Monday, December 05, 2005

Diagnosis: Tube Death

"You'll never guessed what just died downstairs..." my wife said as I walked in the door.

My forehead wrinkled at her use of the 'D' word. The woman's an E.R. nurse fer cryin' out loud. That's when a certain gray box popped into my head.

"The...Tee-Vee?", I croaked.

"Yep," she nodded. "I was watching for your school bus story and it went 'POOF!'"



TV DOAShoulders slumped, I turned and walked downstairs to pay proper respects to my fallen friend. It sat there in the cabinet, speakers silenced, 37 inch screen forever dark. Plopping down on the couch, I stared at the fireplace's reflection on the tube's surface. As the flames danced, I thought about the good times...Wrestling it out of the box and into my very first house in 1993...watching home movies of my oldest's first birthday moments after she blew out the candles, marveling at how images I'd first seen through a tiny black and white viewfinder earlier in the day looked in full color big screen color on the evening news...movies, cable, VHS and DVD...

As I sat there, caressing the remote, guilt washed away all my warm feelings. Truth is, I hadn't been watching my old pal like I probably should have. I'd even discouraged my kids from doing so well, often (gasp!) turning it off and demanding they get active. Sure, I still logged an hour or two every other evening, but more often than not I spent my den-time staring at my laptop rather than bathing in my RCA's loving blue glow. But that glow was forever gone now and I guess I knew it was going to happen. For the last month, a small section of the screen had become distorted, then the reds and oranges began to look a little funky. 'It'll be fine', I told my family, 'It gives it character'. But I knew it wasn't fine, for it was apparent to any TV geek that my boxy friend was slowly dying. I just didn't think he would go this quick. As I stared into the milky abyss of the eerily silent screen, my wife came into the room and sat down beside me.

"Honey," she said as I peered into the ether.

"Yeah babe?"

"Don't think for a moment you're gonna hang one of those flat things on our wall."

Bones of Calamity

I was congratulating myself for having avoided Presidential visit duty all day when the scanners in the newsroom began barking words nobody wants to hear…

…School Bus…head-on collision…multiple injuries…

School Bus WreckHoping the evening crews would cover this late-breaking news, I slithered into an audio booth and watched the newsroom go nuts through the sanctuary of sound-proof glass. For a brief moment I thought I’d escaped, but when my reporter for the day began pulling on her red station raincoat, I knew I was screwed. Moments later, we pulled onto the cold wet windy interstate, headed due north. As the petrified wipers smeared streaks across the windshield, I cursed myself for not yet replacing them and punched the home button on my cell phone. Beside me, Caron Myers did the same. Together we told our respective spouses we wouldn’t be home for dinner, as we were suddenly late for a place we didn’t want to be.

School Bus WreckA word on school bus wrecks. I hate ‘em. Seriously, there’s nothing that strikes dread in the hearts of those with children than the prospect of little ones injured or worse on the cold, hard highway. Why, if I were a producer, I’d say it’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Since I’m not, I’ll skip that particular cliché and admit I’m somewhat inured to the suffering of others. Not that I don’t empathize with victims of tragedy, God knows I do; but it’s my job to remain detached, remote, neutral. Luckily (or not), it’s my nature to compartmentalize such things, choosing to deal with any resulting scar tissue late at night through deep reflection and half-baked prose. On scene, however, I’m far more focused on looming deadlines than humanity’s excessive woes. It’s a wholly undesirable occupational hazard, one achieved with long lenses, thin cynicism and a dollop or two of self-absorption. It ain’t noble, but it’s honest.

Tara Live ShotSo as I stood there in the rain, breathing heavily as I pointed my fancycam at the bus in question, I was as relieved as any father of two would be to discover the wreck wasn’t quite as sever as the scanners made it sound. However, it was still news - or it would be, provided I spent the last half hour of dying sunlight very wisely. Luckily, I wasn’t alone. Far from it, for the news suits back at the shop had thrown every available crew at what sounded like a very big story. When I first pulled up to the phalanx of flashing lights, I noticed one of our live trucks parked nearby, it’s mast slowly poking upward over the fire trucks and ambulances. Inside, nightside photographer Chris Morton flipped switches and dialed the station, attending to all the details that go into establishing a live shot. I didn’t see his partner Tera Williams, but I figured she was there as I jogged awkwardly underneath the strain of camera and tripod.

Bateson, MyersThe next eight minutes passed very quickly. With Caron Myers trailing behind me, I swept my camera over the scene, from the bus’s crushed hood to the accordion car to the group of middle school students shivering by a neighbor‘s driveway. When the door of a nearby ambulance swung opened and a paramedic jumped out, Caron caught sight of a young boy strapped to a stretcher inside. Eyeing the crowd of kids in the distance, I loitered by the ambulance, camera on shoulder. When the paramedic returned and climbed in back, I captured three seconds of a sheepish young man laying on his back and looking around the ambulance before the door swung shut. As if on cue, a single file line of school kids walked right by me, their adult escort hunched forward to escape the stinging rain. Caron grabbed my wireless microphone and before I knew it, we were interviewing an 11 year old. Seconds later, an out of breath Dad walked by with kids in tow. Inside the viewfinder, I squinted at his image as he thanked God his little girl was okay. By the time he walked on two minutes later, we had everything we’d come for.

Tara WritingBut all was not done. Back at the truck, Chris (“C-Mo”, to his coworkers) couldn’t align the shot. The truck he’d arrived in had a shorter mast than most, its dish couldn’t reach above the canopy of trees to shoot a signal back to our tower. Luckily, even more back-up had arrived. Tim Bateson and Nico Belha, fresh from babysitting Air Force One on the airport’s tarmac, pulled up in another live truck, one with ’a bigger stick’. Soon, all of six of us gathered around the second truck. While I furiously edited the footage into a forty second sequence of shots, Bateson and C-Mo pulled cable to a tripod they’d left on the side of the road. Caron and Tera hammered details into a workable script and Nico fielded phone calls. When the 5 o clock newscast’s opening music rolled a few minutes later, Tera was the only crew member to appear on camera, but both her message and her medium were very much a group effort. I love it when a plan comes together.

Me, C-Mo, BatesonAfter the anchors pummeled Tera with a few follow-up questions, they moved on to another story and the director cleared our shot. With a entire hour before we were due back on air, we all chuckled nervously and caught our breath. Tera crawled inside the live truck to refashion her five o clock words into a six o clock script. The rest of us loitered outside as she did, trading gossip, talking shop and bitching about our silly jobs and the cruddy weather. It was then a familiar attitude fell over our group. With deadline met, excitement thwarted and tragedy averted, we chatted and joked like any group of office mates would. The fact that we were huddling by a rainy accident scene mattered little; our idle chat and sophomoric jokes were like that of any water-cooler gathering - albeit one involving workers who deal in disaster and hype, instead of widgets and sales figures. However strange our roadside rendezvous may seem to you, for me, it is the picture of normalcy, small talk among reluctant buzzards as we rip apart the still warm bones of calamity…

Beats selling Amway, I'm told.

Saturday, December 03, 2005

Sleepwalking at Center Court

Tree LensBored this holiday season? Drag your TV station's fancycam and tripod to the top of a busy mall escalator. Place yourself far enough back so that you're invisible to the ascending shopper until the very last moment, just when they're about to step off the moving steps. This can humor the average news shooter for the better part of a morning, as the reactions vary from immediate giddiness to angry befuddlement to quiet revulsion. I know I must have chewed up a good thirty minutes the other day, until an old lady with too many bags and not enough balance teetered dangerously at the precipice. Seeing how this would have caused a chain reaction of tumbling mall walkers, rent-a-cops and overpriced merchandise, I broke down my gear and slunk off to the Food Court.

Kid Hates SantaBut that's the life of a soft news specialist in December. Be it the Hottest New Gadgets! to the Ways To Save! to Great Gifts under $20.00!, there's plenty of easy TV to make at The Mall. Take the kid in the blue over there, the one yearning to break free of Kris Kringle's icy grip. I could do twenty minutes on him alone! Truth is, I would have never spotted the hysterical tyke had it not been for his most impressive lung capacity. I was lounging peacefully in a Chick-Fil-A haze when a terrifying shriek rang out from Santa's lair three floors below. Looking down, I took in a performance worthy of a pro wrestling contract. Little Boy Blue writhed, wiggled and even went boneless as Mom tried to manufacture a Kodak moment. Why she insisted he join his brothers lapside is beyond me, as the resulting photo will probably place them all in long-term therapy.

Two Old CatsAs Blue Boy feigned convulsions, I ran my lens across the farthest reaches of the retail labyrinth, pausing to gander at these two cats Clad in polyester, plaid and jackets, they were going nowhere fast. But they weren't letting their idle state belittle them in the least. Impervious to the cacophony around them, they struck up a conversation of covenience while their better halves hunted and gathered and gossiped and shopped. I was w-a-y out of earshot but I'm pretty sure their exchange featured fishing lures, World War II and grandchildren. But what do I know? They may very have been dissing on the new 50 cent CD. You know how old school dudes in Members Only jackets can be...

Santa & BodyguardSpeaking of retro-wear, check out the Man in Red himself. Having apparently shaken off Blue Boy long enough to go grab a smoke, Old Saint Nick sauntered by with undercover escort in tow - lest he be accosted by a wandering tribe of hyperventilating pre-schoolers. But who could blame the old elf for not wanting to take on the little buggers mano a mano? Have you seen the way some of them kick when you get them in a headlock? I once got my little brother in a sleeping bag figure four and he damn near levitated. But that's not important now. What is vital is that Santa's egress awoke me from my flourescent-triggered haze, making me realize that if Elvis was leaving the building, it was high time I beat feet as well - as soon as I hit that Cinnabon down by The Baby Gap...

In Memory of Bam

Astute readers of Viewfinder BLUES may remember the story of Bam, the homely half-breed who saved his owner, Beth Hanlin, from perishing in a house fire by barking incessantly until she woke up. Three months before, Hanlin had rescued him from the grim reality of an animal shelter. Paying back the favor almost cost Bam his life; firefighters used a whole bottle of oxygen to revive the smoke-induced pooch. When I interviewed him the morning after, he struck me as an exhausted yet most agreeable hero. Sadly, this uncommon dog met an all too common fate on Thursday. While chasing a cat into the street, a passing car struck him down. From Jim Schlosser of the Greensboro News Record:

'He was still breathing when Hanlin carried him to the yard. As she hugged him, he gasped a final breath and died. Hanlin held him in her arms for a half hour, wailing with grief.'

Beth Hanlin is a nice lady and Bam, was obviously, a very good dog. He will be missed, by many more than ever met him.

Friday, December 02, 2005

The Adventures of Tree Weaver

While I was lost in the exploits of the long-dead, my colleague Weaver was having his own high-flying adventure. The nerve of that guy. With the help of a recreational tree-climbing expert, Mr. TV Photogblog ascended into the canopy of a 250 year old White Oak in Greensboro. But he wasn't hunting lost housecats. Instead, he was profiling a burgeoning pastime that has roots right here in the Piedmont. Roots...get it? Ahem, sorry - just a little jealous of my co-worker and friend, who etched a notch on his photog belt that I ain't earned yet. But all hope isn't lost, as Weave says Tobe Sherrill of Sherrill's Tree Climbing and Supply is up for taking a couple of early to middle-age news geeks back up into the leafy heights of boyhood glory. Look for it - meanwhile check out Weaver's blog for all the details...

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Skeletons on the Zahara

Skeletons in the ZaharaMy body spent the morning babysitting a live truck outside Winston-Salem's Sawtooth Center, but my mind stumbled across the scorching desert floor of northwest Africa, flanked by 19th century sailors who'd survived a shipwreck only to be enslaved by the nomadic Sahrawi tribes. The fate of the Connecticut merchant ship Commerce and its crew has always loomed large in the true adventure canon. Now, author Dean King has combined the two firsthand accounts of the Commerce sailors' horrific plight in a book that's currently thrusting a scabbard under my imagination's bone-dry throat. Skeletons on the Zahara tells the story of Captain James Riley and his men, who after wandering in delirium in a hostile land, are dragged 800 miles across the unforgiving Sahara desert by a seemingly sadistic group of natives they barely consider to even be human. I'm only a hundred pages in, but already I'm enthralled in this true life tale of astonishing misfortune, unthinkable deprivation and ultimately, the unlikeliest of survivals.

But then again, I've always been a sucker for expeditions gone awry. From deep sea divers entangling themselves in watery tombs, to parched Europeans dying on ice floes adrift, I'm always up for a chronicle of distress. Besides, all that hunger, doom and torment almost makes pulling a torturous morning shift not seem so bad. Almost.