Saturday, September 09, 2006

Looking for Lost Boys (part 1)

By the time I got to Danbury, the hunt for the two White boys was four days old. In that time the foothills community of 106 had grown to seven times that number, its thin twisting roads choked with pick-up trucks full of canoes and mountain men. Most nodded at my passing logo as dawn broke over town. Cresting a hill, I saw the upturned satellite dishes in the distance and eased off the gas. The TV truck encampment at the far end of the lot was just a small part of the haphazard fleet surrounding the Danbury Volunteer Fire Department - epicenter of the search. I found a wedge of muddy grass to park in out back and left my gear in the car. Walking up the humble building’s sloped yard, I wove a thread through the emergency vehicles, jeeps and SUV’s. A sleepy bloodhound yawned at me from the bed of an F- 150 as the crusty driver eyed me narrowly over his morning dip. Another clutch of locals with creased faces and camouflage hip waders took in the new TV dude as I made my way up to the broadcast lights. Stationed just a few feet from each other, three separate news crews went live for their respective morning shows. The dimly lit fire station stood in the background as the three attractive females peered into their partner’s lenses, their voices blending into a twisted litany of facts and innuendo.

“Of course four year old J.W. and three year old Jacob White have been missing since Tuesday afternoon when they wandered away from their Grandparent’s homes…”

“More than 700 volunteers have turned out for the search, everyone from police department dive teams to lady auxiliary clubs to cadaver dogs and their handlers…”

“After finding absolutely nothing, searchers are re-focusing on the nearby Dan River, which was swollen with rainwater the day the two boys disappeared.”

As the reporters drone on, I scanned the growing crowd and traded whispers with a bored cameraman. He’d been on scene since the beginning, knew all the players and the best places to eat. To hear him tell it, the story was all but over. ‘Takes three days for bodies to surface,’ the veteran of countless drowning scenes said. “You goin’ to breakfast with us?”


Mercifully, the Toyota turned. It first blew by me five minutes earlier, the three bright kayaks stuffed in the bed catching my attention. Eager to get the day started, I pulled out behind it and gave chase. Back at the fire department, the morning crews were hunched out over take-out plates and chatting up the locals. I meanwhile was on the hunt for fresh video, something to use for the noon update my bosses were already urging viewers not to miss. It had been slim pickings, even after the individual teams began fanning out across the fifteen mile search zone. Thus, the speeding blue Toyota was essential prey. As it shot down a straight stretch of Dodgetown Road, I did my best to keep up, desperate for something, anything to commit to disc. But the blue speck ahead only grew smaller. I was beginning to think the driver was trying to lose me when the truck’s bright red brake lights signaled his intentions.

Ninety seconds later, I threw Unit 4 into park and scrambled to lift the tailgate. As I lifted my camera out of its case, the Toyota’s doors opened and three swarthy locals tumbled out. By the time they lay a hand on the kayaks in the back, I was hovering over them, my giant lens inches from the well-worn life-vests. I remained silent and so did they. When they hoisted their small tapered boats over the shoulders and walked into the woods, I held my camera low and tagged along, abandoning my tripod by the side of the road. The boaters continued to ignore me as I switched up angles, changing the camera’s position every fifteen seconds in a continuous attempt to flesh out the storyboard in my head. I’d bagged about five or so shots when the men slid into their streamlined craft and pushed their weight across the water. Wrapping my arm around a tree, I steadied up my lens and cursed my tripod’s absence as the bright red boats zipped off across the roiling Dan River. Through the viewfinder, the scene looked like the opening of a beer commercial like a beer commercial, not the fourth dismal launch of a grisly expedition. A buzzing sensation on my hip broke me from my lens’s trance.

“Heads-up Stewie,” Joe said from the doorway of our sat truck. “Looks like a bunch of K-9’s are heading your way…”

Fifteen minutes and a few more miles passed before I once again fired up my camera. This time I was high above the river, leaning against my tripod in the narrow shoulder of a rickety bridge. Every time a speeding truck bounded over its concrete expanse, I could feel the pavement subtly sway with the impact of the weight. A strange sensation when your pressed against the eyepiece, staring at a distant spot hundreds of yards away. It was all I could do not to wince with each passing car, but doing so ruined my shot and I hadn’t schlepped my gear all the way uphill just to sightsee. Instead I honed in on a flash of orange down own the riverbank until the cadaver dog in a safety vest drew into view. Behind him, the bloodhound’s handler called his name, prompting the animal to look back in annoyance - or so it looked from my high perch up on the overpass. Either way, the highly compressed vista was just what I needed for the upcoming noon live shot - even if the series of shots signified nothing in the long run. It wasn’t closure I was seeking, but rather, simple exposure. I was wondering what I might bag next when the cell phone beckoned.

“Stew, Kenny. Can you come back and edit for Brent? Some guys just tore out of here with yellow tape and I’m gonna check it out.”

(Tomorrow: Dreaded Resolution)

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Guests of the Ayatollah

So what do you do when a favorite journalist pens a hefty tome on you first political rememberance? You drop some coin for the hardback and savor every syllable. That's what I did with Guests of the Ayatollah, Mark Bowden's 637 page chronicle of the Iran Hostage Crisis. As he did in Killing Pablo and Black Hawk Down, Bowden weaves diverging timelines into rapid-fire situation reports, making the reader feel like a fellow operative on whatever dark exploits he examines. Here, Bowden has much to juggle: the clumsy yet effective takeover of a sleepy embassy by idealistic and often bumbling college students, the decaying mental state of the 66 American staffers caught in a surreal slumber party of deprivation and third world fervor, the seeming paralysis of President Carter to do anything about it, and the foolhardy courage of a young Delta Force - training for a daunting rescue mission that would end in confusion and spilled blood at a place called Desert One. Like the humiliating and protracted stalemate it describes, Guests of the Ayatollah bogs down somewhere in the middle. But all is forgiven at book's end, when the epic tale of America vs. Iran comes to a troubling close. It's the all too probable sequel that worries me.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Tonight, on Broadcast Gladiators...

Investigative reporters rarely engender sympathy, but you have to feel sorry for XETV’s John Matte - who suffered a televised beat-down that has to be viewed repeatedly to be fully absorbed. Matte and his photog were following up on a fraud report when the wife of the man they were investigating showed up with accented threats and a volatile bottle of water. What followed is an interlude worthy of an SNL sketch, but the laughter ends abruptly when hubby shows up. Accused con-man Sam Suleiman didn't bring any H20 but he did pack his can of whup-ass. With a sucker punch and an awkward grapple, Suleiman commits wanton on-camera assault, only to be hemmed in by a beefy bystander. From there the footage grows ever more surreal, with good wife Rosa berating the lens while her esteemed husband rolls around in the grass with two other grown men. If it weren't so pathetically stupid, it'd be kinda funny.

But I swear, I'm not laughing. No one deserves to be physically abused, even guys with wireless microphones and good hair. In this case, the reporter-turned punching bag is also an attorney. Methinks he'll fare okay in a court of law. But the resulting footage has sparked quite the debate in newsrooms and message boards. When to 'film' and when to help? The first thing news managers will tell you to do if you're assaulted is to keep rolling. That way there's irrefutable evidence of just what when down before the authorities arrive. It's wise enough advice, but I still think I'd have a hard time stepping back for a wide shot if my partner of the day were suddenly being pummelled. (Well, there was that one guy I wouldn't mind seeing take a punch. Or three.) Hey, I'm no gladiator, but I am a Southern man who grew up with brothers. Staying out of the fray ain't exactly in my DNA.

Luckily, the kind of stories I tend to cover don't feature alot of fisticuffs. Let's just say you won't find too many enraged combatants down at band camp. Until the triangle players show up, that is. Those guys are vicious!

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Jonesing for a Manifesto

This Just In: A befuddled Lenslinger has reportedly taken himself hostage in his upstairs lair with an ample supply of Guatamalan coffee, a few tattered notebooks and his beloved Achtung Baby CD. Analysts believe the photog-blogger is staging a desperate attempt to write something worthy. Details of his progress are sketchy, but alarmed neighbors have reported seeing an overly furry figure in wrinkled cabanawear striking Elvis-like Kung Fu poses in front of his second story window. A SWAT team has yet to be called, but Reactionary News 6 has obtained copies of three abandoned diatribes - all fished out of the Pittman family dumpster by our crack squad of I-Team hairspray vultures...

Steve Irwin is dead and no one's happy about it. That includes me; my kids love The Crocodile Hunter and explaining his sudden demise was a lousy was to start the week. My oldest says she wants to be a zoological vet. She may change her mind but I credit the exuberant Australian with kick-starting her interest in the field. I'll miss his Uber-Ossie schtick, his too-tight khaki shorts and most of all the way his proclivity for wrestling wild animals made my friends at the N.C. Zoo go absolutely batshit. As for that video of his underwater death, let's hope it never surfaces. Otherwise the photog (and the ghoul)in me will demand I watch it. Just being honest.

Jury selection has begun in the Rhode Island nightclub tragedy known as the Great White Fire. There are enough victims and survivors of this blaze to fuel a thousand posts, but as always, I think of the shooter. When WPRI photog Brian Butler saw the band's pyrotechnics first ignite the foam covered walls, he wisely retreated, kept his camera focused and reportedly urged others to get out as well. Three minutes later the club was an inferno. Some pundits faulted him for not doing more, but that's an easy call from a cushy confines of an air-conditined news-set. Having cut my own teeth shooting local bands in crowded nightclubs, I wonder if I would have had the state of mind to seek immediate egress - let alone keep rolling.

For better or worse, Katie Couric is now the face of the CBS Evening News. Let's see... overpayed morning mouthpiece lands coveted anchor gig at damaged tiffany network while jealous colleagues recoil and a nation of viewers swoon. Nope, couldn't care less. It's my belief that the protracted brouhaha will eventually be judged as much to do about nothing - as the cult of personality is one the wane now that advanced technology makes it so easy to customize personal news intake. Besides, who still watches evening newscasts anyway? Wait - don't answer that. I gotta show my face in the newsroom tomorrow and pretend I'm enthused about filling ninety more seconds of dead air. Can't we just show an old Bullwinkle episode instead?

Stay tuned to Reactionary News 6 for extensive team smotherage of this unfolding story. Just don't get too excited, this guy hasn't written anything worth a damn since early 2005...