Saturday, June 10, 2006

Pining for Fife

Fan in MourningNeill Shelton is Angry. You would be too, if your plans of building a statue of Barney Fife had just been lopped off at the knees. For the past couple of months, this Mount Airy native and others have been working furiously to bring a bronze effigy of the bug-eyed deputy to Andy Griffith's hometown. Funds were raised and sketches were drawn, but now a letter from a big city attorney has informed the group they don’t have the rights to recreate the late, great Don Knott’s likeness. The cease and desist order from an overdressed out-of-towner has left the wobbly lawman’s legion of fans positively thunderstruck. When I sat down with Shelton the day after he got the news, he crumpled into the Kountry Kitchen’s corner booth like a broken man.

“It’s such a shame we made so much progress,” he said with the empty stare of a freshly displaced storm victim, “just have it nipped in the bud, so to speak.”

Fife ShirtIf this lavish devotion to a decades-old sitcom character strikes you as strange, you didn’t grow up in North Carolina - and you damn sure ain’t been to Mayberry. If you had, you’d know the echoes of the Andy Griffith Show still reverberate in the Old North State. Sure, those idyllic and omnipotent episodes represent a simpler time that really never was, but they serve as a comforting touchstone for generations of viewers. Further, this indelible folly is an endless source of pride for many North Carolinians. One person’s scatchy rerun is another’s deeply revered mythology. Me - I’m somewhere in the middle. The age old comedy’s glaring lack of Arfican-Americans always troubled me for a series set so firmly in the South, but then again, who looks for realism in a sitcom anyway? I was just happy to bask in the comedic genius that was young Don Knotts. For that reason alone, I always enjoy the breezy streets of Mount Airy and would stand in line to pause somberly before an emboldened Barney in bronze. Alas, it wasn’t mean to be.

“Who wouldn’t wanna pay tribute to one of the funniest humans ever?” Shelton asks.

Attorneys for the Knotts estate, apparently.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Bruised Fruit of the Eternal Pursuit

“Stewart - we got a high speed pursuit!”

The Unblinking One‘There goes lunch’ I thought as I dropped the Explorer into drive and pulled out of my hard-earned parking space. Hungry as I was, all culinary quests would have to wait as long as my Assignment Manager was bandying about those three words. The very syllable combination throws down a spot news gauntlet that the even the worst responder cannot ignore. Why, even I leaned into the steering wheel as I shook off the last vestige of cross-town traffic. Somewhere to the South, several Greensboro Police cruisers were chasing an alleged bank robber in a red SUV down Highway 421. But they weren’t the only ones hurled into the void. Behind them, an itinerant detachment of paramedics, investigators, firefighters and journalist raced in their wake - each pushing themselves to personal limits, just so they can be ringside when the shit goes down. Welcome to my Wednesday.

Not as PlannedAt no time did I harbor any hope of catching the pursuit on camera. Though I’ve seen it done, capturing footage of a high speed chase without a helicopter is tricky at best. I do remember a priceless few seconds of videotape obtained by the great Kevin O Brien, who had the energy and forethought to set up his camera and sticks along the path of a cross-county chase. When the late-model sedan screamed into view, the underage occupants waved to K.O.’s camera like they were the lead car in a parade. In essence, they were. Since then, I’ve drafted after my own share of squad cars and never came away with much more than the bruised fruits of so many pointless pursuits. For a while Sheriff Gerald Hege kept things interesting, what with his habit of chasing offenders out of his jurisdiction and opening fire. (No doubt about, it that guy was good for business.) With the renegade sheriff now concocting his memoirs somewhere far off the highways, sustained chases have been hard to come by. Hey, this ain’t L.A.

At the OfficeIt is however, d-e-e-e-e-p in the heart of NASCAR Country, and many a man in uniform considers himself worthy of his very own HANS device. So it didn’t surprise me when the next breathless phone call reported that Phase One of the chase was already over. Seems the squad cars rubbed a little paint in Turn 2 and the red SUV now simmered upside down with a possible fuel spill. Ahead of me, the ambulance I’d been closing in on killed his lights and let off the gas. I followed the rolling box all the way to the cop-car convention in question. When the driver snaked through a phalanx of fire trucks, I pulled my news unit over to the shoulder and hit the flashers. In the distance, I saw the red SUV resting on its roof, surrounded by cops, firefighters and road-kill groupies. Grabbing my gear I schlepped forward and scanned the horizon for whatever may be left of the driver.

Nelson Kepley, ProMine wasn’t the only lens aloft when the stretcher did appear. Thirty seconds after I arrived, competitors, rogues and allies emerged from the mist. As a pesky deputy scanned the menagerie of news-gatherers for whom to hassle next, we all fell into easy conversation, picking up on topics we’d delved into the last time the lot of us were stranded by calamity. Of course all talk stopped when the paramedics in the distance wheeled the gurney into view. Like snipers lying in wait, we took to our crosshairs and silently tracked the status of the patient in question. Strapped into the stretcher, he lay perfectly still as two beefy medics steered him toward the ambulance. When the highly-reflective doors slammed shut a few moments later, chatter in the press gallery resumed.

Roadkill PaparraziAbout what, I don’t really recall. A little technical minutia here, a few salacious rumors there - you know, just the kind of thing you yammer on about when standing around bored in your workspace. It’s this water-cooler chat of the roadside variety that has long held your lenslinger in great sway. Something about chewing the fat in the face off all that bent sheet metal reminds me of the good ole days - when every squawk of the scanner brought with it a new kind of adventure. These days I’d far rather wax poetic than drive like a fireman, but since I still serve at the pleasure of the News Gods, spontaneous ditch-bank servitude can only be expected. Perhaps when I retire, I’ll buy an old ambulance and stock it with food, scanners and drink - thus ensuring no working stiff with a wide angle will ever have to listen to his stomach rumble by the fluttering crime tape again...

Naaah, I’ll probably just move to the coast.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Order of the Fork

I was mentally willing a stoplight to turn green today when, inexplicably, I whispered a long-buried refrain:

“We are, we are, we are, we are the Order of the Fork…”

Suddenly I was thirteen again, sweating profusely in a Boy Scout t-shirt as the older guys took up their forks and marched around the mess hall while singing at the top of their hairy lungs….

“We are, we are, we are, we are the Order of the Fork…”

Every Wednesday after the noon meal, the more muscular staff members of Camp Tuscarora struck dread in the hearts of their less developed campers with this most unsanctioned of initiations. For three long weeks in a row I’d sighed with relief as they’d passed me over for some other squirming unfortunate.

“We are, we are, we are, we are the Order of the Fork…”

But I was living on borrowed time. As a junior camp counselor, I was a prime target for the older guys’ abuse. I’d held up pretty well so far, but as a bookish dork not good at anything but reciting Steve Martin comedy albums, I deeply dreaded this inevitable ritual.

“We are, we are, we are, we are the Order of the Fork…”

Their voices grew louder with each new burly member that joined the chant. Marching around the crowded mess hall, they slammed their fist in unison on passing tables to punctuate their mantra. Then they’d poke some feeble young schmuck in the ass and drag him to the center of the cavernous hall.

“We are, we are, we are, we are the Order of the Fork…”

I knew I was in trouble when I spotted Steve-O leering at me with unmitigated glee. Steve-O was a big, rangy farm boy who took special delight in my lack of athleticism and penchant for difficult words. When he and his thug buddies drew near, I knew the jig was up - even before the dull tines pierced my tender flesh.

“We are, we are, we are, we are the Order of the Fork…”

Instantly, I was on my feet, surrounded by a crush of Jamboree ’76 shoulder patches and chest hair. Behind me, straggling members of the Forked Brotherhood reached over and got their own tardy jabs in. I barely felt a thing as I was locked and loaded on the industrial size stainless steel pitcher being held above the crowd.

“We are, we are, we are, we are the Order of the Fork…”

Their off-kilter hymn increased in volume and tempo as a beefy pair of hands poured the pitcher’s grisly contents into an oversized mug and thrust it into my reluctant palms. Though I knew better, I couldn’t help but examine the swill within. The color of pancake batter and the consistency of kindergarten vomit, the gritty bile glistened and sloshed as the crush of counselors pushed the vile mixture to my lips…

“We are, we are, we are, we are the Order of the Fork…”

Afraid I’d dry heave in front of God and everybody if I didn’t get it over it with, I allowed the mess hall rotgut to be poured down my throat. Despite being a committed finicky eater, I swallowed and gasped as thick streams of chunky scum poured down both sides of my mouth. What little cross my tongue tasted like liquid cigarette butts and purified cat litter. But with out-ranking giants all around me, I had no choice but to force it down - knowing for certain that, if it didn’t kill me on the spot, this abominable concoction would somehow make me a man…

“We are, we are, we are, we are the Order of the Fork…”


I hate long stoplights.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Stripes of a Lifer

George HarrisonLadies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for George Harrison! Not the late Beatle, mind you - but the laidback, laconic photog who's been a steady presence amid Piedmont camera circles for almost thirty years. That's right. Thirty years. For the same station. In his time at WFMY, George Harrison has served under fifteen News Directors, four General Managers and three station owners. As for how many reporters he's carried over the daily deadline, the math gets a little fuzzy - but it's safe to say hundreds of talking hair-do's have made their bones with ole George by their side. That kind of longevity is the stuff of fiction in a business rife with turn-over, skullduggery and discontent. How he's managed his sanity all these many moons, I don't know, but I'll chalk it up to his endless reservoir of calm, his quiet knowledge that today's shriek and bombast are just trumped-up echos of broadcasts past. Of course, George will just tell you he's just doing a job he loves and he hopes everyone can find their true calling. That said ... once he wins the new N.C. Lottery Powerball, HE'S OUTTA HERE!

(This Just In: "Ain't gon' be no live shot...")

The Ever Elusive Applebee's Opus

"Hey your bride in bed?"

What a strange question, I thought as I stared at dim blue light creeping across the bedroom ceiling. Beside me the woman in question shifted under a twisted knot of covers and cat. Through the phone, I could hear muffled voices barking on a crackling police scanner.


"Some jackass is holdin a girl hostage at AppleBee's," my father said with that matter-of-fact tone of a first responder. "Thought for a minute it might be Shelly."

Suddenly I was up, standing on the second-hand bed's crappy mattress and almost hitting the broken ceiling fan. Below, my young wife sat up in bewilderment and the cat shot out of the room. In the distance, the voices on the distant scanner were arguing.

"Say that again." I said, dodging the fan's dead, dusty blades.

"There’s a gunman inside AppleBee‘s, with a girl from last night’s shift. Turn on your TV, boy and call me back." CLICK.

And thus begins my adventure behind the lens. A cinematic tale of a chilly morning in 1993, 'The Applebee's Incident' has served me well at cocktail parties and camera clusters. But proper documentation of my very first news story continues to elude me. That bites, as it's the opening scene in the book I'm still not writing. 'All I gotta do is overhaul this opus and the rest of my short stories fall in order', I tell my project coach and myself. We both know it won't be that easy, but it's evident I have to work through this long, complicated, conflicted tale before I get to the not so simple business of pruning and collation. So, why am I telling you this? I dunno - beats straining my melon trying to remember ancillary facts of my punk-ass past. Besides, a few of you out there know the incident of which I speak. One or two of you were even there beside me that day. What do you recall of March 5, 1992?