Saturday, January 01, 2005

Hurricane Stew (6 0f 6)

“Yeah, Ron - I don’t know how to tell you this -- “

“You don’t have to, Pittman,” he barked back. “We just saw it on the bird! How‘s my camera?”

That evening, the footage of my impromptu waterslide dominated the opening moments of the ABC, CBS and NBC Nightly News. CNN aired it every half hour all day, even playing the shot of me pulling my dead camera out of the water in slow motion. However, it would take hours before I ever saw it. Once my superiors finished their cell-phone guilt trip, they told me to stay put and wait for another camera and photographer to arrive. In the three hours that took, I slopped into a nearby K-Mart, grabbed some dry clothes off the rack and ignored the strange look all the retail clerks gave me. Then I checked into a rundown hotel, burst through the door like a madman, stripped down to my skivvies and filled the bathtub up with water. Standing over the tub, I paused for a moment before plunging the camera-corpse into the water. Even though the engineers told me to do so, it felt as wrong as drowning your baby. While salt and sand floated to the tub water’s surface, I sat in the adjoining room and chain-smoked in silence.

Back at my station reactions differed. Co-workers feigned concern but chuckled to themselves as they opened every newscast that day with my soaking wet joyride. Many were still in the newsroom when I arrived there that evening. The Promotions Manager, a friend of mine, slapped me on the back and thanked me for wearing the heavily logo’d windbreaker he had fought so hard to purchase. The General Manager and News Director grumbled about the loss of their S-VHS piece of crap and acted as if I had done it on purpose. They didn’t fire me, but my relationship with them was never the same. My fellow news shooters treated me like a fallen hero of sorts and the engineers begrudgingly admitted I’d found a new, rather high-profile way to kill a camera.

When I finally sat down at my desk, a producer handed me a long list of phone numbers. Seems stations from around the country had called all day, hoping for a phone interview to go along with the incredible footage of my watery break dance. I called the first number on the list, but after the cheesy-sounding Phoenix anchor kept interrupting to ramble about his own storm-chasing days, I crumbled the list up and threw it in the trashcan. I didn’t quite yet know how to feel about the last twelve hours, but I wasn’t about to help some unseen blowhard showboat. Leaving the station, I drove my pick-up home where I had some ‘splainin’ to do to the wife. She didn’t ask twice about the camera, but seemed confused as anyone why I decided to suddenly go swimming.

It took me years to live down the notoriety of that day. But eventually, colleagues stopped calling me ‘Splash’, neighbors ceased their requests for details and viewers stopped asking where my surfboard was. Since then, I’ve moved on - covering enough floods, murders and Easter egg hunts to render my brush with Gordon just another faded memory. But the video lives on. In fact, it has become a treasured heirloom of sorts. Whenever hurricane season rolls around and some rookie starts talking big about their weather-chasing adventure, I whip out my tape and render them speechless. I even ran the video through an old video ‘toaster’ once, capturing the frozen image of me with a soaking wet camera on my shoulder and looking sourly into the network lens. That shot now hangs framed in my home office, a constant reminder that in this silly business, the worst thing you can do is focus on your competitors and lose sight of the story at hand. That, and pricey TV cameras make lousy swim buddies.

Thanks for sticking with this rather bloated account of my most humiliating moment. As for the video mentioned, someday I'll figure out how to get it on-line and further my shame. Until then, SURF'S UP!

Friday, December 31, 2004

The Year in Weird

Dash it all! Aught Four is just about gone and I’ve yet to finish my Year in Review…Trouble is, my yearly day planner is bursting at the seams with more absurdities than I could possibly ever truncate into a single list. Sure, I’ve covered dumpster diving, crazed girl scouts and killer trucks - but we’ve yet to even scratch the surface! Blame it on The Job. Twelve months of squinting through a TV news lens easily provides enough episodes of oddity to make even the numbest among us sit up and take note, especially those of us prone to diarrhea of the keyboard.

So with any further adieu, I give you a half dozen more pit-stops in The Year in Weird.

My heart still goes out to the K-9 officer who plowed his squad car into a tree during a February snowstorm. When I rolled up on scene with camera in tow, he looked like he wanted to climb the highest branch to hide from my lens. I did my best to make it brief, knowing the only people in the world more ruthless on their buddies than wise-ass photogs are the guys and gals behind the badge. I don’t even wanna know that officer’s new nickname, or what kind of payback he might have for me the next time I stumble across him at a crime-scene.

I toured the N.C. State A&T farm in March for a series of photo-ops spotlighting alternative farming. Amid the gourmet mushroom enthusiasts and hippie gardeners were a clutch of ball-cap impresarios boasting of a healthier, tastier hog. Being from DownEast, I took their claims with a grain of salt (and a side of hush-puppies). But true to their word, the bacon they served me there outside the pig-sty were indeed the flanks of dreams. The texture and flavor of the specially-harvested meat filled my senses with carnivorous splendor, despite the overwhelming stench of hog droppings that permeated everything around me. Mmmmm - Bacon.

It was towards the end of May that I found myself swarmed by thousands of rabid Fantasia fans, writhing in wild-eyed abandon as their Queen ascended to the throne of American Idol. A life behind the lens has afforded many front-row seats to spectacle and fervor, but little of it compares to the unbridled euphoria present that night at the Greensboro Coliseum. When Ryan Seachest (finally) did say the F-word, the place erupted with the kind of zeal not found in nine out of ten pulpits. All I can say is, thank God she won.

It was emotion of a slightly different kind at the National Academic League national finals in April. While the brainiest of kids from Kernersville Middle School dueled to the death with a school half a nation away via video teleconference, I huddled with the parents in the other room. As they watched their children answer tough questions on the closed-circuit monitor, I filled my viewfinder with priceless close-ups of soccer Moms and NASCAR Dads hanging on their every word. A proud parent myself, I can relate. But the way one Dad’s forehead veins were bulging, well - it’s enough to make a cameraman wish he wasn’t CPR qualified.

A week or two later intrepid reporter Erik L and I trekked southward to the town of Robbins, to take the community’s pulse on their favorite son. With rumors that Kerry would soon pick John Edwards as a running mate reaching a feverish pitch, we were sure it would be a slam-dunk. It wasn’t. Seems the fine folk of Robbins already had their fill of camera-toting interlopers and didn’t care to comment, thank you very much. Despite loitering outside every town landmark with microphones and smiles, we barely scraped up enough responses to fill a sixty second report. Eventually, we ended up at the post office, where we shot Erik’s on-camera segment in front of a sun-bleached photo of Robbin’s most famous defense attorney. Not wanting to be like every other camera crew that used the familiar backdrop, I forgot to white-balance the camera and the footage came out a painful shade of blue. How’s that for innovation?

In June, a mother of a wash-out flooded homes and businesses just outside the Rockingham city of Eden. Residents wrung out ruined possessions and scraped away the ubiquitous post-flood mud as I dragged around a camera and one monster of a head cold. All the hallmarks were there - destroyed homes, missing pets, talkative victims. But with a head full of antihistamines, I mumbled my way through the proceedings with the air of a bored stereo salesman. Funny thing though, despite having slept-walked the particular flood zone, my report that night sizzled with life and loss. Perhaps I HAVE been doing this too long.

But what ELSE would I do? With a limited attention span, sore shoulder muscles and glaring lack of sheepskin, I’ll probably never be a Giant of Industry. No, it’s probably best I keep chasing deadlines. Besides, what other field would offer such an all-access pass to life as we know it? Auto Repair? PFFFFT - I can’t even change the oil in my wife’s car. But I CAN tell you what the meth labs smell like, who gets to wear the fanciest helmet at your average ground-breaking, where not to park at the midnight homicide. It’ll never make me rich. But who needs money when Bigfoot takes a hostage and no one’s allowed past the barricade except me and a few of my lens-swinging buddies?

I’ll tell him you said hello. For now though, Happy New Year, and thanks for reading!

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

The Reno Epiphany

I was chasing Janet Reno through a school cafeteria when it hit me. Something’s gotta change. It was late 2000 and the outgoing Attorney General was in town hawking some government-sponsored reading program at a rural elementary school. But the reading program wasn’t why three live trucks were parked outside the gymnasium. No, the rest of the media jackals were there for the same reason I was; in hopes Reno would comment on just WHO should be President of the United States.

At the time the nation was engorged over hanging chads, senile voters and screwy network news predictions. In fact the whole world was watching as lawmakers and litigators played rock-scissor-paper to decide who would be the leader of the free world. Of course, we now know George W came out on top but at the time, the future was very much a mystery. As all eyes turned to Florida, the story became harder to advance on a local level.

And then came Reno. When word came down the jittery politico was scheduled to swoop through our region, news managers across the land marshaled their forces, gassed up their live trucks and sent out their probes.

“Ask Reno what she thinks about the election controversy!” came the order, even though everyone involved: the news managers, Reno‘s handlers, even the lunch ladies scooping fuzzy jell-o in the back knew that the soon-to-be Ex-Attorney General wasn’t gonna say diddly-squat about the state of the election. Everyone, that is, except the reporter I was assigned to that day.

New to our station and devoid of all humor, this fireball of a brunette sharpened her claws all the way to the outlying school. It was all I could do to keep her out of attack mode as we squeezed into the undersized tables and chairs for a sizzling roundtable on the fundamentals of reading. When the manly Floridian made her entrance, an entourage of assistants and Secret Service types trailed after her. Rolling tape, all I could think of was Will Ferrell bursting through a wall and twitching about on the dance floor.

But there’d be no disco balls dropping out of the acoustic ceiling today, merely a perfunctory photo op with Reno reading to school kids. After a half-dead rendition of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, the tall lady with the bus window glasses took a few questions from the assembled press.

Despite the best efforts of several heavily-lacquered correspondents, Reno snubbed every election query with the air of a disgruntled school-marm.

“I’m not here to talk to about what’s going on with the vote…”

It was enough for me, but not for my partner. After the press conference dissipated she insisted we camp out by the lunchroom exit and wait for Reno to finish a quick tour of the school grounds. Perhaps my on-air cohort thought the Attorney General might re-think her position after a whirlwind stroll through the very finest in first grade water colors. Whatever she thought, she was just being a hardnosed reporter, a quality I can respect but not always want to be around all day.

You see lately, I’d been having serious thoughts about my career. Burned out on years of repeating myself for deadlines that never changed, I desperately wanted out of the general assignment mix. Far happier working on stories that ended the newscast with humor and grace than the ones that shouted and preened at the top of the show, I was weary from battle and dizzy from a decade of grueling top-story pursuits.

While all this had been simmering in my brain-pan for quite some time, new career plans really crystallized as Janet Reno and her bodyguard dance party burst from the far hallway. Before I knew it, my reporter lurched toward them, spouting questions and waving her microphone like a beacon of truth. Being her cameraman, I fell into chase; for the next two minutes I backpedaled, zoomed and focused as my pit-bull of a partner asked the same damn question a dozen different ways.

We never got the response she’d hoped for, though I did come into contact with the beefy elbows of her security detail. All this seemed to genuinely shock the school principal leading the tour. As Reno finally shook us from her coattails, I pantomimed my apologies to the perturbed administrator:

'Sorry Ma’am, but we’re the media - its what we do.'

These days I do LOTS of feature stories. Butterfly farms, school bus rodeos, Easter egg hunts, the list reads like something out of a Willy Wonka script. I like it that way. My storytelling heroes don’t lead the newscast live from the White House; they craft portraits of America for CBS Sunday Morning and the like. And while I’m not to that level yet, I can put together a sentimental show-ender with the best of them. It beats stalking political zombies with silly questions that have no answers. Most days.

Hurricane Stew (5)

Back in the tumbling surf, the powerful wave was trying to undress me. As the watery avalanche pushed my shirt up the back of my neck, I managed to surface for a second but still couldn’t make any real purchase on the sandy bottom. Spitting out a mouthful of saltwater, I saw a blue and red blur to my right - signs of another camera crew being swept off their feet and sucked into the watery vortex. Thank you God, thank you for not making me the only one to suffer this injustice. He answered by gratitude by pushing my head back underwater, but not before allowing me a glance of a thin slatted beach fence rushing toward me.

‘That’s gonna hurt’, I thought as I tightened my grip on the camera tumbling in the surf. It didn’t. I hardly felt a thing as I crashed through the brittle boards. Mercifully though, the fence’s impact slowed down my momentum and I realized this unwanted underwater ride was about to be over. Sure enough, the rogue wave receded a few yards past the beach fence, unceremoniously depositing me in a swirling tidal pool before quickly retreating to the sea.

‘I’m alive’, I thought as I lay there in two feet of roiling surf. Then I realized I no longer had the camera in my grip and for a moment, I regretted my newfound survivor status. Like a punch-drunk boxer recovering from a skull-rattling knockout, I scrambled to my feet and began fumbling blindly in the knee-high water. Mercifully, my fingers raked across the electronic corpse. Grabbing a hold of the handle, I lifted it out of the water and placed it backwards on my shoulder. As I did, dirty ocean water poured out of the camera’s insides- an unthinkable sight for one so used to cradling the machine with care. It was then the second wave hit me, an avalanche of implications washing through my mind and scattering all other thought. So I did what came natural. I cursed. Long and meaningful profanities poured forth as I noticed for the first time a soaking wet soundman fumbling with his boom microphone right beside me.

As I dropped every blue word the Navy taught me, I glanced upward and realized my misery was being preserved for the ages. For directly above me, from the safety of their top deck perch, the hooded silhouettes of the network crew hunched around their cameras and zoomed in on yours truly. For a split second, I made eye contact with the camera’s lens before turning away in search of higher ground. All around me, electronic journalists reached out to help me, but all I could see was the back of the National Guard truck idling in the distance. As I traipsed out of the surf, my brain clicked through several stages - from initial surprise to sad acceptance to unfathomable embarrassment. Vaguely aware of the other ruined camera crew behind me, I briefly considered leading them back into the crashing surf, drowning our shame in the Atlantic Ocean and giving the snickering camera crew above something to really feast on.

Instead, I pushed on toward the waiting truck, ignoring everyone around me and barely holding on to the electronic doorstop in my hand. Plopping one soggy shoe in front of the other, I slogged up the beach and felt the camera’s steely gaze on my back. Finally, I made it to the truck where none other than Sheriff Poncho waited, smirking as he chewed the stub of a half-smoked cigar.

“Ya’ll boys ‘bout had enough?”, he asked before chuckling at his own cleverness. I wanted to tell him where he could shove his Boss Hogg cigar, but I figured a jail cell would be a lousy place to dry out. Mumbling under my breath, I hoisted my multi-thousand dollar boat anchor up in the covered truck bed and climbed in after it - wet, unhurt but totally humiliated. Behind me, the sound guy in blue did likewise, followed by a red-suited older photog with his own waterlogged betacam. As we all plopped down in agonized defeat, the truck driver fired up the truck’s diesel engine and pulled away from the seaside media circus. The drive took only a few minutes, but as we all sat there in stony silence, it felt like forever.

But it wasn’t. Ten minutes later, I arrived at my trusty news unit, still reeling in disbelief. I placed the sopping wet camera in back, fished a dry smoke from the passenger seat and eyed my bag-phone in the floorboard.

‘How am I ever gonna explain this?’ I asked myself as I lit the cigarette and dug sand out of my ear. Still not knowing, I grabbed the receiver and punched in the ten longest digits of my life. Seconds later, my news director answered the line.

“Yeah, Ron - I don’t know how to tell you this -- “

Next Time: The Conclusion...

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

The Stupid and The Doomed

While I convalesce from the Mother of all Flu Bugs, please check out one from the vaults: The Stupid and The Doomed, now available in its entirety at The Book of Lenslinger

I'm still sometimes astounded by the behavior of people at crime-scenes. From the inner city ghetto to the upscale gated community, the sudden appearance of emergency vehicles are often cause for instant fellowship, no matter what brought the flashing lights there in the first place. Be it a simple drug bust or a triple homicide - the immediate area comes alive with macabre excitement. A swarm of citizenry gather at the perimeter, as people who might not normally talk to each other trade whispers over sudden trouble. It's simply human nature to stop and gawk. Hell, it's what I do for a living...

Read the rest at The Book of Lenslinger

Monday, December 27, 2004

You Shouldn't Have! Really.

My girls are sweet. Every year, with the help of Mommy, they give me something really special for Christmas. One year it was an early DVD player. Last year it was the Stevie Ray Vaughan box set. This year, however, they really out-did themselves. They gave me...the flu bug.

If anyone needs me, I'll be lying under my bed, trying to pull my eyelids over my face.

Sunday, December 26, 2004

Hurricane Stew (4)

Big mistake. Those two words bounced around my skull as I sunk up to my crotch in cold wet sand. Having left the sat truck scrum two blocks back, I was determined to get to the collapsed houses first, before the scene teemed with competing camera crews. But the only way to do that was hoof it on foot behind a row of boarded-up beachfront condos. Trouble was, the beach itself was pretty slim as swollen waves crashed into the bleach-white seawall. Sticking to the boardwalk, I made my way as far as possible before having to abandon it. However, the surface I stepped on was only pea soup thick and I immediately found myself stuck up to my watch-pocket in soggy wet sand dune. As I struggled to keep the camera above the surface, I wrestled my leg out of the sandy quagmire. My mountain boots bulged in wet goopy beach and my thin khakis clung to my leg like cold, gritty Saran Wrap. I didn’t feel much like the mighty Cordan as I peeled myself out of that muck. Still, if I was to make it to the collapsed houses at the far end of the beach, there was no turning back. Slowly I righted myself and began goose-stepping across the unstable surface, as a National Guard army truck rumbled past a block over, back toward the way I came.

After twenty minutes or so of this slow motion tiptoe, I finally spotted the target. Up ahead, a crumpled heap of salt-treated wood, chipped cinderblock and splintered decking lay in the distance, flanked by three other vacation homes apparently untouched by Gordon‘s wrath. For a moment, I felt like some brave explorer, traipsing over virgin territory unseen by other humans. That’s when I spotted the unmarked satellite truck parked under one of the surviving vacation homes. Following the truck’s cable up to the cottage‘s top deck, I watched as three hooded figures leaned on the railing and fiddled with their network camera set-up. As I closed the distance on foot, I could hear their idle chatter. They sounded like old fraternity pals shooting the breeze at a college football game. So much for being a pioneer.

With more than a little sheepishness, I skirted the perimeter of the fallen beach house, hoping to avoid the attention of the cocky network crew perched above me. At least I can pop off a few ground-level shots of the rubble. Small victories, I thought, small victories. But just as I white-balanced my camera and began to roll tape, I heard the unmistakable rumble of a heavy diesel truck approaching in the distance. ‘You gotta be kidding me ‘, I thought as the National Guard troop truck rounded the corner and came to a screeching halt within three yards of my pathetic form. Seconds later, an army of matching rain suits poured out of the back, gingerly handing down their expensive cameras to one another and joking to Sheriff Poncho about the great curb service. Feeling defeated, I slunk away from the growing crowd and down the beach, lest anyone ask why my right pant leg was dripping wet.

Next Time: WIPE OUT!...really!