Hired Gun: From Lakewood to Baghdad, the Evolution of Stony Smith

My latest profile piece follows a Lakewood resident’s journey from his comfortable finance career in Northeast Ohio to security detail in the middle of Iraq (and at the height of the Iraq War, no less). I recorded somewhere around eight hours of conversation with Stony Smith, and we spent another several hours at a local shooting range. He showed me the basics, and I did pretty well (it was my first time ever shooting a gun, which was a fairly cool aspect to my reporting).

At its heart, the story gets into the importance of spending one’s time on this planet doing things that bring joy and exhilaration.

An excerpt:

The rocket smashes into the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad at some 200 meters per second — KA-WHAM! — and Stony Smith drops to the floor. He sharpens his senses and waits for more fire. These things usually come in threes.

Insurgents have been hammering the whole goddam Green Zone for months. But now, on Jan. 29, 2005, just days prior to a major national election, it’s the first time any round from the constant bombardment outside the embassy’s walls hit its mark. Stony doesn’t hear any more rockets heading his way. Nearby, two Americans lay dying. The warhead burrows deep into this imposing former palace of Saddam Hussein, but it never goes off.

Within seconds, Stony is up and running into the next room to secure his client, and this guy is leaning back in his chair, phone cocked in the crook of his shoulder, chatting away and suddenly looking up at Stony, like, “What’s the matter?” The rocket! The smoke! Didn’t you hear? A gray cloud is slowly wending through the hallways, fine and hazy. Debris rains down around the room. Stony has this determined look in his eyes and urges the man out of the office.

Here’s the thing: Stony Smith doesn’t fuck around. He doesn’t cut corners. And he certainly doesn’t tolerate anything less than achieving the stated objectives, especially as the threat of imminent death stinks up the room. The sole mission is to protect this guy, this director of a major reconstruction office in central Iraq who’s now grabbing his bullet-proof gear off a nearby coat rack with all due holy-shit haste.


Stony Smith, photo by Emanuel Wallace
Stony Smith, photo by Emanuel Wallace



One Night in Amish Country

In March, I attended a special dinner event at an Amish family’s house somewhere in Geauga County, Ohio. The dinner had been reserved by a friend back in 2011. Looking ahead, this family is booked solid through 2017. And they host these dinners four times each week.

All of which made for a very enticing story. The finished product is a pleasant tale of off-the-beaten-path dining in Northeast Ohio and a brief meditation on the Amish lifestyle.

An excerpt:

Here’s the general rundown of the evening’s unrelentingly delicious food, in order: mixed fruit, home-baked bread with maple butter spread, orange Jello pudding, salad resplendent with veggie decor, cottage cheese (featuring Cool Whip, which raises eyebrows among the diners), mountains of chicken breasts and prime rib, stuffing (the depth of flavor in this dish has made grown men cry, we’re told), mashed potatoes and the accompanying gravy boat, and the dichotomous seas of corn and peas.

We spoon heaps of the offerings onto our plates as quaint candles flicker against the fading light outside. It’s impossible to scoop a serving without remarking on how fantastically scrumptious each dish looks, and the same ebullient mutterings follow once it enters the mouth. This is the inner core of table conversation, as we are collectively unable to stop drooling. The stuffing really is ambrosial. The chicken? Divine.

Our hosts for the evening, an Amish couple somewhere in their 30s, tend to the needs of all guests. They’re well practiced in the art of hospitality, and soon enough there’s this sense that we’ve all been friends for a very long time.

“If you ask for something and we have it, you’ll get it. If you ask for something and we don’t have it, you won’t get it. If you don’t ask for something and we have it, you won’t get it.” Our bearded host intermittently casts guidance like that across the dining room. We slowly settle in to the ebb and flow of the proceedings. Judging by portions of the night’s conversations, no one is really clear on how formal or informal we should be acting, and it’s best that we do away with undue caution as early as possible. For now, we are at home.



Caged: How Ohio Politicians Keep the State’s Puppy Mill Business Booming with Little Regulation

I had been following Ohio’s work on puppy mill regulations since Kyle Swenson published the first Scene dispatch from Holmes County back in 2010. Since then, little had changed. Little had been done to actually protect the dogs in question and force breeders to follow even simply a handful of rules. So I traveled south to figure out what was going on.

An dog rescue organizer and advocate drove me around Holmes County and surrounding areas. She told me stories of what happened to the dogs in the past and in the present. Economic pressures had squeezed out most of the smaller puppy operations since Swenson’s report, but the market had mostly consolidated into the big players – breeders who ran massive operations and got close to political leaders. Relationships had been formed among those people who treated puppies as business and the folks in Columbus who pulled the real strings.

Again, little had changed.

An excerpt:

A slanted roof covers a row of tiny cages growing hot in the morning sun. From half a mile across otherwise gentle farmland, what appears to be a lone Yorkie can be seen sitting idly and watching passing cars and buggies.

Puppy kennels—”puppy mills” in the more oppositional colloquy—are easy to spot from the circuitous roads of rural countrysides around Northeast Ohio. The heart of the commercial dog breeding industry in Ohio lies mostly within and around Amish Country—Holmes County, south of Wooster, and neighboring Tuscarawas, Ashland and Guernsey counties. Winding roads weave in and among hills, and gravelly driveways jut off at odd intervals. Now and then, a series of buildings crop upward out of the land. These are homes, barns, silos, storage areas. But often enough, tucked among the other buildings are small kennels built for small animals. In the past decade, in many cases, puppies have lived in them.

There’s nothing secretive about the mills. But there’s certainly a darkness about them that gets brushed under the regions’ handwoven rugs.

“We have Yorkies and we have Westies,” a young Amish woman says as a prospective customer sidles up to the house and broaches the subject. She doesn’t let the customer wander too far off the rocky driveway; rather, she dispatches four of her children to cull a couple of puppies from the kennel behind the garage. For the most part, buyers don’t get a good look at the conditions of these makeshift homes and breeding grounds. “They are…eh, how old now? Four weeks old now,” the woman says, squinting into the morning sun.



Live from Trumbull Correctional

Last fall, Doug Brown and I traveled to Trumbull Correctional Institution, a mid-security state prison in eastern Ohio. We arrived shortly after dawn, and prison officials welcomed us into a small recreation room for a private rock ‘n’ roll show.

The story glides across the personal tales of more than a dozen state inmates, all of whom had worked hard to be allowed to play musical instruments and form bands. “Live from Trumbull Correctional” is the story of two bands – DryveTrayne and Supa Dupa Productions.

My quick takeaway is that more state facilities should be investing in programs like this. Because the inmates actually own the instruments, the cost to the state isn’t a tremendous burden.

An excerpt:

The sorrowful blues of B.B. King’s “The Thrill is Gone” isn’t lost on anyone in the room as Vincent works his blue Fender Telecaster into a frenzy. Vincent’s known as “Starter” to the other guys around here, and not just for his virtuosity on the guitar. He’s also a sound engineer and music theory teacher and he’s been doing this since it all started.

“You gotta be out of trouble for so long before you can be here,” he says.

Vincent is talking about the Music With A Purpose program at Trumbull Correctional Institution, because Vincent is locked up here and he’s not leaving anytime soon. With nearly a decade to go before he gets a shot at parole, Vincent joins dozens of other inmates here in pursuit of music. And rock ‘n’ roll.  And freedom of some limited, creative sort.

“This is the goal,” he says. “This is the ultimate goal, to be able to come out here and play.”

Supa Dupa Productions
Supa Dupa Productions



The Last American Man

This towering GQ piece, penned by Elizabeth Gilbert years before Eat, Pray, Love, is just a delicious slice of writing. The subject is simple, and Gilbert washes over the story with patience and care.

I really enjoy magazine profiles of obscure men and women – people far from the public eye who are just, you know, living their lives. Gilbert brings the reader into the life of Eustace Conway, who’s been living in the North Carolina wilderness for years, and illuminates much about the human spirit and the cultural trajectory of this country.

An excerpt:

Briefly, the history of America goes like this: There was a frontier, and then there was no longer a frontier. It all happened rather quickly. There were Indians, then explorers, then settlers, then towns, then cities. Nobody was really paying attention until the moment the wilderness was officially tamed, at which point everybody suddenly wanted it back.

Within the general spasm of nostalgia that ensued (Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, Frederic Remington’s cowboy paintings), there came a very specific cultural panic, a panic rooted in the question, What will become of our boys?

Problem was, while the classic European coming-of-age story generally featured a provincial boy who moved to the city and transformed into a refined gentleman, the American tradition had evolved into the utter opposite. The American boy came of age by leaving civilization and striking out toward the hills. There he shed his cosmopolitan manners and transformed into a robust man. Not a gentleman, mind you, but a man. Without the wilderness as proving ground, what would become of our boys?

Why, they might become effete, pampered, decadent. Christ save us, they might become Europeans.

For obvious reasons, this is a terror that has never entirely left us. A century later, some of us are still concerned about the state of American manhood, which is why some of us are so grateful when we get to meet Eustace Conway.

Eustace Conway moved into the woods for good when he was 17 years old. This was in 1978, which was around the same time Star Wars was released. He lived in a tepee, made fire by rubbing two sticks together, and bathed in icy streams. At this point in his biography, you might deduce that Eustace is a survivalist or a hippie or a hermit, but he’s not any of these things. He’s not storing guns for the imminent race war; he’s not cultivating excellent weed; he’s not hiding from us. Eustace Conway is in the woods because he belongs in the woods.


The Would-Be Kid King of Cuyahoga

Tanner Fischbach is a 19-year-old self-described “young Republican punk” from Berea, Ohio. When he announced his campaign for the highest public office in the most Democratic county in the state, many wondered what the hell he was thinking. I certainly did. So I met Fischbach and talked local politics, golf, the legitimacy of Punxsutawney Phil (that part was left on the cutting room floor) and the image issues of the Republican Party. The process of tracking him down and arranging interviews/photo shoots was an ordeal in itself, which worked into the story real well.

As liberal as I am, I found Fischbach to be a great interview (once we finally managed to meet). The story gets weird at times, and it’s one of my first features to boast a “twist” of any sort.

An excerpt:

Fischbach’s voice is rough when we talk to him in mid-December. He details a nasty bout of illness that has plagued him for a couple weeks now and apologizes for missing an interview. This would become a hallmark going forward – his penchant for missing interviews, that is, not necessarily the illness.

Eventually, he agrees to meet up at a McDonald’s on the southern hemline of Parma. He’s wearing the same purple shirt and tie combo that he wears in his Facebook profile photo for his campaign. It’s as if he wriggled right out of the computer already in character.

“You know what? I’m feeling much better now.” Fischbach says in between slurps of Coke. “Everyone’s texting me: ‘I’m sorry you’re sick, but stay away from me,’ you know? The only thing I’ve got now is a cough, so I promise I won’t get you sick or anything.” His voice carries the quick lilt of his native Boston.

He leans back in his chair and, with a wistful smile, begins explaining his intentions, delving into his time at Berea High School – ground zero of his political awakening, as it were. The whole district mirrors the deep blue hues of the county, so the slightly younger Fischbach saw ample opportunity to engage in healthy debate around the halls. This was back when Gov. John Kasich was championing Senate Bill 5 (Issue 2) across the state, prior to Fischbach’s 2013 graduation.

“When you have a young Republican punk coming through your hallways…” Fischbach starts off with a laugh. “I remember they put a couple posters in the school. You know, ‘No on Senate Bill 5’ and all that. I went up to the administration and, well, ‘Am I allowed to put up posters for Senate Bill 5? Is this how it’s gonna go?’ I think it was like an hour later that they took them down, because I would do it. I would do it!”

He pursues this tangent: “I would love to see a push for another Senate Bill 5 if we could for the whole state. But if we could push something countywide, that’d be great. And a lot of people probably aren’t going to vote for me for saying that.”