About five years ago, Scott Mason of WRAL TV interviewed the legendary golf journalist John Derr, a lion of the sport who covered the Master’s Tournament 62 times and grew chummy with Arnold Palmer and President Eisenhower.
They chatted about Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and other golf luminaries, and as Mason’s crew was packing up to leave Pinehurst, the 94-year-old Derr added this casual shocker to the interview:
“I died and came back to life.”
Mason, 55, does not normally flinch at wild statements. His wanderings as WRAL’s “Tar Heel Traveler” have introduced him to a Nuremberg prison guard, a chicken who lays blue eggs and the heavyweight wrestler Ivan the Russian Bear.
But this story stuck with him. So he came back later and talked to Derr again, hearing him describe his heart attack on the operating table, how he floated to the ceiling and heard the doctor call him a carcass, how a nurse named Nancy climbed on his body and tried a little-known procedure called CPR.
“I felt very reluctant to go back to life,” Derr told Mason. “I was living in a euphoric circumstance, in which there was no pain, no problem, no fear, and things were beautiful.”
Derr’s story makes up one chapter of “Faith and Air,” the Tar Heel Traveler’s third book dealing entirely with miracle stories he’s collected from the road, including a few of his own.
This one contains no pictures, no glossy cover suitable for coffee tables, just 167 pages of Mason’s words, culled from the “Miracle List” he began with Derr’s resurrection story. As his list grew, he added a woman paralyzed in a car accident who rose to walk again and, keeping a promise to God, fed the homeless from her front porch. The book follows a World War II soldier who survived one attack on Pearl Harbor aboard the U.S.S. Arizona, and then lived through another when a torpedo tore his landing ship in half and he dove in the water at God’s command.
“I really believed these people and their stories,” Mason said while signing books at Shorty’s Famous Hot Dogs in Wake Forest, “because they told them, in some cases, with a sense of humor and in all cases in a very matter-of-fact voice. They had nothing to gain.”
Reporters, Mason notes in his prologue, deal in facts. But faith intrigues him most, and he attempts to slip the supernatural into his broadcasts when no one is looking.
“If the station’s head honchos are watching,” he writes, “I bet they squirm a bit in their leather chairs, for news and faith are like oil and water, church and state.”
In most cases, the miracles Mason discovered in his interviews didn’t make the original Tar Heel Traveler videos. They popped up by accident and lured him back later. Hearing so much about the unexplainable made Mason question his own attitude toward miracles and faith. He describes himself perched on a ledge of facts, peering out into the dark and wanting to believe something magical was peering back.
“I think I considered it a little more carefully,” he said at Shorty’s. “Why did all these miracle stories begin rolling my way?”
As a columnist, I’ve experienced the same tug into the ethereal, and that made Mason’s book worth a look. I’ve met churchgoers convinced feathers were falling from the rafters in the middle of their services. I’ve met an 89-year-old woman who slipped on an icy porch and survived the night outdoors, praying as her body temperature sunk to 72 degrees.
The best stories, sometimes, verge into territory where facts aren’t useful, where dark spots resist any shining of light and where an uncertain ending is the most satisfying.