There’s nothing funny about murder or bad reporting.
It was National Newspaper Week when I wrote this, and I know what you’re all thinking: “Who cares?”
Wait, that’s what I was thinking.
I mean, I love doughnuts, but I don’t get all emotional every time the local bakery celebrates National Doughnut Day—it falls on the first Friday of June, by the way.
That said, the observance did get me to thinking about the news business in general and what it has meant to me over the last 15-or-so years.
Long time ago, I freelanced for a half-dozen publications throughout Northern Michigan, and one in California, in my years leading up to my first staff writer position up in Charlevoix.
Putting out sports stories, holiday features and the occasional enterprise piece prepared me for the technical aspects of news writing … but nothing could have readied me for the emotional whack-a-mole of covering my first murder.
It was my second day on the job as a full-time reporter. I’ll never forget the call from my boss, who was busy getting that week’s paper off to print.
Editor: “Gohs, there’s a 10-77 on the north side of town.”
Me: “What’s a 10-77?”
Editor: “It means the cops found a dead body.”
Me: “Holy &*!@.”
Editor: “You’re damned right, ‘holy &*!@.’”
It was a shooting, and the suspect was unaccounted for.
Sweating, trembling and hyperventilating, I grabbed a steno pad, pens and the good camera and headed for my truck.
I was in a hurry. But, as much as time was the enemy, physics proved to be the real heel.
Hurriedly, I jumped up into the cab of my truck, lost my balance and did the splits—one leg on the pavement, one leg on the floorboard.
Now, if you’ve never seen a short-legged fat man do the splits, let me explain.
You see, gymnasts wear spandex for a reason: it flexes. Cotton dress slacks, on the other hand, have a tendency to tear from, oh, let’s say your belt loop to your inseam.
So as not to disturb the reader, I’m going to pretend I was wearing underwear when this happened.
Needless to say my heart attacks were having heart attacks as I tried to recover from the trauma of having my pants blow out in plain view of city hall.
Did I mention that my office was across the street from city hall and the police station?
I glanced all around in horror, certain someone had seen.
My mind conjured worst-case scenarios.
“Dispatch, we’ve got an eleventy-seventy: fat guy with his butt hanging out! Over!”
The street was dead.
My secret was safe.
As luck—or a universe with a wicked sense of humor—would have it, the murder occurred across the street and down a few hundred yards from my house.
I tried to regain my composure as what was left of my dignity flapped in the air-conditioning while I sped toward home and the crime scene.
There were police cars and officers strewn about on either side of the highway.
I took deep gulps of breath as I putted my way through hell’s half-mile, praying to the god of chubby journalists that my nervous and, hence, suspicious behavior would not tempt a deputy—thinking he’d nabbed the ne’er-do-well—to haul me out of my vehicle for questioning.
“Well, if it ain’t the Bare Butt Bandit!”
Somehow, I managed to slip past the guards and dash into the house undetected.
I made a quick wardrobe change at the homestead and hoofed my way across the highway to the crime scene.
Slowly, I worked my way through police tape and roadblocks, officers and detectives, police dogs and gawkers until I reached the head honcho.
The sheriff (picture Wilford Brimley with a gun) kindly and patiently fielded my queries as I fumbled my notebook and sputtered through my greenhorn questions.
Police lights, brown uniforms, visions of a deranged gunman popping out from behind the bushes—my head swam and I fought back the urge to vomit.
Upon gathering all necessary information, I photographed the scene and headed back to the office to write my first big story.
The boss looked it over. He told me to call the sheriff to confirm a couple facts.
“We’d rather be right than first,” he said.
He was right.
And, several thousand stories later, I’m still striving to make sure I get this business right.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I think I’d better go put some pants on.