Days like Saturday go a long way to explain the love-hate relationship I have with what I do.
For more than 30 years, I’ve covered the news. That’s a big, broad description, but what does it mean? Saturday explains a lot.
My usual beats for the Morning Sun are development and Tribal issues, with a lot of feature-type stories thrown in. Apparently I’m a decent storyteller, so I get to tell a lot of the interesting, quirky stories.
But every four to six weeks, each reporter pulls weekend duty. This is my weekend, and it’s the weekend of the Alma Highland Festival.
Kissy Missy came along Saturday morning as I went to cover the festival. The air was warm, the humidity rising and the sun was shining. Saturday’s first big event was the parade down Superior Street, and I decided to focus on that.
My task is to translate an experience to words, which then create an image of the experience in the reader’s head. Parades are tough to write about. They are so stylized, and they present themselves in a random-yet-chronological fashion.
Parades truly must be seen, heard, felt, smelled and experienced. The crowd watching the parade can be shared much more easily. That’s how I met Cameron.
He stood out. He was perhaps 18, very muscular and wearing only a kilt. His body was painted blue. Runic symbols were painted on his arms, chest and face. His blond hair was long, braided in places but mostly flying loose.
He was watching the parade. People were looking at him, staring at him, but no one dared ask why he was painted blue, and wearing runes and a kilt.
No one but me. I’m a journalist. My job is to walk up to complete strangers and ask them to explain.
I did that. Cameron, it turned out, was from Vestaburg and celebrating his heritage as a Norseman whose ancestors invaded Scotland, stayed, and became Scots. He appeared quite knowledgeable, explaining the tartan of his kilt and the meaning of the runes – life, strength and love.
He figures prominently in the story I wrote about the festival.
Later that day, after Kissy Missy had gone home and I was wrapping things up in the newsroom, the police scanner went off with news of a traffic accident on M-20 at Shepherd Road. The radio traffic became heavier, and it became clear this was a terrible crash.
Another crash, two days before, had forced the closing of the same highway in almost the same place. Now this crash would close it again. This was news.
The voice on the radio of the EMT in charge was professional, but it was clear from her tone that things were urgent, almost desperate. She wanted that helicopter ambulance there NOW.
This was news, in its most raw and simple form. I knew I should go out there and see for myself. I figured I could get past any roadblocks – and I did – and when I arrived, Lisa Yanick, our chief photographer, already was on the scene.
The sergeant in charge of the scene said, “It’s going to be a while.” I already knew that. No one interfered as I wandered through the site, watching the EMTs work frantically to stabilize one patient, the Aeromed helicopter land on the highway, the officers setting up to measure and document the scene.
A white car was on its roof, all the glass broken out, the driver’s-side door caved in as far as the passenger seat. As I got closer, I noticed a brownish-red puddle on the pavement, with a streak a good 12 feet long where the liquid ran downhill toward the shoulder.
“That car lost a lot of transmission fluid,” I thought. “Wait. That’s not transmission fluid.”
I understood the urgency. One of the occupants of the white car, a Mercury Mystique, had flown out of the rear window and hit the pavement with his head. I was stunned he was still alive.
At least he was when he was loaded on the helicopter, which flew off rapidly toward Spectrum in Grand Rapids. He’ll get good care there, perhaps even experience a miracle.
One of the EMTs was a former student of mine. She was all business, professional, passionate and empathetic. Her job is to save lives, and that’s what she does. I admire her very greatly. I hope I taught her something, and I know she taught me a lot.
I hope my story shows the same kind of empathy. I had to choose what to bring in, what to leave out, where the boundaries were. The name of the injured man is in; the blood running down the road is out.
It’s all real, the blue man and the trauma. Somehow, I was chosen to take the images I see and make them words, so the words can become your own images of reality. Somehow, I was chosen to teach other people how to do that as well.
I know how to do this, because I’ve done it many times. I recall one incident when Fuzzy called me, just to talk, while I was at the scene of a crash on U.S. 127.
“Hey, guy, can I call you back?” I said. “I’m standing on the freeway waiting for a helicopter.”
What other kind of job gives anyone a chance to deliver a line like that?