Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Wizard of IZ

Mehringer in the IZWhile I spent the morning chatting up Hip-Hop C-lister Fonzworth Bentley, an old cohort of mine picked his way through a war-zone. Steve, a mild-mannered newscast producer, is in Baghdad. Apparently life in a Florida newsroom wasn't stressful enough, so this young family man followed a whim and applied for a position with the US Embassy in Iraq. Much to his surprise, he got it and after some training, found himself huddling on the floor of a sleek black chopper with a couple of nervous new cohorts as the sand-blasted rooftops of Baghdad hove into view...
The Blackhawk drops into the LZ (landing zone) like a stone, but lands like a feather. We scrambled to heft our luggage to the ground and move quickly away from the whirling blades of the chopper. We were all wearing 35 lbs. of body armor and helmets and trying to lug a year's worth of gear across the tarmac. The Blackhawk lifted off again and the thud-thud-thud-thud-thud from its rotors faded into the sky.

As the silence washed around us we started looking around the LZ. It was just a giant paved parking lot surrounded by tall cement barriers (T-Walls). So there we stood. We'd come halfway around the world in 4 days. We finally made it to Baghdad and there was no one even waiting for us. Never one to overlook the obvious I said, "Where the hell are we supposed to go?" There were no guides, no one to ask for directions, not even a sign with a big arrow saying "This Way ===>". So we moved toward what looked like an opening in the T-walls and hoped for the best.
Read the rest of his unnerving arrival in Iraq at his already amazing blog. The Steve I know is clever and capable. I trust he'll keep his wits about him and make it back to the states safely. While he's there though, I 'll look forward to every one of his trenchant missives from a most perilous locale. Just be careful...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Rocks In His Pockets

Compared to the grown-ups riding on the rumbling harvester in the field, those of us unloading the barn had it made in the shade. At least that’s how I saw it back in the summer of 1978, as a man I knew only as Mr. Dan‘l passed me fragrant bundle after fragrant bundle of crinkly, flue-cured leaves. Still a summer away from riding the harvester myself, I’d spent the summer doing whatever light work Mr. Franklin could find for me. He got more work out of my older brother Rich, who’d already won a seat on the punishing underside of that rickety harvester in the distance. Slung low on a plastic seat, Rich snapped the finest leaves off every passing stalk, before attaching them to a chain-driven pulley that trundled the roughage above. That’s where the older girls stood, pulled the sticky green flora from the rotating clips and tying them to rough-cut three foot poles. It was dirty work all around and at the moment I didn’t mind missing out on it.

Besides, there was plenty to do back at the barn. Once the dim interior was emptied of every leathery golden leaf, there were tractor carcasses to crawl over, dirt circles to draw and Mountain Dews to pilfer from forgotten drink coolers. For now however there were hundreds of leathery gold leaves to unload and Dan’l and I worked fast to upsize any downtime. If we could just finish up before the harvester crew brought back a pallet of their sticky wet cargo, I’d have time to plunder and Dan’l could sit and dip his snuff in the shade. At least I thought it was snuff. Truth is, I wasn’t sure to make of the grizzled old man in the John Deere cap. A speech impediment of sorts cloaked the meaning of his words in eroded syllables. He wore crusty overalls and carried rocks in his pockets. I never understood much of what he said, but I did marvel at his ability to nap on command. In return, he seemed to tolerate my presence the way an old porch dog might regard the runt of someone else’s litter.

I guess that made us friends. Dismissed as a simpleton by many in the community, Mr. Dan’l (never Daniel) taught me an important life lesson that day. He did so - by dropping dead, right in front of me. Actually, my head was turned when it happened. Stretching my neck to check the harvester’s progress, I heard a muffled thud behind me and turned to see old Dan’l laying face-down in the dirt. The next few minutes were a blur. A nearby adult saw the old man drop and he tried to shoo me away as he ran up and rolled the prone figure over. Dan’l’s face was purple. The very sight caused me to backpedal in the dust and as I did, my brother and others raced up on foot. Already a volunteer fireman, Rich dropped to his knees and with the help of others began pumping the old farmhand’s chest. Dan’l didn’t respond. As my brother and the grown-ups huddled over him, farm trucks poured into the path leading to the barn. Eventually an ambulance screamed into view, its driver and attendant confirming Dan’l’s death. As if on cue, it began to rain.

I witnessed many firsts that day. I watched my brother keep his cool in the face of calamity - a character trait that would define his coming career as a firefighter, paramedic and all-around hero on-demand. I saw how unexpected death affected people differently, from the melodramatic gasps of the teenage girls climbing off the harvester, to the matter-of-fact chatter of Dan’l’s rustic contemporaries. Mostly, I remember the sudden arrival of Dan’l’s brother, who took one look under the stretcher’s sheet and began wailing in a way I would never have guessed a man in his sixties could. It must have embarrassed his wife, who shooshed and shamed him until he wandered off in the rain to grieve among the tobacco plants. Sad as I was, I don’t remember crying that day. I was too busy taking in the scene. From Dan’l’s purple face, to my brother’s efforts to save him to the unspoken summit of weathered faces that showed up to cast dry eyes on an old friend’s corpse -- I can see it all so clearly 29 long years later.

I hope that you can, too.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Fertile Milieu

Style and ProfileIf John Grisham can make legal briefs the stuff of thrillers, surely I could work up something in the newsgathering genre. What other profession offers so many twisted senarios for the budding scribe to hang prose on? Consider the following true scenarios - in an ever annoying Foxworthy-like format...

Ever follow a love of lights and language down a long plastic hallway, until you realize the exciting career you never dreamed you’d have is about to drive you up the broadcast tower out back? Ever watch UPS drivers deliver packages and wonder how it might differ from the silly gig you got?

Ever wish for death as every war veteran in the freakin’ retirement home clamored for the cameraman’s attention? Ever fake a forest fire pager alert and slink out of the room to the cheers of your lap-quilted admirers? I’ll surely pay for that one.

Ever cringe behind the lens as the mullet-wearing daughter of a murder victim jumps out of her beat-up Nova and screams at the burly Sheriff deputies digging up her father‘s six month old grave? It‘s the kind of thing that sticks with ya.

Ever regret not charging that last battery as the Governor hugs the podium and every brick you got goes dead? Ever rooted around your fanny-pack in stark denial as network field producers scoff at you from behind their cappuccinos?

Ever bitch about the flood zone, the heat and the bosses with your sat truck buddies all day - until catching sight of an old man sorting through his every flood soaked possession on a sweltering park bench made you not wanna talk at all?

Ever feign empathy as the distraught citizen in your lens explains how the nut-bag down the street is ruining the entire condominium complex? Ever pull that same reassuring nod with said nut-bag only minutes later? Ever not stop to care who’s right?

Ever use a drop dead gorgeous intern to enchant the smarmy faculty yaks of a private college - all so you can get the kind of leafy enclave footage out of stock at the local community college’s dumpy smoking hut? Every threaten to taser an aging horn-dog in a thousand dollar suit?

Ever drive fast with your ass off the seat as state troopers tear by you with their lights and sirens blazing? Ever follow ‘em at unthinkable speeds until the guy in front driving the stolen highway patrol car wipes out just inside the county line? Ever schlep a camera past a frozen parade of badly-parked patrol cars?

Ever whip an elementary school lunchroom into a scene from ‘Lord of the Flies’ simply by poking your lens into the room? Every try to convince a reading rug full of pre-schoolers not to bum-rush the nice cameraman? Every wish you’d done better in school yourself?

Yeah, me neither...

New Media Jim

Jim Long and his HMIThere's a new blogging photog on the scene and he's got a truckload of opinions. Why shouldn't he? Jim Long's been honing his photog chops for 18 years, mostly as an NBC cameraman. In that time he's seen alot pass through the glass, but it hasn't seemed to soften his focus one iota. Instead, Long zeroes in on emerging trends with a sniper's eye, displaying an enthusiasm for our ever-changing craft rarely found in journeyman lensers. I think I have a new hero. Well, maybe that's pushing it - but I do so dig Jim's prolific output. Every time I pass by his slick-ass site, he's posting videos, floating concepts, taking on Rosenblum and generally tilting at whatever windmills pop up on the electronic horizon. Who can keep up with that? I won't even try, but I will keep a close eye on this shrewdest of news shooters. Check him out yourself. His vigorous missives are far tastier fare than the warmed-over angst casseroles I've been serving up lately...

Next Up: -- The Urban Reporter

Monday, April 09, 2007

Mooning for Clooney

Clooney Goons TwoPlease Lord, let Leatherheads wrap. The George Clooney vehicle has been shooting in and around the Piedmont for weeks now and quite frankly, I'm growing weary. Why? Every other morning I walk into work, some show producer accosts me with a road map and an 8x10 glossy of the Sexiest Man Alive. This, I can do without. But ever since a newspaper picture of Rosemary's nephew overpaying for lemonade hit the stands last week, there has been a fatwa of sorts on the actor's visage. Today that image jihad struck your local lenslinger and before I could check my station e-mail, I was dispatched forty minutes down the interstate, late for a sorta-date with that dude from 'Syriana'. God, how I hate Mondays.

My mood improved when I spotted the logo. Until then, I wasn't sure I would get anything. But when I saw the News 14 truck parked by the entrance to the Transportation Museum, I knew I wasn't the only one on Operation: Overgroomed Goose Chase. Aaron Mesmer already had the museum's PR chick framed up when I sidled up beside him. A one man band himself, the young reporter and I exchanged cowboy nods as the lady with the name-tag prattled on for our cameras. Yes, Clooney and crew were just beyond the gate and no, lowly TV types like ourselves were NOT invited to come in and do Botox with them. No surprise there. I knew before I ever left the parking lot that I stood a better chance of running over Osama Bin Laden somewhere outside Thomasville than score any onscreen time with Mr. Dimples. So I eyed the perimeter for other prey...

And then I saw them. Like birds on a wire, they huddled close in the shadows, heads bobbing in unison with the glimmer of every distant gaffer's laminated backstage pass. Balding father-in-law types with birdwatcher lenses, thug-wannabes sporting Unabomber hoodies and shiny camera-phones, grinning grandmothers with lawnchairs and homemade signs - just the kind of homemade paparazzi that could help fill the ninety second void that would go between the anchor intro and outro I'd already written. Aaron noticed them too, and five seconds after the PR chick stopped talking, we were engaged in an awkward foot-race as we hauled glass toward the clamoring crowd. Mistaking us for friendlies, they foolishly cheered our approach.

That's when things got blurry. Like a scene from the Matrix, Aaron and I dove into the throng all slow-motion like - separating the chatty from the drifter, pinning tiny microphones to the lucid and the cute, fending off those who thought we wielded authority - instead of zoom lenses and silly questions. Mere minutes later, young Mr. Mesmer and I had worked the crowd of Clooney goons for every angle and entendre that sprang to mind. Even the extras dressed in itchy 1920's garb across the street looked form the craft services tent, stretching their per diem necks to see what was going on over in the cheapseats.

TV news, that's what. Mr. Million Dollar Grin may be whining and dining flight attendants in his trailer somewhere, but I got a slot to fill. If that means televising giddy housewives instead of pampered matinee idol, so be it. I'll still eat at home tonight. Of course, the suits will probably send me back here tomorrow, so if you could just pass Mr. Clooney my card, I really would appreciate it. If you need me, I'll be over in the park, trying to get an interview with that guy berating the big oak tree. Hey, I know my place on the food chain...

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Bliss at 20 MPH

Bicycle BlissApril's in full swing, so you know what that means ... New Years Resolution time! One that I've finally managed to check off my list is the resurrection of my once beloved mountain bike. Was a time I rode my Trek every day - but with a job, kids and a delusional website, I've let the damn thing gather cobwebs in the garage for far too long. No more. After dropping some change on a major tune-up, I've crawled back aboard and rediscovered the bliss of zipping along under my own power. So far, I've stuck to the paved greenways that I used to dismiss as mere stroller-fodder, but once I get my legs and balance back I'm gonna rip into the root-infested twisty river-bank single-track I used to haunt on a daily basis. Until then, I'll be dodging toddlers and housewives in designer sweatsuits - when I'm not fumbling with my camera-phone to document the ride, that is (Hey, it's what I do.) Just don't call me a lightweight! Soon enough I'll be back in true earth-surfing form, pushing myself to the very limit of my middle-aged ability and gathering roadrash with every other outing. Along the way I hope to shed a few pounds, terrorize a few squirrels and above all, soak up the solitude. It's even good for the blog. See, I do some powerful thinkin' in the saddle and the renewed physical exertion often inspires me to sit in front of my computer - provided I don't wrap myself around a tree first. It's happened...