The real question…

real-question

Nine a.m.

My work cell phone rings in the next room, but I don’t hear it. I’m passed out on the couch and my shift doesn’t start until 1 p.m.

A couple minutes later it rings again. I hear it this time, but by the time I trip over my dog and stagger into my office, I missed the call.

As I wipe the sleep out of my eyes and try to figure out who called, my personal cell phone starts ringing on my coffee table.

“Uh oh.”

It’s the breaking news editor. House fire in a little town 20 miles north. Two dead. Fire department is still on scene. Hustle.

I slide into dirty pair of pants and a clean shirt, pull a baseball cap over my greasy hair and head out the door. As I turn around to lock the deadbolt, I watch my dog jump on to the couch to lay on my warm spot.

It’s raining. It’s that kind of heavy mist that coats the windshield even when the wipers are on high. I start driving north while poking the address I scribbled on the back of my hand into the iPhone. I call the editor to tell him I’m on my way.

Thirty minutes later I’m at the end of a soggy red dirt road lined with fire trucks and one of those sticker-covered mini-SUV’s that TV news people drive.

A clean shaven guy with hair sprayed hair is in the road up ahead with a cameraman interviewing a guy on a four-wheeler. I walk through the background of their shot and slow for a couple steps with only slight malice.

I get to the scene. Chat with a fireman named Lt. Dan. Find some neighbors standing in the rain in their back yard.

They’re looking at the fire trucks, the scorched house and two wrinkled white body bags laying side by side in the grass.

cedar-fireweb

They’re sad, shaken up, and emotional — but also excited in that peculiar way people are after they witness movie drama in real life. Nervous laughter occasionally cracks through their solemn expressions. Sadness turns to anger, then back.

Most folks rarely experience that state of mind. News people see it almost every day.

The pages in my notebook soak up rain along with the quotes, and ink bleeds across the paper as I work. One man ran into the burning house while wearing his wife’s robe to try to save the elderly couple inside.

He did his best, but it wasn’t enough.

He’s my lede. I know it even as his words smear across my notepad.

I grab the cell phone and call the breaking news editor with an update. Names. Times. Numbers. A little bit of color — it was a white house. The couple was found in the bedroom but not in bed. The neighbors had a little dachshund named Hanna.

Thirty minutes in the car to the newsroom. Fire up the computer and upload a couple photos to the server. Flip through the soggy notebook. Start to type the story.

The police scanner lights up with several voices. A wreck. The interstate. Fire. Entrapment.

A photographer heads out the door. I keep typing for a few minutes as the editors call other reporters at home. No answer. No answer. The scanner continues to sing. When we can wait no longer, I grab the camera, a couple pencils and an intern, and head back into the rain.

The intern is a senior at UWF. Pretty sharp, but quiet. It’s her first real day working for the paper. She spent the morning covering a farmer’s market.

The fire is out by the time we pull onto the shoulder of the interstate behind the sticker-covered SUVs. White foam blows through the air and between the fire trucks. Seventy degrees outside in January…that foam is the only snow we get in Florida.

It’s funny what thoughts go through your head — what catches your attention when you spend every day seeing all kinds of crazy things. I noticed the foam before I noticed the charred remains of the 18-wheeler it was used to extinguish.

carnage11

The driver didn’t make it. Slid off the road and crashed into some trees. Burned in the rig. The highway patrol investigator laughs when I ask him if they pulled any ID off the body. No way. Barbecue. It’s gruesome.

The intern stands close by as I ask the standard questions. Give the FHP investigator my e-mail. Make a fishing joke with the fire Lieutenant. Snap some photos of the carnage. Scribble some notes. Call in the numbers. Head for the car.

It’s quiet for a few minutes on the ride back to the newsroom. Then she turns to me.

“Is this, like, standard accident coverage for you?”

“Yep, pretty much.”

Much later, after the stories were filed, and the scanner was silent, my thoughts wander back through the day. Through the names, faces, and flames that I put down as words on the page.

I wonder what she was really asking.

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