Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Flirtin' with Irma

If you've ever balanced your microwave oven off one shoulder while stumbling through a two-day car wash, then you know a little of what it feels like to televise a tropical storm. Did I mention the microwave can't get wet? It's a small detail, but one you'll come to dwell on when you're forced to cover a national story with a soaking wet Etch-A-Sketch.

Don't get me wrong. My thirty six hours of discomfort don't even register on the same scale as those truly suffering the cruelties of Hurricane Irma. Whole livelihoods were swept away in South Florida, a region my wife's family calls home. But the suits sent me to Charleston, where what was left of an unfathomable maelstrom took a great big runny dump on The Holy City.

Ace reporter Mark Boyle and I pulled into town 24 hours before Irma did. The hotel was on the waterfront, teeming with fleeing Floridians, but otherwise fine. We laid low, looked at our phones and wrapped my camera in several layers of customized rain covers and uncustomized trash bags. Several bungee cords and half a roll of duct tape later, we were ready for the Great Suckening to come. 

Boy, did it. Monday morning brought with it forty mile an hour winds and the kind of rain they wrote about in The Old Testament. Sure, forty mile an hour winds is but a breeze compared to the Category 5 storm that turned parts of the Caribbean into splinters, but when you're slopping through waist deep water while God sprays a garden hose up your nose, rote comparisons lose their luster.

So too does news-gathering. There's a lingering moment in the car after you've found some high piece of ground to park on and before you dare to open the door. You sit there dreading what's to come, knowing that before you can even get around back to pop the tailgate, every fiber of your being will be soaking wet, your camera lens will fog over and an insidious chafing will threaten to push all thoughts of journalism to the periphery.

But then water bullets pepper your flesh, the wind pins your ears back and the reporter beside you  starts gesturing with his microphone. You can't hear him, but you shoulder your rig anyway, fight your way past all that plastic and sink into the eyepiece. There you find the tiny screen playing back some close-up of a shower door, then you realize your lens is so fogged up you may as well turn the viewfinder off for the duration of your stay.

Not that it matters much. Composition and clarity takes a hit when stop signs threaten to take flight, Sequencing and flair fall by the wayside when utility pole transformers explode overhead. Even focus can falter when that flash flood you're wading through begins to lap at your loins. Me, I go into survival mode, hunching low in the deluge and cursing myself for not paying more attention to all those teachers who told me I could do so much better if only I tried.

But even that fades away as my fingers pucker and my soul threatens to do the same. But who am I kidding? Had you told the eleven year me all the things I would one day do in the name of news, I would have coughed up my favorite Ray Bradbury paperback to go ahead and get started. Now, looking back at age 50, I wonder for not the first time what all those head-long rushes into dirty weather will ever add up to...

I'm guessing trench foot and, quite possibly, a hernia.