Saturday, January 01, 2005

Hurricane Stew (6 0f 6)

“Yeah, Ron - I don’t know how to tell you this -- “

“You don’t have to, Pittman,” he barked back. “We just saw it on the bird! How‘s my camera?”

That evening, the footage of my impromptu waterslide dominated the opening moments of the ABC, CBS and NBC Nightly News. CNN aired it every half hour all day, even playing the shot of me pulling my dead camera out of the water in slow motion. However, it would take hours before I ever saw it. Once my superiors finished their cell-phone guilt trip, they told me to stay put and wait for another camera and photographer to arrive. In the three hours that took, I slopped into a nearby K-Mart, grabbed some dry clothes off the rack and ignored the strange look all the retail clerks gave me. Then I checked into a rundown hotel, burst through the door like a madman, stripped down to my skivvies and filled the bathtub up with water. Standing over the tub, I paused for a moment before plunging the camera-corpse into the water. Even though the engineers told me to do so, it felt as wrong as drowning your baby. While salt and sand floated to the tub water’s surface, I sat in the adjoining room and chain-smoked in silence.

Back at my station reactions differed. Co-workers feigned concern but chuckled to themselves as they opened every newscast that day with my soaking wet joyride. Many were still in the newsroom when I arrived there that evening. The Promotions Manager, a friend of mine, slapped me on the back and thanked me for wearing the heavily logo’d windbreaker he had fought so hard to purchase. The General Manager and News Director grumbled about the loss of their S-VHS piece of crap and acted as if I had done it on purpose. They didn’t fire me, but my relationship with them was never the same. My fellow news shooters treated me like a fallen hero of sorts and the engineers begrudgingly admitted I’d found a new, rather high-profile way to kill a camera.

When I finally sat down at my desk, a producer handed me a long list of phone numbers. Seems stations from around the country had called all day, hoping for a phone interview to go along with the incredible footage of my watery break dance. I called the first number on the list, but after the cheesy-sounding Phoenix anchor kept interrupting to ramble about his own storm-chasing days, I crumbled the list up and threw it in the trashcan. I didn’t quite yet know how to feel about the last twelve hours, but I wasn’t about to help some unseen blowhard showboat. Leaving the station, I drove my pick-up home where I had some ‘splainin’ to do to the wife. She didn’t ask twice about the camera, but seemed confused as anyone why I decided to suddenly go swimming.

It took me years to live down the notoriety of that day. But eventually, colleagues stopped calling me ‘Splash’, neighbors ceased their requests for details and viewers stopped asking where my surfboard was. Since then, I’ve moved on - covering enough floods, murders and Easter egg hunts to render my brush with Gordon just another faded memory. But the video lives on. In fact, it has become a treasured heirloom of sorts. Whenever hurricane season rolls around and some rookie starts talking big about their weather-chasing adventure, I whip out my tape and render them speechless. I even ran the video through an old video ‘toaster’ once, capturing the frozen image of me with a soaking wet camera on my shoulder and looking sourly into the network lens. That shot now hangs framed in my home office, a constant reminder that in this silly business, the worst thing you can do is focus on your competitors and lose sight of the story at hand. That, and pricey TV cameras make lousy swim buddies.

Thanks for sticking with this rather bloated account of my most humiliating moment. As for the video mentioned, someday I'll figure out how to get it on-line and further my shame. Until then, SURF'S UP!


Patrick Eakes said...

I can just imagine that scene. You already doused the camera once - now you have to soak it again. Sort of counterintuitive.

I would have been chain smoking in the corner, too, and I don't even smoke.

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