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Project Dateline: Pilgrim resident survives floods, war

PILGRIM — It's cold out and it's wet and this trip is taking forever. The signs that are supposed to tell you how to get here don't help much.

After a while there just aren't any signs that try to help anymore.

Then you remember that "pilgrim" is, in the literal Latin, "far afield."

No one needs to explain how this town in farthest Martin County got its name.

Finding it requires desire that had to, originally speaking, run pretty deep.

Even now, global positioning satellite technology is taking you down dirt roads that stop dead in the middle of nowhere.

Nature, all fawn brown and steel grey now, isn't exactly a beacon either.

Oh, wait. Here is Pigeon Roost. There is Wolf Creek.

It is here somewhere, a town named after those who had the courage to head out more than 400 years ago and go really, really far afield in all the ways possible.

Somehow Moses Stepp found this Pilgrim without help.

Stepp and a handful of others located this place after he was granted a goodly portion of it as payment after exemplary service in the Revolutionary War.

Jack Adams stands on his own porch on the very land that Stepp earned. Stepp's grave is just up the road a ways, dutifully marking (1736-1856) the 120 years that he is said to have lived.

The Stepps, the Webbs, the Adamses all trace back to Moses and his decidedly determined will to make this wide bottomland their home.

It's where historic floods try to retake the land on a regular basis, most recently in 1957, 1963, 1977 and 2004.

And still the Pilgrims stay. It's the place where, on Oct. 11, 2000, a coal sludge impoundment pond broke and 306 million gallons of viscous toxic goo poured into two branches of the Tug River.

One of those was Wolf Creek, which wends its way through Pilgrim. Everything living in the creek died.

"That will never go away in our lifetime," says Adams, who remembers the slow-moving sludge and how he tossed a rock in it from the highest railroad bridge and watched the rock ride as it made its way through town.

Adams is a former coal miner and he's trying to make peace with it all. Still, Pilgrim is his town and Wolf was his creek.

Adams' family is pure Pilgrim. It is where, in 1938, his grandfather Webb set the state record for the most corn grown per acre and harvested by mule.

It's where Jack and wife Brenda mind the cemetery nearby even though they don't know exactly who's in it.

It's the place he once ached to leave but, once he did, ached to get back to. That was in 1967 when he was in the Navy during the Vietnam War.

"No matter how bad you wanted to get out of a place, and I did, you begin to need some reference to your home place," he says.

"Don't get me wrong. They didn't show Pilgrim in the Encyclopedia Britannica. But we were out on tour sometimes for nine months at a time and it got so I couldn't wait to get home."

It had not been an easy war for Adams, as if any war is easy. He had been on the flight deck of the USS Forrestal in the Gulf of Tonkin on July 29, 1967, when a rocket accidentally fired from a Phantom jet fighter and struck the fuel tank of Lt. Cmdr. John McCain's aircraft. The resulting explosions and conflagrations killed 134 and injured more than 161.

Adams was on a hose when a fire turned him back right after the first bomb went off on deck.

He says there is no reason he should be alive.

He has spent his life in thanksgiving, he said solemnly, "but you can't outgive God."

He has tried, coming home to be a Martin County deputy sheriff, a firefighter, a coal miner, a husband, a father to two and a grandfather to three.

His wife, Brenda, is a nurse who will be working Thanksgiving but will be cooking for the family on Friday so everybody can shop, knowing there will be sustenance when they're done.

Then the family will put up outdoor Christmas decorations which, when lit, judging from Brenda's usual display of six indoor Christmas trees, should be a beacon to the pilgrim in need of direction.

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