Saturday, February 19, 2005

Moon Rock Madness

It was a painfully slow news week when a perfectly good story fell from the sky. Soon after it rolled to a stop, the first of many phone calls came into the newsroom. When it did, the nighttime assignment editor barely looked up from his crossword puzzle.


Scanners crackled in the background as the goateed desk jockey’s eyebrows twitched.

“You got a WHAT in your living room?”

Sitting up, the night guy let his newspaper fall to the floor as he scanned the edges of the cavernous room. To a left, a well-coiffed reporter lounged in her cubicle with a phone to her ear. A few desks over, a photographer sat hunched over a keyboard, trying his best to melt into the screen. Behind his goatee, the assignment editor smiled. Minutes later he was back at his crossword.

In the car, the newly dispatched news crew bemoaned their new luck. ‘There’s NO WAY this is gonna turn’ they told each other as the city streets streamed by. Yet another wild goose chase. But much to their surprise the object in question lived up to its advertising, for the Klumpf family of 2240 Huff Lane did indeed have a hole in their roof, a dent in their floor and a mysterious hunk of smoldering metal to show for it.

Soon the guys from the local station house showed up at the two-bedroom ranch and started pawing over the metallic object, all while the grateful news crew rolled tape. To a man, the firefighters pawed over the cylindrical rock before passing it along. Halfway through the game of hot potato, someone mentioned those scary flying guys from the second Superman movie. That’s when a junior firefighter was sent to the truck for the Geiger counter. It read negative, everyone felt better and they all went back to sniffing at the burnished can-shape glob . What could it be? A meteorite? A hunk of space junk? The cam shaft off a late-model UFO? What ever it was, it descended on the fifteen year old home with considerable force, piercing shingle, puncturing plywood and drilling through dry board before shattering the glass top to one hideous coffee table. The mystery had begun.

Later, at the end of the ten o clock newscast, our trusted anchor team traded in their death masks for complimentary looks of wry bemusement. Between them a flat screen monitor screamed the words ‘What IS it?”. Halfway onto the second anchor’s sentence, the words on that screen turned into the nightside reporter, looking radiant in a burgundy power-suit. A lower--third graphic - ‘LIVE North High Point’ lay claim to the patch of darkness behind the her shapely form. I was at home, staring at my computer screen and only watching the ten o clock show with only one eye when the reporter’s voice caught my attention. As she hit every nuance of a well-crafted intro, I noticed the backlight feathering her shoulders.

When she finished her intro, the director back at the station punched up her pre-recorded piece and a close-up of the mysterious gray rock filled screen. The report moved quickly, with lots of angles of hands pawing over the rock in bewilderment. The mother of the family worried out loud about her damaged property, the firefighters scratched their helmets, looking out of place as they stood around the modest living room in full turn-out gear. Next a stranger in a FAA jacket said whatever it was, the lump of mysterious metal was NOT part of any known aircraft. The piece ended with the reporter leading the viewers through the projectile’s angles of impact. In a four part on-camera stand-up the attractive nightside reporter traced every angle of the rock’s trajectory, breaking down its path like Jim Garrison dissecting the Zapruder film.

Before the reporter could wrap up her live shot with a few words of wisdom, the phones in the newsroom erupted one by one. They would stay that way for quite some time.

The next afternoon I walked by an assignment meeting and into a raging debate. Loosely huddled around a long conference table, my co-workers ignored the bank of TV monitors behind them. Instead they all stared at the starfish-shaped speakerphone in the middle of the table and argued their point.

“No one cares about some school that’s not even built yet. The moon rock’s our talker”, a shaggy young producer said. “You see last night’s numbers?”

“Sure, but unless you got men in white suits crawling all over the place I’m not putting a reporter on it”. The assistant news director poured over his Wall Street Journal with a sniper’s eye. When he found what he wanted he looked up from his fifth morning paper of the day and looked for a certain sculpted hairstyle,

“Erik, go do the school story. Stewart, go see the moon rock family. And someone get those phones!”

With my camera hung low on the shoulder strap, I rang the doorbell and counted the cars in the driveway. Five, about three too many. But at least none boasted bright TV station logos. That was my job.

The door opened and a weary looking woman in a beautician’s pant suit stared back at me, her face lit from above by a yellow lightbulb.

“Mrs. Klumpf, hi - I’m Stewart from the TV station - we just wanted to follow up on the rock….”

“Yes, well we already have…” The woman’s voice trailed off as she looked over her shoulder, a confused look in her tired eyes. I followed her gaze and saw why, two middle-aged men were wrestling with a step-ladder in her living room, upsetting knickknacks and arguing astrophysics.

Aw Geez, I thought, Not Frick and Frack from the Astronomy Club. The same two very two excitable old telescope geeks had chewed up hours of my time six months ago. Should have known they’d be here, taking measurements and complicating matters. At least they’d be good for a few sound bites, I thought as I pushed past the Moon Rock Mom.

“Not another damn ghostbuster!”, the man sitting at the kitchen table in his ball-cap sliced his pork chop and gave me the once over. Beside him, a boy of twelve or so stared over his glass of iced tea at the camera hanging off my shoulder. I hoisted my toy and powered up, recorded a shot of the he-man dinner club. A few seconds later I panned over to the the living room, where one skinny silhouette helped the fat one up the ladder. I smiled inside the viewfinder, knowing I’d just bagged my Opening Shot.

Moving on the living room, I hovered around Frick and Frack as they shined flashlights up the hole in the ceiling. To my delight, the barely acknowledged me, instead they babbled back and forth to each other in a stream of consciousness astronomer code.

"From the steep trajectory, we know it came from above!", Frick the Thin spat. "Yer darn tootin', snapped the fatter Frack, I'm a go get my scopes, W'ere puttin' this rock under the glass!"

With that Frack almost ripped the hinges off the door, caught up in a scientific frenzy I recognized from before. When the door slammed shut, I was surprised to see a tall young fellow amid the curtains. I’d never seen him before, but something about his wily afro and workman-like dress clothes screamed newspaper reporter, even before I spotted the tell-tale skinny notebook in his hand.

‘This place is getting crowded‘, I thought as my cell phone started ringing.

“Yeah, Stew…” I could hear phones ringing in the background as the shaggy producer scanned his rundown, “the Network’s going nuts for your Moon Rock story. They want it on the bird by 9:30.”

“They want fries with that?” I barked. Just what I needed, people in New York shaving off precious turn-around time.

“I know dude, but when you’re hot you’re hot. Do ya know what it is yet? We got all kinda crazies callin’”

Out of the corner my eye, I watched Frick sniff at the oblong metal mass, squinting intently behind a pair of bus-window eyeglass frames. In the kitchen, Frack had squeezed his considerable bulk behind the table, pulled several weird rocks out of a dusty leather case and was laying a serious science lesson on the trapped family of three.

“They ain’t ALL on the phone. Gotta go.”

I put the cell phone back on my hip and shouldered my camera. Walking up to the skinny man in the Members Only jacket, I stuck my lens in his upturned hands and focused on the object in question. Under his flashlight’s beam, the edges of the rock glistened, casting off weird flickers of green and silver. I could smell the cafeteria coffee on the old man’s breath as the wooly-haired print reporter joined us from the curtain’s edge.

“All right Professor - what’s your best guess?”

I can’t say he didn’t tell me, though I understood darn little of what came out of his mouth. Well-meaning and well versed, the stargazing scholar unfurled a looping thesis of everything the mysterious rock might NOT be. I tried not to think about my aching back as I panned the camera from the rock to his face, all while he went over the finer points of purloined moos dust. The newspaper reporter, who I came to think of Sideshow Bob, scribbled intently in his skinny notebook and said nothing. I backed off for a two shot of the unlikely pair hunched underneath the ceiling fan before moving onto the kitchen.

Bad move. The family sat with glazed looks on their face as Frack pulled musty photographs and cinched bags out of his cracked leather case.

“Now, this here is a piece of an asteroid from 1974, note the scarring on the edges, a distinct sign of burning entry…”

As I hovered over the kitchen table with my lens, the man of the house looked over at me. With his name on his shirt and his dirty fingernails, he didn’t seem too enticed with the science fair unfolding over his pork chops. The look in his eyes reminded me of a couple of hostage stand-offs I had attended. Poor guy, I thought, zooming out to better capture the catatonic clan, probably just wants to watch SportsCenter, not listen to a bunch of rock-obsessed lunatics expound on their favorite constellations. I almost felt real pity as I zoomed in for a tight shot of his hypnotized eyes.

After shooting a few sequences around the table, I returned to the living room where Frick was working himself into a theoretic lather. Sideshow Bob leaned in on every word, still bleeding chicken scratch into his tablet. Not wanting to appear too ignorant, I nodded behind the viewfinder and pretended to understand the litany of scientific terms. But I found myself drifting…maybe this was an honest-to-God Moon Rock, a one in a million piece of Green Cheese that would catapult the family and I into a whole new orbit. For all the astro-babble that Frick and Frack were peddling, they seemed growingly convinced the hunk of metal was not of THIS world. Maybe after all these many years of chasing tripe and trivia, I somehow stumbled across a story that would go down in the History books.

That’s when my cell phone rang.

It was Shaggy, chuckling under his breath.

“Check it out, dude. Some yahoo just called and swore he knew what the moon rock is. He says, ’what chu got thar is a broke tooth off a tub-grinder’ - you know, one of those big wood-chippers? I wouldn’t have called but the guy sounded CERTAIN.”

“Wood chipper? “ I said, incredulous. Then I noticed the look on Frick’s face. As my own eyebrows scrunched, I heard a thirteen year old voice ring out from the kitchen.

“WE gotta Wood Chipper out back!”

The seven words ricocheted off the brown-wood paneling of the small home, rendering adult life forms motionless and spraying implications everywhere. Only the kid seemed unaffected. He darted underneath the kitchen table and ditched Frack’s rambling science lesson for an impromptu field trip. Frick followed and before I knew it, my easy little feature was running out the door.

I followed, but none too gracefully. Dropping the cell phone, I dashed across the room and ripped open the screen door. Upon exit, the top of my camera’s light post caught the top of the doorframe, jerking me backwards as I slid on my ass down the porch steps. Frick and the boy barely gave my awkward ejection a second glance though as they rounded the corner out of sight. I fell in behind them, switching filters, guessing light temperatures and flipping camera presets all the way. Behind me, I could hear Sideshow Bob join in the chase. If a jogger had passed by and seen the frizzy haired stranger chasing the cameraman chasing the old coot chasing the boy…well, I’m curious how‘d he interpret the scenario. Chances are it wouldn’t be astronomy.

Behind the back yard, a dense line of trees towered over the swing sets and doghouses. With the last of the daylight evaporating into shadows, I could barely make out the hole in the underbrush the boy disappeared through but ole Frick followed with ease so I did likewise. As I entered the forest at full speed, my camera shouldered and rolling I blinked in a vain attempt to squeeze more light of the air. It was hard to see where I was stepping, especially with a one-inch screen bobbing one inch in front of my right eye. That’s when I heard the boy’s voice call from up ahead.

“Careful - they’re used to be some holes back here”

‘USED to be?’ I thought as I planted another foot on the forest floor and sunk to my shin. With my foot suddenly tangled in a crevice of underground tree roots, the rest of me kept moving forward until I smacked into the ground with a painful thud. Before I could absorb the hit, the weight of the camera met with the side of my head, leaving a bright red spot on my dirt-smeared forehead. Behind me, Sideshow Bob approached meekly.

“Are you okay?’ he asked - his first and last words of the evening.

“Son of a --”, I never finished the thought; instead I yanked my foot out of the hole and took the young newspaperman’s hand. I didn’t say much as he helped me up - I was too busy checking my camera and picking up my cool points. I had to leave a few on the ground when I herd rustling up ahead.

“Over here!” the boy’s voice echoed.

Sideshow jogged behind me as I half-limped, half-trotted toward the voice. In the dying light, I saw the boy and Frick peering through a tall chain-link fence, their silhouettes backlit over the fence’s gridiron. The sight reminded of my camera and I squared up the shot, leaning on a tree to compensate for my heavy breathing. After a few seconds, I moved up to the fence itself and zoomed all the way in. Through the blue haze of the viewfinder, I filled the screen with the industrial size wood-chipper that dominated the middle of the city-owned compost yard.

“There’s your space ship,” Frick said, with more than a little disappointment in his voice.

A half hour later I crawled in my news unit, cranked up the engine and checked the dashboard clock. 8:04 -- two hours until the Ten o Clock news music filled living rooms around the Piedmont. After our woodsy excursion, I came back to the house and interviewed the moon rock family one last time. The parents seemed confused as ever; only the boy seemed to appreciate the irony of the metal blob’s apparent earthbound origin. Even Frick admitted on camera, that the formerly mysterious object was most likely indeed a broken tooth from the massive wood-chipper out back, even noting how the trajectory of the grinder’s chute lined up with the hole in the house‘s roof. After Frack put the metal mass underneath a powerful telescope and found little tiny flecks of grass and wood chips, the luster had officially worn off my magical little moon rock.

But not for the viewing public, apparently. The phones back at the newsroom were still ringing off the hook with assorted theories, suggestions and overall hysteria. So much so that the Ten o Clock producer had promoted the moon rock follow-up to his lead. I was picking dried up dirt flakes off my forehead when he called to tell me the news.

“The lead? It’s a freakin’ tooth from a wood chipper!” I yelled into the cell phone.

“Maybe so,” the voice said, but for the next two hours, its a moon rock, and we’re milkin’ this baby! Get back here!”

I did as told. The next city officials examined their giant wood chipper, found a broken metal tooth stub and reluctantly agreed to look into the matter further. Two days later, I was sitting at my desk and struggling with a script when the shapely night-side reporter hung up her phone.

“Check it out” she said to the passing assistant news director. “The city’s gonna pay for the Moon Rock family’s roof! We’re doing a follow-up!”

“What did I tell you?” the well-tailored manager said, “We’re making a real difference in people’s lives out there...”

Yeah, I thought, but we‘re peddling our share of hype too. I then returned to my computer and hashed out a script about a dog in a funny hat. I love local TV news.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Viewfinder BLUES

Herein lies the Longer work of Lenslinger. Most of these tales have appeared in some form or fashion on, a website I am most indebted to. For my far more frequently updated site, please visit Viewfinder BLUES, where I skewer the mighty and trip on the downtrodden - all in the name of television news. Beats my old job at the windshield wiper factory.