Introduction by Casey Gauntt (July 2018)
Although I’ve been corresponding with Charlie Myers for over seven years, I finally had the privilege of meeting him for the first time a couple of months ago. Charlie, who now lives in Dallas, and Jan Weeks from Grand Junction spent a few days in anything-but sunny Solana Beach. Charlie and Jan had likewise never met face to face and, although we called this a reunion, it was more aptly a union.
One of the first stories we put up on Write Me Something Beautiful was Charlie’s STEPPING INTO THE TWILIGHT ZONE. Charlie tells the story of how the Coalwood, WV website came into existence, and some of the incredible “coincidences”—or synchronicities as we now like to call them—that were involved.
Jan was my invaluable editor of Suffering Is the Only Honest Work. During our recent get together, Jan, Charlie and I outlined the guts of book #2. Some of you have asked, how did I happen to select Jan Weeks as my editor? Well, since his fingerprints are all over it, I think it best if I let Charlie Myers tell this most circuitous story.
Charlie has “accused” me of writing stories that are too long and complicated. You be the judge, but it seems to me we have a “pot-calling-the-kettle-black” thing going on here. I’m just saying.
It’s my pleasure to share with you 2011-Another Year in the Twilight Zone.
2011—Another Year in the Twilight Zone
By Charlie Myers
By 2009, Steve Date, a fifth-grade teacher in Minneapolis, had been attending the October Sky Festival in Coalwood, West Virginia, for five years. This popular gathering, now held in nearby Beckley, celebrates hometown boy, Homer “Sonny” Hickam, and the fame he brought to this tiny Appalachia coal town with his best-selling memoir, Rocket Boys, and made into the 1999 movie October Sky.
As I recounted in Stepping Into the Twilight Zone, I too began attending the Festivals in 2005, but Steve and I wouldn’t meet until a couple of years later. Steve was on a mission to document all that he could about Coalwood before the buildings rotted away and the old timers vanished. He had amassed a huge collection of video-taped interviews and still photos that he wanted to incorporate into an hour-long documentary, Welcome to Coalwood. I thought the documentary was a great idea and I financed a good portion of the movie. Steve completed his movie in time to sell copies at the 2009 Festival.
I suppose because I had been a supporter of Welcome to Coalwood, in February of 2011 Steve sent me a DVD entitled THE LETTER. I had no idea what was on the DVD.
I soon learned that this guy, Casey Gauntt, had worked in Coalwood when his father’s company was digging a huge ventilation shaft for a new part of the Olga coal mines. At the time (1968), Casey was 18-years-old, fresh out of high school. Casey’s father thought it would be good work experience for Casey.
I also learned about the death of Casey’s son, Jimmy, in a tragic accident in 2008.
Turns out, Casey also attended the 2009 Festival, was introduced to Steve, and Steve filmed him telling the story in front of the crumbling buildings known as the Coalwood Apartments. Casey described how he had received a call from a woman, Emily Sue Buckberry, who had lived in Coalwood at the same time as Casey. Emily still had a letter Casey’s father had mailed him in 1968. She forwarded it to Casey, and Casey reads from the letter in the video.
During the ten-minute film Casey was very teary about all of this. I had a totally different reaction before I even finished watching it: “Casey, Jimmy is trying to communicate with you!” That was totally obvious to me.
I sent an e-mail to Steve thanking him for the DVD and telling him how much I enjoyed it.
A few days later I got my first e-mail from Casey. Steve had sent him mine.
From this point on, Casey and I were exchanging e-mails on a regular basis. (I think Casey is a frustrated novelist!) We would share information about Coalwood and our life histories.
Casey soon began to send me other stories about what had happened to him since The Letter.
Strange things were happening to Casey. Strange coincidences. Strange coincidences were also occurring with Casey’s and Jimmy’s friends, like George Blystone and Dennis Shin as revealed in the story Want To Go For a Ride?
Casey casually mentioned that I should think about keeping a diary. He thought I might become involved in some of these strange coincidences. It turns out he was very correct.
The more of his stories I read, it became more and more obvious that Jimmy was involved in this. Jimmy had been an up-and-coming screen writer and playwrite in Santa Monica, California.
It occurred to me that Jimmy was writing a screenplay in heaven. It also became clear to me that Jimmy was having fun writing his script—actually, he was having a blast.
The reason Jimmy was having so much fun was he could involve whatever characters he wanted – people on Earth (e.g. George, e.g. me) as well as people from heaven (e.g., his grandfather and my father).
It was also obvious to me that Jimmy was using all these people to try to communicate with his father. “Dad, I may not be there, but I want you to know I’m okay.”
Casey was still in denial.
I had to go slowly in telling my thoughts to Casey. I really didn’t know him. What right did I have to say these things to a father who had just lost his son?
Jimmy at his desk in his bungalow in Laurel Canyon
During this time, I also had a mental image of Jimmy’s room in heaven. It was really a big room with two halves (like a set in a Broadway stage play). On the left was Jimmy’s office. It was mostly white with bookcases along the wall. There was a large desk, and it had a white Macintosh on it. This is where Jimmy was writing his screenplay. I would later learn that Jimmy really used a white Macintosh. The right side of the set had a round conference table. This is where Jimmy could have meetings with his characters from heaven (e.g., his grandfather) and work out plot strategies for his script.
So, to summarize, it is now obvious to Charlie that:
1. Jimmy is trying to communicate with his father.
2. Jimmy is writing a script.
3. Jimmy can cast whatever characters he likes, either from heaven or earth.
4. Jimmy is having a blast doing all of this. Jimmy is having fun.
I suggested to Casey he should submit his story of The Letter to Guideposts magazine. Guideposts loves this kind of “Mysterious Ways” and “Angels Among Us” stuff.
In early April, Guideposts rejected The Letter because it was too long, but they called it a “very interesting, haunting story” and observed “the letter from your Dad is more precious than words can say.” Casey wrote me that he never thought of it as ‘haunting.’
Casey then sent me his THE GHOSTWRITER story about how he and his wife, Hilary, found a couple of photos of Jimmy that had been trapped for over three years in a disposable camera hiding in the back of a kitchen drawer. Jimmy is sprawled on the couch in his parents’ family room reading Philip Roth’s book, The Ghost Writer. Casey also mentions a psychic reading he and Hilary had shortly after their discovery of the photos. The psychic told them “There is a ghost in your house, but there’s nothing to worry about. The ghost is your son, Jimmy.”
“Haunting’ may indeed be an apt description given all that was happening to Casey and his family.
This only reinforced for me that Jimmy is a ghostwriter in all senses of the word, and he is writing a script.
Casey continued to fill my e-mail box with “coincidence” stories. The stories are usually long and involved. I kept thinking Casey is a novelist, but he needs a good editor. However, I don’t know any editors.
In April, I received an e-mail titled “A modest request for help from the Po Valley, Italy” from Agostino (Ago) Alberti. Ago is a fifth-grade teacher [another fifth-grade teacher!] from Soncino, Italy, in the Po Valley. Ago’s class had recently watched October Sky with Italian subtitles, and they wanted to get a letter to Homer Hickam. Ago found me through COALWOOD WV.COM and figured I must know Homer.
Each summer over the last several years, Ago and his colleagues become aviation archeologists. They research World War II crash sites and use metal detectors to find airplanes. The airplanes might be from the United States, England, New Zealand, Germany and other countries. Once they have found an airplane, they use excavation equipment to unearth it. If it’s an American plane and the team finds human remains, the team contacts the American Embassy in Rome. They send out an Air Force officer who assists in getting the human remains back to the relatives in the United States.
It was such a fascinating operation, I set up a website for them: http://www.aircrashpo.com/
Ago has researchers in the United States who help with identifying the airplanes and crew. Any bit of information can be helpful to a researcher: an engine serial number on the plane, for example. Once the plane has been identified, the crew can be identified. All of this involves searching rolls and rolls of very poor-quality microfilm records.
I told Ago about a trip I had made to Europe in 1964. I mentioned that I had seen a few steam trains (like in October Sky) and asked Ago if Soncino were accessible by rail. Ago told me the bridge to Soncino was bombed during WWII. They never rebuilt the bridge, so Soncino can only be reached by car or bus.
In late May I told Ago my dad was an Army Air Corps B-24 pilot based in Italy in WWII. Ago asked for my dad’s name, date and place of birth and date of death. He said he would try to get some information about my dad.
May 30: I had gone to bed early, but I got up just before midnight. I had a feeling that I needed to look at my e-mail. There was a new e-mail from a lady named Patti in Ohio. Patti had included information from the 1910, 1920, 1930 and 1940 censuses listing Dad and his brothers in Rockledge, Florida. She attached Dad’s graduation photo from the 1940 Georgia Tech yearbook, and all kinds of other information about my father. I had never seen any of this stuff.
I was in shock. I did not know anybody named Patti.
I was even more stunned when I realized I had received Patti’s email 38 years to-the-day after Dad’s death. To top it all off, it was Memorial Day.
Had I not had a feeling that I needed to get out of bed to check my e-mail, the dates would not be so significant.
Okay, this had to be more of Jimmy at work. Now, he has a teacher-archeologist in Italy and a researcher in Ohio involved in his script. I envisioned his grandfather and my dad seated around Jimmy’s conference table story-boarding the scenes.
The next day I replied to Patti and told her I was still shaking. I also e-mailed Casey about yet another weird coincidence.
Several weeks later I was reading the July edition of Guideposts. There was an article written by a woman from Grand Junction, Colorado, named Jan Weeks. She talked about mowing her lawn with a reel mower (of all things): https://www.guideposts.org/faith-and-prayer/prayer-stories/power-of-prayer/motivating-myself-in-the-garden
Ms. Weeks wrote: “I was thankful my literary business was successful, but proofreading and editing jobs jammed my inbox, each one with an imminent deadline…Pruning weeds and clearing deadfall gave me insight on how to edit a story.”
Aha! An editor, with Guideposts experience, who prunes weeds and trims deadwood. This is exactly what Casey needs! What a coincidence!!!
I Googled Jan and asked if she would edit Casey’s story of The Letter for Guideposts. “I need it cut down from its current 3,000 words to the Guideposts’ standard 1,200 words.” Jan said “Sure,” so I e-mailed her Casey’s article and snail-mailed her a check.
Jan wanted to discuss things with Casey and ask him questions. I said “Please don’t. Just change the story however you think best so it’s shorter and still a good story.”
Jan sent back her edited version of the story, and I e-mailed it to Casey.
Casey was blown away. Jan nailed how Casey really felt after his father’s suicide—the anger and betrayal; his vow to always be there for his kids, no matter what; the anger and guilt that came roaring back when he couldn’t keep his own son safe; and then the arrival of his father’s letter that replaced the anger and guilt with just love. Casey had not before put all this together. With this revelation, and “The Letter,” Casey finally made peace with his father.
Throughout that summer I was getting so much information it became a little overwhelming. My business partner, Leonard, and I now had over 200 web design customers and, on an average day, 25 of them wanted changes to their websites.
Casey was sending me dozens of stories and Ago was sending e-mails. Strangers on the internet were asking me questions about Coalwood. etc., etc.
I also sometimes had “Jimmy Moments” when Jimmy popped into my head. Who knew in which direction those would lead.
There were times when I would take a break, walk outside, look up at the sky and say, “Jimmy, please shut up. Leave me alone. I have work to do!”
Towards the end of the summer I got this email from Casey:
“Hilary, Brittany and I had a reading with our medium Tarra this afternoon—I think it’s our fifth now—and at one point Jimmy is talking through her saying how proud he is of all the writing I’m doing, and sharing the stories with others. Then she/he started laughing: ‘Dad, don’t be thinking these are your ideas—they are all mine—I’m making these things happen. Remember that.’
“The next words out of Tarra’s mouth were ‘Who’s Charlie?’ Not, Charles or Chuck. I said, ‘There’s a Charlie from Tennessee?’ ‘That’s the one,’ she said. ‘He’s going to have a big role in all of this—all the things you are writing and doing.’
“After the reading, Brittany asked me ‘Who is this Charlie?’ I told her about you, how we met through Steve Date, you starting the Coalwood website and how you had recently reconnected with your dad because of the Coalwood connections. I realized, and told Brittany, that it was Coalwood that reconnected me to my dad 38 years after his death—not on the anniversary of his death like your dad—but nonetheless on a very meaningful day: the day that would have been Jimmy’s 25th birthday.
“And Brittany says, ‘Do you have any idea how weird this is? Both you and Charlie, because of Coalwood, reconnect with your fathers 38 years after their deaths. I’m sorry, that is impossible!’”
Later in 2011, I wrote to the Military Archives in St. Louis and requested a set of all of Dad’s military records.
Turns out there was a huge fire in the archive building which destroyed most of the WWII Army Air Corps records. https://www.archives.gov/personnel-records-center/fire-1973
Dad’s records were gone.
However, a few months later, my brother Jim found a satchel in a closet in his condo in Merritt Island, Florida. The satchel contained copies of most of Dad’s Army Air Corps records. Strangely, my brother had moved three times over the years and did not ever remember seeing the satchel. During each move, he and his wife had jettisoned tons of stuff.
My father’s discharge papers grabbed my attention. His unit had received citations for bombing raids over Austria, Romania, Germany and the Po Valley, Italy. Could my father’s plane have been the one to bomb Ago’s railroad bridge in Soncino?
2011 was indeed a very strange year in The Twilight Zone!!!
Of course, the story doesn’t end there—with Jimmy, it’s a never-ending story with new and old characters weaving in and out.
Jan Weeks. Despite two submissions of Jan’s edited version of The Letter, Casey never heard back from Guideposts. But the upside was Casey had found his editor, someone—or, as Casey admitted, ‘the only one’— he could trust with his stories. They got down to work in 2014 and 18 months later Casey self-published Suffering Is the Only Honest Work co-written with his son, Jimmy. Jan and Casey are now hard at work on book #2.
Patti Johnson. A couple of days after I received the surprise Memorial Day visit reconnection with my father, thanks to Patti Johnson, I sent her the DVD of Steve Date’s film The Letter and connected her with Casey. Patti found some precious information about his father’s service in the Army during WWII as well as some articles and photographs of his dad growing up in Los Angeles that Casey had never seen before.
Grover Gauntt, Jr. Glendale High School 1937
Patti sent Casey and me two powerful stories about her mother and father that Casey has shared on Write Me Something Beautiful: Moments With Ma and The Box. Patti has also helped some of Casey’s friends uncover precious information about their fathers’ service in WWII including some never-before-seen photographs of Jeff Phair’s dad that are included in Jeff’s wonderful story, I LOVE YOU, DAD, on WMSB.
Most recently, Casey helped Patti with another blow-your-socks-off story involving Patti’s older brother, Jim, and his wife, Barb. You Are My Sunshine-A Messenger From Heaven
Steve Date. Steve entered his film The Letter in several film festivals and did very well, including winning Most Popular at the Lewisburg, WV Literary Festival in 2016. Steve made three additional films of Casey’s and his family’s journey through grief including The Other Letter and One Suitcase that can be found on Casey’s website. Steve also created the website for Casey and Jimmy’s book, Suffering Is The Only Honest Work.
In May 2018, I got to meet Casey, Hilary, Brittany and Jan for the first time. We had a wonderful reunion in Solana Beach!!
Shortly after Casey told me about the reading with Tarra (2011) where Jimmy was laughing and making clear, ‘Dad, you’re not doing any of this, I am!’ I felt a window-portal closed for me. That was probably the first time Casey fully accepted that Jimmy was communicating with him.
At our reunion in Solana Beach, I told Casey that Jimmy had written me out of his script. My job of serving as a conduit between Jimmy and Casey was basically over. My work was done. I still get bit parts to this day, but my name was removed from the marquee.
Also, after the Tarra reading, the fact that this entire Coalwood-Jimmy thing was really real became crystal clear for me. There had been many times over the years when I thought, ‘This is so strange. This is so weird. This really can’t be happening. It really can’t be real. Maybe I am imagining all of this.’ I was 98% sure it was all real, but there was a trace of doubt. However, after the Tarra session, I was 100% sure!
What are the odds a little coal town in West Virginia would be the crucible for connecting a woman (Emily Sue Buckberry) from West Virginia who held on to a letter written 40 years earlier, an attorney in California (Casey) who spent a summer in Coalwood, a father who wrote that letter to his son in 1968 and took his own life two years later, a fifth-grade teacher-film maker from Minneapolis (Steve), a man from Tennessee who created the Coalwood website (Charlie), a WWII researcher from Ohio (Patti), a fifth-grade teacher and WWII researcher from the Po Valley in Italy (Ago), a former fifth-grade teacher and writer-editor from Colorado (Jan), and a 24 year-old writer of screenplays from San Diego and Santa Monica California that transcended to the other side in 2008 (Jimmy)?
Astronomical? Impossible? Those of us cast in Jimmy’s movie would beg to differ.
We can only shake our heads and exclaim “Man, what a ride!”
I think this experience pretty much proves.
- God exists.
- There is a heaven.
- Our loved ones sometimes communicate with us.
- When and if they do, we should smile and pay attention.
- Occasionally, we should smile and say a few nice things to our loved ones in heaven.
May 22, 2018, 1:35 a.m.: I woke up at 1:35 a.m. from a sound sleep back home in Dallas. This is going to be a Jimmy Moment, I can tell. I feel exactly as I had the night Patti sent me the Memorial Day e-mail.
I envisioned Jimmy grinning, a huge, happy, angelic smile, “Charlie, you forgot conclusion number 6. Get up and add it.” I did:
I think this experience pretty much proves.
- God exists.
- There is a heaven.
- Our loved ones sometimes communicate with us.
- When and if they do, we should smile and pay attention.
- Occasionally, we should smile and say a few nice things to our loved ones in heave
6. Jimmy Gauntt should be nominated for an Academy Award for the Best Original Screenplay Ever!
In 2016/2017, Charlie and Leonard shut down their web design business and retired. Charlie relocated from Tennessee to Dallas. Leonard now lives in The Villages, Florida. Charlie continues to maintain the Coalwood and Air Crash Po websites, among a few others.
Towards the end of Steve Date’s film, The Letter, I wax poetic about the town of Coalwood: “I never thought I’d be back in Coalwood again. There’s something magical about this place. It certainly had a much bigger role in my life than I ever could have imagined, and I am forever grateful.”
When you cut to its core, I suppose Charlie’s story is really about reconnecting fathers with their sons and the seemingly random individuals–actors, players, angels-who play instrumental roles with those connections. Coalwood has played a key role in four such connections that I am aware of–so far–and I remain forever grateful.
Charles and Charlie Myers
Thank you Charlie for sharing your beautiful story.
Thank you Coalwood, West Virginia