“We had to send the morning crew to a bad fire. We need you to pick up their live shot.”
I looked at the blue numbers glowing in the pitch black. 4 am. Who needed sleep when you can start your workday early?, I thought as I slid out of bed. Twenty minutes later I wrestled a live truck onto the interstate, scanning the radio dial for something soothing before giving up altogether and turning it off. I drove their in the pitch black quiet for some time, not awake, not asleep - maintaining just enough consciousness to keep the oversized tuck between the slow lane. A few miles past Greensboro I turned south on Highway 220, heading deep into the heart of Randolph County, late for a date with absurdity.
The garish sign at the edge of the gravel road beckoned all comers. I didn’t give it much thought, only knowing it fit my sparse directions. Turning into the drive, I gunned the engines and kicked up pebbles in the pre-dawn light. The road twisted and banked but once I made the turn, I spotted a line of twinkling lights in the distance. As I drew nearer, the lights sharpened and separated, revealing a low slung building with a blinking neon sign over the main entrance. A battered fleet of domestic pick up trucks and late model sedans surrounded the building, taking up most every available parking spot. I parked by the door, crawled out of the garishly-logo’d live truck and walked through the double doors, still half-asleep.
That’s when the band struck up a tune. A country tune to be exact - a too-loud, syncopated dirge replete with whiny vocals and accompanying fiddles emanated from deep within the structure. Before my senses could register the sound, cheers and applause rang out. Just inside the lobby, a clutch of older ladies in checkered dresses and high swept hair-do’s bobbed in excitement.
“They’re here!” one of them yelled after spotting the logo on my bright red station jacket. Before I could stop her, she ran out of the room and toward the music. Within seconds the lobby filled with people - young bow-legged men in oversized cowboy hats, small children in gingham shirts with fringe and stooped old couples in matching cowboy shirts. Young and old smiled alike, in fact they beamed at my arrival. But their grins soon faltered as they all looked past me, scouring the door behind me for the appearance of that familiar face. I winced inside, recognizing that look from a thousand previous shoots. These people were expecting a rock star. All they got was a roadie.
“Whar’s Cindy?”, small girl in pigtails asked. I looked down, realized she was on the verge of tears and broke the news as gently as I could.
“Cindy’s not coming. There’s been a bad fire and we had to scramble some crews around. I’m afraid I’m all you got.” Feeling every eye on me as I explained myself to the child, I looked up and asked the nearest cowboy a desperate question. “Is there someone in charge I can speak to?”
Soon after, I pulled heavy cable in through the door and handed it off to a ranch-hand, who dragged it onto the dance floor. Another ten-gallon hat stepped up and I gave him a quick lesson in light stand deployment. I was having to shout over the blaring honky-tonk and wasn’t sure my recently new western recruits could understand me. All around, old folks and young kids loitered and watched me furiously attack my gear, some still grumbling at the glaring absence of our perky morning anchor. I didn’t have time to explain. Instead, I spotted a tall, strapping cowboy who seemed to be in charge and pinned a lapel microphone on him.
“Okay Tex- you’re gonna be talking straight to Brad. He’ll interview you from the set. Just look straight in the camera and listen to this earpiece. Can the band take a break for a minute?”
A few minutes later the weather segment ended and Brad Jones began telling viewers about an exciting new Country Line Dance Bar opening in the Triad. On the monitor behind him, the station logo dissolved into a nervous looking young man with a white Stetson belt pulled down low and a belt buckle the size of a hubcap dominating his waist. When Brad turned to address the monitor, the cowboy stuck a finger in his ear and looked quizzically off screen.
Holding the camera, I made desperate gestures to the cowboy until he caught on and answered Brad’s query with a friendly ‘Howdy’. Breathing a sigh of relief, I squinted into the lens and watched the crowd close in behind their spokesman. About that time the band launched into another line-dance ditty, eclipsing all other sound and sending the crown into a high-stepping frenzy. As Grandmothers and cowpokes dosey-doe’d one another amid the overwhelming din, all I could do was cradle the camera and hope the audience at home could hear the nervous cowboy better than I could.
Two minutes dragged out before the cowboy stopped talking and tipped his hat. I took that to mean the segment was over and lowered the camera. Though I was drenched in sweat the cowboy seemed happy. All around us, couples swirled in rhinestone and the singer warbled something about love and pick-ups. Before I could decipher the lyrics, the cell phone on my hip began vibrating. Jamming it into my ear, I listened intently as the show producer yelled through her headset.
“Dude - we need you and your truck at the fire! Tell the gang from Hee-Haw we‘re sorry!”
I looked up at the stage in time to catch sight of the no-longer nervous cowboy throw himself into a victory clog dance. Trudging across the dance floor toward him, I tried to get his attention as the band reached their clangy musical climax. I could barely hear myself curse inside my head as I reached out for the stage...
Thirty minutes later all was quiet, despite the dozen idling fire engines parked all around the Campus Walk Apartments. At the center of the yellow tape, the charred brick remains of the squat apartment building stood in defiance amid a jumble of black broken timber. Students in sweat shirts and pajama bottoms stood stock still as firefighters sloshed about in soggy turn-out gear. A photographer from another station ambled up beside me and quietly brought me up to date:
“Four dead - students, probably. They think it might be arson…”
I inhaled deeply and scanned the crowd. Country line-dancers, kids in cowboy hats and awkward live shots melted into the recesses of my mind as I took in the smoldering scene I would become intimately familiar with in the coming days. As I turned back toward the waiting live truck, it occurred to me I might write about this someday - someday, when I understood it better.