Saturday, November 13, 2004

Temple of the Tripod

Lens Aloft!

A Camera On Your Shoulder Gets You Into Many A Cockpit...

Getting to fly aboard various aircraft is one of the many things I love about my job. I've shot video from the co-pilot's seat of a many a Cessna, always fearing I'd send us plummeting to the Earth by nudging the wrong cockpit control with my betacam. So far it hasn't happened, but the thought of it always weirds me out.

Early in my career, a small group from my station went tandem sky-diving. Our chief photog shot it from the ground and jump-shooters flew along side us as we free-fell to terra firma. The memory of that experience is a personal treasure, as is the 30 minute private documentary I later produced on it.

Once I rode along with Cherry Point marines aboard a CH-53 Super Stallion helicopter. We flew at tree top level along the sand dunes and scrub brush of the Crystal Coast. Then we rendezvoused with some kind of tanker aircraft for a mid-air refueling. Hovering under a giant airplane in flight as we took on fuel is an experience I'd never have had if I managed a shoe store.

Then there was the time we did morning live shots from a hot air balloon. The reporter was in one balloon with a wireless mic and a cell phone - a producer and myself flew in another balloon with a camera and a two-gig transmitter. We bunny-hopped each other over the rolling Piedmont hills as the sun rose on a gorgeous fall morning. We eventually landed in a remote field where all the virgin passengers were treated to the champagne-filled first flight ceremony. Bank tellers don't get paid to do that.

But my favorite flying experience was aboard the Goodyear Blimp. The local Goodyear Plant was celebrating an anniversary and their bigwigs had managed to pull off a visit from the famous dirigible. Only a few select employees and top managers were allowed to go up in the blimp, but I was welcomed to tag along thanks to the battered camera on my shoulder.

Blimps ascend at a steeper angle than you might guess and as my fellow passengers giggled nervously I was reminded of the closing scene in 'Willie Wonka'. Once we reached our desired altitude the pilot 'parked' the flying bladder and passed out Goodyeqr trading cards. He had the steady patter of a stand-up comedian and it occured to me that blimp pilot was one of the few jobs cooler than mine.

Access to exotic aircraft is one of the many perks of our jobs as professional insiders. I for one relish my role as a video interloper - it's afforded me a wealth of extreme experiences, from the tragic to the terrific to the trite. It will never make me rich but I'm always a hit at cocktail parties. It sure beats my old job at the windshield wiper factory.

Friday, November 12, 2004

Snowblind On the Overpass

The Feeling of Accomplishment Outlasted the Frostbite…

Here in the South, we're still a couple of months away from snow. Not that it will take much precipitation to spark the Annual Media Sno-gasm. Yankees may scoff at our excitement - but here where the local viewers begin stockpiling food and weapons before the first flake ever hits the ground...well, three to five inches of snow and ice is a BIG DEAL.

Big enough to shake me out of my soft-news coma, anyway. In times like these (snow, frogs, locusts) , frantic desk jockeys with too much caffeine on board drag me out of my cozy edit bay and out into the Great Frozen Unknown. Be it chasing salt trucks, shooting future E.R. patients at the sled gatherings, or whipping the bread and milk crowd into a freeze-dried frenzy - it’s always a blast when snow clouds take a dump on the Land of Dixie.

I remember the last snow storm. When the alarm clock started screaming at 3:15 a.m. (same time as the Amityville Horror murders), I jumped from my bed, wrapped my self in logo wear and jumped in my pick-up. Say what you want about southerners not being able to drive in the snow, but I for one am getting plenty of practice. By the time I fish-tailed into work I was pretty damn confident of my maneuvering skills, even if stopping on target still eluded me.

Still, I managed to safely bring my five-speed tractor to a reasonable halt and within minutes I was behind the wheel of one rolling billboard with retractable mast. As the wacky morning traffic guy riding shotgun fished out his first discount cigarette of the day, I cranked the crappy radio and pretended I could actually see out of my thoroughly opaque windshield - all the while humming along and wondering, who Did let the dogs out?

I never found out. For soon, we had reached our destination - there, up ahead. That snow-covered grassy knoll by the interstate overpass - that looks like a perfect place for some live morning television! Within minutes my chain-smoking partner and I were busy dragging out all manners of outdated TV equipment - all in the name of keeping our neighbors safe. Sure, the generator fumes were making me hallucinate and I soon couldn’t feel my toes, but this is public safety we’re talking about here! Somewhere an old lady in a bad housecoat was dying to hear the words “wintry white stuff’ emanating from her kitchen TV set. Moms and Dads who had no intention of leaving their homes yearned to see frost-bitten correspondents shiver on cue and kick at the ice with their designer boots. Senior citizens were relying on us to keep them updated on every single salt truck in town - even the one half-dismantled out behind the County garage. Yes, all over the Greater Piedmont Triad Googolplex, the good citizens were counting on us. Across the region they leaned into their set s and hung on every word - hoping against all hopes that somewhere out there, some crazy kid of a reporter would be clever enough to pack along an oversized thermometer, and repeatedly refer to it throughout the morning.

And we didn’t disappoint. In fact, we gave our loyal viewers the best four hours of our life. Feigned snowball fights, mock excitement at passing snow-scrapers, even a few heartfelt words of caution for the army of ice-sled daredevils currently bundling up. As the wind picked up and I lost most of the feeling in my fingers, my nicotine-addicted reporter dug deep, offering up every snowbound cliché he knew, which as it turns out - was quite a few. Before either of us was ready to regain sensation in our lower extremities, the show was over and we were left with nothing to do but seek the proper shelter our southern bloodlines demanded. But the feeling of accomplishment lasted far longer than my third degree frostbite…

Yes, when the ivory expanse under the live truck was scorched an angry black from the exhaust pipe, when the last of my partner’s low-dollar smokes were crushed under his boot, when the mysterious spot of yellow snow by the wood-line had reached it’s full growth, we packed up our ice-covered toys and made a beeline for the nearest greasy spoon- knowing deep down inside that on this cold, snowy morning, we sir, were living our dreams.

At least that's the kind of crap my news manager was selling when he signed me up for day two.

The Adventures of Lenslinger

"I've carried more beauty queens than a dozen parade floats..."

Wednesday, November 10, 2004

The Joy of Scanner Junkies

The Frog Saved my Bacon a Number of Times...

Many moons ago, when I took over a news bureau from a departing one-man-band, I also inherited his scanner hounds. Most were old coots I was familiar with, having turned alot of cop-shop fodder for the competing station.

But there was one caller whom I came to think of as 'The Frog'. He'd call pretty often, never introducing himself, just issuing a declarative statement in his distinctive gravely voice.

"Log truck just t-boned a semi on Hiway 11." -CLICK-

"The old cotton plants goin' up in flames. -CLICK-

"Deputies got a busload of hippies pulled over by the college." -CLICK-

"Bigfoot just ran out of the woods and gave the Mayor the middle finger." -CLICK-

He'd never say more than a sentence or two at most before hanging up. And he never, EVER steered me wrong. (Minus the Bigfoot call, I made that up.)

To make it all even stranger, 'The Frog' used some kind of whacked-out speaker phone that made it sound like he was calling from the bottom of a deep, metallic hole. I got to where I could recognize the particular aural qualities of his set-up before he even croaked out another mysteriously accurate missive.

In the two years I pulled that bureau gig, I never never met 'The Frog', but I quickly learned to trust his disembodied directives. Though I had many other scanner-hound buddies, I never mentioned 'The Frog' to them - afraid I'd somehow scare off my spot-news Yoda.

Before selling my soul to the devil and entering the Evil World of Promotions, I almost figured out who 'The Frog' was. I'd see him on two out of four breaking news scenses: A leathery old African-American gentleman in a wrinkled ballcap and an oversized portable scanner in his hand. As far as I could tell, he wasn't part of any of the responding fire departments or emergency crews, just some old cat who added to the background of a thousand fires, head-on collisions and fender-benders.

Loking back I can't explain why I never approached the old fellow. I never even heard him speak. But his look fitted the voice on the phone, and I came to assume he was indeed 'The Frog'. A time or two, I locked eyes with the guy and he nodded in silent acknowledgement. Or maybe I was just hallucinating, a not-so-outlandish possibilty given my extracurricular activities back then.

Whatever the case, I got great love for the man. It was a spot news market and I was competing with a whole station of ambulance chasers just down the street. 'The Frog' saved my bacon a number of times. In fact, I have no doubt he's doing the same for whatever young news punk is making his bones back there today. At least, I hope he is.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Granny Crack Pipe and Cousin Spit

Her Nephew Seemed to be Missing a Few Fairly Important Chromosomes...

YOU might get excited when the TV cameras show up, but trust me - not everyone's so gracious. I know one photog who's come face-to-barrell with the business end of a angry homeowner's shotgun. Nothing that dramatic here thankfully, but one memorable reaction DOES comes to mind...

I was in an outlying county doing the obligatory drug round-up report when the deputies led the scariest hillbilly family I've ever seen right by me. Freakiest of all was the family matriarch - a beady-eyed little grandmother in a faded yellow housecoat who was facing crack-trafficking charges, of all things. While the rest of her kin turned their faces from the cameras, she glared defiantly into my lens as she filed past in shackles.

Hoping she hadn't already vexed me with some kind of backwoods outhouse voodoo, I positioned myself to get a beter shot of her clan on the inevitable return trip acros the police department parking lot. When Granny Crack-Pipe saw me lying in wait, she nudged her oversized nephew, a lumbering giant who seemed to be missing a few fairly important chromosomes.

Still, he had enough of his D.N.A. strand intact to dig deep and come up with the biggest, nastiest redneck loogie ever captured on videotape. When he passed back by me he let it fly - the lethal concoction of snot, Mountain Dew and tobacco juice warbling in slow-motion right for me.

Lucky for me, the inbred saliva projectile fell just short of full contact splashdown and only a little spittle struck the center of my lens. Instinctively, I racked focus to highlight the hillbilly spit running down my camera's eye.

It made for a great piece of tease video and my esteemed colleagues played it back in the edit suite about a million times before eventually losing interest. But not before a half dozen photogs offered their finest analysis of the snot-rocket's aural qualities, phlegm-consistency and intended flight path.

Come to think of it, we broke down that seven seconds of tape like it was the Zapruder Film. "Back, and to the left...back, and to the left..."

Sunday, November 07, 2004

Suggested Reading

Memoir and Intrigue...

Ever since I could add letters together to form words, I've been plowing through books. As a result I have a home bursting with tomes of every description. If I live long enough, I plan to be a dottering old man, wandering from bookshelf to bookshelf in a ratty robe and slippers. Hopefully my children (book lovers themselves) will make sure I'm fed and cared for.

I used to consume innumerable novels, and Stephen King was an early hero. But the older I've gotten, the less I've wanted to read anything that wasn't true. Maybe it's the newsman in me, maybe I'm subconciously trying to make up for my glaring lack of edumacation. Maybe it doesn't matter.

Whatever the case, I've devoured a strict diet of NON-fiction for about ten years now. I'm a sucker for all those repackaged tales of the past that swell your local bookstore's history section. And being an ex-sailor I have a special place in my heart for tales of the sea. Which brings me to my first selection:

IN THE HEART OF THE SEA by Nathaniel Philbrick
Everyone's heard of Moby Dick (a few of us have actually read it) but that famous work of fiction was based on true events. In 1820 a rogue sperm whale attacked a Nantucket whaler, setting off circumstances that would end in death, treachery and cannabilism.

NEWJACK by Ted Conover
Conover wanted to shadow a recruit at the New York State Corrections Academy but was refused by the state. So he took a job as a rookie prison guard at Sing Sing. What he found inside those esteemed prison walls is enough to make you drop all plans for that tri-state crime spree. I know I did.

INTO AFRICA by Martin Dugard
"Doctor Livingstone, I presume"...if those words sound familiar but you don't know why, then you need to read this book. In the mid 1860's the age of exploration turned it's eye toward the heart of Africa. After a famous expedition goes awry, a journalist steps in, saves the day and exploits everyone around him. Sound familiar?

THE LAST DIVE by Bernie Chowdbury
Not since JAWS has a book made me so re-think the sea. This harrowing tale of a father and son pushing the limits of deep sea diving is enough to make you strap on floaties the next time you hit the pool. A freaky peek at a whole different world.

THE CIRCUS FIRE by Stewart O'Nan
This one is grisly. In 1944, while the men were away at war, a circus tent filled with women and children caught fire and went up in mere minutes. The unfolding tragedy can be hard to stomach at times, but it includes an excellent look at journalists responding to spot news in 1944.

BLUE BLOOD by Edward Conlon
New York City cop Conlon redefines the cop memoir genre. A Harvard grad who follows families ties back to the thin blue line that is daily law enforcement. Once on the beat, Conlon takes note, and delivers a beast of a book in the process, detailing the insanity and righteousness of being a cop.

A Journeyman Gourmet Chef takes you through the incredibly seedy world of Big City Five Star Restaurants. Though I didn't understand much of the french food being discussed in these pages, this hilarous and frightening account of a Big City's chef's misadventures convinced me I could do the same with the role of the local TV News Photographer. Wish me luck!

VIEWFINDER BLUES by Stewart Pittman
A veteran local TV news photographer puts the lens aside for a moment and scribbles madly in his worn notebook. The resulting manifesto skewers the righteous and the absurd in this all-out indictment of an increasingly silly business. Currently Under Construction...

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Punching the Subconscious Clock

Light Static and Heavy Southern Accents Filled the Air...

It's a dream I've had a couple of times - a particularly frustrating episode that’s more distorted memory than random delusion...

The first sensation is overwhelming heat - sweat pouring down my brow as I realize I'm running down a railroad track. Ahead is a dusky tree line with angry black smoke pouring forth. Blue and red lights dance seductively on the horizon and I am literally hauling ass to get there.

Trouble is I'm packing old-time heat - the kind of three-quarter-inch-tape television gear that documented the early 70's. An old orange and oversized Ikegami camera bounces off one shoulder with every jarring step -- a heavy strap cuts into my other shoulder as the low-slung VCR-in-a-bag threatens to take out my knees - an overly long cable connecting the two devices dances between my feet.

As I struggle to stay upright I sense I'm not alone, and looking around me I see a swarm of fellow news crews from my past catching up. Digging in, I almost lose balance, loping along on uneven railroad ties are not quite finding my rhythm. The sun beats down on my future bald spot, as a corded lapel microphone bounces out of a pocket and trails behind me.

Up ahead, the tree line horizon doesn't seem any closer despite the fact my chest is about to explode from running so hard. Emergency strobe lights pierce the smoke up ahead, flashing angry silhouettes. Radio chatter and southern-fried voices fill the air but I can't make out what they're shouting about.

There's no time to wonder though, since the loosey-goosey recording equipment jostling all around me is about to bounce away. Worse yet, the other news crews are catching up with me - the sounds of their footfalls outpacing mine.

One of them brushes by and is soon followed by a crowd of photogs, each one with smaller, lighter, newer gear. As they blow by me, I hear a few snort about my outdated equipment. Soon the last of them is ahead of me and pullin away, the sound of an out-of-market news chopper echoing my defeat.

Still, I run like a madman, hauling at least 100 pounds of the very finest in 1970's newsgathering technology with me. As the hazy figures of my competitors fade into the distance I curse my bosses and reach deep down inside for one last resolve of strength.

And it works! I pick up speed, begin catching up with the others, closing in on the scene. I see the other crews gather together for the first interview. But there's still time! I kick in all I have, my heels and knees threatening to shatter with every loping misstep along the jagged railroad ties. Just as I'm sure I'm finally going to make it...the microphone cable trailing behind me snags on an upturned nail and SNAP! - yanks me backwards off my feet.

That's when I awaken with a jolt, and wonder why in the heck I'm wasting valuable dream energy on something as mundane as work.