Sunday, August 14, 2011
Old Times Not Forgotten
Like a bad episode of Matlock, the case of the confederate soldier keeps bleeding onto TV screens. First, some background: In 1793 the invention of the cotton gin increased by fiftyfold the quantity of cotton that could be processed in a day, greatly increasing the demand for - Hmmm? Not THAT far back? Fine, so a few weeks ago a groggy driver plowed straight through a traffic circle in Reidsville, toppling a confederate soldier statue that had pleasured pigeons for more than a hundred years. It was an ignominious end, especially since somewhere between decent and impact, the old soldier lost his head. This made for a visual so delicious that camera crews from across the Greater Piedmont Googolplex soon swooped in to feast upon the headless confederate. I was not among them. No, I was laying low the day that story broke and happily sat out the dash up Highway 29. I even dodged the follow-ups, of which there were many. Seems not everyone up there adored the little gray man who lorded over that end of town. Soon TV reporters were furrowing their well-kept brows on cue as sweaty photogs panned up the statue's broken base. "Will the statue that used to stand here rise again? We'll tell you in a moment, but first is your dog psychic?" At least I think that's how it went. Truth is, I don't watch the news much, which is how I remained blissfully ignorant of the ruckus in Reidsville... until forces drove me there Friday.
Actually, I drove myself. It wasn’t like I had much choice, as I was already behind the wheel when my Droid launched into the generic metal dirge that is my ringtone. It was the morning assignment editor, her voice tense against the backdrop of scanner chatter. “There’s a man dressed as a confederate soldier standing on the pedestal where that statue used to be!” Okay, so it wasn’t “Aliens have landed at Center City Park and they’re asking for you!” but it got my attention nonetheless. So much so that I didn’t even debate the desk on the merit of my new assignment, something we photogs do by reflex. Instead I pointed my rolling logo northward and shut down much of my brain as the odometer clicked off mile after mile. No need to plan my attack, I thought. By the time I get there, any and all Civil War soldiers will have returned to whatever reenactment regiment they got separated from in the first place and there I’ll be with one less hour in the day in which to create the two minutes of newscast I’ve been made to feel responsible for all these many years. Hey, maybe it was never a soldier to begin with, just some wino in a Halloween costume. Either way, I was sure the rebel in question would be long gone by the time I dropped Unit 4 into PARK...
Except ... there he was. A little portly for a 19th century guerilla commando, but other than that the young man looked every bit the part as he stood at crisp attention among the rush of pick-up trucks, Volkswagens and mopeds. Hopping out of my own ride, I approached him sans camera. He smiled and welcomed my company, though he asked that I not block traffic, I complied, standing beside him and looking forward as if I were secretly arranging an intel drop outside some foreign embassy. As for the soldier, er, history buff, he was forthright, informed and seemingly way too sane to rock an itchy wool coat on a hot August day in North Carolina. He began to spout reasons why the Daughters of the Confederacy should build a bigger and better combatant on the spot, but I really wasn’t listening. I’d hear it all again in an edit booth, but not before I got a microphone on the guy. Walking back to my mobile office, I dug my equipment out of the back and returned with my lavaliere. I pinned it to his coat, backed off and zoomed in. Twenty questions later, I crossed the street one last time to secure a nice wide angle for my opening shot, the centered up on the soldier just in time to catch him whistling dixie.
Seriously, dude whistled Dixie. From across the street, I tried to squelch my yelp, but I was too stoked to muffle it completely. Hey, it ain’t everyday a person of interest wanders into the center of your screen and gives an old story new legs, but that’s just what seemed to be happening here. And best of all, I had it all to myself. I was halfway through congratulating myself on said storytelling coup when the first of my competitors rolled up. Oh well, at least I’d have a few chums to chat up while the local police decided whether they were going to openly endorse the young soldier, drag him off in chains for disturbing the peace or simply use all those downtown surveillance cameras to scan the small but growing clutch of journalists camped out there on the sidewalk. As the cops watched us, we watched him, but the sentinel at the center of our cobbled-together controversy didn’t do much beside fish Skittles out of his overcoat and sneak swigs of Gatorade from a bottle he tried to keep hidden. At one point he even whipped out a smart phone, leading me to wonder Robert E. Lee would have preferred a Droid or an iPhone. Subjugate an entire race? There’s no app for that.
Actually, I’d be a stone cold liar if I even pretended politics played a role, for that’s not the way a photog’s brain works. Dude could have been dressed as Mayor McCheese for all I cared. Fact was, my bosses wanted him in my crosshairs and that’s about all it takes to spark my interest. But what interested me even more wasn’t the soldier himself but the reaction of all the town folk pouring past him. From my vantage point in what had become tripod row, I had a clear shot of motorists as they whizzed by the guy. Of those that reacted at all, I’d say 98 percent gave him a thumbs up or a rousing cheer. This neither surprised or inspired me, but I’m guessing most of those who held the simulated rebel in contempt had too much class to acknowledge it, lest their one fingered salute make it on the evening news. A man I spoke with on camera agreed, which gave me the dissenting view I needed to balance out my piece. With that perspective and many more simmering on my camera’s SD card, I made preparations to leave for the sidewalk was growing crowded with competing cameras and well, I hate the smell of catch-up before lunch. Thus, I bade my fellow photogs adieu, gave the young man across the street a half salute and gathered up my gear. Hopefully, the cops wouldn’t hog-tie the guy or Matlock himself wouldn’t wander out and mumble something homespun over a Ritz cracker, but if that very development was in the cards, there was really only one way to force destiny’s hand....
Leave. So I did.