...sckkkkriiiich - working structure fire - phit!-kkkkkkkkk...
With those three words, my workweek began. Before then, I’d merely been play-acting at my desk, leaving messages on PR flacks’ answering machines while making thumbtack constellations on my cubicle corkboard. As the bank of scanners began crackling traffic, the reactionary newsgathering began. Producers scribbled notes, assignment editors lunged for map books, and I for one scrunched down in my seat. It was useless, though and I knew it, w-a-a-y before the deskie headed my way. Time to punch in.
Three minutes later, I wrestled my way onto the interstate. Along for the ride was a young man we’ll call The Intern, though his real world skills far exceeded his pre-grad broadcast status. I barely made it into the fast lane before the quiet Elon student began triangulating our trajectory over a map he’d fished from the glove box. I couldn’t help but look over in admiration for the young fellow, necktie and all.
“Dude you can be my wingman anytime“, I muttered, triggering an awkward silence that lasted more than a few minutes.
But twenty minutes, two wrong turns and one guiding plume of smoke later, we arrived at the fire truck convention on Old Julian Road. Across the ditch bank scores of firefighters swarmed the skeletal remains of a two-story farmhouse, wielding hoses and hacking with axes. As I set up the camera and began recording, a shift in the wind sent the billowing wall of smoke roiling our way.
“Prepare to smell the rest of your day, “I told The Intern as we both bowed our heads and held our breath.
When the smoke cleared I climbed inside my viewfinder, forgetting the chase and focusing on the grab. It took little skill, merely point at the camera at the things that interest you. I bagged wide shots of firefighters rushing in on foot, worked my glass on the house’s charred ribcage, captured close-ups of a patch of flame. Once a half dozen house shots were in the can, I turned to the faces taking it all in. Scanning and panning I saw nothing but helmets, but at the far end of my lens I picked up a woman in a blanket through the shimmering heat waves. She shook her head in disbelief as an out of frame arm reached in to comfort her. Back in the eyepiece, I nodded in agreement and steadied the shot. A few more of those and I’d have what I came for.
Looking up I saw the unmistakable profile of an approaching live truck. The cock of the dish told me it was from my station and as I watched it park beside a distant fire truck, I beckoned The Intern to join me ringside.
“Run this disc down to Keith. They want it on by noon!”
As my intrepid assistant jogged toward the live truck, I looked at my watch and crunched the numbers: 11:54. Six minutes to park the truck, raise the mast, establish a signal, edit the footage, call the feed room and send it over. Six minutes. No problem.
Just before one, we peeled away from the scene of the house fire without ever looking back. Who needed to - when we had all the footage we needed in our grubby paws, a disc full of sound and images, some of which had just permeated living rooms across the Piedmont a scant hour earlier. Fire crews were still dampening hot spots as we blew by, but in TV news terms, the blaze was ancient history.
A half hour later, I dropped The Intern off at the station and decided to check my e-mail. But before I got the first electronic missive open, a dark shadow fell across my desk.
“Yeah - Stew, we need to you go check out a fatal fire from last night. Geez you smell like one!”
And so it was that I polished off a Chik-Fil-A sandwich behind the trusty wheel of my mobile office, trying not to spill bar b cue sauce on a tattered map of Kernersville. Twelve hours earlier a house fire had claimed the life of an unnamed person, but the station didn’t have a picture of the smoldering house. This is unacceptable in TV terms, I poured over the crinkled map trying to find an address that just wasn’t there. Turning down a twisty dirt road marked ‘Dead End’, I juggled my lunch and tried to fly casual. Not that it mattered. When the road gave out, I still hadn’t found the house. In the middle of my u-turn a lady in a tracksuit emerged from her trailer.
“You on the wrong road. Duke Power did the same thing last night!”
A few questions revealed little more. The lady had seen emergency crews on her road the night before but couldn’t tell me where the fire had been. I brushed the crumbs off my map and asked her about a few unlisted roads. That’s when the light bulb went off over her head.
“Must be the Weavill place,” the woman said, digging a twenty-year-old cordless phone from her pocket. “ Lord, I hope they all right!”
I thanked the woman and pulled off, not having the heart to tell her it was a fatal. A few minutes later, I found the house - a burned-out brick one-story sitting in the middle of farmland. From my perch atop a nearby ridge, I put my camera on the sticks and zoomed in. Charred bricks, singed insulation hanging in trees, a cauterized mattress lying out front. Through my lens, I wondered about the fairness of things but came away with no answers. House fires happen with frightening regularity this time of year, just as police stand-offs break out every fifth lunchtime come the dog days of summer. I’ve been to hundreds of both, and not a one of them has ever made much sense to me.
Back at the station, I paused in front of the camera lockers and tried to sort out my many discs. I hadn’t gotten too far when a familiar shadow appeared in the doorway.
“Hey, glad your back! We got a school bus wreck in Davidson County and we need you to roll a live truck!”
By then I was growing numb to these pronouncements of calamity. Rolling my eyes a little, I dropped off my discs with a less than thrilled editor, grabbed keys to a live truck, and picked up The Intern along the way. Seems he’d been assigned to cold-call area police departments while I’d been gone and he was more than ready for the open road.
Which we got plenty of. As I steered the runaway stagecoach of a news vehicle across the Piedmont‘s rolling hills, my new pal hunched over a county map and ran his finger down yet another country road.
“At the end of this road, you’ll wanna go right…”
Man, I liked this guy! Most interns stare out the windshield and ask silly questions about how much the anchors make, not help navigate. Taking the right he recommended, I made a mental note to beg the bosses to hire this most industrious apprentice.
The Intern’s voice brought me out of my stupor and I squinted into the distance. Sure enough, a battered school bus sat off-kilter in the road. Around the stranded vehicle, cops, firefighters and those with nothing better to do poured over every inch of the rural highway. Watching the scene, I tried to make sense of the melee.
“I don’t see any kids, they must have been transported. No parents either. Must have been here awhile. Hey, look there’s Weaver!” I said pointing to a figure hunched over a camera on the far edge of the crowd. “Check it out, his gloves match his pullover!”
A few minutes later, we made contact with the color-coordinated photog. While his reporter was still combing the crowd for details, he’d bagged his quarry and was ready to crawl into the live truck.
“Three kids had minor injuries; they took ‘em to the hospital. Keith is there now. Dude, ya should have seen it, we were a few miles away and heard it on the scanners. We beat the ambulances here!”
There was no malice in his statement, despite the glee in his voice, Like me, Weaver has small kids and understands how even the phrase ‘school bus wreck’ strikes fear in the hearts of all public school parents. But rushing to the edge of peril is what we do for a living, and darn well, I might add. Just like cops and firefighters, we rarely let the trauma get to us. When we do, we quietly wipe tears away in the sanctity of the viewfinder, then play it off like its allergy season.
But there were no tears today, merely a roadside vehicle switch filled with small talk and office gossip. When all Weaver’s gear was transferred to the live truck, I loaded my own stuff into his scanner-laded ride and wished him adieu. But the journeyman photog barely acknowledged me, he was already reeling through his footage in the truck’s back edit bay, pouring over images he’d only just captured to see how they would fit into the orchestra he already had planned for six.
Back in the Weaver’s car, I weaved as slow thread through stopped police cars, idling ambulances and growling fire trucks when my cell phone rang. It was the shadow.
“Hey guy - looks like you’re needed at the zoo tomorrow! I’ll leave the details on your desk.
Looking over, I noticed The Intern had fallen silent. He sat there, chewing his lip and staring blankly as the blue and red strobes of passing dashboard lights bounced off his glasses’ thick lens. In their reflection, I saw the house fire, the roadmaps, the school bus wreck - just the latest swirling vignettes from a life spent chasing news. I could almost hear the splash as the implications of it all washed over him.
“Hey, I know what you’re thinking’. “ I said as he turned my way. “But don’t worry, everyday ain’t this slow."