IT has happened to the best TV news photogs, and even to the fairly average ones like me. You hardly ever admit it, never quite get over it and tend not to repeat it. But it does happen. You might even say it is a right of passage for the young lenslinger. Certainly was for me.
It was a Saturday, one of two days a week when the newsroom is less than teeming. In fact, the whole station was empty as I leaned back in the assignment editor’s chair, cracked open a soda and imparted my newsgathering wisdom on a wide-eyed intern. Truth is I could have wrapped up my thesis in about three minutes, as the bosses had only allowed me outside the station with gear for all of six months. But the intern was awfully cute, the kind of hot college chick who wouldn’t look twice at me were it not for the network affiliate logo on my chest. As it was, she was only humoring me in the hopes I would shoot a stand-up close for her resume tape. So if I poured in on a little thick, what exactly do you expect from a 22-year-old punk with a news car and a bad mullet? Restraint? Not bloody likely…
“It’s a tough business, all right, I said, putting my feet up and reflecting on half a year of ribbon cuttings, fender-benders and ground-breakings. “Ya get to roll with the movers and shakers, really learn the area, its customs, its people. Plus ya get to drive like a cop.”
At that point, the bank of scanners behind me erupted in a frenzy of sirens and excited voices. Fifteen miles away, an old warehouse was suddenly ablaze, and judging from the tone of the dispatcher’s voice, nothing short of Armageddon was to follow. I jumped from my seat and spun around a few times before regaining my composure. Trying to channel my inner Han Solo, I casually motioned the intern to follow me as I ran jelly-legged for the nearest exit.
Outside, we jumped in my chariot, a late-model white Ford Bronco - the exact kind O. J. Simpson would one day popularize. But this Bronco had something even the future murderer’s didn’t have: TV station logos, those magic stickers that would get me past the barricade, draw politicians like flies, and, I still foolishly believed, would render me impervious to speeding tickets. But that particular revelation was still months away. When I peeled out of the station parking lot and headed for the highway, the intern sunk back into the seat and fumbled for her seatbelt. I couldn’t help but feel a bit puffed up myself as I floored the accelerator and pushed the cassette tape home. As an ungodly warble filled the car, I lit a cigarette and silently congratulated myself, for at that moment in space and time, nothing said ’cool’ like the scrawny bombast of Axl Rose. Go figure.
Soon, we were on Highway 11, where nothing but a dozen flat, straight miles stood in between the alleged conflagration and me. Still trying to impress the intern, I stood on the gas and speculated on just what we may find upon arrival.
“Wouldn’t surprise me if this turned out to be nothing. Probably a trash can on fire and somebody freaked. I remember a head-on collision call I went on last month. Two grannies winged each other in McDonald’s parking lot and we roll the LIVE truck…”
Eight miles and three war stories later, we first saw it: a swirling plume of angry black smoke stretching above the East end of Kinston. Gulping a little under my breath, I pushed the Bronco’s laboring engine even harder and tied to sound unconcerned.
“Black smoke - that’s good. It turns white when the fire guys throw water on it…”
The intern may have rolled her eyes at my forced bravado, but I never saw her. I was too busy admiring the way my shoulder-length hair unfurled in the side-view mirror. A few minutes later, I forgot all about my redneck haircut when we rounded the last corner and saw the building in question, or what little of it was visible through the biggest wall of flames I had ever seen. Fire and smoke shot upward through the old warehouse’s roof. Squinting through the windshield, I thought I saw the brick wall beginning to buckle in the shimmering heat waves. All around the blaze, fire engines pulled up, and parked at crazy angles. Dozens of sweaty firefighters in turn-out gear raced in every direction, barking orders, donning oxygen tanks and pulling miles of fire hose off the trucks. A bit overwhelmed at the feast of visuals, I found a spot and slammed the Bronco into park as my heart threatened to beat through the walls of my chest.
“Stay behind me and look for talkers,” I barked to the pretty intern as we scrambled out of the news unit. But as I ran around to pop the tailgate, all I could think of was the beginning photog’s spot news mantra, “Wide-Medium-Tight, Wide-Medium-Tight, Wide-Medium-Tight…”
But my mumbles dried up the instant I lifted the tailgate and threw open my camera case, for when I did nothing stared back at me but the deteriorating black foam of the empty case’s battered interior. Frozen in horror at the lack of camera before me, synapses in my head slowly fired off one by one, bringing to light the fact that at that very moment, my fancy TV camera sat back at the shop. It no doubt still rested on a gear room workbench, where I’d been fiddling with my back-focus an hour earlier when the pretty intern walked by and distracted me with her perfume and estrogen.
What followed was not my finest moment. After several long seconds of blinking in disbelief, I shut the camera case and the tailgate, motioned the intern back to her seat and tried not to look at the flames as I screamed out of the downtown area. And I do mean screamed. No exact words come to mind, but I am reminded of the scene in ‘Raising Arizona’ where John Goodman and his dim-witted partner realize they’ve left their kidnapped baby behind. Needless to say, the dozen or so miles that flew by just minutes before now drew out in slow motion, each individual center striped-line mocking my ineptitude and me one by one. I didn’t have the grapes to meet the intern’s questioning gaze; all I could do was try and melt the windshield in front of me with my imaginary heat-vision. When that didn’t work, I resorted to chain-smoking and murmuring curses under my breath. Counting my cool points was out of the question. They had all tumbled from my gaping jaw as I stood over the empty camera case, and dribbled down my acid-washed jeans. Had I been a Samurai, I would have gladly fallen on my sword.
Of course, the warehouse was still there when we returned a half-hour later. The firefighters too, but instead of rushing into harms way, they loitered in the building’s shade and drank water from paper cups. The roaring flames that had so tantalized my photographer’s eye were nowhere to be seen, replaced by a limp tower of ashy gray smoke. Setting up my newly rescued camera on the tripod, I captured a few shots of firefighters rolling up soggy hoses. The intern, who’d hung on my every word an hour earlier, was busy chatting up the square-jawed public information officer a few yards away. As I mopped up the leftover images, all I could do is shake my head in self-loathing and tell myself this would someday make for an interesting yarn. Someday.
Since then, I have yet to forget another camera - though I don’t dare say it will never happen again. One way I avoid doing so is through a constant habit of mental checklists. Even if I’m traveling two blocks from the station, I constantly check the rear-view mirror for the reassuring visual of all my gear splayed out in the vehicle’s rear, even if I just went over its contents with the proverbial fine-tooth comb. I can’t help it, really. If you slice me open and count the photog rings, I have no doubt you’ll find the lessons of that awful Saturday written into my DNA. Do you blame me?