Saturday, January 29, 2005

Groundhog Day

For almost seven years I’ve visited the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro on a regular basis, profiling the park’s many animals, plants and pieces of art. From feeding ostriches off the back of a pick-up to underestimating an elephant’s dung-slinging range, I’ve had many a misadventure down off Zoo Parkway. Now that I’m blogging at full-speed, I look forward to sharing some of these visits with you. Hence the following:

This week I made an Asheboro excursion to meet a groundhog named Murphy. Seems this particular marmot is quite the prognosticator, going nine for nine in a snowcast showdown When word that he was once again dragging leaves into his hovel reached our newsroom, producers began to hyperventilate. The weather center was put on high-alert and the suits debated sending the sat truck. Instead they dispatched me, resident zoolander, to get the skinny from the rotund rodent.

But like a lot of meteorologists I know, Murphy doesn’t like to leave the lab. It took several minutes to get the hairy rat out of his hole. For a moment I thought I’d driven a half hour for nothing. The staff at the Wildlife Rehab Center stuck with it though, managing to eventually lure Murphy out with pecans and pillow talk. When he did emerge from his lair, the reluctant star sat up, smacked on a pecan and eyed the paparazzi with sour disdain. After a minute or so he lumbered back to his trailer, with nary a thought given to the shot-sheet at hand.

Man, the egos I have to put up with in this business.

The Applebee's Incident

My very first assignment. Jarred out of bed by a scanner jockey father, I stumbled onto the scene of an intense hostage situation at a local restaurant - the very restaurant my wife worked at. I myself was a blossoming photog, shooting cheesy commercial for the local CBS affiliate on the morning the craziness went down. I didn‘t know diddly about news that day, when police turned me away from the scene. But I did know a thing or two about logos so I raced to my station, commandeered a station van and blew back past the police barricade.

I rolled up on a movie scene. More city police cars than I knew existed idled this way and that, surrounding the popular eatery. In front of the building the busiest street in town was roped off as SWAT team member ran around half-crouched with weapons drawn. The crackle of loudspeakers and murmuring of men provided a fitting soundtrack to the spectacle before me. In the distance I saw a collapsible antenna mast extending upward, poking over a haphazard fleet of emergency vehicles. Like a bewildered disciple stumbling toward a steeple, I staggered toward my station’s live truck.

Behind the truck a bearded madman pulled on cables and plugged in connectors while he glanced at his unmanned camera up by the yellow tape. When he saw the scraggly production grunt staring slack-jawed at the stand-off, he unceremoniously deputized into the news ranks. With a hitch of thumb the chief photographer directed me to his brand new fancy cam, a spot I held for five very tense hours.

Seconds froze in time as I huddled by a neighboring McDonald’s. Across the shallow parking lot cops in black jumpsuits chewed their lips and fondled their weapons. In the chief’s viewfinder I zoomed in one officer lying prone, sighting the front of the restaurant through a sniper’s scope. On the roof of a nearby hotel, I spotted the tiny silhouette of another hooded shooter. I recorded them all in ten second bursts before panning back to the restaurant’s windows. Working the len, I picked out the gunman's profile as he swigged beer, waved his pistol and yelled at the phone in is hand. I rolled on it all, trying to act casual around the other veteran photogs were starting to show up.

Over my shoulder the chief appeared, handing me a portable scanner and earpiece. He set a box of beta tapes at my feet and plugged in a heavy cable to the back of the camera. Pretending like I knew what to do, I put the earpiece in my ear. With the flip of a switch a world of radio codes and endless static filled my head. Before long though, some of the gibberish started making sense. A low-pitched voice kept telling someone to hold back for now and wait. When he mentioned the ‘negotiator’ I honed in on his pitch and really listened. Soon, his verbal barks preceded the action, giving me general ideas of where to point my camera next.

Hours passed but I stayed riveted to the black and white screen just inches from my eye. But I was more than just a casual observer, more than a camera-packing neophyte. I was a friend of the hostage. Though suspected all along, the earpiece soon confirmed the person at gunpoint was a girl named Kathy X - a delightful young lady I’d gone to high school with, socialized alongside downtown and even seen at my own recent wedding. Fidgeting there by the tripod, I felt guilty for being so pumped up on the ensuing drama. Somewhere inside that building, a good friend cowered underneath a table, staring back at the circus of cops and cameraman pitching their tent outside the window. How did I know she was looking at me?

Morning turned to noon and the stations went LIVE! Back at the truck my main anchor gestured gravely in his leather Members Only jacket. Throughout the newscast, the chief would zoom in on the restaurant in the distance, settling in on the pack of photographers gathered at the tape. Every once in a while I looked up from my camera, exposing my outdated mullet to the viewers tuning in. And tuning in they were. All over my little town and across much of Eastern Carolina, people were leaning into their sets and calling their friends, directing every set of eyeballs they could find on the funky bad shit going down in Greenville. And there I was, at the very center of the ratcheting tempest, or at least on the edge of it. In my own weapon’s sights, I shuffled through of images of jacked-up SWAT cops, gaping onlookers and one very nervous gunman. Though I didn't grasp the depth of my baptism that day, I recognized instantly that this beat the pants off shooting fat lady dress shops and used car lots.

As I peered through the looking glass, my mind raced with worst case scenarios. Zooming on the gunman’s profile, I imagined how it would look if it a police sniper popped off a head shot. It wouldn’t have bothered me had it happened, but unlike the lurid movies I watched, the outcome was not so grave and tidy. After some inspired negotiating on the police department’s part, the gunman agreed to trade Kathy for his beloved uncle. I knew this because the deep voice in my ear said so. Tracking the man walking beside the police chief, I stayed in my shot while more experienced photogs scrambled. As they followed the sight of the uncle entering the restaurant’s main entrance, I scanned the building’s rear. As if on cue, Kathy popped out of the back door, running with her head in her hands toward a waiting squad car. My heart soared as I caught a two second blur of her hasty departure, a shot I eventually learned no one else got.

With Kathy free, the police grew even more eager to wrap this caper up. As the uncle and the gunman conferred behind the restaurant’s walls, I envisioned scenes of SWAT team beat-downs and hijacked helicopters. But it was not to be. To everyone’s relief, the gunman agreed to coem outside, unarmed. When the front doors opened, a surprisingly handsome frat boy type, strode out in camouflage pants and an ECU sweatshirt. Slowly raising his hands, he shot defiant looks at all who met his gaze. I can still hear the still cameras' rapid-fire shutter as the SWAT team moved in and dropped the hostage-taker to his knees.

Seconds later it was all over. I could hardly believe it as I ran the footage of the takedown back to the live truck. The chief shook my hand before slamming the tape into a deck and feeding it back to the newsroom. As he and the anchor launched into another live shot, I staggered away, in a far different daze than the one I arrived in. As it turned out, I was the only photographer to capture the takedown without tree branches in the way - a small victory but I soon learned counted in the daily battle of news photography. Back at the station, stunned newsies treated me to a hero’s welcome. I still didn’t know it, but I was embarking on a grand adventure that day, one I'm still on. Since then, few news days have been as exhilarating. In fact, fifteen years later, my very first news gig blows all other subsequent assignments away.

Perhaps I should have stopped while I was ahead.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Paging Dr. Stew...

Occasionally I’ll find myself in scrubs and booties, loitering by my camera as surgeons move around me like ninjas. Today was one of those times. When a press release demanded I report to surgery STAT, I did so, joining a pack of fellow camera-jackals straining for a shot of a local hospital’s newest ’breakthrough procedure‘. On the Gnarl-o-Meter, it ranked pretty low. In fact, I rather enjoyed watching the surgeon slice cartilage off the patient’s ear and shove it up his nose. It seemed like an awful rude thing to do, but the guy with the sheepskin and the steady hands insisted it would help the old man on the slab breathe easier. Besides, who can argue with a plastic surgeon who listens to Ray Charles as he slices and dices?

Staring up into my viewfinder, I couldn’t help but recall earlier sojourns into sterile environments. About eight years ago I shot an eye surgery LIVE! for the five o clock news. Hovering over a surgeon’s shoulder as he sliced an eyeball with a tiny laser, I took special delight knowing the groan-inducing imagery I was capturing was instantaneously beaming into people’s living rooms across the Piedmont. Hey, how’s that pork chop? Want some cornea on it? Of course, even that doesn’t compare to Robotic Prostate Surgery! Sure, it sounds like a punch line in a Conan O Brien monologue, but its a real surgery - one that involves scary robot arms and plasma screens blaring images of tiny blowtorches slicing fatty tissue around the prostate. Slather that on yer chops!

Luckily, for me, I had some close colleagues to share the experience. So what if I don’t know his name? He’s...that guy...from the other station. Last time I remember seeing him was at a sweltering Special Olympics track meet two towns over. Now we’re scrunched in a small room together, wearing paper hats and making goofy faces behind our surgical masks. Call it a part of the Photog Code, the long-held practice of barely acknowledging each other while stalking the edge of crisis. Hell, we’ll probably discuss the finer points of today’s procedure someday down the road, at the next train wreck or rodeo or groundbreaking. For now though I’ll keep quiet, monitor my viewfinder and keep telling myself I’m not wasting my life away behind this lens.

Maybe someday I’ll start believing it.

Dispatches from a Life in Conflict

Kevin Sites is the Real Deal. Having already traversed Iraq, Afghanistan and many other hostile lands, the freelance solo journalist is now picking his way through tsunami-ravaged Indonesia. Along the way, he's detailing his sojourn through the Heart of Darkness in a blog that can best be described as blistering. See for yourself, but beware - there are no punchlines here.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Sometimes They Die

'What was the worst accident you ever responded to', came the unsavory question. I didn't want to answer, as trading tales of roadside gore ain't my bag. But a certain early-morning episode from my early days kept bobbing to the surface. Eventually I had to pluck it from the backwaters of my memory banks and figure out why it just wouldn't sink...

Three A.M. on a Wednesday. I was sleeping soundly when the telephone jumped up and slapped me. The cigarette-stained voice on the other end pierced the darkness, commanding me to 'roll on a bad 10-50'. Stumbling from my bedroom, I began the time-honored process without ever rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

The drive across town was uneventful, though my half-conscious mind did marvel at how all the angry stoplights flashed a friendly yellow when no drivers were around to bug them. What was usually a congested boulevard now stood empty and I made it to the scene in record time.

Early summer fog added to the dreamy feel of the night, and as I parked on the side of the road and grabbed my gear, I was probably still sleep-walking. Up ahead a lone state trooper's car idled by a badly accordioned Datsun B-210. Across the road, an eighteen-wheeler sat halfway in a ditch, it's backlit driver wiping his brow in silhouette.

Suddenly, a tall figure in a Smokey-Bear hat stepped into my vision. I t took me a second to realize it was the state-trooper, one who either knew me, or at least pretended to.

"Hey boss-man! Ain't you got nothin' better to do?"

Though his face was hidden beneath his hat-brim, the voice was friendly, and he escorted me toward the wrecked car like the host of some late-night garden party.

"You must a been waitin' in the bushes ya got here so fast..."

I was only half-listening as I powered up my camera and flipped various switches. When I turned my sleepy attention back to the trooper, he hoisted his enormous flashlight, and motioned me to the window of the crumpled car.

"Don't know if he didn't see the truck, or was just trying to get past it..."

With that, the man in the official hat switched on his flashlight, and ripped every shred of rest from my sleepy brain.

The light's beam danced around the car's interior and my mind's eye took in every detail. There was no gore, only a young driver slumped around the steering wheel in sudden eternity. He was dressed in a fast-food uniform, and the coffee he'd been sipping on the way to work was puddled in the floorboard. Next to him on the seat, a worn case full of cassette tapes sat in silence. An air-freshener exactly like the one in my news unit hung from a cigarette lighter that had lit its last Marlboro.

I backed away from the car after only a few seconds, my mind now glaringly awake and racing with grim scenarios. Trying not to expose my shock to the trooper, I played it cool and got a quick sound-bite. After a few cursory shots of the wreckage, I crawled into my news car and turned back toward home. But for once, I took my time, for rushing seemed to disrespect the newly dead. Though it was a straight, flat route back to the house, I held the steering wheel in a sweaty driver's-ed regulation grip.

I've seen a lot of trauma since then, but the scene of that poor soul's final commute has always held a special place in my memory. It must have been the fast-food uniform, the spilled coffee and the air freshener that did it; inconsequential personal items that forced me to relate to the crash victim. Whatever did it, I learned an important lesson that sweltering summer morning: No matter how callous, how flippant, how tough we all pretend to be when covering sudden deaths, the people we point our cameras at are real and not all that far removed from ourselves. It's something all of us behind the lens should remember, even when we want desperately to forget it. Of course sometimes, simply forgetting isn't an option.

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Just Another Manic Monday

...sckkkkriiiich - working structure fire - phit!-kkkkkkkkk...

With those three words, my workweek began. Before then, I’d merely been play-acting at my desk, leaving messages on PR flacks’ answering machines while making thumbtack constellations on my cubicle corkboard. As the bank of scanners began crackling traffic, the reactionary newsgathering began. Producers scribbled notes, assignment editors lunged for map books, and I for one scrunched down in my seat. It was useless, though and I knew it, w-a-a-y before the deskie headed my way. Time to punch in.

Three minutes later, I wrestled my way onto the interstate. Along for the ride was a young man we’ll call The Intern, though his real world skills far exceeded his pre-grad broadcast status. I barely made it into the fast lane before the quiet Elon student began triangulating our trajectory over a map he’d fished from the glove box. I couldn’t help but look over in admiration for the young fellow, necktie and all.

“Dude you can be my wingman anytime“, I muttered, triggering an awkward silence that lasted more than a few minutes.

But twenty minutes, two wrong turns and one guiding plume of smoke later, we arrived at the fire truck convention on Old Julian Road. Across the ditch bank scores of firefighters swarmed the skeletal remains of a two-story farmhouse, wielding hoses and hacking with axes. As I set up the camera and began recording, a shift in the wind sent the billowing wall of smoke roiling our way.

“Prepare to smell the rest of your day, “I told The Intern as we both bowed our heads and held our breath.

When the smoke cleared I climbed inside my viewfinder, forgetting the chase and focusing on the grab. It took little skill, merely point at the camera at the things that interest you. I bagged wide shots of firefighters rushing in on foot, worked my glass on the house’s charred ribcage, captured close-ups of a patch of flame. Once a half dozen house shots were in the can, I turned to the faces taking it all in. Scanning and panning I saw nothing but helmets, but at the far end of my lens I picked up a woman in a blanket through the shimmering heat waves. She shook her head in disbelief as an out of frame arm reached in to comfort her. Back in the eyepiece, I nodded in agreement and steadied the shot. A few more of those and I’d have what I came for.

Looking up I saw the unmistakable profile of an approaching live truck. The cock of the dish told me it was from my station and as I watched it park beside a distant fire truck, I beckoned The Intern to join me ringside.

“Run this disc down to Keith. They want it on by noon!”

As my intrepid assistant jogged toward the live truck, I looked at my watch and crunched the numbers: 11:54. Six minutes to park the truck, raise the mast, establish a signal, edit the footage, call the feed room and send it over. Six minutes. No problem.

Just before one, we peeled away from the scene of the house fire without ever looking back. Who needed to - when we had all the footage we needed in our grubby paws, a disc full of sound and images, some of which had just permeated living rooms across the Piedmont a scant hour earlier. Fire crews were still dampening hot spots as we blew by, but in TV news terms, the blaze was ancient history.

A half hour later, I dropped The Intern off at the station and decided to check my e-mail. But before I got the first electronic missive open, a dark shadow fell across my desk.

“Yeah - Stew, we need to you go check out a fatal fire from last night. Geez you smell like one!”

And so it was that I polished off a Chik-Fil-A sandwich behind the trusty wheel of my mobile office, trying not to spill bar b cue sauce on a tattered map of Kernersville. Twelve hours earlier a house fire had claimed the life of an unnamed person, but the station didn’t have a picture of the smoldering house. This is unacceptable in TV terms, I poured over the crinkled map trying to find an address that just wasn’t there. Turning down a twisty dirt road marked ‘Dead End’, I juggled my lunch and tried to fly casual. Not that it mattered. When the road gave out, I still hadn’t found the house. In the middle of my u-turn a lady in a tracksuit emerged from her trailer.

“You on the wrong road. Duke Power did the same thing last night!”

A few questions revealed little more. The lady had seen emergency crews on her road the night before but couldn’t tell me where the fire had been. I brushed the crumbs off my map and asked her about a few unlisted roads. That’s when the light bulb went off over her head.

“Must be the Weavill place,” the woman said, digging a twenty-year-old cordless phone from her pocket. “ Lord, I hope they all right!”

I thanked the woman and pulled off, not having the heart to tell her it was a fatal. A few minutes later, I found the house - a burned-out brick one-story sitting in the middle of farmland. From my perch atop a nearby ridge, I put my camera on the sticks and zoomed in. Charred bricks, singed insulation hanging in trees, a cauterized mattress lying out front. Through my lens, I wondered about the fairness of things but came away with no answers. House fires happen with frightening regularity this time of year, just as police stand-offs break out every fifth lunchtime come the dog days of summer. I’ve been to hundreds of both, and not a one of them has ever made much sense to me.

Back at the station, I paused in front of the camera lockers and tried to sort out my many discs. I hadn’t gotten too far when a familiar shadow appeared in the doorway.

“Hey, glad your back! We got a school bus wreck in Davidson County and we need you to roll a live truck!”

By then I was growing numb to these pronouncements of calamity. Rolling my eyes a little, I dropped off my discs with a less than thrilled editor, grabbed keys to a live truck, and picked up The Intern along the way. Seems he’d been assigned to cold-call area police departments while I’d been gone and he was more than ready for the open road.

Which we got plenty of. As I steered the runaway stagecoach of a news vehicle across the Piedmont‘s rolling hills, my new pal hunched over a county map and ran his finger down yet another country road.

“At the end of this road, you’ll wanna go right…”

Man, I liked this guy! Most interns stare out the windshield and ask silly questions about how much the anchors make, not help navigate. Taking the right he recommended, I made a mental note to beg the bosses to hire this most industrious apprentice.


The Intern’s voice brought me out of my stupor and I squinted into the distance. Sure enough, a battered school bus sat off-kilter in the road. Around the stranded vehicle, cops, firefighters and those with nothing better to do poured over every inch of the rural highway. Watching the scene, I tried to make sense of the melee.

“I don’t see any kids, they must have been transported. No parents either. Must have been here awhile. Hey, look there’s Weaver!” I said pointing to a figure hunched over a camera on the far edge of the crowd. “Check it out, his gloves match his pullover!”

A few minutes later, we made contact with the color-coordinated photog. While his reporter was still combing the crowd for details, he’d bagged his quarry and was ready to crawl into the live truck.

“Three kids had minor injuries; they took ‘em to the hospital. Keith is there now. Dude, ya should have seen it, we were a few miles away and heard it on the scanners. We beat the ambulances here!”

There was no malice in his statement, despite the glee in his voice, Like me, Weaver has small kids and understands how even the phrase ‘school bus wreck’ strikes fear in the hearts of all public school parents. But rushing to the edge of peril is what we do for a living, and darn well, I might add. Just like cops and firefighters, we rarely let the trauma get to us. When we do, we quietly wipe tears away in the sanctity of the viewfinder, then play it off like its allergy season.

But there were no tears today, merely a roadside vehicle switch filled with small talk and office gossip. When all Weaver’s gear was transferred to the live truck, I loaded my own stuff into his scanner-laded ride and wished him adieu. But the journeyman photog barely acknowledged me, he was already reeling through his footage in the truck’s back edit bay, pouring over images he’d only just captured to see how they would fit into the orchestra he already had planned for six.

Back in the Weaver’s car, I weaved as slow thread through stopped police cars, idling ambulances and growling fire trucks when my cell phone rang. It was the shadow.

“Hey guy - looks like you’re needed at the zoo tomorrow! I’ll leave the details on your desk.

Looking over, I noticed The Intern had fallen silent. He sat there, chewing his lip and staring blankly as the blue and red strobes of passing dashboard lights bounced off his glasses’ thick lens. In their reflection, I saw the house fire, the roadmaps, the school bus wreck - just the latest swirling vignettes from a life spent chasing news. I could almost hear the splash as the implications of it all washed over him.

“Hey, I know what you’re thinking’. “ I said as he turned my way. “But don’t worry, everyday ain’t this slow."

Sunday, January 23, 2005

More Blogging Photogs

I know exactly how Erin Winking feels. Having recently quit a perfectly good gig in TV news, he‘s clamoring to get back in. I did the same thing once. I got all puffed up about something and stormed out of the only job I ever wanted. I landed across the street, but Erin’s taking his act to Vegas. That’s right - Vegas, baby! Soon young eWink will be cruising the strip in a news car bathed in neon, covering the sins of a city he’s only just discovering. It’s a long way from Springfield.

But let’s talk Cleveland. That’s where you’ll find this imposing figure behind the lens, a giant of a man who goes by the simple name of Newshutr. But nothing’s simple in Ohio. From suicidal seagulls to apathetic looky-loos to achingly elusive smoke plumes, Newshutr sees it all as he patrols Lake Erie’s shore. Otherwise you can find this family man at home, wrestling with his boys, wrangling his cats and blogging about it along the way. Just don’t get him started on the weather.

Still, can it be any colder than in Minneapolis? This Southerner doesn’t think so. But frigid temps don’t stop a squinting lenser named Skinner from doin’ the news in style. This man’s a Sony fan, so keep your freaky iPod speeches to yourself! Skinner simply doesn’t want to hear them, not when he’s jamming’ to his NW-HD1 on the sidelines of some sporting event or another . Unless it’s his beloved Vikes on the gridiron, that is. THEN he listens AND watches through what I have to believe, is one frosty viewfinder.

But our friend LLR has more on his mind than any of us, as is evidenced by this disturbing photo. You see, Lost little Robot is transversing the nation, leaving the familiar gloom of his Portland for the sun-bleached scrub pines of someone else’s South Carolina. Lucky for us, this insatiable communicator is issuing dispatches along the way as he and a friend trek Southeast towards the lesser of the Carolinas. Judging from his earliest posts, it’s gonna be a geeky ride. What could be more fun?

Tiger by the Tail

Pete from Spokane files a report on big cats and root canal that illuminates the intoxicating access afforded your local lenslinger. It's the kind of surrealistic episode that propels us through mind-erasing stretches of more mundane matters: protracted board meetings, glassy-eyed ribbon-cuttings, soul-withering press release parties. It's enough to make an aging news-chaser stare longingly at his pager. Until the damn thing goes off, that is.

Truth is, there's nothing better than being waved past the barricade, ushered backstage or escorted upfront just so I can stick my lens in the hoopla. It’s one of the many reasons I keep reporting for duty every weekday (that and a mortgage!). Sure, I could be exiled to a sleepy boardroom to fidget and pace ‘til news-time, but then again - if I wound up clinging to a crumbling riverbank as panicky firemen scrambled down to save a couple of half-drowned boaters, well - it wouldn't be the FIRST time. No, let the bean counters and staple-arrangers have their cushy cubicle, I'll take my chances on the open road - where the call of the wild and a page from the desk will soon plunge me back into spectacle.

I just hope I get lunch.