Executive Times






2006 Book Reviews


The One That Got Away by Howell Raines




(Highly Recommended)




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We choose to read memoirs to eavesdrop on the lessons another has learned about life, in the hope that we could piggyback on the experience of others to enrich our own lives. Howell Raines’ latest memoir, The One That Got Away, delivers wisdom, reflection, and fine writing that will lead readers to think about what has gotten away from us in life, and the degree to which we can let go of some of our attachments to find new life and growth. Raines was the executive editor of The New York Times who was fired following the Jason Blair plagiarism scandal. Part of The One That Got Away covers that part of Raines’ life, and he deals with it in ways that highlight his disappointments in himself and in the Times. An avid fly fisherman, the title refers to a memorable fish, and all the fish stories contain valuable lessons for all readers, whether fishermen or not. Here’s an excerpt, all of Chapter 5, “Hereditary Reasons for Leaving Alabama,” pp. 41-47:


If there was such a thing as Debrett’s Guide to Redneck Royalty, you can be assured that my kinfolks and I would merit a line or two. On this point I refer you tojohn Martin Dombhart’s History of Walker County, Alabama, Its Towns and Its People, published by the well-remembered Cayce Publishing Company of Thornton, Arkansas. Dombhart, born and educated in Washington, D.C., arrived in Alabama in 1929 and made a life’s work of recording the history of “those hardy pioneers, who came into the ‘hill coun­try’ with little or no possessions, and through the work of their own hands, alone, created the county.” And quite a county it became, too, producing in due course a Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, the legendary actress and cocaine snorter Tallulah Bankhead, the man who played Goober on The Andy Griffith Show and several important football players at the University of Alabama.

According to Dombhart, my great-great-great-great-grandpar­ents were Thomas and Susan Keys Barton, the first white settlers to locate in Alabama Territory north of the Tallapoosa River. It had been inadvisable to farm on the north side of the Tallapoosa until Andrew Jackson subdued the Creek Indian nation. In every root and branch of the family tree that I’ve been able to trace, the pattern is the same; the Fells, the Walkers, the Keyses, the Abbotts, the Bests, the Flannagans and Gordons and Raineses rushed into Alabama at the earliest possible moment and stayed. Among them they represented the main bloodlines of what was to become Hillbilly America—the English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish and, of course, the Scotch-Irish, whose penchant for dressing their women in short skirts shocked Ben Franklin and all of Quaker Philadelphia.

Thomas and Susan Barton’s eldest son, Moses Barton, got to Walker County by 1822. His daughter Milia married james Raines, builder of the second gristmill on Blackwater Creek. They named their son Hiram. Reaching draft age at an inopportune time, he took to the woods around 1861 to “lay out” until the Civil War was over. Praise be, this young man of sound political judgment and intact body parts emerged from the woods to father in 1872 Hiram Howell Raines, the long dead grandfather whose name I carry.

Howell Raines, for that was the name he went by, continued the family tradition of staying in Walker County. It was through a study of his life that I assumed what I regard as a hereditary obli­gation to contemplate the relative importance, in both our per­sonal and our familial lives, of staying and leaving. I took this obligation freely and gladly, in tribute to the hard, truncated, striv­ing life of the first Howell Raines.

By all accounts, he was a smart man and an unusually curious one for his time and place, a progressive farmer. He had saved his money until he could buy 160 acres of prime land between Curry and Sunlight. He ordered brood stock, seeds and plants for his orchard from the best catalog houses in the Midwest. Such agricul­tural ambition was a rare thing in the hills in those days. He had a fun-loving side. He liked feasts of whole roasted goat. He made his boys a goat-drawn cart and hand-cut the goat’s bridle and reins out of a cowhide. When rain raised the creeks, he’d take his family camping on Blackwater, setting trotlines and frying the fish on the spot in a big iron pot, fried them so crisp and mealy you could eat fins and all. On one such outing, he cut a hook out of my five-year-old father’s thumb with a pocketknife. He was a blacksmith and, according to my father, such a keen shot that he could stand way back from a tree and drive a nail into it with rifle bullets.

Whether or not this feat of marksmanship is true or the product of a boy’s adoration, it is certainly a fact that, in the one surviving photograph of Howell Raines, it is the eyes that grab you. He was a man with an intense, almost burning gaze, hawk-like in the old homesteaders’ way. Which is to say, he looked like a willfully calm man who could be provoked by unreliable promises or rude behavior. He was a Methodist. He made the communal wine for his church in a big pottery crock that I’ve inherited. In my house, I have a chair that he carved and caned. In my closet is his rabbit-eared shotgun made by the Baker Arms Company of New York. Like my father, I’ve tried to hold on to every available bit of evidence about this man I never knew.

The first Howell Raines liked newspapers. He read the jasper Mountain Eagle and subscribed to the Memphis Commercial Appeal, too. He wanted to know more, it appears. For all his striving, he spent much of his life following a mule up and down cotton rows. At night, from the porch of his house, he could see on the south­ern horizon a vast annulus of light thrown into the sky by the blast furnaces in Birmingham, forty miles to the south. He led, in sum, a nineteenth-century agricultural life within sight of the fires of the industrial age.

He lived in a place where in cases of extreme illness doctors made house calls, arriving from Jasper, the county seat, by horse and buggy to announce, in his case, that there was not much they could do. There was, to be sure, already an up-to-date hospital in Birmingham in 1913, when he contracted this undiagnosed illness. From time to time, as he weakened, his favorite bird dog was allowed into the sickroom, and Howell Raines would rest his hand upon the animal’s head. After weeks of decline, after scenes of even greater poignancy, he died, without complaint and with­out any visible breaking of will, in his own bed of an illness that was never identified.

His four boys had worshiped him. Not one of them ever for­got his grief. To honor his memory, several of his grandsons were given the middle name Howell. The Hiram was not doled out until the birth of the last of the six male children born in that gen­eration. It was regarded as a stiff, countrified name.

My father and his brothers were city folk by the start of World War II, businessmen who, having worked their way up from carpentry, were beginning to be able to afford good cars and nice suits. In their world, during the boom years that made Birmingham the “Magic City,” anything redolent of the farm life was not a business asset. Nonetheless, my father made an announcement to my two older siblings while my mother and I were still at the West End Baptist Hospital, where I was born on February 5, 1943.

“Y’all aren’t going to like this,” my father quoted himself as saying, “but we’re going to name him after my daddy.” It was, as it turned out, the last chance in my generation to perpetuate both of the ancestral given names that had been written into family Bibles since pioneer times. That is how I, the last of the old man’s grandsons, came to be the only one who would be called Howell, as he was.

To soften the old-fashioned look of it a bit, they reversed the order of the given names, putting Howell first, assuming that a city boy with the country name of Hiram out front might come in for some teasing. So Howell Hiram Raines was written on the birth certificate, and as a small boy I got my share of teasing for Howell. After all, the more urbane of my two given names has a formal sound to it, and I was born in an era of Bobs, Jims, Bills, Billy Rays, Larrys, Juniors and the occasional Randy. I became a student of names. I regarded most Randys as unsound and never met a kid named jay who was worth a damn. The teasing made me fierce. I’d let people shorten it to Hal, but never to Howie. I learned to keep altogether quiet about the Hiram. Actually, it didn’t make a bit of difference, but it’s the sort of thing kids worry about.

From an early age, I wanted to hear stories about Hiram Howell Raines. My father was six at the time of his father’s death, and he told me that he had dreamed about the funeral in cinematic detail throughout his adult life. I asked what seemed the obvious question. Why did they let the man lie there and die? Why had they not simply carried him by wagon to the railroad station in jasper, only eight miles away, and put him on the train to Birmingham for a second opinion? That was the first thing I noticed when my father took me to see the old home place. They were not way, way out back in the sticks as I had always imagined them to be when they spoke of being “up in the coun­try.” Yet Curry, the village where they buried Howell Raines, was so close to jasper, and the train ran between jasper and Birming­ham every day. For all we know, a simple surgery at Hillman Hospital in Birmingham, which was fully capable of such proce­dures by 1913, might have saved his life. In any casey a more pre­cise diagnosis by a city doctor in a teaching hospital couldn’t have hurt. Why not try it?

“I’ve always kind of wondered about that myself,” my father said. just that.

I could tell the question pierced him. Fifty years later, the loss was still fresh, as was the memory of being a powerless country boy with no recourse against the remorseless negligence imposed by ignorance and a few miles of dirt road. I dropped the subject, never to return to it with him.

As far as most folks were concerned, my hard old grand­mother was not a lot of fun, but jane Best Raines doted on me because I had her husband’s name. We would sit for hours on her swing in the shade of a big elm tree and she would tell me stories about this quiet, rectitudinous, industrious man. She saw him one evening after he came in from plowing. He unhitched the mules and then, instead of washing up for supper, he stood for a long time by the barnyard fence, looking across his fields and into the distance. She went to him, and he said, “Jane, I’ve worked my last day.” The point is, she said, he knew. He knew he had worn him­self out getting that farm into shape. He was a demon for work. In hot summertime, she would put on her sunbonnet, and I’d follow her into the garden for tomatoes or the henhouse for eggs. I made her tell the same stories over and over. The church doors never opened without her being there. She read a magazine called The Gospel Trumpet. So I was stunned when she became the first person I ever heard say “shit” and “damn.” I couldn’t have been more than six. She wanted to tell me what Hiram Howell Raines said one day when a man approached him during a political cam­paign. He said, “Shit, here comes one of those damn Democrats.”

In those days, Democrats used to talk about the Solid South, but in regard to our family history, we weren’t part of it. The Raineses were hereditary Republicans. My grandfather was, after all, the son of a man, Hiram Raines, who hid out in the woods until the war was over rather than fight for the Confeder­acy. I’m sure it was largely because he didn’t want to get shot, but the fact is that Hiram and his father-in-law, old man Hial Abbott, were Lincoln-loving Unionists by conviction. So were many of their neighbors in the hill country. By night throughout the war, Hial (later spelled Howell) Abbott carried food to the draft-dodging country boys who were laying out in gullies and branch heads all over Walker and Winston counties. Some of them, he ferried in his canoe across the Sipsey River, so they could make their way to the Federal lines and enlist in the Union Army. After the war, the Southern Claims Commission of the United States government certified Hial Abbot as a cast-iron Unionist who risked death by hanging by neighbors who regarded him as a “damned old Lincolnite.” The commission ruled in 1871 that Hial Abbott should be paid for “his one good mare” and the four hundred bundles of fodder, thirty-five bushels of corn and fifty pounds of bacon he provided the Union cavalrymen in Wilson’s Raiders when they passed his farm in 1865 on their way to Tuscaloosa to burn the University of Alabama. Hial Abbott billed the government for $220.50, arguing that the horse alone was worth $150 and “corn was very scarce and hard to get at any price” in those days, but he settled for $178. At this remove, I can only surmise that my grandmother was willing to burn my ten­der ears with profanity to make sure I understood the true polit­ical faith of my forebears.

She was, without dispute, the final authority on all matters relating to her husband, especially his death. Until she herself died in 1967, she said the man had killed himself with labor. His work paid for the farm they had bought in the 1890s. Selling the farm after his death enabled the family to move to town, where my father and his brothers found prosperity. Grandpa Raines’s sacrifice came to be the foundation fact in the family myth—”He worked himself to death.” Period.

Early in life, weighing all I could glean from my father and grandmother, I came to a different diagnosis, so to speak I figured the man died of not leaving home when he should have. Hiram Howell Raines died of not going to town, just as surely as the Sinus Doctor to the Stars died of not staying home. Knowing the power of paradox, I wasn’t going to make the same mistake my grandfather did. That was another reason, I guess, that, when Arthur presented the opportunity, I moved to the biggest town I could find.


Character forms early in life, and manifests itself best under stress. Howell Raines’ character is described throughout this book from his introspection, and to the enlightenment and pleasure of readers. Losses and setbacks prepare us to face the challenges of another day. Thanks to The One That Got Away, we can think about how someone else has chosen to live, and include that perspective as we make our own decisions.


Steve Hopkins, July 26, 2006



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The recommendation rating for this book appeared

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