It’s the middle of Sweeps and I’m on call, so of course some jackass tried to torch a school. Actually, only a mobile classroom burned, but it was hot enought to make my bedside phone explode ten miles away. I let it ring at first, but an illegal elbow from my blushing bride rousted me from my torpor and I fumbled around for the screaming thing. Upon finding it, I brought it to my ear and blinked in the darkness as a tiny woman ordered me to war. 'School trailer on fire, call me when you're up and on the road. ' Three minutes later I called Felicia back. The executive producer of the morning news told me what she'd heard on the scanners, but she didn't have to explain the implications. A little more tha a year ago, the entire region watched a public high school burn to the ground on live TV. The afternoon Eastern Guilford ceased to be, I ate ice cream from the safety of my desk and watched the smoke plume branded in three different logos. I knew then I was cheating the News Gods by simply not being on scene. Today I repaid that debt and as always, the Gods demanded exact change.
5:35 AM -- 6:25 PM The flames were out by the time that I arrived. The firefighters remained however, tired figures in turnout gear rolled up hoses and broke down air-packs as the growl of the roar of their trucks drowned out all other sound. None seemed to notice me as I parked behind a idling tanker and started breaking out my own gear. There wasn’t much to shoot. No flames, no smoke, no water, no ash. The gutted classroom lay just out of sight, hidden by another row of trailers and cordoned off with a string of yellow tape. It left me little else to aim my lens at than swirling red lights and building silhouettes, so I did just that before calling Felicia. With the morning anchor team chuckling live(!) on the soft-set, she needed any detail I could glean from the scene to feed into their earpiece. I obliged, telling her what little I could before hanging up and flagging down a mustachioed fire chief. Confirming only what I already knew, he told me he was waiting on the school’s principal to arrive. On cue a woman strode out of from the shadow’s with all the purpose of well, a school principal. Ignoring me, she asked the chief where her car line might be allowed to form when it began arriving in half an hour. I soaked up every syllable of the exchange before stepping away and repeating it into my cell phone. Ten minutes later I was back in Unit 4, driving my video to the station and figuring I was done with this garden variety fire.
9:25AM -- 12:15 PM I was wrong, of course. The early morning school fire was all the suits back at the station could talk about. No sooner did I saunter in the conference room, than I was assigned a live truck, a reporter and a new deadline. Charles Ewing rolled his eyes as he gathered his stuff. Together we left the newsroom as the management team mentally high-fived each other. Fifteen minutes later, a brightly decorated live truck pulled up outside the inner city school. Carefully avoiding a broken 40 ounce bottle, I parked away from power-lines, but as near the trailers as possible. No other TV trucks were present the time, but I knew that would change by the time the director of the noon newscast director punched up what would soon be my shot. First though, we needed sound, so Charles and I abandoned the sanctuary of Live Five for littered slope of one ghetto playground. There we found the characters needed for our story arc: the worried principal, the excited students- even a matter of fact fire captain who greatly elongated our day with a single word: Incendiary. That’s fireman-speak for ‘This mobile classroom didn’t burn down by itself.’ Charles and I exchanged annoyed glances at the mention of the word, knowing its very usage indicated a long afternoon indeed. First there was a noon live shot to contend with, so I recorded a few more scenes, raised the mast, established the signal, edited the video, fed the footage, set up the camera, tested the microphone and cued Charles just in tiem for a high noon lead story. Nodding knowingly, he cranked up the action by announcing the fire was intentionally set. As that late breaking development ricocheted across the region, we broke down the truck and went for Mexican food.
1:30 PM -- 2: 45 PM We rolled back up to see our competitors live trucks parked nearby. By now everyone had heard of the suspicious school fire and even the stations that had been sitting on the fence all morning now willingly threw resources at their story of the day. My bosses were no exception, only in lieu of additional resources, I got fresher deadlines. Not that it affected our post-lunch behavior. With overnight video, official sound and dayside real estate in the can, we had all we were gonna get ’til the afternoon car line formed. Until then all we could do is sit and wait, like two flunky cops assigned to the lamest of stakeouts. Small talk ensued, but after a few minutes all dialogue trailed off and we sat in silence. I’ve said for years that if I ever contracted some horrid disease, I’d spend my remaining time on Earth parked somewhere in an idling live truck, for every hour inside one of those anchored vessels feels like a freakin’ lifetime. Sometime after two I began to hallucinate. Perhaps it was the lack of sleep, the generator’s wafting fumes or the enchilada roiling in my gut, but I’m fairly sure I left my body there for awhile. In fact, I was pondering the very cosmos themselves when Charles suddenly came to and forced me to focus through the windshield’s molecular surface. “ Soccer Moms at twelve o clock…”
2:45 PM -- 4:40 PM As Charles made small talk with the lady in the battered Saturn, I ambled up with a TV camera on my shoulder. Before the waiting mother could respond to Charles off the cuff query, I was centered, focused and rolling. Technically she never consented to an interview, but with the one eyed monster on my shoulder didn’t tip her off, the fancy microphone in Charles’ hand surely did. Either way, we moved down the row of cars and rinsed lathered and repeated until we had the sound we needed and my knees ached from the kind of awkward squatting required for such impromptu interviews. Back in the live truck I put my feet up and cradled the fancycam while Charles reviewed every frame of the footage I’d committed to disc since shortly before dawn. Soon the sound of my coverage faded, replaced by a muttered phrases and a scribbling pen. When Charles was ready I tossed him a microphone and he spoke his script aloud while I watched the audio needles dance. When we had a take he liked, we switched seats and I broke open the laptop in back. Opening a timeline and ingesting shots, I dragged and dropped until a coherent narrative began to form. Fleshing out the sound with corresponding pictures, I sliced the edges off wide shots, butterfly-cut the nighttime footage with the dayside tape and softened it with a single dissolve. Lost in my work, I savored the fact that five o clock was near and so too was one very long, inert shift. That’s when my cell phone rang.
4:40 PM -- 6:10 PM “Guess who wants us live at Six?” Charles asked no one in particular. I cursed my answer, though I really wasn’t surprised. A suspicious school fire, no matter how inconsequential, deserved mention in the Six o clock - if not a full-blown dog-lick live shot. Why’s a dog lick himself? The same reason a TV station goes live at the drop of a hat: they bought a lot of broadcast trucks. While it ain’t my idea of quality programming, lots of people above my pay grade think they’re swell. So it was with only limited ire that I embraced this latest gig. Hey, who wouldn’t want to watch the sun set over Crackpipe and Vine - especially when you saw the very same orb first light this corner of the hood a scant twelve hours earlier? Digging through my light kit, I found a blue gel and a few clothes pins. Oh well, at least I’ll have time to stare at those petrified cigarette butts some more, I thought. After the five o clock live I did just that, until all the light in the sky faded and I was forced to abandon my gels for a trust umbrella. When the bulb on my backlight burst a minute before air, I scrambled to the live truck and found a handheld spotlight. I barely had time to shine it on the back of Charles’ head before our main anchor introduced him. As Charles launched into his now familiar spiel, I watched his image flicker through the live trucks windshield and wondered if Sally Joe Housecoat ever considered the amount of effort that goes into even the most fleeting of updates.
Guess she shouldn’t have to.