As much as anything else, Television News Photography is about driving. Lots of driving. From the screaming interstate to the silence of the back road, I log many a highway mile in the name of news.
Take today for instance. I walked into a morning meeting to learn everyone gathered around the conference table thought it was a good idea if I were to immediately race to the town of Advance. Seems high winds had knocked out power overnight, hundreds of people were shivering without heat on the coldest morning of the year, and they wanted me to ‘put some eyes on it’.
Minutes later I pulled out of the parking lot and steered my frigid Ford Explorer onto the bypass ramp - cranking up the heat and trying like hell to remember where Advance was.
Out along the highway, amid the revved out engines and mad lane changes, I settled into the familiar confines of my mobile office. Holding the wheel steady with one knee, I worked the station’s ancient cell phone, gathering data as I hurtled toward Davie County.
The sheriff department dispatcher had no exact addresses, but plenty of rumors about outages near the Davie/Davidson County line. I dialed a number the station gave me and spoke with a lovely grandmother in the Fork township who’s lights had just flipped back on. She sounded ecstatic, but I was bummed. With Duke Power working furiously, they’d have every Christmas tree in the region lit up before I ever pulled in town.
So I leaned into the steering wheel and pushed the news unit a few miles faster. Not too many, mind you. I learned long ago that the flashy logos on the outside didn’t make my news unit invisible to radar. I merely stayed in the front of the law-abiding pack, as a dozen lead-foots drafted in behind me.
Just before ten o clock I exited the highway system and began plying the back roads of the area surrounding Mocksville. I’d consulted maps, called the authorities and fended off my own rabid producers. It was now time to act on instinct, intrinsic real-world knowledge honed from fifteen years of chasing scanner static and making improbable deadlines.
When a fire station appeared through the windshield, I swooped into the parking lot and pulled along side a beefy fireman thawing out a frozen-stiff mop head with a bucket of dirty water.
‘Ya got any ball caps?” came the familiar refrain. Sadly, I didn’t. All I had were questions - questions he heard before.
“Yeah, they’s all out a power down People’s Church Road. Duke Power’s down there now tryin’ to throw the switch.”
Before the firefighter could finish his sentence, I was down the road, drumming my fingers on the steering wheel and hoping the power guys would drag their feet. Five minutes later, I turned onto People’s Church Road. It was a narrow winding country pass and I slowed to just under the speed limit, turned down the radio and cranked up my newsman’s radar.
All looked normal along People’s Church Road, the modest homes that flanked each side of the road showed no outward signs of distress. But as I cruised by the one story ranch numbers, I noticed several garage doors halfway open, a closer look revealed tell tale orange drop cords running haphazardly across shrubs and driveways. Slowing down, I noticed the feint sparkle of tinsel on a decidedly unlit Christmas trees.
I had arrived.
Soon I was out of my news cruiser, knocking on doors and blowing warm air into my hands as I hopped from frigid foot to frigid foot. I must have looked pretty silly, because the first few houses produced no occupants, even though I could clearly hear them rustling around inside.
The third door I knocked on opened almost immediately, a frail looking woman in a nightgown and overcoat meeting my gaze.
“Yes Ma’am - I’m from Channel X, looking for people who still don’t have power...”
“Oh no, I have power” she said, her crystallized breath blowing through the screen door. “All fine here!”
Something in the woman’s wide eyed expression made me question her facilities, but I thanked her and promptly exited her porch. Seems she was all stocked up on crazy and didn’t need none of my voodoo, thank you very much.
For the next twenty minutes I played meter reader, stopping at every house whose doorbell light was dim. Three teenagers answered one door, stoked at the chance of being on Tee-Vee. I hated to disappoint them but there parents weren’t home and I didn’t feel like dealing with three wisecracking adolescents, having been an intolerable pioneer in the wise-ass arts at their age.
Three more times I found a suitable no-power victim, but no matter how many times I dropped the call letters and lay on the ‘Aw Shucks’ routine, they wouldn’t consent to an on-camera visit. Geez...all I wanted to do was come in their home, run my lens through their discomfort and squalor and document it for all their neighbors to see. It’s not like I’m selling Amway or something.
After a few more turn-downs, I was growing frustrated. Worse yet, every third house I passed now had porch lights blazing, taunting my newsgathering attempts with their newly-returned power source. As I took the curves of the country road at a mile or two under reckless, my cell phone rang for the third time in twenty minutes. It was the station, wanting to know if they could send a late-arriving reporter my way, to assist me on the scintillating expose I was working on.
Tightening my grip on the cell phone but holding the steering wheel loose, I tried to explain to my bosses how back-up was the last thing I needed.
“Right now there’s no reason to sen him. I’ve been up and down this road and can’t find anyone who wants to play ball. Now I’m seein’ porch lights pop on.”
As always, the suits were unhappy to hear reality wasn’t conforming to their wishes. In the background I could hear them discuss bringing me back to the station and having me start over on something new. The kiss of death at 11:30 in the news morning. Straining to hear their chatter, I kept driving but stopped paying too much attention to the road.
“Yeah, Stew, why don’t ya head back here and pick up Hunter? You guys could do something on the City Council...”
Alarms and sirens were going off in my head and all the air sucked from my lungs as I gripped the wheel. In no small part did I want to enter the fray of in-town politics, for more reasons than I can list here. I even considered feigning stomach pains, but my work ethic prevented me. All I could do was try not to whine to my superiors as they set my news-day back to zero.
That’s when I saw him, a lone figure bundled up and waiting for the world’s scrawniest dog to baptize a patch of frozen dirt. Behind him, the door to a double wide trailer swung open, revealing only the flicker of candle light from within. When he saw my flashy news wagon, the bundled figure waved heartily and broke into a dented tobacco-stained grin.