One of the things I enjoy most about being a journo is hearing, and sharing, stories of past assignments with others in the biz, whether writers, broadcasters or photographers.
Out for dinner recently with a long-married couple, the stories poured out:
— M. was covering the prison beat in a southern U.S. state when the Associated Press called to offer her a job. Miami! Atlanta! Um, no. Jackson, Misisssippi, a place she had to look up in the atlas. But this girl knows from prisons, and told us of her collection of shivs. “One even has blood on it.” The things you learn after a martini or two…
— Her husband, D., was a photographer in the area, working with a very nervous young woman reporter. They were canoeing through a swamp when the lead canoeist warned him, “It’s going to get really gnarly up ahead.” He told her to put her head down and do not look up. The trees were dangling, thickly, with cottonmouths, deadly snakes.
– My husband was in Bosnia, in winter, to photograph the end of the war. It was dusk, and snowing, and their car got stuck. He and the reporter (ego alert!) got into a shouting match over which set of tires should get the snow chains. They finally escaped when a UNHCR truck pulled up and Jose just happened to have a spare carabiner, with which to attach the truck’s cable. (Memo: always carry a carabiner.)
Few other jobs thrust you so often and so rudely into others’ lives, whether a convicted felon or a Prime Minister — I’ve interviewed both.
My journo adventures include:
— Flying to the Arctic town of Salluit, Quebec, pop. 500 or so, on assignment for the Montreal Gazette. We had 24 hours (!) to get the story, which was supposed to be a heart-warming Christmas tale of Southern generosity, as the tiny plane was jammed floor to ceiling with boxes of clothing donated by the Salvation Army. (I hate heart-warming stories.)
Instead, the plane landed about 2:00 p.m. — with an hour left before sunset at that latitude in December — and a local Inuk man on a snowmobile said: “We’ve got a problem. No one wants the clothes. They’re really pissed off.” So we went to the town radio station and he interviewed me in English, then translated it into Inuktitut, to try and mollify everyone enough to speak to me.
We went to a community feast — red jello and caribou — and I heard about an incredible waste of provincial government money used to building a community center so poorly built no one could use it. The floor sagged like a cheap mattress, a total disaster, meaning local kids had nowhere warm, dry and well-lit to play so they were sniffing gasoline and dying in snowbanks instead.
I stumbled onto a powerful story I would never have heard otherwise. (The government, embarrassed, finally decided to fix it.)
— Traveling from Perpignan to Istanbul with a truck-driver who spoke only French. Pierre was a sweetheart. Good thing, since we were single, I 25, he 35, and we had to sleep in the truck, in bunks behind the seats, about two feet from one another. We had no access to showers for the five days and we got pulled over by Bulgarian police who pulled out all my film to ruin. We drove through France, Italy, Romania, Bulgaria, and into Turkey. My three days alone in Istanbul remain one of my favorite memories ever.
— Interviewing a female hunting outfitter in Menard, Texas. Gwynne was a lean, tall, knockout redhead, single by choice, with a Coach handbag and a pistol on the front seat of her truck. She lived on land too dry for any use beyond hunting deer and turkey, so she ran an outfitting operation from what had been a one-room schoolhouse where her grandmother was taught. Of all the people I’ve met, thousands by now, she was one of the most memorable; she died a few years ago in a car accident.
This week, for a story, I’ve been researching de-salination, the patenting process and nanotechnology (God help the English major who never studied physics or chemistry!) Last week I was writing about video games.
I love being paid to find and tell great stories.
I love it when readers say: “I had no idea.”