“We’ve got a man down here!” A fireman wearing a white captain’s shirt shouted above me. “You okay buddy?”
“Yeah,” I puffed from all fours. “Just carried . . . this shit . . . three . . . blocks.”
“What are you doing here? This is a hot zone – emergency personnel only.”
My oxygen-starved brain strained for a plausible explanation that wouldn’t get me thrown out. “Shooting evacuation . . . Wrong turn . . . too much gear, too tired . . .”
“You can stay here till you catch your breath. Stay out of the way, and don’t let anyone see you. Then go back to your vehicle.”
I kept my face down not to show the captain my ear-to-ear grin and waited until he had rejoined the swarm of other police and firemen before pulling myself to my feet. I scanned the street beyond the parking lot for the inner perimeter of police cars; that’s where I always saw reporters on the news.
The tanker rested on the far shoulder of the northbound lanes, in the middle of the only section of McArthur that bent east to west. Apparently, it had managed the first half of the double-S curve leading into the first of Alexandria’s two traffic circles and flipped on its side while preparing for the second.
Two Louisiana State Police SUV’s parked akimbo blocked the south bound lanes of McArthur Boulevard. If I could get between them, it was a clean shot to the tanker, and an unobstructed view of the command post, the empty streets, and the ambulances. I had my spot. But I’d never make it there with all that gear. I decided to ditch the battery belt and tripod. The photogs in the movies never used tripods anyway.
I casually walked past firemen and E.M.T.’s scurrying at the edges of all the chaos. No one seemed to notice the gear-toting robot with the hitch in his stride. I kept to the shadows until I reached the service road, then crossed the small ditch separating it from the south-bound lanes, and slipped between the two trooper vehicles.
With the flip of a switch, TK’s eye cup blinked to life. Wisps of chemical fog evaporated from the blacktop around the crippled tanker less than 100 yards away. Strobe lights reflected off its red, black and white hazard placard.
I crouched down, balanced Icky atop the tape deck, and rolled tape: first a wide shot of the empty street and the semi. I toggled the zoom servo all the way across the median and the north bound lanes, for a tight shot of the truck. A trickle of clear liquid ran past the truck’s leaky valve and splashed onto the blacktop. “This is good shit.” I caught myself talking to no one.
Next, I trained my lens on the command post. Half a dozen moon suits erected a decontamination area complete with kiddie wading pools and showers. Brown-suited police and blue uniformed troopers hovered around the mobile command camper, and E.M.T.’s dressed in green and white loaded lawsuit-seeking drivers into a procession of waiting ambulances. At the back of the crowd, an overly logoed van with a telescoping mast and dual golden rod antennae parted a sea of emergency personnel.
“Dammit!” I cussed under my breath. The competition had arrived. Didn’t matter. I’d beat them. They’d never get a good shot from there.
Then my curiosity got the best of me. Why hadn’t trooper inside come out to shoo me away?
I stretched my neck to look inside. Nobody home. I crept to the truck blocking the other south-bound lane. No one there either.
Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.
“Hey you! What the hell are you doing? Get your ass outta there!”
“Hey! Get outta there!” The incident commander who was so helpful earlier hollered from the parking lot like a drill sergeant. “You’re contaminated. Get the hell away from there!”
I grabbed my gear and gave a nonchalant wave. Before flunking out of college, I had been a chemistry major. I had played with sulfuric acid. My eyes didn’t burn. I could breathe normally. My skin was the same ecru color it was earlier that morning. I was quite fine, and I had the shot.
“What the hell were you thinking? Move your ass!” The incident commander screamed the whole while I made the trek back, across the north-bound lanes, through the ditch, across the service road, and into the command post.
“STRIP!” The incident commander yelled, purple with rage.
“What?” I huffed, setting my recorder on the ground.
“You heard me!” He leaned in nose-to-nose with me, just like Sergeant Carter in those Gomer Pyle re-runs we aired after midnight. “You are contaminated! Now strip!” He turned to call a hoseman, then back to me. “Shirt, NOW!”
It was obvious I wasn’t getting out of this without at least a little embarrassment, so I laid my recorder flat on the ground and placed TK on top of it. I slipped my wallet under the front of the camera to tilt it up just a little and punched her record button before backing away. Hell, this could be the best video of the night.
I peeled off my sweat shirt and tossed it to Sarge.
He threw his hands up and jumped back like I was throwing the plague at him. “On the ground. You’re contaminated.”
The hoseman moved in.
“Holy shit!” Mist-like ice rained down, each droplet so cold it burned my skin and crushed my lungs. I sucked hard for a breath. Rivers of ice water ran down my chest and into my pants. Big Jim and the twins sought refuge somewhere in my abdomen.
I slowly complied with Sarge’s orders. Cold water sapped my strength. Goosebumps packed themselves tightly on my arms and chest, like legions of storm troopers in a Spielberg film. I completed my pirouette in time to see the lens of the blonde still shooter from the newspaper, and the sun-gun camera light of Jim Weaver, KALX chief photographer. He shined me a gotcha smile, then blinded me with his light.
“Pants!” Sarge barked.
“I said PANTS Goddammit! You’re contaminated!” A little blue vein bulged at the tip of his nose. I swore I saw steam rising off his buzz cut.
Maybe it was the fire shooting from his eye sockets, maybe I was caught-up in the moment, or maybe I wanted to prove to the other media that Nicholas Brock was no pussy, but whatever the reason, I loosened my belt and dropped trou in the middle of the parking lot. The hoseman moved in and we tangoed once again, he in his asbestos coat, me in my skivvies.
The water didn’t burn as much this time, probably because I was already a snowman.
“You gotta be kidding me.”
“Those briefs are contaminated. Now, STRIP!” He yelled it with gusto, like he enjoyed it.
Two E.M.T.’s rushed over with a gurney sheet, to shield me from the gaggle of motorists waiting for an ambulance. They stretched it taut – all two-and-a-half feet of it – between me and the cameras. At least it hid the essentials.
Until Weaver turned off his light.
Between the strobes and the work lights behind me, I was nicely back lit, and the tight white sheet made a perfect screen for an obscene shadow puppet.
After the hoseman did his thing again, the E.M.T.’s swaddled me in the sheet and crammed me into an ambulance with six other victims, none of whom were naked.
“Don’t worry about your gear.” Weaver shouted over the roar of the engines. “I’ll hold it for you.”
What a prince.
When I left the emergency room, I headed straight for the station.
Bend Over. Another day in broadcasting has begun. The blue and white sign over the sports guy’s desk that had welcomed me on my first day in the newsroom and the big tub of Vaseline beneath it mocked me. They were the first things I noticed when I set foot in KELC-TV one week earlier. I was instantly hooked on the aura of the shabby little station and its crew of small-town rejects. It was going to be the start of an exciting life – my ticket out of the corner shop-and-rob and into a career chasing history. Now, I fidgeted on bent folding chair inside Mr. Cranch’s tiny, glass-walled cubicle. A small ivy withered on the corner of his desk. Mr. Cranch sat staring holes through a faded Leroy Neiman Olympic print behind his desk. He rocked ever so slightly as was his habit, even when he was on camera.
I watched two flaps of Naugahyde separated by a diagonal rip across the back of his formerly expensive-looking executive chair.
I waited for more. But that was all he said.
“I’m an intern. I work for free. You can’t fire a slave.”
“You violated protocol. Why didn’t you call someone?”
“I screamed on the radio for what felt like hours. Nobody answered. I buzzed Roosevelt’s pager. He never called back.”
“You took station equipment without permission. You lost your camera.” Mr. Cranch’s words clicked like a grandfather clock.
“Weaver’s got it. I just have to pick it up in the morning.”
“You crossed police lines. You exposed this station to criminal charges. And speaking of exposed . . .” he spun in his chair to face me. “You exposed yourself to the entire viewing area.”
“Yeah, about that –”
“You’re fired. Get out.”
Couldn’t he see that I was saving the day? Going the extra mile? Taking the bull by the horns and a hundred other business clichés? I wanted to explain, but it all felt empty. I sighed as I stood from the squeaky folding chair and marched through the silent newsroom.
At least I still had my job at the shop-and-rob.