jun 15, 2021 Episode 85
Thom Pollard

TODAY I HAVE A GUEST OF UNIMAGINABLE INSIGHT AND TALENT WITH US, THE PULITZER PRIZE WINNING JOURNALIST REPORTER, JOHN BRANCH OF THE NEW YORK TIMES TO TALK ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK

Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports


In 2017 I received a request  from today’s guest, whom I’d never met before, but as you’ll find out in the interview, I was well familiar with his work, 

John Branch, a NY Times sports reporter  -  not your traditional sports, but rock climbing, skiing, mountaineering….or alligator hunting and wingsuit flying...that kind of sports.

As it turns out, sometimes his stories begin, for him, when someone is killed in pursuit of some lofty goal, whether climbing Everest, or skiing deep into the backcountry, or sidecountry, as it’s referred to….

When John first contacted me he was heading to India to spend time with the families of four Indian climbers who were part of an Everest expedition in 2016 -- three men died and a woman survived. Of the three who died, one body was recovered in 2016. The other two bodies were still on Everest, and John was doing a feature on the effort to try to find and recover those bodies, an effort that involved the Indian municipalities, a large sum of money had been raised. John had learned that I’d directly encountered these climbers on my summit day….and he wanted to ask about what I saw, or remembered, from those encounters…..


John’s story was called DELIVERANCE FROM 27,000 FEET...an incredible feature which you can find online.

JOHN’S NEW BOOK INCLUDES THIS INCREDIBLE AND POIGNANT, OFTEN PAINFUL BUT SYMPATHETIC STORY…

SIDECOUNTRY: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports


Sidecountry gathers the best of Branch’s work, featuring 20 of his favorites from the more than 2,000 pieces he has published in the paper.

Sidecountry features such classic Branch pieces, including “Snow Fall,” about downhill skiers caught in an avalanche in Washington state, and “Dawn Wall,” about rock climbers trying to scale Yosemite’s famed El Capitan. In other articles, Branch introduces people whose dedication and decency transcend their sporting lives, including a revered football coach rebuilding his tornado-devastated town in Iowa and a girls’ basketball team in Tennessee that plays on despite never winning a game. The book culminates with his moving personal pieces, including “Children of the Cube,” about the surprising drama of Rubik’s Cube competitions as seen through the eyes of Branch’s own sports-hating son, and “The Girl in the No. 8 Jersey,” about a mother killed in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting whose daughter happens to play on Branch’s daughter’s soccer team.

John Branch has been hailed for writing “American portraiture at its best” (Susan Orlean) and for covering sports “the way Lyle Lovett writes country music―a fresh turn on a time-honored pleasure” (Nicholas Dawidoff). Sidecountry is the work of a master reporter at the top of his game.

Here is my JUNE 9TH, 2021 INTERVIEW WITH PULITZER PRIZE WINNING JOURNALIST, UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO BOULDER BUFFALO FOR LIFE, TALKING ABOUT HIS THIRD BOOK

To buy Sidecountry:

https://wwnorton.com/books/9781324006695

For John's work in the New York Times:
https://www.nytimes.com/by/john-branch


=========
For more information about Thom Dharma Pollard:
http://eyesopenproductions.com/

For a free downloadable copy of A Course In Happiness:
www.patreon.com/thehappinessquotient

Our theme song, Happiness Jones, appears courtesy of The Wood Brothers.

For more inform

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/thehappinessquotient)

Show Notes Transcript

TODAY I HAVE A GUEST OF UNIMAGINABLE INSIGHT AND TALENT WITH US, THE PULITZER PRIZE WINNING JOURNALIST REPORTER, JOHN BRANCH OF THE NEW YORK TIMES TO TALK ABOUT HIS NEW BOOK

Sidecountry: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports


In 2017 I received a request  from today’s guest, whom I’d never met before, but as you’ll find out in the interview, I was well familiar with his work, 

John Branch, a NY Times sports reporter  -  not your traditional sports, but rock climbing, skiing, mountaineering….or alligator hunting and wingsuit flying...that kind of sports.

As it turns out, sometimes his stories begin, for him, when someone is killed in pursuit of some lofty goal, whether climbing Everest, or skiing deep into the backcountry, or sidecountry, as it’s referred to….

When John first contacted me he was heading to India to spend time with the families of four Indian climbers who were part of an Everest expedition in 2016 -- three men died and a woman survived. Of the three who died, one body was recovered in 2016. The other two bodies were still on Everest, and John was doing a feature on the effort to try to find and recover those bodies, an effort that involved the Indian municipalities, a large sum of money had been raised. John had learned that I’d directly encountered these climbers on my summit day….and he wanted to ask about what I saw, or remembered, from those encounters…..


John’s story was called DELIVERANCE FROM 27,000 FEET...an incredible feature which you can find online.

JOHN’S NEW BOOK INCLUDES THIS INCREDIBLE AND POIGNANT, OFTEN PAINFUL BUT SYMPATHETIC STORY…

SIDECOUNTRY: Tales of Death and Life from the Back Roads of Sports


Sidecountry gathers the best of Branch’s work, featuring 20 of his favorites from the more than 2,000 pieces he has published in the paper.

Sidecountry features such classic Branch pieces, including “Snow Fall,” about downhill skiers caught in an avalanche in Washington state, and “Dawn Wall,” about rock climbers trying to scale Yosemite’s famed El Capitan. In other articles, Branch introduces people whose dedication and decency transcend their sporting lives, including a revered football coach rebuilding his tornado-devastated town in Iowa and a girls’ basketball team in Tennessee that plays on despite never winning a game. The book culminates with his moving personal pieces, including “Children of the Cube,” about the surprising drama of Rubik’s Cube competitions as seen through the eyes of Branch’s own sports-hating son, and “The Girl in the No. 8 Jersey,” about a mother killed in the 2017 Las Vegas shooting whose daughter happens to play on Branch’s daughter’s soccer team.

John Branch has been hailed for writing “American portraiture at its best” (Susan Orlean) and for covering sports “the way Lyle Lovett writes country music―a fresh turn on a time-honored pleasure” (Nicholas Dawidoff). Sidecountry is the work of a master reporter at the top of his game.

Here is my JUNE 9TH, 2021 INTERVIEW WITH PULITZER PRIZE WINNING JOURNALIST, UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO BOULDER BUFFALO FOR LIFE, TALKING ABOUT HIS THIRD BOOK

To buy Sidecountry:

https://wwnorton.com/books/9781324006695

For John's work in the New York Times:
https://www.nytimes.com/by/john-branch


=========
For more information about Thom Dharma Pollard:
http://eyesopenproductions.com/

For a free downloadable copy of A Course In Happiness:
www.patreon.com/thehappinessquotient

Our theme song, Happiness Jones, appears courtesy of The Wood Brothers.

For more inform

Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/thehappinessquotient)

Thom Pollard:

This is the happiness quotient. If you like what you're hearing and enjoy this episode or any episode of the HQ, please be sure to subscribe to me wherever you may be listening. When you subscribe, you'll be notified next time I release another stellar episode with another incredible guest. Today I have a guest of unimaginable insight and talent with us. The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist reporter john branch of the New York Times to talk about his new book, side country tales of death and life from the back roads of sports.

The Wood Brothers:

Happiness Jones

Thom Pollard:

in 2017, received a request from today's guest, who had never met before. But as you'll find out in the interview, I was well familiar with his work. JOHN branch, a New York Times sports reporter, not your traditional sports but rock climbing, skiing, mountaineering, alligator hunting, bowling, wingsuit, flying that kind of sports. As it turns out, sometimes his stories begin for him when someone is killed or dies in pursuit of some lofty goal, whether climbing Everest or skiing deep into the back country or side country as it referred to, or in pursuit of the perfect bowling game. When john first contacted me, he was heading to India to spend time with the families of four Indian climbers who were part of a Mount Everest expedition in 2016. Three men died and a woman survived. Of the three who died one body was recovered in 2016. The other two bodies were still on Everest at that time, and john was doing a feature on the effort to try and find and recover those bodies and effort that involved the Indian municipalities a large sum of money and the backing of all of the families of those involved. JOHN had learned that I directly encountered these climbers on my summit day, and he wanted to ask about what I saw, or at least remembered from those encounters. John's story is called deliverance from 27,000 feet, an incredible feature which you can find online. John's new book includes this incredible and poignant, often painful, but sympathetic and memorable story. His book is called side country, tales of death and life from the backroads of sports. Sidecountry gathers the best of branches work featuring 20 of his favorite stories from more than 2000 pieces he's published in the New York Times, and features such classic branch pieces, including snow fall, the familiar article that I was talking about, about downhill skiers caught in an avalanche in Washington State and Dawn Wall about rock climbers trying to scale Yosemite is famed El Capitan. In other articles branch introduces people whose dedication and decency transcend their sporting lives, including a Reverend football coach, rebuilding his tornado devastated town in Iowa, and a girls basketball team in Tennessee that plays on despite never winning a game. The book culminates with his moving personal pieces, including children of the cube, about the surprising drama of the Rubik's Cube competitions, as seen through the eyes of branch's own sports hating son, and the girl in the number eight jersey about a mother killed in the 2017 las vegas shooting, whose daughter happens to play on branch's daughter's soccer team. JOHN branch has been hailed for writing American portraiture at its best side country is the work of a master reporter at the top of his game. Here is my June 9 2021 interview with Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, University of Colorado Boulder grad and buffalo for life. Talking about his third book side country, john branch.

John Branch:

Oh my gosh, Tom, how are you? I'm good. Can you hear me? I can. You must be good, good.

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, I can hear you. I can see that beautiful face. Oh, good. Good. It's nice to see you too. How are you? How's how's the family? COVID as you good, you know?

John Branch:

Yeah. Consider me among the fortunate ones. Yeah, we've all we've all gotten through relatively unscathed. So thank you. I've got two teenage That have, you know, not been the greatest of years for them, but they're, they're resilient kids. Yeah. So we're happy.

Thom Pollard:

It's a shake up big time.

John Branch:

It is a shake up. I don't know who has who had a worse seniors in high school that was probably rough. But then this year, most of our schools were closed until about a month ago. So then senior this year actually maybe had it worse, because they all seem to be in from home. Yeah, it was no fun for anybody. But I think everybody's happy to be here and feeling like a new dawn. Perhaps it's on the horizon.

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, it is.

John Branch:

I just how are you doing? I love your show. Thank you. I just love your whole I just love your whole vibe. That's awesome. Thank you. Yeah. You're so great. And I love the work you're doing on the on the Mallory and Irvine front, I hope. Well,

Thom Pollard:

it is it's a fascinating story. And I'll tell you something interesting about that is, you know, I had first hand experience in that going back to 1999. And I didn't really know much about it. But that's really my tie. And and some of the people that I talked to, not only the big names like if you will in the Mallory and erven mystery like Jaco and hem lab and Tom holds L and now Mark Senate. There are people out there who are beyond obsessed with the story. And they no way the hell more than I will ever know about it. And so if they want to engage me in a back and forth debate, I'm out. It's I can't even keep up with them.

John Branch:

Right, you know? Yeah, I thought your your conversation with Mark said it was fascinating.

Thom Pollard:

He's, uh, well, you can probably tell we're pretty good buddies. And he is a smart, smart dude. And he went deep into the book. And you know, he did it right. And even though it's a different kind of book, I liken it a little bit to wade Davis's into the silence. And that's that I love that about Mark's book, because he didn't just say, the boot from Mallory's foot was was in such in such a condition, he went and saw the booth. That's cool. That's really cool. Yeah, but that's kind of one of your hallmarks. I mean, I you know, when I was, I was, I thought that in a way, you know, you had this opportunity, you could have written a lot of this stuff from afar, but like the, the bowling story, the guy who did the perfect 300 game, you went, you heard about it, and you went to the memorial service. I so you,

John Branch:

you're in it. Right. Yeah, one of the things I'm proud about with these stories is that they're all from on the ground as a dateline and all of them. And the past year has been tricky, because it's not my cup of tea to be sitting here as much as I love the idea of zoom, which has been a great reporters tool that I've discovered over the past year. But I don't like writing stories or reporting stories from my living room, or from my office. And so it's been tricky for this past year. So I'm happily out traveling a little bit again, and I'm feeling good. This is what I want to be doing is, as much as I complain about airlines, I'm happy to jump on a plane to go places.

Thom Pollard:

So the book is side country, tales of death and life, from the back roads of sports. And it says something to be able to put a book like this together by somebody who, if you will writes articles, because that's a lot of stories about you know, tales of death in life. So you're not your traditional reporter, which I'd like to ask you about, not what you're you're a journalist. You don't write about the New York Yankees, unless there's something john branch ask about the story, I suppose. But um 2000 plus articles that you had to glean from define this. Tell me a little bit about that, and how you came up with that subtitle to the book and actually the title to which I think is pretty fascinating.

John Branch:

Yeah, so one at a time side country is you know, I'm sure is a scheme term means the area just beyond the boundaries. And so more and more of these areas are open up to opening up their boundary gates to what they call the side country to kind of entice people to this extra terrain. And that's where the story snowfall took place. The avalanche story wasn't the side country of a an area in Washington called Stephens bass. And I was always kind of taken by that term people in the in the back country industry don't love it because it sounds like a safe version of The back country sounds like back country light to them. Even though it's just as dangerous, I think there's a element of, of security when you're in the side country, because you think, well, this gear is right there, this can't be that crazy over here. And so it's, it became, in my head a little bit of a metaphor for the kind of work that I like to do. And the like, the kind of stories that I like to put in this or that I did put into this thing. And that is, things are just on the edge, maybe just a little outside of boundaries, but not so far out that we can't relate to them that we can't feel like we can sort of reach and touch them. Tales of life or death and life. That's just a weird little twist. And the reason is, is because i a lot of these stories do do involve death, but I think there's a spark of hope in most of them. That is that element of life, you know, most of these stories are that are about death, or about people I never met. And so the stories really are about people left behind. And so that's where it's life, as opposed to the other way around. Was the other part of this question? Oh, how I gleaned or how I came through them?

Thom Pollard:

Yeah. Good luck. Yeah,

John Branch:

yeah, it really is off the top of my head. There was no way to go through our archives and say, you know, what, or, you know, type in John's favorite stories. And so I just sat down with a pattern paper and started thinking what stories stick with me and came up with a pretty good list of stories that just, I've always just sort of held in my heart. What back then, and started to read those stories. And some of them I thought, Wow, good. This is this was a good story. I really liked the story, even six or eight years later, whatever it might have been. And several of them I went back and was disappointed in the way I had done the story changed or something. But I, I thought, wow, that memory of the story. In my head, the reporting of the story was so special, the the connections I made with the people was were so special. And then I went back and read the story for the first time in years and went, Oh, hang on, john, you probably could have done that differently, or better or something. And so I tossed it out. So I wanted this to be a collection of stories that not only meant something to me pretty deeply. But also that I liked.

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, yeah. I, I love actually one of the coolest parts is is the forward right? And you're talking about sweating it out down to the deadline. And you almost you know, close your eyes, like any hit sand and just go. I mean, that that's the difference of being a journalist on a deadline. And somebody's not that people who write books with a contract aren't on their own deadline, but that might be you know, six months to come up with a rough draft you like if it's has to be in at five o'clock the night before the article? If five o'clock Dude, it's over.

John Branch:

Right? Yeah. Yeah, I think I call it an act of surrender. Yeah, I never file a story going, you know, this is brilliant. I can't wait to file it, they're gonna love this. I always just kind of have one eye closed and hit the send button and just kind of wave it away and kind of think, let's hope the editor just hate this.

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, let's

John Branch:

hope. Let's hope I got away with another one. And that the readers don't see right through me and let's move on.

Thom Pollard:

Right, I'm gonna, in the in the intro to this interview, I'm going to list the names of a bunch of the stories in it. And but want to say that back in 2013 I was in an avalanche on Mount Washington. And one of my best friends in the mountains was on a different rope team. And it was a it was horrible. I mean, I for you know for like six hours I thought he what he was avalanched and and we managed to self arrest in this avalanche. I thought he was dead and as well as the other two people on his rope and, and in it I still I'm literally like chilling, remembering that feeling is even though my fingers were frost biting at the moment. And it wasn't long after that. I came across your article about the avalanche on Stephens pass. And I literally I'm just like, I almost couldn't get through the article ad like it was palpable. I was like nauseous. reading about the people talk about 12 people, which was what my group was everybody going, huh, maybe we should turn around here. And the way you exposed the details of the story, I've literally felt like I could have been I could have been in that avalanche right there. And Stephens past three people died on that one. But yeah, I was blown away at at heart. I had a part in in an experience like that, but you brought those people to life, especially the people who died in that avalanche

John Branch:

Well, thanks. Yeah, I'm very happy. Again, I write stories and hope that I can kind of get away with, with, you know, my limited knowledge of the subject, frankly, on all these stories, and hope that I've done enough reporting and research and interviewing to pass it off to people like you who know the subjects better than I do, or people who know, bowling better than I do whatever the subject might be. And have them think, Oh, you know what, this was accurate, fair, authentic. It was a full portrayal. And I'm happy with the snowfall piece, especially because I've gotten a lot of nice words from people who have been in avalanches. I know, the story is still used in some avalanche safety courses. And and then, you know, I don't necessarily go looking for those kind of bonafides. But I'll take them if right. Feels like it hit the right mark. And, yeah.

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, so there were some stories that crossed over and were part of your life. The the girl in the number eight jersey, can you tell me a little bit about that? I think I got the name of the article, correct?

John Branch:

Yeah, he did. Um, yeah. It's weird. Because I have those 2000 stories. There's probably three or four that actually have me in them. And I think three of them are in the store in this book. Now. I'm not one of those that likes to put myself into the stories. And that one was just one on one. I got a phone call in the middle of the night from editors saying there's been a shooting mass shooting in Las Vegas late last night. Can you get to Las Vegas right now? I said, Yeah. So I hustled to the airport and got to Las Vegas. And when I got there, and I checked into the Mandalay Bay, and I was actually in a suite much, just a few floors below where the where the killer was. So I was in this room, that was exactly the same view that he had 12 hours earlier. And my wife texted me and said, Stacy river, who's the mother of one of the girls on my daughter's soccer team, was there last night and they can't find her. And so, you know, by nightfall that first day, 24 hours after shooting the founder in a morgue, and her husband, and so my community back here in California, was going through all the familiar morning exercises that have become sort of familiar familiar to people all around the country. After a shooting. There were the memorials there were the visuals, the candle lights, the the giant pile of teddy bears and roses and flowers. People like my my daughter, and my mom or my wife on ribbons all around town orange ribbons for her. Meanwhile, I was in Las Vegas covering this I couldn't have been any closer to the scene for a week. And the real story, the heart story was back here at home in my own family. I was experiencing it in ways that I was not. And so it wasn't until I got home a week later, and got home just in time purposely to be at my daughter's soccer game. It was the first soccer game since this has happened and the little girl whose mom had been killed, showed up. And all the parents were kind of amazed. And one of the moms had brought ribbons for all the girls and they bought orange socks for the girls and orange kneepads, and little wristbands. And the girl played in her family, the woman's parents and husband were all there on the sideline, and the, you know, just the girls soccer game, 12 year old girls, and the girl scored the winning goal on a breakaway that I'll never forget. And I just about collapsed, and tears. All this emotion I'd had for the past week being this hard, core hardened, hardened journalist in Las Vegas covering this thing just melted. And I didn't know what to do with myself. It rocked me for a couple of days. And I sat down and just wrote a Facebook post. So that story re was really a Facebook post, my wife said, What are you doing? I said, I just need to get this out. And I put it on Facebook. And my wife was nervous about what the community might say about it. And an editor at the time saw it because we're Facebook friends and said, Can we publish this in the times? And I said, Yeah, sure. It's laid out on the front page of the time. So in a weird way, it tells me that I should write all my stories. Let's face it, Facebook posts.

Thom Pollard:

You can edit them.

John Branch:

Yeah. Maybe it's just my mind isn't, you know, thinking this is a story. It's just I'm just lending it out. So yeah, that one means a lot to me. And there's a reason why it's the last story in the collection because it it it hits me especially.

Thom Pollard:

So that's that's what that's you you're you're like any writer, it's not always well, it's it at least for you. You even said it's I try not to insert myself into a story and that one obviously, you were in some respects in the middle of it or in the in the heart of it. How did Where did you in your growing up or realize that this was some like, like some people express themselves, like with music or art or hiking or something and here you are a writer.

John Branch:

Right? Pretty cool. I, it took me a while I didn't I didn't come to this until I was in my late 30s. I was a manager at Costco through most of my 20s and was a kid who grew up as a sports fan, one of those kids that love the newspaper or loved going to the box scores. My friends when I was a kid said you should get sportscaster someday. But I just didn't follow that that little tickle in the back of my head for 10 years when got a business degree instead. And at some point kind of said, You know what, I love my job at Costco. I still love Costco, actually, to this day, they were very good to me. But I thought this is not what I want to grow doing. I don't think I think I'll kick myself if I don't try something else. And so I went back to journalism school, and just got a degree, a master's degree in journalism. I had not written really before other than English papers. I've never written for the school paper or anything like that. But I thought I had a pretty good sense of what this job entailed. I thought I'd read enough newspapers to maybe I can figure that out. And it was kind of blind luck. I'm glad I took that risk. I didn't have kids at the time. And I had the support of my wife and, you know, who knows what would have happened if I would have had kids or if life circumstances would have been different?

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, well, that's an interest. That's the, to me, that's, that's why I'm fascinated with people is like, I always feel like whenever I have a conversation, whether it's here, or or in a in casual, like hiking on a trail or meeting somebody at a gathering, I kind of want it. I'm so fascinated by what makes people tick. And, and what always blows my mind. Not really. But what always fascinates me kind of on the head scratcher is, how can people not have something in their heart that they desire and love and not go after it? It? I mean, I get it, I get it. Sometimes you have kids, it's not practical. And you know, sometimes it's there's not the financial means or whatever. But I was just almost reckless in my pursuit of things that I wanted. And I not saying that. I'm not exaggerating, like, it wasn't pretty all the time. I was like, I there's, I'm not going to frickin sit behind this desk editing 60 or 70 hours a week for a dude who runs a company producing frickin videos about how to sell, you know, shirts. I literally did that, you know, it was cool. I learned a lot. But it's like, so you followed your dream. And that's cool. You still like kudos to Costco. But that wasn't your heart's desire.

John Branch:

Yeah, you know, what's funny is, there's maybe if you if you go really deep, there's probably a theme here, people keep reminding me that I keep writing about death. But I think there was a worry in the back of my head, like, you know, you look at obituaries, at least obituaries in the papers back 20 years ago, where they would have the person's name, age and their profession. And I thought his mic as a, you know, john, branch 72, retail manager? like is that what is that what I want to be a retail manager? I don't know, what I want my epitaph to be,

Thom Pollard:

yeah, I saw a video, this is an interesting trajectory, because this really, I guess, maybe it is about the book in summary, but I saw a video completely coincidentally, yesterday about this guy who had emigrated to Poland, and he and then is an American guy who lives in Poland. And this video is like a TED talk or something that was like, What do Do you want to think of the day before you die? And, and it was fascinating. And he was kind of not like the greatest public speaker, but it was about and any, any was peeling away the layers of what's really important. And that's kind of the heart of a lot of your stories is because when somebody dies, even if it's only for a crystal moment, like a pinpoint of a moment, for many people, at least there's that crystal clear understanding of what matters in life. And a lot of times people go back to their same old stuff. But that's kind of the cool. I mean, this The cool thing about death, it's like, and I want you to talk but I'm just sharing this in a way that it's like, I remember, like when my mom died, like in this is, you know, 2016 I still hadn't decided if I was going to go to Everest or not. In in literally the moments of her death. It was like I saw In brilliant clarity, like what it was all about. Now, I'm not saying that I do now, but I was out, here's my globe of experience, and I'm seeing it all from inside, somebody dies and you go, and you pop out, and suddenly you're looking. That's cool, man. And that's, that's why I'm so glad you wrote tales of death and life in that order.

John Branch:

Yeah, well, thanks. Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, to your point, I'm fascinated by obviously, anybody who dies that's close to you, that changes your life for the rest of your life, and maybe in ways you don't recognize. And so, I do, like the idea of these stories are really about the people who are left behind. And it'd be interesting in some ways to go back, you know, to some of the stories that maybe were three or four years ago or 10 years ago and really figure out you know, now with hindsight How did that moment affect you? How did it really change you? How did your life How did your your perspective of life change from that moment? Because some of these are so raw that people maybe didn't have that perspective at the time and change their life curve it was more of a a sudden, you know, shaking of their life and now after a few years, maybe you know, like with you is your mother after five years, your perspective of the impact of that moment might be different. This is all very deep.

Thom Pollard:

Yeah. No sight I mean to make either of us cry before worked. So john, just give me so there's there's more than a handful of really cool stories in here. I could probably close my eyes and point to many that are worth it. But the ones at the end are always resonate the the football coach one about the tornado and the murder. And then they heard the helicopter go down. And then they prayed like that. I don't know if that's biting off too much. And we can chew but there's two stories right there. They're just

John Branch:

I like those two a lot. So well.

Thom Pollard:

Yeah, yeah. Well, of course, they're yours. But But you didn't. Yeah. So what give me a like, what could a reader expected on one of those stories? The football coach one What happened there?

John Branch:

Yeah, the football coach. One was there was a tornado in Iowa, the biggest tornado they had seen in a decade or more in Parkersburg, Iowa and had really scrubbed and destroyed about two thirds or three quarters of this little town and killed 12 or 13 people. And among those who survived was a football coach, who was pretty well known football coach at one state championships actually had a couple of kids make it to the NFL. And he basically came out of his basement to find his entire neighborhood just leveled, and walked over the high school and found the high school level and said, come hell or high water, we are gonna play football here this fall. And so I went there a few days after the tornado to talk to him about his quest to clean up and basically be the heart and soul of the cleanup effort. Maybe not physically, but what he was trying to symbolize was our resurrection through football, because it's important here. And so I wrote that story. And what back in the fall when they did get the football team back together, the school was under construction. The football field had been totally replaced. grandstands had been destroyed, the scoreboard had been destroyed. And weirdly enough, the turf of the field itself had been destroyed because all the pieces of lumber from the houses and stuff had pierced it like javelins and made it unusable. So they couldn't even just snap them off. They had to like really dig it all up and put a new brand new field into it. And so that fall, they played a game and it was very therapeutic people said yes, we're all still building our houses. We're all still trying to recover, but football is back. And then about a year later, and I thought that would be the end of it. About a year later. I can remember exactly where I was. I got a call. He had been in the little temporary waiting room during offseason workouts such as they are for high school kids. But a little temporary building in a weight room on an early weekday morning with a few kids talking to them, helping them out with their weights and stuff and former player who had graduated a year or two before walked in with a gun and for some inexplicable reason shot and killed at Thomas. And so I went back to Parkersburg for a third time to write about the murder of Ed Thomas and the weird and fascinating relationship between the Thomas family and the family of the murder. They were friends they were they went to church together. Things that can only probably happen in a small town. And so those that trilogy that unplanned trilogy really sticks with me, because it was really a tragedy, a story of hope and then a story of a murder. Yeah, that that you know some of these stories are series that were kind of planned out. This one was not a planned series.

Thom Pollard:

It's like, in, in our tragedies in our darkest moments, we like there's there's this opportunity to kind of define ourselves. And this this football coach was. Wow, man. I mean, what an amazing human being and then it's the rent. It's the randomness of it all. It's I guess we have really we have, we can control how we feel inside. But we sure as hell can't control the outside. You know, there's a tornado and then a kid with a gun. It's like, right,

John Branch:

right. Well, I mean, what are the Yeah, what are the odds of being in two places like that? Mostly? Those things? Yeah.

Thom Pollard:

But nowadays, what you know, I think it was two or three weekends ago, a friend of mine said to me, I read somewhere in the news that this weekend alone, there were 12 mass shootings, and a mass shooting, I think is four people have to die this weekend.

John Branch:

Yeah. Yeah, I think I think by definition, it's four people are injured. So I don't I doubt there were 12. mass layoffs. Okay. Yeah, but, But to your point there, I think there have been dozens there have been dozens of mass killings, which are four or more, or I don't know the exact number. I shouldn't say that. But it's staggering. It's gotten to the point. Now, one of the first stories I covered that was maybe part of this kind of genre was I was a sports writer in Denver. And when Columbine happened, and I picked up from Colorado Avalanche practice that day, some sort of shooting at a school, I know exactly where it is, I used to live right over there. I know my way around over there, I rushed to it. And it was the Columbine shooting. And if you would have told me back in 1999, April of 1999, that this would be such a regular thing, that we couldn't even keep track of them, that we couldn't remember them. That since Columbine, there been so many we just sort of lost track even this year. I bet you'd nobody in this country could name all the mass killings in this country. No. Well, where they've been, I couldn't, just because it's become so normal.

Thom Pollard:

I coincidentally, I know exactly where I was. When I heard about Columbine. I was at Everest base camp. And Jake, got an email at 99, April 2019. That's right. And Jake Norton, who's a Colorado guy, originally from Massachusetts, he's like, Oh, my God, guys, listen, and he read the email. And we just like this, really, this is Come on, like, This can't be true. You know, it's, but yeah, times have changed. I think, I think john, the, probably the thing I love about your book, and and, and I've read, you know, collection, if you I don't even know, what was your, like a collection book of articles. Like, like, yeah, crack our did one that I thought was really good. And this has heart, there's a lot of heart and soul in this and you are able to without getting fancy. And a lot of words that people have to actually go to the dictionary and look up, which I actually enjoy like Frederick Exley, and things like that. But um, but you don't have to do that. And you feel after when you're done with the article, and they're great bite sized chunks. It's like, Oh, I feel a little bit closer to humanity. I mean that you did that.

John Branch:

Like, I'll take that as a great compliment. Thank you. Absolutely. I'm not smart enough to use bigger words, frankly. And also, you know, as a newspaper reporter, you can't get too flowery. So right, what I see right, what I know

Thom Pollard:

what I'm, what are you working on? Now, before I say goodbye? Any cool stories that you're on now scoops or, you know,

John Branch:

no real scoops, but the Olympics are coming up. And so I've always covered the Olympics, and I'm headed to Tokyo again. As long as they're all they'll have the Olympics and as long as they'll continue to have media, I guess. And so I'm working on a lot of stories out of the Olympics. Amazing.

Thom Pollard:

That's fun. That's fun. We will we will live vicariously through you. JOHN, you're awesome. I'm, I'm, I could probably talk to you for a long, long time. And I hope that we can soon reconnect because I kind of want to ask you a bunch of other questions. But um, your time means a lot to me. I appreciate it. Thank

John Branch:

you. Yeah. Thanks, Tom. It's always good to see you and I'm a big fan. So thank you.

Thom Pollard:

Okay, so I did a bit of research after my conversation with john just in time right afterwards, we were discussing mass shootings, if you'll recall, and the most accepted definition of a mass shooting is as a single incident in which four or more people are shot or killed in the weekend. Before I spoke with john, including the dates of June 4 to the seventh, there were 12 mass shootings and more than a dozen deaths in those 12 mass shootings. That's a bit of news I'm not pleased about and perhaps one day, we can find a way to discuss that here on the HQ, and

The Wood Brothers:

Happiness Jones.

Thom Pollard:

JOHN branch's incredible and super engaging book is called side country tales of death and life from the back roads of sports. If you'd like to buy a copy, you can visit ww norton.com. Or head to Amazon. JOHN is on twitter at john branch and yt. And you of course can read his works in the New York Times online or in the real thing. Dragon landing calm. JOHN Safe travels to Japan for the Olympics. You're the envy of many, but you've earned your place as one of America's best journalists. Bring home another Pulitzer john we are rooting for you. in the show notes, I'll have a list of the stories you can find inside country. Thank you to the wood brothers and their management for the use of their song happiness Jones for our theme song here on the HQ and to their publicist Kevin Calabro for helping make it all happen. For more information about me, Tom Dharma Pollard, to inquire about personal coaching public speaking in person or virtually, please visit me at Ise open productions.com and write me anytime at Tom dot Dharma [email protected] especially if you'd like to join my mailing list. If you'd like a free downloadable PDF of the happiness quotient, a course in happiness, visit [email protected] slash the happiness quotient. Thank you for visiting the happiness quotient. I will see you all real soon.

The Wood Brothers:

all of those words I wrote in the storm that rocked my boat all of that was stuck in my throat when I was happy all of those songs I was singin while my boat was sinkin next thing im thinkin' im happy i might as well change my name to Happiness jones my friend.Happiness Jones. Happiness. Happy Happy. Happy Happy. Happy. Happy. Happy Happy Happy