Chapter Five (this is the eleventh installment of my unpublished novel, The Manhattan Project)
It just occurred to me that you’re probably wondering how a bleeding heart like me ended up working in the news business, where most people think everyone is, as Holden Caulfield used to put it, about as sensitive as a goddam toilet seat. Well, the short answer is that it’s what I always wanted to do, since I was way too young to start thinking about all of this other stuff. I majored in writing at that college I told you about, and headed out to seek my fortune as a journalist. And I never imagined I’d wind up back here working in Bangor, one of the smallest broadcast news markets in the country. I started out in print, with a daily newspaper in a middle-sized city out in the Midwest. It wasn’t really where I wanted to be, but in the news business you go where the work is, and I ended up staying for a long time. In some ways it worked out pretty well; it’s where I met my wife, Jane, who has to be the only person on the face of the earth who could put up with a tortured soul like me.
I was pretty happy in print. My editor gave me free rein as long as I came up with good stories that helped sell newspapers. A few years later, when I’d earned a reputation as a hard-hitting reporter, a local TV news director talked me into jumping to the broadcast side. His name is Fred DeMarco. He was a monk, believe it or not, before he got into the news business. You never would have guessed that talking to him, but if you watch him closely when he’s talking to a reporter about a story, he sometimes slides his hands inside his belt. When he does that, he looks just like a monk slipping his fingers under the rope holding his baggy hooded robe tight around his waist. He’s a real news guy, not one of those hair spray and make-up broadcasters who care more about ratings than covering important stories. I owe him a lot, not least of which is that I probably wouldn’t have met Jane if I hadn’t become a star of local TV. She’s never been impressed by the minor celebrity that goes with being on TV, but she might not have noticed me if I hadn’t beamed into her living room every night. Anyway, Fred always keeps me on the straight and narrow. And he’s a good friend. The truth is, I probably wouldn’t be working now, if it weren’t for him. I’ll get to that.
The point here is that you see a lot of violence doing the news. I mean, we basically thrive on it. You’ve probably heard the expression the cynics use—if it bleeds, it leads. Well, if you work in a city of any size, there’s usually lots of blood to open the show, even when we’re not fighting a war someplace. And sometimes it’s our blood.
I once did a story about some bogus workers who were scamming the local highway department, stealing barrels of ice melt and selling it under the table. The tip-off came from a wacko who’d been fired by the county and wanted to get even with the crooks he’d worked with. We put the story together and got it on the air before anyone else knew about it. And viewers put pressure on the county commissioners to clean it up. That part went just fine, but my tipster wasn’t done with us. He still wanted to have his say in the whole thing, his fifteen minutes of fame, so to speak. So he ordered us to meet him at his beat up cabin back in the woods.
By the time we got there, he was on his second or third fifth of some cheap whiskey, sitting on the porch with a big shiny pistol in his hand. He demanded that we set up the camera and let him spout off. It was a nasty scene and it scared the shit out of me and the very young photographer I was working with. When he took a break to get another bottle of booze, we jumped in the car and tried to blow out of there, but he came back out in time to blast away at us from the porch. One of the bullets pierced the door on my side and slammed into my shoulder. The sight of blood all over the door and me shocked my young companion; she bailed out of the news business not long after that. It shocked me, too. I passed out and spent a couple of days in the hospital, after which I was something of a local hero for a while. But that always wears off. DeMarco was pleased with my work, and sympathetic about my getting shot. But when I got back to the newsroom his attitude was the same as always. “Okay, so you got shot,” he growled, “what are you gonna’ do for me today?” I got over it, and got back to work. At that point, it never crossed my mind that a drunk derelict with a pistol might be connected to the questions that haunted me.
I didn’t think about it when Robbie got shot, either. But I remember the details like it just happened. We heard a call on the police scanner about gunshots over on the city’s west side. A photographer and I jumped in the car and roared down there, but the cops wouldn’t let us get very close. They had yellow tape stretched all around the house to keep us at a safe distance. They told us they thought the woman who lived there had taken a hostage. She’d been firing shots out the back door every so often for a couple of hours. They warned us that she might start shooting out the front if she thought somebody was trying to stop her. So we set up the camera behind a very wide old tree across the street and waited.
After about an hour, my photographer had to head back to the station to shoot some sports, so the desk sent Robbie down to take over. But they didn’t tell him how tense the situation was. He got the address and headed toward us. When he got there, he didn’t notice the police tape. He just came cruising down the street and slammed on the brakes right in front of the house. He accidentally honked the horn as he was getting out, and when he stood up and looked toward the house, the woman inside fired one shot right through his forehead. We watched the whole thing from across the street, helpless. Robbie’s head snapped back, and then he slowly fell over backwards. The blood spread out in a pool around his head. He didn’t move. It was a truly horrible moment. The cops couldn’t believe what just happened, but they couldn’t really do anything, either, without giving the woman another target to shoot at. So the cops stood where they were, on either side of the house, and we froze behind the tree, our legs shaking. Again, it never occurred to me that what happened to Robbie somehow connected to the killing I couldn’t understand.
Hell, I wasn’t even close to seeing what I see now when we had to do all that reporting on the Gulf War, Bush’s War. I just did what they told me to do. The war started after Fred DeMarco got pushed out because our ratings were too low. They didn’t even give him a chance to say goodbye, just ushered him out the door over a weekend, and brought in a stooge named Jon Lenhard that our consultant told the GM was smart and hip and knew how to turn things around.
Actually, other than having to cover all the troop departures, the war itself wasn’t so bad. In those days, the network kept the ball in its court, offering up extended live coverage, and taking most of the cash for all of the commercials they could sell in the extra air time.
I wound up anchoring because the new news director, Lenhard, had heard about the stories I’d done and the bump in ratings that showed up shortly after I got there. He was an oily bastard; he called me in his office and showered me with praise and said he was ditching our old anchor and putting me in the chair. He said it was a thank-you for a job well done, and it would be good for the station, because people would tune in to see more of their favorite news guy. I wasn’t sure it was a good idea; anchoring meant I had to leave the street for the most part; I wouldn’t have time to do the investigative stuff that I considered important. To be absolutely honest, it paid a lot better, and I went for it. But I regretted it almost immediately, and I felt that regret every time I had to introduce an important story from one of the other reporters and not me. I just tried to keep my mouth shut and do the job.