Friday, January 6, 2012

Stories I Loved To Write

I don't normally wax nostalgic but today I will make an exception.

The other day someone asked me about my former career as a journalist. No sooner did they learn I had been a print news reporter for more than a decade, they asked: "What was the most interesting story you ever covered?"

Wow. That's a hefty question, especially when it is directed at someone who has written thousands of stories. I felt obliged to pick one, mentioned it, described it, and he was satisfied. That night, however, I found myself still turning the question over in my mind. I was dissatisfied with my own answer because it hardly scratched the surface of what I found to be my most interesting stories.

Elmer Popejoy fought across the desert during WWII as a part of Operation Torch. He distinguished himself in combat as a sergeant and later wrote an autobiography of his experiences. I met with him many times prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. I listened carefully as he described the screaming sound of the German planes ("Der Stuka", he said) as they strafed the desert all around him on a near daily basis. I saw the pain in his eyes as he described each of the young men who were blasted to pieces right in front of him.

I interviewed firefighters who were part of the response team during the 9/11 tragedy in New York. I remember how they spoke in stunned tones about the tragedy; explaining their surprise at finding debris from the collapse a mile or more away; reams of paper from the office buildings, jammed into tiny cracks in the concrete buildings, or wedged with a vengeance into steel fire escape ladders. Even months later these men and women, trained though they were to handle even the most dire emergencies, were still coming to grips with what they'd experienced. Some of them still are, to this day.

Most of all I remember the day I was to fly with the Red Baron Pizza Squadron. My daughter, Annabelle, was just three at the time. The squadron was in town for an airshow and I had secured a ticket to fly with them, interview their flight leader and even shoot some video. I was nervous--it was my first flight in a WWI bi-plane with an open cockpit. Similar to what Snoopy flew when he went into battle with the Red Baron. Anyway, I woke up early and was headed out the door when my daughter stopped me.
"Where are you going daddy?" she asked sweetly.
"I'm going to work, honey. I'll be back later."
She paused, a worried look crossed her face. "No," she said. "You'll never be back again." Then she turned around and toddled away.
Needless to say it took every ounce of my courage to get into that cockpit and fly with those guys that day. No matter they were some of the most skilled pilots who ever took to the air. Never mind that they logged a safety record which was exemplary; I was afraid my daughter had psychic powers and this was her first prediction.
Fortunately for me my daughter is NOT psychic. I came home safe and sound with some awesome photos and videos, and a story I can tell my grandchildren.

So, when it comes to my favorite stories, I guess the answer is, I have so many it is difficult to narrow it down. But a few always seem to push their way to the surface.

How about you? As a writer, what are your favorite stories?


Monica S. said...

In my current PR job with Children Services, my favorite stories have been the ones I've written about some of our foster/adoptive families. Like the single lady who adopted the little boy she was fostering, the couple with health problems of their own who welcomed a baby who was born drug-addicted into their home ... the husband said the child "gave him a reason to get up and live life each morning." Very inspiring folks to interview!

J.G. Wallace said...

As a longtime print journalist with similar experiences I have often been asked to recall my "favorite" story.
I've interviewed many noted people, and plenty of unique and quirky ones also. I've followed cold cases as they suddenly get hot - in one instance a death was reclassified as a homicide largely through my reporting and research.
But the "best" story I ever covered also stands out as a crossroad in my life and I wonder "what if," from time to time.
I worked in Cape May N.J. and often reported on happenings at the Coast Guard training center and other local facilities. One day I was asked if I would be willing to go to sea overnight and report on the hard work performed on a seagoing bouy tender. We'd leave early in the morning, spend a day servicing bouys and other navigation aids, and after a trip to a lighthouse in the Delaware Bay we'd return the next morning. I packed accordingingly and getting the story took little effort. In reality I had everything I needed to write by 2 p.m.
That's about when the weather turned nasty. It was late March but still cold, and the sea became choppy, with 8-10 ft. swells. Then the fog came in as a thick blanket enveloping the 180-ft U.S.S. Hornbeam.
We were stuck. GPS was a novelty in 1994, and the inlet at Cape May is tricky under good conditions. We dropped anchor on a flat bottom and it was there we would stay for three days.
I had a private stateroom, but hadn't packed anything to read and only one change of clothing. I was bored. I stood a bridge watch, mainly learning how the radar worked, and followed the crew around as they did fuel and water tank soundings.
I approached the ship's captain and he agreed to put me to work in the tiny mess. cooking for hungry and thankful people always is fun, and the crew was a great bunch of guys. On the last night out the mess chief let me build a menu based on available stocks - none of us had planned to be out that long. I thawed ham steaks, prepared a bunch of baked ziti, and baked dozens of Italian rolls.
I must have made an impression because when we finally made it back to the dock the word "billet" was becoming part of my vocabulary. I was told that IF I wanted to enlist that a billet would be saved for me to return to the Hornbeam as a cook.
I can't tell you how many times I've sat through a horrible school board meeting or zoning board and wished I had taken that path. I'd have my 20-years in service sometime next year.

Jerry Battiste said...

As I was reading your comment, John, I kept hearing the theme song from Gilligan's Island..."for a three hour tour..."

Caro said...

You know, it's reading posts like this when I realize how right I was not to study journalism. I thought I'd be a journalist pretty much my entire childhood, but in the end I went with Literature and History. When I hear about people interviewing natural disaster survivors or war veterans I realize I wouldn't be strong enough to remain objective and not fall apart.
Oh, and I'm very glad you're daughter isn't a psychic :)